The Minerva Fellowship carries with it a sense of prestige in the Union community. Expectations follow suit, and at first, they align with that prestige. International human service work is romanticized in a similar manner. Reality seldom adheres to these anticipations.
Challenges arise. And the prestige of the Fellowship melts away as we succumb to communication barriers, cultural disagreements, bike issues, food poisoning, BUGS, and the overall difficulties of up-and-moving to a developing country, and working with underprivileged communities. This is a humbling transition, the one from expectation to reality. This “job” took passion, persistence, and a lot of flexibility. I never knew what my job would be walking into work each day. My hats varied from teacher, to mentor, to friend, to social worker, and most often, and most unexpected, to student.
But the rawness of the reality far outweighed the idealist illustrations of my expectations.
I was right about one expectation: “The Minerva Fellowship is an extension of everything that Union has ever been to me: novel, learning, challenge, love, family.”
Tonight is my last night in Siem Reap, and I can’t find words to express how it feels.
Thank you to the students of TGC, who have taught me more in 9 months than I’ve learned in my entire life. These kids are truly unbelievable. Intelligent, resilient, thoughtful, and above all, kind. As I told them on our final day together, it will be people like them who change the world. A million thank yous will never suffice, my friends.
To the staff of TGC, your dedication to creating change is astounding. You do thankless work day after day, but please be assured, it does not go unnoticed.
To Tom and Hal. What can I say? You have created something so unexplainably beautiful. So many lives have been changed because of you. Thank you for your wisdom, gently guiding us along this journey.
To Chet and Karen, thank you for the opportunity of a lifetime.
To my friends, across town and across oceans, for keeping me sane.
To my bike, for carrying me on life’s greatest adventure, and to its bell, for saving my life on multiple occasions.
I think the most profound revelations will require retrospection to be truly understood (more to come later).
Right now, I’m grappling with the overwhelming feelings that accompany this chapter of my life concluding- nostalgia, confusion, utter heartbreak, accomplishment, anxiety, excitement. Strangely, the blending of these conflicting spirits yields a sense of calm. A chance to reflect.
What made this experience unique was that I found “home” in Siem Reap and in TGC. In the past few weeks reflecting, I have been trying to understand exactly when that transition occurred. When did a place so scary and foreign, and a group of people so strange and different, become integrated into my being? There was no ceremony, no initiation.
In brief, unsuspecting moments, this place became home…
Rides back into Siem Reap after time away. The familiar faces becoming more frequent as I got closer to the city center. As I rounded the corner onto my street, greetings from tuk tuk drivers, shop owners, and bike repairmen turned friends. The exuberance of Mei-Mei, my landlords granddaughter, and her dog April, when I pulled into the driveway. All reminding me that I belong.
A stormy afternoon spent barbecuing on the dock of Tonle Sap Lake. Sitting, content, comfortable, in intentional silence. Together.
But most of all, this place became home in the moments when I realized that I found more in common with people so inherently different from me, than I found differences…
We all want to love and to feel loved.
We all want to feel accomplished, and we all get a little blue when we fail.
We all yearn to belong. Loneliness spares no one.
No matter who you are, music makes you get up and move.
Great friends are special.
Social phenomenon affects us all: selfies are a religion.
Helping someone feels good.
Parents’ sacrifices know no ends.
Food = life.
Movies > Essays
Smiles are contagious.
It’s ALWAYS funny when someone falls running up the stairs.
The rest is trivial…
From the very bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who has stuck by be for the past nine months. I hope that from these anecdotes, you gained a greater understanding of people.
Recently I’ve realized that passions are privileges.
I am unquestionably privileged to have passions, to choose the things in my life that cultivate joy. These passions were formed by the circumstances of my life.
In December, I started an Environment Club at TGC. I wanted to share my passions with the students…
Plastic use (abuse) is a huge problem here. Individuals need to be held accountable for their actions, and therefore grassroots action is necessary. In the end, the solution to this problem will be generational. The best place to start on such issues are in the centers of communities: schools. I wanted to instill an inherent sense of respect and compassion for the environment in TGC students. I believed that if successful, this program could have the potential create a massive and profound ripple effect within the greater community.
But there was a disconnect.
