After some pretty manic teambuilding exercises we paired off with the Khmer students that we were to work closely with over the next 3 weeks at JWOC. My partner Reak Smey, a tall, confident Khmer boy with a prominent jawline, immediately began to bombard me with questions about the English education system and skipped the small talk altogether! He was very interested to know exactly why the English education system was better and although I wasn’t entirely sure, I assumed it was probably because school classes here have upwards of 60 students so teachers can’t give the same kind of attention to all the students that they can in England. Most of the others from TravelAid however found their partners were initially very shy and reluctant to talk about themselves, but Nicola explained that they weren’t used to our English accents and so conversation would probably flow more easily after we’d spent more time with them.
Once the Summer Camp began our Khmer partners soon started to open up more and were clearly very comfortable around us. Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between Khmer children and English children is the outward affection they show towards each other and us. Reak Smey would often put his arm around me or hold my hand which is something you would never see adolescent English boys do. He also seemed very excited to show me his home and for his parents to meet me which was a nice gesture. Even after spending a short time at his home it was obvious the sense of community here is very strong as when I asked him about the huge gang of children playing in his home, he told me they were not his siblings but just his neighbours.
In the second week we decided to take all of our Khmer partners out for a Western meal because food is such a distinct part of foreign culture that they can appreciate without actually going abroad. After some discussion we settled for Mexican food and took them out to try burritos and other dishes. I ordered as many different things as I could for Reak Smey and happily he seemed to enjoy all of them. Unfortunately, most of Khmer girls seemed less enthusiastic about the Mexican style of cooking, I think they’re too used to Khmer food which can lack variety and tends to be fairly sweet. But they all certainly seemed to enjoy the outing, especially because a lot of them didn’t know each other before the summer camp so they have made lots of new friends.
Towards the end of the Summer Camp, our partners got their exam results which they’d be waiting for from their schools. All of them passed and so have now graduated from high school, but unfortunately not all of them got the individual subject grades they needed to get university scholarships so they must hope now they are successful in applying for a JWOC scholarship. To celebrate, Reak Smey organized a spontaneous Khmer dance session at JWOC and our partners showed us some of their traditional dance moves (Apsara style) and invited us to take part. It was very nice to share in their joy and enthusiasm and I would like to thank them all for all their help running the summer camp and translating for us. I think they all have bright futures in front of them and I wish them well.