Serving and Learning in Cambodia

Published 11/04/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Roy Kim | 11/04/2022

Over the summer I spent three months in Angk’jeay village, a small agricultural community in Cambodia, on a short-term mission trip with a nonprofit missions organization called Mission to the World.

My trip aligned quite nicely with the mission statements of the Milken Institute and Family Foundation given that the entirety of the trip was devoted to serving under-resourced and underserved peoples through education and by teaching Bible studies, ESL classes, guitar and piano classes, and basketball. Although I could only do so much in such a limited time, I found a role for myself in the missionaries’ work by assisting their educational programs and helping meet various needs of the Khmer people in our village.

An American missionary I am connected to had planted a church in Angk’jeay village ten years ago and has established many educational outreach programs for the village, which suffers from a poor and corrupt education system. I learned quickly that the students I interacted with daily went to school for hours on end without much fruit. Under the current administration of Hun Sen – Cambodia’s prime minister – teaching jobs are highly coveted positions as they are among the most stable jobs and pay relatively well, especially in comparison to the farming, animal husbandry, and market vending livelihoods that most village people depend on. Thus, the teachers who teach in Cambodian public schools are often people who have paid bribes to get the position and are not necessarily good at or passionate about teaching. In addition to this, teachers will often teach very little material in class so that the students are forced to pay the same teachers for “additional” afterschool tutoring sessions during which the material is actually taught. The shame and honor worldview that the Khmer people operate on also prevents students from challenging their teachers, which means that they are subjected to such a faulty education system for a long time. The education system is further exacerbated by the lack of resources on the part of the students – who will often lack things like writing utensils and reliable access to the Internet – and on the part of schools, which lack appropriate infrastructure and supplies. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis in Cambodia also forced education online, a worrying prospect for students who live in a village that received electricity a mere ten years ago and unsurprisingly has many issues with Internet access today.

Under these circumstances, I was able to see the impacts of the work of the missionaries imprinted upon the lives of the students. Many of the students I worked with and grew close with had been studying with the missionaries for multiple years – some even for longer than ten years. Because of the steadfastness and consistency of the missionaries’ efforts, the educational outreach programs remained very robust over the course of a decade, growing even in the midst of challenges and obstacles. As a result, the students have progressed quite far in their English and computer literacy, as well as in their math skills, which profited them immensely. Middle and high school students progressed further than their peers in schools, while those taking their national college entrance examinations did remarkably well, placing them in elite schools with peers from private schools and monied backgrounds. In other words, the programs established by the missionaries have been very successful both in their longevity and in their ability to open doors and provide avenues for students that would otherwise have been closed off to them because of their lack of resources.

Within this structure, I fit quite seamlessly into what they were trying to accomplish. Given my experience from teaching English in the past to a wide variety of students in a wide variety of contexts as well as what I’ve learned in my writing seminars at Princeton, I was able to teach a great deal of vocabulary words and grammatical structures and assist with reading comprehension. In addition to the more purely academic teaching work I did, I taught guitar and piano classes, which proved very profitable as the Khmer students loved to sing and play music, especially in the context of worshipping God. The same students who came to me with little dexterity, confidence, and music theory knowledge were able to put on a full-band concert for the church before I left. Further, many students thanked me more for the confidence I instilled in them than the actual piano playing. In a culture in which the students fear their teachers, are often put down rather than built up, and are constantly measured against their peers on a national scale, simple encouragement was much needed and much appreciated, as demonstrated by the students’ tearful expressions of gratitude.

In addition to teaching, I spent a lot of time getting to know the students and their needs, caring for them and attending to their needs albeit in a very limited capacity. Many of them live in incredible poverty, possessing only what they need and needing only what they possess. As mentioned previously, they also lack essential supplies even for schooling, the very thing that is the avenue out of the poverty which subjects them. Further, many members of our church shared testimonies of being ridiculed at school for their beliefs, persecuted and tormented by their families, blamed for, say, a family member getting sick or dying because they refused to offer sacrifices to one spirit or another in accordance with the dominant Buddhist/animist belief system. It made sense, then, that my role informally included visiting many houses, cooking for students, hunting or fishing with them, taking them on trips, buying them school supplies and clothes, praying for and with them, encouraging them in our Bible studies, and loving them. Though I was stretched in many ways, I am incredibly grateful for all that I’ve learned, experienced and was able to do in serving my Khmer brothers and sisters and learning from them as well.