Being back in school is just like I remembered. I had to literally pinch myself to stay awake in the computer classroom, and everyone seemed smarter than me. Volunteering, or teaching for that matter, is a very humbling experience. These children and teachers don’t know what USC means or the plushy jobs we gave up in Los Angeles- all they know is that I suck at Photoshop, I can’t do basic Microsoft Word shortcuts, and that I’m a pale giant. In my head I think, “But guyssss I do know Photoshop! Just not when it’s on a Dell in Cambodia and you’re making a water droplet. But guysssss I got a B in BUAD 497, meaning I’m totally an Excel Wizard!” Doesn’t matter. The children laugh at me and make jokes in Khmer to my expense; while I can’t understand Khmer, the pointing and laughing make it fairly obvious. But it’s OK, if my stupidity somehow boosts their confidence then I am happy. On our plane from Singapore to Cambodia we met an awesome couple from Santa Barbara, Paul and Allie. They’re also volunteering in Siem Reap, and Paul told us about his first blog post: getting over the ego. Yea, everyone back home thinks we’re doing something great because we left this amazing job to volunteer- but so what? At his organization he’s working with kids who escaped sex trafficking just days ago; what matters is not what you left behind in California, but what you’re putting in here, in this very moment. The kids will remember your personality traits and outlook on life more than any technical skill you teach them.
Well, unless that technical skill is catchy. We wanted to introduce our classroom to more American music, since their chanting of “Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day” was beginning to give us migraines. Silken suggested “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden,” shocked that the teacher had never even heard of The Beatles. We all were surprised, until I learned more about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Genocide. From 1975 – 1979, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party, caused the killing of 25% of Cambodia’s population (roughly 1.7 million people) using horrendous methodical torture and labor camps inspired by Hitler. Pre-pubescent girls were systematically raped; babies witnessed their mothers getting murdered with sledgehammers. Children became overnight orphans, and then were trained as child soldiers to kill the Vietnamese and even their own parents- nobody could be trusted.
Like Hitler, Pol Pot strived for a purified, naturalized society – no foreign imports of any kind were allowed, and art and educating children became an act of war. Pol Pot wanted Cambodia to return to “Year Zero,” a perfect agrarian Communist-Maoist society where everyone was a peasant working for the “common good.” Anyone who survived the purges and marches of this period did so in an intense labor or farming camp, where they were fed “Angkar” propaganda and less than a cup of rice per day. Therefore, Cambodians are not familiar with The Beatles.
Even before the Khmer Rouge took power, Cambodians probably weren’t too excited to get their hands on “peace and love” music so popular in America. Some Americans are aware of the Cambodian Genocide, but most aren’t aware that we kick-started the mass murder of Cambodians. In 1964, the United States entered Vietnam with a heavy artillery of bombs, fighter jets, and poisonous defoliants. Throughout the Vietnam War, Prince Sihanouk preserved Cambodia’s neutrality by appeasing both sides: Vietnam communists could utilize Cambodian ports, and the United States could - secretly and illegitimately - bomb Viet Cong hideouts in Cambodia. Us Americans took advantage of this favor, and for the next four years we moved freely throughout Cambodia and American B-52’s continuously bombed the Cambodian countryside (worldwithoutgenocide.org). If you’re ever wondering why you haven’t heard about the Cambodian Genocide, here’s essentially why: we dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia before 1975. To put this number in perspective, the total number of bombs dropped by the combined allies forces during WWII was slightly over 2 million tons (Kiernan and Owen). These ruthless bombings resulted in the death of 750,000 Cambodians, and the bombings of capitol-city Phnom Pehn gave the Khmer Rouge an opening to invade and evacuate the city on April 17, 1975 – memoirs recall hospital patients in white gowns fleeing the city while still carrying their IV bottles, while children ran screaming for their parents. The Khmer Rouge told Phnom Pehn inhabitants that Vietnam was bombing their city so they had to evacuate to the countryside, when in reality America was dropping those bombs. After Phnom Pehn’s capture, America pulled out of SE Asia in 1975, precisely when the Cambodian genocide began. Fast-forward a few years to 1978, and the U.S. is back to causing trouble. In 1978, Communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese started setting up a puppet government in Cambodia, and the West wanted to ensure Cambodia’s United Nation seat was occupied by Khmer Rouge officials rather than Communist Vietnamese officers with strong ties to Soviet Russia: the Cold War dictated our political decisions and alliances. Therefore, the United States and United Kingdom backed the Khmer Rouge so they could continue fighting Vietnam, and trained them in the use of landmines. Under international pressure, Vietnam eventually pulled out of Cambodia; a peace treaty was signed in 1991, but in 2015 there are still 3,000,000 active landmines in Cambodia.
Given this insanity, it blows my mind how kindly the Cambodians treat us Americans. They love a good cheeseburger and getting down to Maroon 5. They massage our feet with a smile, and absolutely love Obama. They set a high bar for forgiveness and compassion. Maroon 5 reminds me of where this tangent all began… American music. We recalled our French and Spanish language classes, and thought it may be helpful if the kids listened to some catchy American tunes. Octopus’s Garden quickly transitioned into “Who Let the Dogs Out?” in a game of Freeze Dance. It was beyond hilarious to watch Nicole dutifully write, “Who … let… the… dogs… out? Who? Who? Who?” on the whiteboard while the children recited it back. The boys got really into it, dancing on tabletops (I swear we didn’t teach them that, some boys are just born frat-stars).