This is the first in a three-part series describing Michelle Yeh’s summer trip to Cambodia. Michelle participated in this trip as part of her high school tradition in order to build homes for the local residents. This series details Michelle’s revelations about volunteering and herself from her experiences in Cambodia.
I was once told that the best way to give back to a field of study, love or cause that you are passionate about is to unflinchingly question it in all its dimensions, for that is the only way that it can improve or grow.
I was always a very idealistic individual. I often involved myself with volunteer work and charity work, but never did I imagine that I would one day question the fundamentals of my experiences with philanthropy and volunteering. Many individuals have a certain memory or experience ingrained in their mind that has greatly changed the way he or she approaches and views the world. That experience, for me, was inexplicably crying in a rice field in Cambodia in the summer of 2014.
The Tabitha Foundation Cambodia house-building project was a tradition at my school for the longest time. Every year, the junior class would spend the school year spreading awareness and fundraising for building materials. The year’s work eventually culminated in traveling to Cambodia on a ‘voluntourism’ trip and building many houses, based on how much was raised for underprivileged families. This project was such an entrenched part of my high school experience that I-to a certain extent viewed it, quite foolishly, as just another hoop to jump through before I graduated and went off to college.
Throughout my junior year, I along with a group of five close friends, assumed the role of project leaders and oversaw the project’s progression, making sure that each individual team did their part. On top of that, we did research on Cambodia’s recent dark and largely unspoken history, learning about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s dictatorial and genocidal regime. Despite the preparation and time we spent before the project concluded, nothing could have prepared us for the stark reality of the recent past.
On the first day, we visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where a large portion of the estimated two million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge were buried in mass graves. We walked through the huge tower of human skulls, ran our fingers through the scraps of cloth excavated from the graves, and froze when we saw the Chankiri tree-a tree that soldiers used to bash the heads of the young children of those accused by the government.
On the second day, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned Security Prison 21, one of the many execution and torture centers used by the Khmer Rouge. We stared into the photographed faces of the prisoners, paced through the matchstick box prison cells and read the inscriptions next to the torture devices on display, trying our best to view the devices as just artifacts at a museum. It was very difficult to suppress our imaginations from filling the holes the inscriptions did not offer. We later met some survivors of the prison and listened to their harrowing stories. One can
imagine how overwhelming such an experience was.
The very next day, with the wide-eyed determination of making an impact on this recovering community, we traveled to a village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and began building our twenty-four houses. We as a collective group of individuals consisted of people who’d never actually used a hammer to build anything before, were nothing short of what you would call a ‘hot mess’.
Building the houses was hard-very hard. Blisters and bruises sprung up in large expanses across our smooth palms and fingers, merely minutes after we started hammering the bamboo floorboards. Our thumbs purpled and throbbed with all our misplaced hammer strikes. Our inexperience twisted the nails at odd angles as they entered the floorboards. There were so many times that I wanted to stop building and I almost did. After the first under the burning Cambodian sun, many classmates retreated into the shade and began playing with the young Cambodian kids, leaving only a little half of the remaining class to finish the day’s work.
It was at this point of the building process, with Cambodia’s history in mind, that a subtle sense of confusion and discomfort started growing within me. I was simultaneously empathetic towards my classmates and their raw blisters, yet mildly disappointed by the fact that they stopped building so early on in our two-day building expedition. I suppressed these feelings and forced myself to continue building, albeit exceptionally slowly, until I saw a sight that muted the innocent idealism that I had approaching this project.
Two classmates, who were working on the same floorboards a small distance away, decided to have a competition to see who could hammer the most nails in the shortest amount of time.
They hammered in a row of nails halfway into the floorboard in preparation and at the cue of a third friend, wildly hammered down the row of nails in a frenzy. The nails cut into the floorboards at jutted and twisted angles; the nails protruded out of thin bamboo shoots.
I along with the other project leaders, looked on in shock, as the three boys moved onto another house while the father of the family whose house we were building walked over, pulled out each nail and hammered them back in one at a time. The shame and embarrassment we felt was tangible. We understood that as brief volunteers on a five-day voluntourism trip in a country where we could not verbally communicate with the community, we were more of a representation of volunteerism than individual volunteers. Collectively, we built these houses and collectively were accountable for each other’s actions.
This is the end of part 1 of House Building in Cambodia by Michelle Yeh. In part 2, Michelle continues to question the significance of these experiences and gains important insight.