Our circumstances weren’t the same. My passion for the environment is concretely rooted in my summers chasing butterflies and frogs around fields of Vermont wildflowers. I can’t create that experience for them. I can’t create a passion for them.
I was again brought back to Ernesto Sirolli’s Ripples from the Zambezi, in which he outlined recipes for developmental disasters. More harm is done when outside beliefs and visions for change are forced upon people. I made a promise to myself that, for these 9 months, I would do right by Ernesto (and Hal).
Ok. So here I was with my club proposal approved by the principal and the board, but at a personal crossroads. How can I carry out this program with the awareness that I would be forcing my own views and opinions on others?
After considering scrapping the whole thing, I came up with some remedies. There were a few ways I went about this:
The first was that I shifted the leadership of the club entirely into students’ hands’. We had a democratic election, complete with nominations and ballots. We now have a four-person, extremely enthusiastic executive board, with an overflow of amazing ideas. I will always remember the reaction of the club’s secretary when I handed her her own folder. Never has anyone in the entire world been more excited about taking notes. Not only does this give the kids the freedom to learn about and engage in programs and activities that they are interested in, but it also gives them ownership over the club- something to call their own. Finally, this design will allow the club to sustain itself once I leave in April.
The next step was a little more challenging. I needed to spark a passion somehow. A field trip to the green mountains was out of the question. I came to the understanding that this group of students needed a platform through which they could form their own opinions, perspectives, and passions.
So, last week, TGC’s environment club took its first field trip. We called it the “Photography Kickoff Campaign.” We split into two groups and set out on foot around town. The objective was to view things we look at every day, but to see them through a different lens. To see things related to the environment, that made you feel angry and upset and inspired. The results were pretty remarkable. And we have a lot of pictures to rummage through. Next meeting, we will be displaying the photos, and having a discussion about the students’ new perspectives.
My hope is that, through this program, I have given the students the option and the circumstance to choose a passion. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s the goal at the end of the day… to show kids the doors, to give them options to choose the things in life that they want to love. I am where I am today because so many people in my life have shown me doors, and helped me open them. One purple door in particular is to thank.
I faced a lot of unexpected personal challenges in designing and re-designing the nature of this program. Hopefully, with this strong foundation, it will be successful in the long run. Future awesome club endeavors will include farm education and sustainability programs with environmental NGOs in Siem Reap, documentaries, working on our new raised-bed vegetable gardens, a skype info-session/Q&A with fellow fellow Mason at Environmentalist Foundation of India, and community mentoring days.
Days are fleeting, and regardless of how hard I will myself to “stay present” and “cherish the moment”, time is a stubborn SOB, and nevertheless persists. Concepts of time are strange that way. The first three months of this fellowship felt like a lifetime, perhaps because everything still carried a scent of novelty, as if each hour was an entirely different experience from its predecessor.
But once settled, and the newness wore away, Siem Reap became less a place of exploration and searching, and more a place resembling home. And then what happens, once something new becomes commonplace? Time softly falls away, in simple moments of pure joy, frustration, exhaustion, humor- just like life would in any other city or circumstance.
Month one became three. Month six: I blinked and the end is visible. The topic of going home arises more and more in conversation. With Dan over lunch, with friends, the teachers at the school, strangers in restaurants, even Mom Pov, who tells me each day, using a hybrid of Khmer and English, just how much longer we have together, becoming progressively more sad with each declaration.
I have this picture painted in my mind of my going home. Those first lazy, rainy days at home in bed with my dogs, my mom yelling at me to get out of bed to do something productive, joy-filled reunions with friends and family. I’m excited to be home, don’t get me wrong. But there is something missing in my daydreams of my homecoming: the fact that I will have left behind a new home, with new dogs, new family, and new friends.
[If you’d like to understand this feeling, listen to Two Places by The Wood Brothers]
With this awareness, I have begun to see my now-home once again as a place of exploration and searching. I deliberately open my eyes and see something new each day, desperately trying to etch scenery into memory. I often have to stop and remind myself that I don’t have to try so hard to find newness each day- it’s here, I just have open myself to welcome it.
