During our month long period of volunteering at JWOC we have each been paired with a Cambodian high school intern. This has been one the of the highlights of the project for me, as the opportunity to make friends with a local has allowed me to see Cambodian culture and everyday life in a personal way unavailable to most visitors to the country. On a practical level, our interns are translators, invaluable when running children’s activities on our summer camp. Spending every day with them, however, allows this relationship to deepen into a friendship that has made our volunteering both more interesting and rewarding.
For the interns, the purpose of being paired with us is to improve their English. My partner is called Bun Roeun. Twenty years old, he is originally from a village 100km from Siem Reap and I have noticed his confidence and quality of English improve over the last few weeks, and I am able to speak faster to him now than at the start. Whilst he is not fluent, his English is very good and trying to understand what each other is trying to say is all part of the fun, especially as he makes a great effort to talk and improve his English. Indeed, from small-talk about family and hobbies, conversation with the interns is now more developed and we have a great repartee with them, although, of course, levels of English are different. Last Saturday, we all went to a bar in Siem Reap and had a hilarious night.
I am really enjoying finding out so much about Khmer culture and lifestyle. Last weekend we went on one of JWOC’s clean water programs and Bun Roeun told me much about his own experiences growing up in the rural villages. The diet of the average farmer here, he told me, was rice, green water vegetable and fish three times a day, every day. These insights into general Cambodian life that the average traveller does not receive has made my experiences at JWOC all the more fascinating. Moreover, he has told me much about Cambodian experiences of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, an all too recent period that burns through the memory of the Cambodian people. Bun Roeun’s grandparents were starved to death in the late 1970s through Pol Pot’s agricultural policy.
It is so interesting to talk to someone with a culture very different to mine. As I am fascinated by Cambodian life, Bun Roeun says that one of the most enjoyable parts of the internship has been learning about life and culture in England, such as the differences in education and employment. Unlike in most countries I have spoken to people in, knowledge of English life is not ubiquitous in Cambodia: ‘Are there places like this in your country?’ I was asked as we walked through the poor squatter villages on the outskirts of Siem Reap. A sense of guilt also sometimes occurs when I am asked questions such as the cost of my mobile phone contract in England. Despite this, it is really enjoyable to share comparisons of our two cultures. Differences in social life, dating culture and gender roles have particularly struck me, with Cambodians appearing more reserved in all three.
We have all enjoyed spending the last few weeks with the interns, have had a lot of fun and learnt a lot. I have exchanged e-mail addresses and will keep in touch beyond our time together at JWOC.