“You’ll see when you get here that American style micro-planning doesn’t work at all in Cambodia,” read a portion of an e-mail sent to me by Lori Carlson, President of the Ponheary Ly Foundation, a few weeks before my arrival in Siem Reap. “There’s no way to explain how different “planning” is in Cambodia,” the e-mail continued. “Come as prepared as you can but understand only 50% of it will stick and everything takes twice as long as you think.” This was in response to a lengthy thread of e-mails between Lori and myself, regarding one of the field-based projects I had been assigned to: organizing an interview skills workshop for media students at Tchey School. When I was originally assigned to this project, I thought, Great. No Problem. I had a good, foundational understanding of the ethnographic method (of which effective interview skills is a part), and I had some experience as a tutor. All I had to do was write clear objectives for the workshop and constructive lesson plans, and all would be well. I had, in fact, actually begun to plan an intricate series of lessons with another student in our group, complete with step-by-step instruction, graphic organizer worksheets, and even games and group activities. Our planning took this shape because we, as American students, did not know any other approach.
After receiving Lori’s advice, I put down my pen and pushed my notebook aside, and made the decision to prepare myself for the only thing I really could – and that is, to prepare myself to be unprepared. “Unprepared”, in terms of what to expect, to see, to experience, to hear, and to feel. I needed to surrender control and just let the day-to-day events take the reins. To me, this is what civic engagement is all about. In-class preparation at Lang had equipped my peers and me with a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding of the history and politics of Cambodia, but it is here, on the ground in Siem Reap, that we all have the opportunity to intimately engage with the contemporary realities of both the people and the land, and to give ourselves over to an experience that has more to offer us than we do to it. Over the past few days, Cambodia has given us all a crash course on all of its complexities and wonders, and although there is still some time before the interview skills workshop itself begins, I am anxiously awaiting all that is to be learned until then, as well as afterwards. And I have learned very quickly here that the greatest learning comes only after I allow myself to let go of all prior and Western-influenced understandings of space and social discourse, to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, and prepare myself for a wild ride of discovery.
As the final line of Lori’s e-mail to me reads: “Detach from expectation. Have a plan. Don’t be married to it.”