This became very apparent to me just a few weeks ago. There was one student who, in all this time, I just hadn’t been able to break through. She was always closed off to me, harsh, and often sullen. I learned from the parenting workshop that her life hadn’t been easy. At 11 years old, she had dropped out of school , had suffered abuse from her father and two different step fathers, and most nights, her homework and studies were interrupted by drunk adults and having to take care of her baby siblings. These stories are not uncommon for TGC students, but this student personified her pain more so than the others. With over two thirds of the fellowship complete, I had deemed our relationship a failure.
A few weeks back, I declared the last hour of every Friday “recess” for my grade 6 class. The kids jumped for joy every time I said, “alright, let’s go outside!” But even still, this particular student remained apathetic.
Almost every month, the kids have a different game they obsess over. This month, it was a game with intricate rules that included chucking a shuttlecock at each other as hard as they could (Cambodian kids apparently don’t feel pain the way I do). After protesting this harsh game for a few weeks, this particular Friday, I felt daring, and decided to get involved. I was obviously hit first. Doubled over in pain after being pelted straight in the ass, I look over and see my sullen little student on the ground in full hysteric laughter.
This game continued for another 30 minutes, and soon became a one-on-one match between me and this student. I survived, bruised and battered and with a very hurt ego. At the end of the game, the student came up to me to say: “Teacher! That was so fun. Play again next week?”
As easy as that, I had torn down a wall I once deemed impassable. Ever since, I’ve been greeted with sweaty hugs throughout the days, and now, although the kids have moved onto a new “game of the month,” I have a newfound friendship to cherish in my finals months in Cambodia. There’s always a way in.
And there will always be something new- something to do, something to learn, something to break, something to build. Sometimes we just have to wake ourselves up to realize the stagnation of our senses. This lesson I will carry wherever I go.
So, if you need me, I’ll be squeezing every last drop out of this fellowship. On Saturday afternoons advising TGC’s first Environment Club (!!!), or on Sunday mornings at our community outreach program, or during the week, at school, learning and teaching and playing games and still building new friendships.
As the concept of leaving my new home is slowly becoming tangible, this is how I am coping.
Within the gates of the Wat, I find the closest thing I can to silence. I am surrounded by learning, people of all ages actively seeking the attainment of knowledge. The struggles that one faces outside of these walls slip away and become obsolete- the greenery, the sounds of children playing freely, and a nearby monk roughhousing with pagoda dog- all create an atmosphere that gently cradles an haven for learning.
I come here for quiet. Calm. Stillness. For inspiration when I need it, and for a dose of grass on my feet when I choose to listen to the demands of my soul.
I sit on the porch of the CKS library, facing south. As I lean towards leaving, the sun becoming too strong to bear, and a drop of sweat trickles down my neck, a cloud covers the sun, bringing with it an evanescent hint of a cool breeze, allowing me X more moments of quiet, stillness, calmness. Of green. Until that cloud decides to continue on its path. And when that time comes, I do not fight it, nor do I will the cloud to stay. I merely observe its movement, nonjudgmentally, and close my eyes, preparing for the sun, allowing the circle to continue. Ultimately leaving the final decision of when to move to my next destination, to the conscience of the wind.
On the longest days, I arrive home. Sweaty. Click on the AC, and collapse onto my rock of a bed. And on those same days, I will myself right back up and march outside to my little chair on the second floor porch above The Happy Buffalo. The sun drops lower towards a place I still call home. Trying to absorb the day’s final moments of fleeting sunlight, a world of rush hour is spinning both beneath me and above me.
It is as if there is a glass floor separating the two planes, and I am encased within. Each floor existing without regard for the other. I’m in the middle. It’s a familiar place.
I look up.
Everything falls away except for the sound of my breath, a swarm of dragonflies, and whatever flock of migratory birds happens to have chosen Siem Reap for a resting place that evening.
Afternoon drizzles arrive.
The bottom floor scrambles to remain dry after a long days work. Honks emerge from beneath colorful plastic rain protection.
The top floor has no conscious regard for the rain. Swallows swoop in and out of drops, seemingly unaffected by their encumbrance, praying on their cognitively inferior aerial counterparts, the rain disorients them toward their ultimate demise.
I watch these co-, yet separately-existing societies. I wonder to myself, “does anyone else see?”
