A Cambodian Journey - by former student Su Re

Suostei (Hello) from Cambodia!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to spend 5 days in Kampong Speu, a rural province 2 hours from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The educational vacuum left by the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge, has resulted in a lost generation of history, a country ravaged by war and landmines that are active to this day.

 Awareness Cambodia is an NGO that has spent the last 23 years aiming to fill this educational vacuum. They work to provide every child with educational opportunities to help them change their own futures. Freedom without a future is a form of slavery - and they want to give Cambodia’s future opportunities to become doctors, lawyers, agriculturalists, teachers, accountants, chefs etc. To that end, Awareness Cambodia works with government agencies to board children (orphans or not) within transitional educational homes and invest in their education. Sunshine House is located in a rural setting as these are the lives the children are used to, and then upon Year 10, the teenagers move to Graduation House in Phnom Penh, where they are transitioned to westernised and modern city life.

The days I spent in Sunshine House were part of the school holiday program. There, the skies are blue, the grass a vivid green, and the mosquitoes rampant! There is little of modern city conveniences, e.g no washing machine, no hot water, and yet, the children opened my eyes to a much richer world despite whatever little they had. I always heard children laughing and playing because they were always out running about. I woke up to silence except for the rooster crowing.  I had young kids jump into the lake to pluck lotus flowers for me. The boys climbed up trees so that I could try local guava and the teenagers used whatever little pocket money they had so I could try local karem (ice cream).

 One of the most profound lessons I took away was the importance of arts in society. As part of the program, we organised story telling, art and craft and lantern making activities (because of the Mid Autumn festival). There was a concert in which volunteers were expected to perform. My parents bailed (!) so it was left to me to perform. I adapted the story of the Legend of Chang Er using Abhinaya to narrate and performed a few items I had learnt previously. Being on my own, I had to rehearse not only dance items, but script how I was going to introduce the pieces to an unfamiliar audience, organise the music and select appropriate items that would do justice to my teachers.

I also had the opportunity to watch the children perform, including Khmer Apsara ballet, which is the Cambodian classical dance. This is an exquisite, intricate dance form that takes years to learn. I came to understand that the girls loved dancing but had to stop due to funding issues even though there was a local teacher about 20 minutes  away. I saw firsthand how vulnerable these children were to human trafficking, and could benefit from Kun Khmer, a traditional Cambodian martial arts form for self defence- except they had no resources to do so. I learnt that the traditional Cambodian arts are dying, because an entire generation of artistes were wiped out and that poverty dictates that arts are unimportant because the only worry is about the next meal on the table; although the irony is that arts can be a gateway out of poverty. I learnt that the children loved drawing, but there was little opportunity to paint and draw because they did not have stationery.

These collective experiences have resonated deeply within me. Despite the language barrier, art was the mediator and translator. I learnt how to apply what I have absorbed over the years in SMV to put together a concert program. My application of dance theory was tested as I had children coming up to me, wanting to learn mudras to convey different animals so that they can use it for play. I had teenagers showing me Apsara hand gestures and I got to appreciate how delicate and refined their dance style was. I saw how much joy and visual beauty having lanterns and glitter could bring to a place, and how much pride the children took in seeing themselves make something from nothing. I realised how indignant I felt, that I, having won the lotto in life, could afford to learn whatever I wanted, while these children’s circumstances dictated what they could or could not do. We know from research that arts has a positive effect on literacy and educational attainment, as well as shaping us to be fuller, more rounded beings. Education is power, and a well- rounded education is immensely powerful. I felt keenly, the confidence and self expression that art could bring, and that in whatever medium, could be a language to bridge barriers, gaps, ideas,….

The short 5 days have given me growth as a Bharata Natyam dancer. But more than that, I truly understand the importance that art has in any society, even in, and especially so, in poverty. Art is not a luxury as the modern world would have us believe, but a necessity. Imagine the world we would be in without Mozart, the Beatles, The Mahabharata, Pride and Prejudice, Michael Jackson, anime, photography, hymns, Marvel comics, blacksmithing, floristry, the Spice Girls (sorry, my favourite!)…..what a dull, dull place it would be.

And so, for those of us who HAVE the opportunity to see art, and be art, how much more are we to be torch bearers? How many of us enjoy dance/music/theatre/literature for the sake of its beauty alone? How often do we stop to admire a setting sun, or the petals of a freshly bloomed rose? Or appreciate the easy access of having a music/dance school nearby? I am certainly guilty of missing all of the above. It has taken rural Cambodia and experiencing poverty firsthand, to remind me that art is everywhere, and is for all of us to partake and share in. And that, I, having won the lottery of being born in a world of opportunities, can do my little part to contribute to the world. From whichever corner I am in.

For more information, visit Awareness Cambodia - www.awarecam.org.au