Katherine Chao - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Cambodia
My name is Katherine Chao and my trip to Cambodia was definitely one that has both completely changed my perspective of the world and heightened my appreciation for life in general. It has been an unforgettable experience and will certainly be one that will stay with me forever.
Before my arrival, I had no clue of all the new experiences that would await me. The plane ride was definitely one of the longest of my life - a total of twenty two hours of travel time! I must admit that before arriving, I was a little apprehensive about coming to Cambodia; worries of meeting the volunteers, blending into the culture, and just feeling lost and overwhelmed were constantly running through my mind.
However, I soon found that my worries would be completely unrealized the minute I touched down and arrived in Phnom Penh. I was immediately greeted by two smiling and welcoming staff members and was introduced to a few of the other volunteers, all of whom were extremely friendly and helpful and welcomed me with open arms.
My placement was at VCAO, a school located next to a huge landfill, and my job was to teach for a little over an hour every morning and afternoon, from Monday to Friday. I knew as soon as I arrived that this was going to be a tall order, especially due to the language barrier and the fact that the children weren't accustomed to lengthy lessons and lost focus easily. However, despite these obstacles, my experience teaching here has completely shed a new light on how I view the world. The children were amazingly outgoing and it was rare to walk more than a few steps and not be approached by a smiling girl or boy reaching out to take your hand or give you a hug.
One weekend I explored the garbage dump behind the school and visited the families that lived there and in fact ran into one of my students, who was happy to show me his home. It was shocking how tiny and simple the house that I stepped into was - it was clear that it was made simply for eating and sleeping and nothing more. Especially considering the fact that the house was pretty much built on top of the mounds of trash, I found it amazing how these children who had next to nothing were able to look beyond their situation and laugh so joyously. Being around them really forced me to reevaluate what exactly I valued and helped me appreciate life so much more.
Life in the apartment with the other volunteers, many of whom I've made extremely close friends with, was also a colorful experience in itself. I can recall a particularly humorous incident in which a gecko had decided to make a home inside our room, resulting in several attempts of my roommate and I trying to lead it out of our room, all of which ended in both failure and fits of laughter.
As for the local staff, I cannot give enough praise. From showing me the ropes in the very beginning to saying goodbye at the very end, the staff were always available for assistance or simply to talk to, something that really helped soften the otherwise jarring transition between living back home in California and living in Cambodia. Our cook and "mom" Danni also constantly impressed us with her delicious meals (which somehow seemed to get better and better each day, even if we had already convinced ourselves that the previous day's meal was the best it could get).
Whether it was teaching the children, hanging out with the other volunteers and staff, or traveling over the weekend to Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, my trip to Cambodia has provided me with countless memories, experiences, and potentially lifelong friends.
For me, it was only a month long stay (definitely too short!), and even then a few tears were shed before the plane took off to bring me back home.
This country holds a certain magic. Sitting on the plane before my arrival, I would have never imagined that I would become so emotionally attached to both the land and its people, and I would have never expected for a place so different to my town in California to almost feel like home. I know that my trip to Cambodia will certainly not be my last and I look forward to returning in the future.