Hey everyone. I’m back after a short hiatus- my apologies if I left any of you waiting.
Ok- about to go on what may seem like a giant tangent, but stick with me…
I’ve been struggling to create something worth sharing. “Blogging” to me is not spitting back every detail of what I do on a day to day basis. If you want to hear about every detail of everyday, call me. (Right, I thought so…) On the contrary, my process of writing includes experiencing something, sitting on it for a while, and finally producing some kind of analysis of how that experience may fit into the greater scheme of my life. The process takes a lot of thinking, a lot of over-analyzing, and a lot of self-criticism.
As my new façade of “teacher Sydney” often says: let’s review…
My posts have touched upon varied aspects of my life. I’ve written about purpose. About bigotry and hatred and violence. About programs with TGC students and TGC parents. About kindness and about development and about sustainability. About being present. So, as I am struggling to create something new, I’ve decided to write something about how these concepts come together to create something else. And I hope that something is bigger than the parts of its whole. (math?)
And that something is goodness. A word we often hear but seldom take time to ponder.
Grafton, Vermont is my special place. It’s a picturesque little town in southern Vermont with a population of approximately 650. In Grafton’s valleys, one is gently cradled by magnificent foliage, rolling fields and streams, and sheep and cows beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And oh yeah, a cheese factory. (Shit, I think I just gave away my family’s best kept secret.)
When Grafton’s general store closed a few years back, two young mothers, new to town, jumped onto a sinking ship to save this historical landmark. They weren’t ready to let such a beautiful part of a beautiful town go down without a fight. The two of them came in and took over the store with a mission of nurturing the town and the folks of Grafton. Their motto: “Be a purveyor of goodness.” And while I don’t think I’ve ever told them, it’s been something I try to live by ever since. Thank you, Ali and June, and MKT, for creating guiding lights for so many people.
Leaf peeping weekend in Grafton
I place a lot of expectations upon myself. We all do. We do something because we think we should. A Minerva Fellow at TGC may feel like there is an unspoken expectation to bring some new and entrepreneurial program to TGC that will transform the lives of the students and the staff. A fellow at Engeye or Witkoppen might feel like there is an expectation to bring innovative ideas to the clinics that will enhance patient care or increase the number of patients reached. And a fellow working with a new organization may feel like there is an expectation to blaze a path for fellows to come. But expectations don’t just haunt us Minerva Fellows; they spare no one, and they have harsh side effects. Lately these expectations have been weighing me down. My job is to come to work every day and educate. I’m struggling to find new and innovative programs that will interest students and be meaningful to TGC long term. There is always room to create something more, something that will benefit someone, somehow. But often when we create something just because we think that we are supposed to create it, it ends up becoming more of a burden than anything else. There are so many programs already being pursued at TGC, and I think my best efforts can be spent making them the best they can be, rather than creating something new because there is an unspoken expectation to do so.
Somewhere out in the strange galaxy we’re all a part of, everything intersects. Among those infinite intersections is one between expectation and purpose. To me, expectations are external, even if they are placed on oneself by oneself. Purpose comes from somewhere deep within. This is an intersection I have to fight every day, but I am learning to listen to my internal purpose over my external expectations. So, for now, until some other power tells me otherwise, my job is to work hard to make my classes the best they can be, and to work on current programs the school offers to bring them to a point of optimal impact. But my purpose is to be a purveyor of goodness.
In a conversation with my mom the other day, I was telling her about the current struggles of my job search. To no one’s surprise, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. But it’s ok because my parents have always told me that they (both successful business owners) still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. But my ailments don’t come from lack of ideas, rather an overflow of ideas. There are so many problems in society that I feel passionately about, so how does anyone pick just one????
My resolution: it doesn’t matter what organization I work for or what sector I’m working in, as long as I’m being a purveyor of goodness.
A side effect of my writing process is that I find myself always over analyzing and thinking critically about the simple things. I forget to be present and I forget to live in the moment. I have to remind myself that it’s ok to step back and take each moment as it comes. To understand things on the surface level, and to appreciate them for what they are. We don’t always have to be purveyors of goodness; there is goodness all around us. It is just as important to be a consumer of goodness. We just need to take the time to notice it.
