I can spin my stories a million ways; I can choose what angle of life here to share.
If I have a few whole minutes to share, then I would have time to tell you about the times I walk holding hands with Yeay (my host grandma) helping each other cross the street. Or I might talk about the flooding that happens during the rainy season here, where rats – dead and alive – float past me in the streets. I could talk about the grief that is being away from family, despite the contentment I have in being here. Or maybe I could tell you stories about finding community here in a country I previously knew almost nothing about.
There are hundreds of stories to tell—of course, I can’t tell them all to you. What I do choose to share creates a perception of how things are here. And because this experience can only be communicated in the form of a story, what is portrayed and described becomes just a glimpse through time for the listener.
I have spent this year living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, serving in the role of Program Assistant of Precious Women, an organization that works with women who have been trafficked and exploited in the Cambodian sex and entertainment industries. Precious Women provides provision of safe temporary housing for women, counselling, empowerment training, their Voice of Hope radio program, vocational training, and scholarships for women to continue their education. I arrived in August through the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) SALT (Serving and Learning Together) program, a one year experience marked by a commitment to serve and learn in another country.
We often host visiting groups at Precious Women—groups of short-term volunteers or visitors who want to learn more about the organization. I remember one visitor commenting on the “lifeless eyes in the faces of the girls.” That was his perception the girls he had just encountered – a perception he created from a mere two hours spent speaking to them in a language they barely understand in a hot room during a time of the day when they would usually be resting. He did not see the joy and energy and crazy antics that the girls are usually up to. He saw them when they were bored, not totally understanding who this newest group of foreigners was. In that short span of time, his perception had the potential to create stories with a harmful and incomplete picture of who the girls really are.
I so often struggle, as I feel that the women here are occasionally put on display because of the hardships they have encountered, either by having their story exploited in the one page synopsis sent to donors or through the testimonies they share with visiting teams that come for a few hours. The girls can so often be reduced a simplistic, tragic story, and that image doesn’t fully represent the situation of each individual.
I have seen how much we all have in common. Despite different backgrounds and current realities, we share a lot. And these similarities can be missed when people choose to focus on the difficult part of one life story.
I don’t want to downplay the atrocities some of the girls have been through, or the impact that this trauma has had on them. I do want to emphasize, however, the humanity all of us have and share. The girls at Precious Women are not defined by their pasts as sex slaves, or trafficking victims. They are more than these events. They deserve more than that narrow perception of who they are.
While working in the sex industry, they are seen as objects that bring pleasure. One night when I went on an outreach to local bars to meet girls and invite them to our events, the bar manager brought over about 10 girls to our table and asked how many we wanted. Our staff answered and said two, and then one of them turned to me and said, “You choose.” I froze, staring at the girls, unable to point my finger and choose one over another. They are objectified over and over. There are women who are chosen first every time, and those who are left behind. Once they are free from that environment, they shouldn’t still be facing an endless series of labels that objectify them: victim, broken, prostitute.
It has been so strange to be on this side of things. To stand out as a foreigner working for Precious Women, an organization with all Khmer staff, and to welcome other foreigners who pass through. I have received an inside look at the whole volunteer experience, and it has been a lot to take in and process. I see groups come, looking uncertain and uncomfortable in their first few hours or days, and then as some time passes they get slightly more comfortable, and then it’s the end. They cry when they leave, hugging the girls, taking pictures together, making promises to pray, and asking for prayer in return that they will have the opportunity to come back. And then everyone moves on.
This ability to really see and process these realities challenges me. I realize I am not that much different than those whose reaction I feel an aversion to. I have come here with this finite timeline, living in the midst of a countdown until the day that I leave this place. I do not have an answer for how to reconcile my desire to be here and be involved, with the fear that I also possess of being here and gaining valuable insight—only to leave so soon. I question this consumption of experiences and the seeming selfishness that drives us to add another experience to our list of life.
Early on in my days at the Precious Women organization, I was talking to another staff member. She asked me what I really wanted to do with my life, where I really want to work. I responded and said that being at Precious Women and being a part of an NGO is actually a dream. I am where I want to be.
She accepted my answer but wanted to know what more I am working towards. She said that she understood what a good experience it was for me to work in this setting but, from what she has heard, getting a job in the Western world was all about what experience one could bring to the table. She assumed that I was here to gain my own personal version of this ‘good experience’, set on adding it to my resume, before heading home to search for a job with a comfortable salary and “real life.”
I could not convince her that I was here just to be here. And how can I, when I have this end date to my assignment here, marked by the return home and a collection of teary-eyed goodbyes, stories, profile pictures with their faces, and promises to continue talking until the novelty of this year has worn off and I only have the memories, just like everyone else that comes and goes.
The girls and staff at work are a joy. There have been points in the year where I have been sick, grumpy, exhausted, homesick, and those people have just loved on me so hard. Maybe the tear stains or bags under my eyes give me away, but without even necessarily having the language skills to explain my emotions, they will grab me and pull me into a chair to give me a massage, paint my nails (with flowers and sparkles), wash my hair, or bury me in a cuddle pile.
These are the things that I want to make known. I take mental pictures in my head during these moments of absolute joy. A lot of the girls have been hurt repeatedly, they have had lovers and family members walk out of their life, but they still choose to open up and pour their love all over me. There is a vibrancy to them, and a generosity in the joy that they give. I want to learn from this.
I am a person on a journey in life, just as they are. I have had the privilege of being given this time with them, to be accepted and loved by them. They have become my dearest friends, and they have been selfless in accepting me into their world.
I have had a lot of practice answering people about what I am doing this year, but I still struggle with the wording. In moving to a country with a language that was completely foreign to me, I have become very conscious of words, and slightly terrified of them. In my first few weeks here I was aware of conversations flowing around me, but I was unable to join in. Then slowly I was able to pick out individual words, and so those words held a lot of significance since that was all I could understand. The weight of words has stuck with me as I have to consciously pick out which words in Khmer or English to use to communicate.
I am spending my time here filling a role that anyone else could also fill. Precious Women is self-sustaining, and they will carry on once I leave. I signed on initially to be here for a year, and in that time I realize that I will only see a small picture of who everyone is. My limited Khmer language skills will also prevent me from having deeper relationships with the girls. I have felt honoured to be so embraced into the community at work. I am a temporary face here, one of many that they see come and go, and yet they still choose to invest in me and in our relationships.
I don’t want to wrap this reflection up with a neat line about how the relationships I have built, and the love that I have given and received have made this all genuinely meaningful. The questions continue to run through my mind, and while working in a country with thousands of NGO’s and expats each doing their part, it is impossible not to question what our part actually is.
A couple months ago I was offered a longer position here at Precious Women, and I accepted. I wouldn’t have accepted if I no longer felt a sense of purpose in being here. I am thrilled to get to continue these relationships and that these women and I can continue playing a role in each others’ stories. I have had so much given to me, and I get to try and reciprocate that love. I don’t know how I can walk away from that opportunity, and I don’t want to.
At the beginning of the year I saw that it was going to be a struggle to always stay present within this experience, a sort of battle against living in light of a timeline with a start and end date in sight. But the more I invest in what is around me and the more I am given from this community in terms of support and love, the less it feels like this neatly packaged experience that will end and that I will walk away, saying goodbyes and feeling okay leaving with my stories. This is a home now. I have people around me to make it so. What they have shown me, and I hope to reciprocate, is the gift of joy. I love the phrase I read recently in a book called Love Over Scotland by author Alexander McCall Smith “It’s very easy isn’t it… to increase the sum total of human happiness. By these little acts. Small things. A word of encouragement. A gesture of love. So easy.”