‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – From Connemara to Cambodia

‘Cool Heart’, Fresh Start – School in Cambodia

Waiting to do things you are unsure of for people who are unsure what they want you to do or why you’re even there to do them has got to be one of the most unsettling feelings in the world.
I’ve neglected to write until now because of the massively, massively contrasting feelings and rollercoaster of emotions that we have experienced this first week. School in Cambodia is tough.

It was our first week of experiencing life as intern teachers at the schools, and while I can’t speak for anyone save the three girls that I am living with, I know myself personally that I was completely and overwhelmingly under-prepared for the lack of organisation and gaping holes left in the planning on all sides of the programme.
Neither the school we were due to stay at, the TEFL organisation we have booked through, nor the school myself and Cathy have been placed at seemed to have been able to inform us of anything, be it what time the school day started and finished, information regarding timetables, free time, transport to and from the school (we have to get a tuk-tuk there and back everyday), or much else really about what was expected of us. All we kept hearing was ‘I will call someone and find out’, and ‘I will check this out for you’. These may be considered minor issues at home in Ireland or the UK where a little bit of messiness would be balanced out by the fact that our surroundings would be in some way familiar, but when you’re left standing watching 4 grown adults babbling away about you in a different language and clearly debating what to tell you to do in a foreign school where nobody speaks the language and the kids run around eating battered fish and squid-flavoured crisps for ten minutes every hour, it’s difficult not to get a bit frustrated. It was all just so alien to us, and I feel this culture-shock element of the transition wasn’t really taken into consideration by anyone.

I don’t know if it’s just in the Khmer culture to under-inform and not properly plan or allow room for questions, but as we were disorderly shipped from one location to the next and directed towards different members of staff to pose the same questions, the answers to which nobody seemed to have or make any effort to find out, we couldn’t help but get a bit distraught and begin to doubt the decision to ever come on this trip.

 That was the negative side.
The positives were equally as strong – the kids are adorable, so willing to learn, and absolutely fascinated with us. Their chanting in unison as you step foot inside the classroom, and respectful bow of welcome every time they set eyes on us gets me everytime, and although even many of the teachers’ pronunciation and language accuracy is dodgy at the best of times, there is no denying the will to learn and dedication to progress that underlies everything. While I find language barriers to be one of the most frustrating social constrictions of all time, the fact that this is in a school-setting where the focus is actually on trying to reduce the extremity of such a barrier really helps and serves as a constant reminder that steps are actually being taken to help improve the communication between staff, students, and new clueless and naïve intern-teachers.

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To be fair I don’t think the blame came could have been placed on any one party or individual in particular, the problem instead being a general lack of organisation and failure to supply some basic and obvious information within the first few days and hours of becoming interns.

-All of this is what was going through our heads for the first few days this week, and until I managed to sort a few things out and take a step back from the initial problems and look at them rationally, I didn’t want to write anything too judgemental or harsh. I’m used to dealing with and working in a chaotic environment – it’s just that this paticular one is also exremely foreign, operates through a language derived from Sanskrit and with an entirely different alphabet, and is in a continent where I have never step foot before– I feel it was quite understandable that I got a bit flustered!

As the week progressed it has improved slightly, with an introductory meeting eventually being scheduled at the end of the third day, and a few classes spent sitting in silence at the back of the room as neither the teacher nor we knew exactly what we should be doing.

I get the impression that Khmer people are just too nice! They come across too timid to make any definite assertions of decisions regarding us or any other visitors, yet it’s difficult to feel comfortable and accepted in a strange situation and country if nobody takes the reigns and makes some definite moves or plans. If I weren’t so wary of offending the culture and their way of going about these kind of assimilation periods (which I get the impression they don’t do often), I would have had no trouble taking the bull by the horns and re-structuring the entire system but, as you can guess, that’s not exactly an option.

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As it stands it was a relief to reach the end of the week, and we were finally provided with a full itinerary and timetable to begin the following Monday. Indeed, a lot of our concerns about correct teaching attire and how satisfied the principal was with our progress were deemed irrelevant as an ‘important meeting’ he called with all staff at the end of the week was spent planning a Halloween party for next week!

Things can only go up from here, and I feel with the right attitude, a bit more patience, and keeping a ‘cool heart’ as the Khmer people say, we will settle in a bit more this week.

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