Here are some of the moments of pure goodness from the past month that speak for themselves:
We live in a world that can be terrifying and lonely and often seemingly hopeless. Terrible things happen to us, to people we love, and to strangers every day, and in those moments, it can be hard to remember our purpose and our path. Those are the moments we need to dig deeper than we ever have, pick ourselves up from our bootstraps, and create the goodness that is too often stripped from us. If you take anything away from all of my ramblings, please let it be this: we all need to be purveyors of goodness. For the people we love, for our magnificent planet, and most importantly, for ourselves.
Today was International Day of the Girl (aka BEST DAY EVER)
The TGC girls were invited to celebrate the day at the local Women’s Resource Center. We canceled class for them this morning so they could attend the festivities. I, along with one of the house moms, Mum Pove, chaperoned the 16 girls across town. The welcoming committee greeted us at the gates with cheerful smiles, blasting music, and books for them to take home. Watching them struggle to dance to the traditional Khmer party music while holding armful of books was the highlight of my day.
The program started out with explaining the purpose of “a day to celebrate women”. One of our 12th grade students volunteered to answer about what the day meant to her. And in front of 70 other children from the community, she answered flawlessly. To her, International Day of the Girl is a day not only celebrate girls, but to empower them to use their voices in societies like this one, who often try to keep them quiet, and to educate them of the rights they were born with as human beings. We then transitioned to female health, which is generally a taboo among Cambodians. The kids split into small groups as to maintain a safe space for them to share and ask questions openly. The morning culminated with each girl receiving their own reusable pad kits. The girls at TGC often struggle academically during their periods, as their habits are fairly old-fashioned. Tampons are not used by most Cambodians, so they use pads which are uncomfortable and unreliable. Words can’t describe the elatedness on the faces of these kids when they received their kits (so refer to pictures @ bottom). I’m Jewish, but I would like to think this is what Christmas morning feels like.
I left the program today feeling a sort of high, I couldn’t stop smiling. But my only criticism of the day was that the boys were not included. The only way for real change to occur is to get everyone on board with the same mission. We need boys to join the conversation. We need boys help to change the world for girls. I had a lesson planned for my afternoon class, but scrapped it the second I walked into the classroom. I wasn’t ready to stop talking about this. So for the next 50 minutes, I included the boys. I had the girls share their experiences from the morning with their male counterparts in the class. We talked about everything from female empowerment to gender equality to periods. It was encouraging, eye-opening, awkward, and funny. But most of all it was necessary. We finished class with some Beyoncé, obviously.
All day, I couldn’t help but wonder why this was the first time I’ve recognized this day. As a well-educated, driven, and self-proclaimed “successful” young woman, why have I never taken a day to celebrate my accomplishments in such a context? Why are we only celebrating the movement toward equality in societies where oppression of women is so overt?
We need to wake up. Gender inequality doesn’t only persist in developing countries. But they are certainly leading the way in talking about it. If gender inequality ceases to be a topic of conversation in our lives at home, we will regress. Here’s a reality check: we are regressing. Gender inequality is becoming more overt everyday in America. Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop celebrating.
I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some badass women in my life:
My mom will always be #1 on this list. She has single-handedly built an empire around helping others, creating community, and consciously sustaining our planet. So many people’s lives are richer because of you.
(1B: Dad- you’re an honorary badass woman for raising three badass women. And for putting up with 4)
My rad sisters: Emma and Zoe. Thanks for teaching me skills to fight. It’s more important now than ever before. I owe ya one. Keep on rockin’
My protest pals: Anna, Jax, Abby, Bri, and Jabo. If I’m gonna have to march for change, I’m glad it’s by your sides. Stay woke, girls!!
The amazing staff behind the Women’s Resource Center in Siem Reap. Nothing says badass more than a female-only staff passionately advocating for women in a developing country every day. I have so much admiration for these 12 women.
My girl students at TGC: who challenge societal norms everyday by walking through the gates of a school. For being brave enough to choose school, and to fight to find their voices in this society. You girls inspire me and so many others.
I am so grateful to have spent my first International Day of the Girl in Siem Reap with some true rad feminists. Mark your calendars for next year- Oct 11, 2018, party at my place. But I’ll also be celebrating every other day of the year. You should too.