After a long semester of immersing ourselves in personal accounts, historical, political and anthropological works about this beautiful country, we have spent our first few days here wide-eyed, excited to absorb everything we can—from customs and cuisine, to language and our interactions with Khmer people. Moments fluctuate between inspiring and emotional, as we witness firsthand how families and communities are able to live day to day in the face of tremendous hardship. There is something incredibly different when you move from reading about inequality and poverty in a book to seeing it right in front of you.
During a visit to Knar School, in rural Siem Reap province, Lori Carlson led us to the corner of one of the school buildings, pointed to its foundation, and told us the story of a little boy who used to live there. Found as a toddler, entirely caked in mud and in the company of feral dogs, this little boy had spent an unknown amount of time growing up in unspeakable conditions, worse than what we would refer to as extreme poverty. It took just about a year for PLF staff and his peers to socialize him and help him move forward after this trauma. Eventually, he named himself Tien (which means candle in Khmer), and has asserted himself as a guardian over the other children. He puts their well-being first, always making sure everyone has food to eat, whatever art supplies are needed, and that their cuts are cleaned. Tien is sweet and loving, and has now found his place in his new community.
Stories like Tien’s are hard to hear, and we can never understand how hard these stories are to live because we come from such different worlds. And in this constant state of self-reflection, we have to consider intention. What are we doing here? How does our personal knowledge and expertise make us valuable contributors to this community? We are in constant reevaluation of ourselves as students, as individuals, as volunteers, as women, as daughters and as foreigners in this world.
What I am trying to say is that by engaging in this new place, we are deconstructing epistemological frameworks that we have spent years and years, both consciously and subconsciously cultivating through our exposure to different forms of media that contain messages about our world, all of our studies in school, and our own social and cultural upbringings. And through all of this, we have created particular ideas and a discourse surrounding development work. Allegedly, we have studied the successes and failures of development projects but this now tangible reality—which we have only been in for a few days—highlights all the nuances and contradictions in this field. Engaging in this critical thought process is a necessity; overlooking these issues would be a disservice to the development field itself.
It is easy to doubt oneself because in many ways our intentions here feel like a mere exercise of our own cultural capital, among other things. This critical process—of asking tough questions and unpacking “development”—is vital to evolving as students, as individuals, and as counterparts in the development field. However, Tien also reminds us what fuels our decision to be here in the first place. As human beings, we sense and desire to offer ourselves not only to individual struggles, but also contribute to larger struggles across the globe. Remembering this humanity should be at the forefront of our mind in the next few weeks.