It is often said that young people have it easy, that they have everything served on a silver platter and that they do not know what it means to live in hardship. But for a group of 34 students at Taipei American School (TAS), a recent trip to Cambodia not only taught them a lesson in hardship — it also changed how they look at Taiwan.
For eight years TAS, in cooperation with the Tabitha Foundation, has dispatched teams of students to rural Cambodia to build houses for families in need. While the foundation provides the building materials, the families of the students pay for the plane tickets and the students give their time.
Armed with little more than nails and hammers and a desire to do some good, what awaits the students is much more than blisters, hammered fingers and crushing heat.
“Hard to forget,” 17-year-old Stephanie Hsu said after returning from her second trip to Cambodia in as many years.
“We don’t really get lots of chances to go to exotic places,” said 16-year-old Catherine Tung, adding that the Cambodia trip was “a great opportunity to help out” as well as a way to make new friends.
In less than two days, the army of 34 dedicated students — the school’s biggest showing so far — built 10 houses in a marathon they said often turned into a deafening cacophony of hammering.
Asked what aspect of homebuilding was the most difficult, all agreed that getting the nails straight was the greatest challenge.
“As we pretty much hit the ground running, the first house was the most difficult,” 17-year-old Christine Aurlund said, adding that locals looked on and laughed as they riddled it with crooked nails.
But they learned their lessons.
“You really want the second house to look good,” she said.
For Andrew Crawford, a teacher in the English department at TAS who took charge of the initiative this year, the greatest reward was seeing the immediate results of their hard work.
“These people have nothing,” he said.
So the moment a house is completed, the entire family moves in. The green-paneled houses are elevated on long wooden legs to deal with flooding, with animals — goats, cows — often living underneath the structure.
“They get to go home,” Catherine said, her eyes aglimmer.
But the eye-opening did not end there. In fact, for all the muscle-numbing hard work, building the houses may have been the easy part. Cambodia had other things in store for them. First, it was the poverty, which could shock anyone who had never seen it before, especially young TAS students, who have lived in Taiwan, the US, Canada and other more developed countries where poverty is of a different gradient.
“It’s sad to see how little they have,” Christine said. “And yet, they never complain.”
“It made me realize how truly lucky, how well provided for we are in Taiwan,” said Stephanie Lin, another chaperon.
Children run around naked and nothing is wasted, something else youngsters from an affluent society were not used to. In fact, so destitute were the people there that it sometimes complicated exchanges with them. Among other things, it meant not holding young children — especially the good-looking ones — as parents might feel pressured to repay you with them.
Janne Ritskes, the Tabitha Foundation representative in the country, drilled the rules into the young minds from day one. It also meant not giving out any presents, Andrew said, recounting how the simple gift of a soccer ball the previous year had created a commotion in the village.
“It’s hard,” Stephanie Lin said, “but you have to tell them that their kids are ugly” so that they won’t give them to you. “But they’re all so beautiful.”
Still, the students were able to organize simple games with the local children and partake in the simple joys of a different life.
The second unexpected thing for many students was Cambodia’s history, which is still very visible today. The scars of war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot have not been hidden or forgotten. In fact, the infamous “killing fields” are still dappled with human remains, the odd bone, a piece of clothing at the bottom of a tree once used to hang people, an open-air museum of atrocity.
For the students, all of this was transformative and, beyond serving as a contrast to their couched lives in Taiwan, where the ghosts of its own troubled history are often hidden, it gave them a new perspective on education.
“In school, there is so much focus on academics,” Stephanie Hsu said, that we tend to lose sight of everything else that’s out there.
Trips like this one “teach you to learn about something else. Not everything is in books,” she said.
The foundation, founded and organized by Ritskes in 1994 and whose patron is Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean, continues with its efforts, of which the annual TAS trip is but one part.
Among other things, its integrated development initiatives provide help safely delivering newborns and building wells, adequate sewage and roads. It also provides assistance for small businesses and sells various hand-made items to help local women. According to its Web site, as of this month, 63,280 families, representing 506,240 Cambodians, had graduated from poverty through the Tabitha Savings Program.
More information about the foundation is available at www.tabitha.ca.
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