Daily Life at the Learning Center in Takeo

Malin with her Khmer friends in Chansom
Malin with her Khmer friends

Malin Klinski is BOOKBRIDGE fellow at our learning center in Takeo, Cambodia. In this post she writes about daily life at the center and the many little adventures and surprises involved.

This article should function as an insight into the work of our BOOKBRIDGE Learning Centers in Takeo, Cambodia and my daily life there, focusing on the month December. I always find it quite hard to really tell everything I want to say with English words. It’s like trying to paint a picture, but you just can’t capture everything that made you want to draw it in the beginning. The sun on your skin, the scents in your nose, the colors that are brighter than those in the paint box. The real intention though, is to transfer the feelings. To tell others what your heart told you in that moment and to be able to them months, or even years later. I am trying my best to paint the most realistic picture of everything I experienced, authentic and hopefully enjoyable.

Cambodian Cooking
Banh Xeo is one of the most traditional Khmer dishes in Southern Cambodia. It is very easy to make as it’s in fact just a crêpe and very, very tasty. You make it out of rice flour and coconut milk. The yellow color of the crêpe comes through turmeric. In fact it is a much healthier alternative to the common pancake with sweet milk that most of the restaurants serve for Western tourists. When Sopheak and I decided we wanted to do a cooking workshop, our choice of dish fell on Banh Xeo. It was a crazy act that we went through as you can see on the pictures:

Malin did some Cambodian cooking with the children
Malin cooked Cambodian dishes with the children

The whole classroom was transformed to a cooking studio and around 20 students came to help us. First we chopped vegetables. We needed cucumber, carrots and all sort of herbs. Then we had chili, peanuts and lime for the sauce in which you dip the Banh Xeo in. Because Sopheak is wonderful and she is the only Khmer person I know that is vegetarian, we made vegetarian Banh Xeo. Normally you put soya bean sprouts and meat inside, when you flap the dough over, but we used beans that tasted a little bit like deliciously fried tofu. We needed two stoves and everyone took turns with cooking while the rest ate our Banh Xeo experiments that tasted just as good as the ones you can order in the restaurant. Of course they looked a little bit different, but you can find beauty in imperfection. It was a real tohuwabohu (like you would say in German), but so much fun I would do it again any time. After we told Sokhan about it he was silent for some seconds, thinking. Then he said: “Well, that is quite a wonderful way to experience your own culture, that is for sure.” After this positive feedback, we were really motivated to do another cooking event soon. But next time it will be quite difficult to top the Banh Xeo.

A Handcraft Donation from Belgium
A nice Belgian couple donated some things for our Learning Center in Angtasom. Pens, paper, glue and all kind of useful things and inter alia a handicraft set. You could make butterfly chains and boxes with motives like flowers and owls with it. All you had to do, is basically sew everything together and stich the pictures on the fabric. Though of course, it’s never that easy in reality. I had maybe 100 children that wanted to help me and I was occupied with not letting anyone prick a needle in the eye of someone else, while I had the operating instructions in my hand and tried to read them while someone was grabbing my sleeve and screaming, “Cha, Cha, I want the butterfly not the leheheheave!”.

Belgium handcraft donation
Doing handcrafts

I don’t know how I finally managed to finish the whole thing. It took me about three hours and an enormous amount of patience. Another problem was, that stuff just disappeared. When you have a little pearl that you need to sew on a butterfly wing, it is not easy to keep watch on it for that amount of time. In the end it didn’t quite look like on the packing, but it was made with love. The thing that made me the happiest about our finished artwork was, that so many boys participated. One might think that they are more interested in fighting and playing football, but they are very talented in sewing and stitching. Furthermore they do it with the outmost naturalness so it’s a great way to celebrate gender equality.

Problems in the Learning Center
I want to be honest. We have loads of problems in the LC and the roots of all of them are children that only ever care about one thing: having fun. They don’t think about being loud, they don’t think about running in full speed, they don’t think about dropping their shoes on the spot, climbing up on places they shouldn’t climb up on, leaving books on the floor and bringing sweets in the library. They are too many and we are outnumbered. It is a war not worth fighting. And still, this week I had a plan, a revolutionary idea, a never before heard of strategy…
I pinned a poster with the 15 most important center rules in the entrance area – with pictures. I know, I know, this might not seem as earthshaking as I would like it to be, but I believe that it’s the little things that can cause a change. Maybe not today and not tomorrow, but possibly on the day when I will leave. I made a video with two children about the ‘’rules of etiquette’’ and I will do another one with the help of Rathana that will be in Khmer. We are planning to show it in the first five minutes before the courses start, to make the students more aware of their behaviour.Children playing and learning at the learning center in Takeo

Be Silent, Play a Game
There is this game that I love and could play over and over again, because it promises absolute silence for at least ten minutes. It is called “Dead Fish” and all you really need is huge bunch of pillows. You put them on the floor (we use bean bags) and all the children have to lie down and are not allowed to make a move or any sound at all. Breathing is okay. One child is the fisherman. He is waiting for a good catch and as soon as he sees one of the fishes twitch, he knows that he can throw out the fishing pole and the child is out of the game. I usually say that the student that wins the game is out of homework duty and this works amazingly. Eventually children are children and can’t lie around for ages, not making a move. After all, they are not really dead. So it’s a good game to train concentration, feeling of belonging to a group and a form of meditation that offers the possibility to think in the middle of a hectic day.

