I came to Cambodia to become an ethnographer.
And so, naturally, I was thrilled to be assigned to the task of interviewing 13 incoming grade 10 students in Knar Village, for the purpose of comprising a series of student biographies for the records of the Ponheary Ly Foundation. Here was the opportunity I had been waiting for, the opportunity to apply all that I have learned, in both theory and method, to my first fieldwork assignment.
Ashley, Farida, and I piled into the tuk tuk outside of Seven Candles Guesthouse on our very first day of these interviews, and a one-hour ride out of Siem Reap and into the Cambodian countryside eventually brought us to a property directly next door to the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Our first interview was with a young woman, sixteen years of age, who was anxiously awaiting the results of her grade 9 exam, which would determine whether or not she would be eligible, at least academically, to continue her education at Knar High School in the fall. The girl and her aunt greeted us warmly, as did six small children, who we found out were children from the neighboring houses. We sat down on a wooden bench in the shade, and began our interview. Farida eloquently translated the questions I had written in English into Khmer, the student answered in Khmer, and Farida translated the answer into English for Ashley and I. We took diligent notes in our own, personal shorthand, and were actively engaged in asking follow-up questions, for further insight into the kinds of answers and information we were receiving from this young woman. This is it, I thought, this is where I am meant to be. I felt euphoric, grounded, in my element, empowered…and then, in the midst of this first interview, a sinking feeling in my stomach. At my core, I felt grounded; in reality, however, I was listening to the story of a young girl who was poor, hungry, hard working, and in need of dire help in order to continue and finish school.
Who was I, to sit there, feeling so “in my element”, while I was listening to the story of this young woman, who was worried that she would not be able to continue her education past grade 9, let alone graduate from university, like I just have. Where was this sense of ‘empowerment’ for this girl, who has had to struggle through every single day to get an education?
A central point of this project is to obtain information about the student, his/her life at home, and performance at and feelings towards school. With this information, the Ponheary Ly Foundation can choose which incoming 10th graders are eligible for a full scholarship through grade 12. Out of approximately 135 students, only 70 will be granted a scholarship, and who knows how many out of the 13 students I will interview will actually be a part of these lucky few.
“She wants you to know she is thankful for us coming here,” Farida translated, at the very end of this first interview, “She says it’s important that people know that many people do not have enough money to go to school.” Of course it is important. But what am I supposed to do? As we proceeded to conduct other interviews with the students on the roster, I couldn’t help but think that, while some would be eligible for the PLF scholarship, some just…wouldn’t. I couldn’t help but think that the majority of the information I was gathering from these students would ultimately be used against them, in that some of these students, despite whether or not they wanted to continue their education, would not be eligible for a scholarship based on the size of their house, the amount of income generated by their parents, or their dedication to work versus their dedication to school. I expressed this concern to Lori and Jas over breakfast one morning, and their reply was a solemn nod, as if to confirm, Yes, your concerns are correct. “But without this information you’re getting,” Lori continued, “what else do we have to go by?”
Such is the paradox that exists at the core of this work. As much as I would love to see each and every one of these students be able to attend school free of charge, my power is limited, and the little power I do have as a researcher will inevitably be used to deny some students a scholarship. But while I may feel very apparent distinctions between my own ‘empowerment’ as a budding anthropologist and the ‘empowerment’ of these students who are not sure whether or not they will be able to continue school past the ninth grade, I have to remind myself that this information I am collecting, is better than no information. We cannot save the save the entire world single-handedly, but on my darkest days of feeling trapped in the contradictions that exist between my research and their reality, I remember that the students who need that scholarship money the most, will receive it. And so, for them, I do the best I can.