Today marks six months since Kids Play launched in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In those six months, I’ve evolved from American Katey into my new and improved Khmer alter ego- Kitty (an endearing feline nickname derived from the classic mispronunciation of ‘ay’). In her purest form, Khmer Kitty isn’t too far off from American Katey. Just a little dirtier. And frequently more confused. Her skin is sweaty, sun-battered and sometimes features questionable rashes and bites. Her wispy hair rarely stays in a ponytail (due to a regrettable $3 haircut at the local market) and is usually filled with a contrast of miscellaneous flowers and dirt alike. Her smile usually suggests ‘I have no idea what is happening’ but I am going to smile anyways. In essence, that is Khmer Kitty- my beloved alter ego in all her glory. I’ve become quite fond of Khmer Kitty and I am in constant awe of the exponential growth she’s experienced in these short six months.
She has endured six months of screaming keelos, bumpy tuk tuk rides, and 100 degree days with 80% humidity. Six months of trying to pronounce a Khmer child’s name with 8 different inflections, yet, still never saying it quite right. Six months of mastering the art of walking through an ocean of motos while pretending to exude the utmost confidence. Six months of being welcomed in as an adopted daughter to her landlord’s family, becoming best friends with her tuk tuk drivers, and being known at the market as the ‘Barang’ (white person) that speaks Khmer with a laughable Cambodian countryside accent.
Six months of getting to know the most beautiful humans in the Kids Play organization on an intimate and professional level. Humans who dedicate their entire heart and soul into bettering the lives of the next generation of youth. Most notably, Khmer Kitty has been blessed enough to walk hand-in-hand with the Kids Play organization while experiencing collective and individual growth in all different capacities: professional, emotional, organizational, cultural, physical, and personal.
And as I sit here and try to wrap my mind around six months of the Let’s Play Fair programming, there is one word that continues to resurface in my head- an adventure. A wild, fulfilling, and endlessly entertaining adventure. An adventure that has been equally rewarding as it has been draining. An adventure with experiences and stories that have inspired me to tears. An adventure with circumstances that cause frustration beyond my realm of comprehension. An adventure with harsh realities that I will never be able to empathize with. An adventure with daily encounters of the simplest of joys and kindest of gestures. An adventure with days that are filled with constant mistranslations and daily hiccups but always best cured with a heartfelt belly laugh. But most of all- this has been an adventure of growth. An uphill season of pruning, learning, and soaking in every dose of knowledge.
On some weeks, Khmer Kitty feels as if she can conquer the world with her exuberant bundle of energy, passion, and adrenaline running wildly through her veins. And then… there are those days- where her voice is obsolete, her skin flushed, and her body lays lifeless in the tuk tuk ride home. Those days where she makes a big mistake, she gets ripped off, or she simply craves a hug from her parents. Those days where a situation occurs that twists her stomach into a million little knots and drains her emotionally. Yet, despite those days of exhaustion, frustration, exasperation and loneliness- substantial progress would not be made without the setbacks and learning curves. And a strong foundation would not be established without those days of navigating through the hurdles.
As my first real job post-graduation, I could not have hand-crafted a better role that is all-encompassing of my passions for sport, children, and gender equity. Throughout this journey, I’ve been so grateful for the generous amount of ownership and leadership I’ve been entrusted with while establishing the culture of Kids Play Cambodia. And of course, the cherry on top- I genuinely have fun at my job every day. I get to laugh and dance. A lot. Below, I’ve written some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the past six months in Siem Reap.
- Always be prepared to be a ‘guest of honor’ and give a speech. Or do karaoke. Always.
- TRY to learn the local language. You’d be surprised at how much can be communicated through broken Khmer, Google translate, a game of Charades, and lots of laughter.
- It’s a marathon not a sprint– no matter how much you hate training for distance. I’ve grown to learn this the hard way. When laying the groundwork for an organization, it is easy to allow your adrenaline and passion to take a hold of you. Yet, if you take on tasks at a 90 mph, you will burn out. Trust me.
- If you gain the trust of the parents, you gain the trust of the whole village. This is when true transformation can happen.
- If prompted to eat bugs, always go for the beatles. The more crunch the better.
- Do not project or force your own ideas of success and happiness onto someone else. I often witness organizations telling Khmer people that their ‘dreams are too small’ or ‘to dream bigger; And while I believe everyone should be able to pursue their dreams, it is not our goal to label what those dreams should be based on our own Western standards. I would rather a player become a happy and content tuk tuk driver that is an amazing father/mother/sister/brother than a successful lawyer that is unfulfilled and lonely.
- When pulled onto the dance floor at a Khmer wedding- just roll your wrists and smile. You can also throw in an occasional tongue roll if you want to be really impressive.
- It is okay to make mistakes as long as you recognize them. You are learning and growing. Mistakes are bound to happen. Give yourself grace.
- Don’t pretend to know all the answers. Odds are- you won’t know a lot. There seems to be a misconception that a ‘Western’ leader has superior knowledge. But the only way your organization will thrive is if you can create a constant system of feedback that welcomes critique, praise, and suggestions.
- You ARE NOT supposed to be a hero, so do not raise yourself to be one. Raise up the mothers, fathers, and teachers to be the heroic leaders of the community. They are the ones whom have been pouring their heart, sweat, and tears into the village long before you arrive. Enhance and empower these local leaders. Shape and mold their players minds to have the utmost respect for their local community members as they do for you.
- Invest in your local staff. Show your belief in them. Seek out opportunities for them.
- HARD conversation is GOOD conversation. If someone reveals something that might be frustrating or difficult to hear, cherish the fact that the person felt comfortable and safe enough to reveal that information.
- You are not an expert in every area so do not pretend to be. If someone comes to you with an issue outside of your realm of expertise, find someone with the qualifications to solve it.
- Quality of relationships always outweighs quantity of relationships.
- Boys and girls have to BOTH be part of the gender equity equation. While males might stereotypically perpetuate major issues with gender equity, they must also be a part of the solution. Do not villainize them- Educate them.
- If you focus simply on the results of surveys and questionnaires, you will simply get a regurgitation of what you want to hear but not see the actual change you want to see.
- Dive head first into the culture: learn all that you can. Ask as many questions as you can.
- Go with the flow. Most times you’ll have no idea what’s going on- but life is a lot easier when you work on your improvisation skills rather than asserting dominance over circumstances out of your control..
- Most preteens are going through their own self discovery of what it means to be ‘cool’- do not be offended if they think you are slightly insane and not funny at all (speaking from personal experience). You’ll break down their walls eventually.
- DO NOT LOSE THE FUN!! Do not get so caught up in the execution that you forget the key component of success- FUN.