Doing handcrafts, playing learning games and giving classes at the learning center
Doing handcrafts, playing learning games and giving classes at the learning center

Talking about activities, a very popular game that gets everyone to laugh and scream like their life depends on it is “Simon Says”. I usually play it after a test as a kind of reward thing. I play the Simon and give the children instructions, for example: “Simon says touch your head.”, then everyone has to touch their head. Or I say “Simon says turn around.”, then everyone has to turn around. The tricky thing is, that I am doing it really fast and they are not allowed to make the move when I don’t say “Simon says” beforehand. You are for example not allowed to sit down when I say “sit down.”, because the ‘Simon says’ is missing. It always takes them two seconds to realize that they made a mistake and then the volume in the class goes up so high it is incredible, everyone claiming they didn’t make the false move. When everyone who is out sat down on their chairs, the new round starts and grave silence is lying itself on the classroom. It always works and the children absolutely adore it. There are other games that we play frequently. For example flapchart, hangman or 20 questions. In my opinion these games are a way to grow to love a language and become confident with speaking it.

Getting a Haircut
This week was once again a public holiday and I spent it with Sreydieb and Buntha (a friend of Sreydieb). When we were sitting on the floor, eating a fondue, Sreydieb looked thoughtful in the mirror at the wall for some time. Then she decided she wanted a haircut. So Buntha brought a scissor from the kitchen and we cut her hair. Just like that, without any tam tam.
I might have forgotten to talk about my own hair cutting experience at the market. It had cost me 5000 riel and the women was busy for one and a half hours. First she combed my hair (what took her maybe ten minutes, she was very careful with that) and then she cut off five centimeters (what took her a minute). Now the question is what she did in the rest of the time. Well, first she put shampoo on my head. And not just one shampoo, but four different kinds and all that without making my hair wet. There was so much foam on me, I couldn’t see my hair and barely even my face. She did this for about 30 minutes and then she washed the foam out. Only to put conditioner on my head, though. It was a veeeery long process. And then she began to first massage my head and then my shoulders. I felt like being in a first class celebrity beauty salon and not in a tiny little hut without air conditioning at the market.

Selling chickens at the market
Selling chickens at the market

When she was finally done with the program, my hair looked like as if I was a movie star, beautiful, wavy and shiny. I wish I could get the same thing for just one euro in Germany.Afer we finished Sreydiebs haircut, Bunthas neighbor knocked at the door and asked us to sell her chickens at the market, she was busy with some family affair. Great. I always dreamed of selling chicken at a market in Cambodia. The chicken was already cooked by the way. So we walked to the market, the bundle of chicken under our arms and settled down at the market stall. It was of course just a low wooden table where we sat down next to women selling vegetable and spices. When you buy something at the market in Cambodia, you have to be aware of the fact, that the feet of the women are being comfortably stretched out and touching the products that are being sold. I tried to get away from the chicken and was basically sitting on a bunch of morning glory. Next to me was a hammock with a little baby sleeping in it and the mother was giving it little shoves. It felt claustrophobic. Luckily cooked chicken is very popular and after half an hour we got rid of all the poor individuals that were soon to be part of a family lunch. I asked myself if I, as a vegetarian, maybe should have refused to be part of the chicken seller community or made a sign with some animal right protest quote holding it in customers faces. But I am really just trying to integrate myself. Being a market seller, if only for half an hour, might be a very good step in the right direction.

Health and environmental training
Health and environmental training

Health and Environment Training
In the Learning Centers, both Takeo and Angtasom, I began with educating the students about Health and Environment in little workshops. For example by letting them design a picture of their ideal environment with watercolor. There were no factories, no rubbish by the wayside, no advertisement on the paintings. Just nature in its purest form and happy people doing simple work. Then we talked about what we could do to make our planet a better place for humans, but also animals and plants to live on. We collected ideas like using recycled paper for school and a bag made of fabric for going to the market, collecting the rubbish, taking the bicycle and many more things. For the health workshop I brought a paper with a child that had dirty hands, uncombed hair, a running nose and long fingernails. The children should point out what they didn’t like about the picture and then we drew the same child how it should actually look like. Afterwards we discussed why it is important to wash hands, comb the hair etc. It is a beginning to make the children aware of the importance to act in certain ways, that might help them to change their own future and appear as role models for others.

Celebrating Christmas in Cambodia
When Christmas was approaching, I began to decorate the Learning Center a little bit. I made Christmas stars in four different colors with the children and secured them on the ceiling. Then I brought some of the decoration that my grandmothers sent to me and placed it at every place I could hope to not see it being destroyed. The children are all eager to do Christmas stuff. They ask me to teach them songs and show them pictures of snow.

Celebrating christmas at Takeo learning center
Celebrating christmas at Takeo learning center

The main event in December was obviously Christmas. One might think that it’s barely acknowledged in Cambodia, but the exact opposite is the case. Everyone was so excited about it, I received ‘Merry Christmas’ wishes from my students long before the 24th and in front of the ACLEDA bank were a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus. My host mum observed the guy in the costume and asked: ‘’Why are you so far away from your home in the north? You must have flown too close to the sun, you got quite the tan!’’ She made all the bank employees that were standing nearby laugh. Stacy and I decided to get our nails painted in green and red and though it seemed to be a very American thing to do, I was ready to welcome everything relate to Christmas in some way. It seemed very strange, that on the other side of the earth, there were people celebrating a festival that I was always looking forward to and now not feeling like being in the Christmas mood at all. My grandma sent me a calendar that I could open every day and with the time passing, I realized that when the Christmas feeling was not here yet, then I should better grab it by the sleeve and bring it here as fast as possible. We made Christmas stars and a Christmas tree out of paper and I tried to explain the whole idea of Christmas to the children: from the bible story to the fact that the celebration is not so much about opening presents as about opening our hearts. I began to learn some songs with the children and though I would have preferred to sing ‘’Morgen Kinder wirds was geben’’, I settled on ‘’I wish you a merry Christmas’’ and ‘’Jingle Bells’’ for the younger ones and ‘’Santa Claus is Coming to Town’’ and ‘’All I want for Christmas is you.’’ for the older children. This got everyone in the right Christmas mood and soon I heard Christmas songs wherever I went. Especially Jingle Bells, no song is so popular and no song is sung so loud and with such a passion. Standing outside the Learning Center you could think that we are in fact singing some revolutionary song while walking through barricaded streets.

At Christmas itself I organized a celebration with my students. We had started to plan it two weeks in advance and everyone came literally bouncing to school, with a huge grin on their face and an even more enthusiastic ‘Merry Christmas teacher Malin!’ for me. We began with setting up our buffet where we had fruits, cake and some sweets. Then we sang the Christmas songs that I tough them (again) and began to unwrap our presents. We had put them all on beanbags and because we had played ‘Secret Santa’, everyone had to give their present to the person they had picked from the lucky draw. We took pictures every time one was handed over. After that we had planned to watch Frozen, but the internet was just too slow. I thought about an alternative film and settled on The Polar Express, what is in my opinion a timeless classic and a perfect Christmas movie.

On the 25th Stacy came to our house and we made Christmas cookies. Well, we tried to make Christmas cookies. With the lack of ingredients it is quite a hard thing to do. First our dough was too moist and then it suddenly turned into a stone-like texture. As we didn’t want to waste all the dough we just made the first load of cookies anyway and despite the fact that I had the feeling my teeth would fall out, I liked them. This is what happens when there is a lack of cookies in your life. You have no prejudices anymore and eat everything within reach. As Stacy was looking at me confusedly, as I stuffed the cookie in my mouth, I shot a defensive look at her and said: „Don’t judge a cookie by it’s ugly cover.“ Then we started over again.
Something we changed in our recipe made the second load crispy on the outside and fluffily soft on the inside. In other words: just perfect. We made five baking trays and spread cake icing on top. They tasted like heaven. I have to admit that I felt slightly sick after the Christmas dinner. We had a barbecue, sandwiches (with cheese!), soup and apple pie. The thought of leaving any of these delicacies for the dogs, made me eat until I felt like an air balloon that could go to space. Stacy brought her little Christmas tree that she had gotten from Phnom Penh and as her parents had sent her all kinds of Christmas tree decoration the year before, it really looked pretty authentic. All in all it was still a very different, but nice Christmas.

When I came back to Bookbridge the other day, I got the sweetest surprise ever. There were countless students that brought me stuff to eat with a wide grin and the ‚Merry Christmas’ that was finally reasonable. I got vanilla drops, chocolate bars and strawberry chewing gum. It was so nice that the students thought about that, despite the fact that they didn’t celebrate of course, I was grinning the whole day long. And then I skyped with my family for the first time from the Learning Center during working hours and everyone wanted to see them. The highlights were, that my dad was suspected to be my brother and one of the boys I am teaching from three to four was performing a dance in front of the camera.
What I love most about the work in the Learning Center, is the enthusiasm which welcomes me there every time I step in the door and that every single day is different.

Everyone who would like to read more, is welcome to look on Malin’s blog Captivating Cambodia or to write her an e-mail at malinklinski@web.de.

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