September 2010

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disease that arises from a severe reaction to unprocessed trauma. Among Cambodian immigrants living in the United States, where such statistics are available, it is estimated 62% of Cambodians suffer from PTSD and 51% suffer from depression. It can be assumed that the rates for Cambodia, where such statistics are not available, are equally high, if not higher. After all, in Cambodia there is the daily reminder of their trauma in shattered buildings and lives all around them.

Time alone does not heal all grief and pain. Trauma can be re-experienced many times throughout one’s life. The brain has many ways to protect us from immediate psychological and physical damage such as dissociation, avoidance and numbing, which can help us to cope with an unbearable moment of grief and pain in the short term. But if we do not deal with that damage it can lead to unhealthy long-term effects.

Many Cambodians who lived through the Pol Pot years did not have the chance to deal with their trauma. They repeatedly had to face life shattering events, and even today many continue to face new and equally damaging experiences. Without a safe place to integrate their feelings of fear and pain and without support from people who were not traumatized, these Cambodians do not have an opportunity to heal.

In Cambodian society, daily life remains full of triggers. Every frightening personal or social situation may wake the “sleeping dogs” of trauma. This could be the unstable political situation, the insensitive statements of Cambodian leaders, or personal experiences related to corruption, land grabbing, landmines, rape, domestic violence, unprofessional and unjust courts and many more societal problems. As long as life in Cambodia continues to lack real security and reliability, every single moment can trigger memories of old traumatic experiences and feelings.

At times a trigger such as an event or person or sensation reminds a person of some aspect of their trauma and suppressed and unhealed emotions can erupt in very problematic ways. The evidence of this is felt in anger, domestic violence, child rape and criminal activities. Many who suffer from anxiety, detachment, nightmares, addictions and even severe mental health issues like PTSD are living in a culture of silence in which there is little inner peace in the hearts of individuals, and little communication between people. This leads to strained relationships between couples and families, as well as among people in villages, and towns.

During my visits to Cambodia and in my reading and conversations, fear – usually due to a lack of information, knowledge and understanding – is one of the most evident symptoms I see as the result of a generation of war.

The Cambodian people are desperately struggling to get back ownership and control of their lives in the midst of the poverty and destruction created by years of foreign and civil wars, find new skills to cope with the trauma, and reorganize their lives in a healthier ways. The sheer magnitude of the task of physical survival has prevented the development of the skills needed to deal with damaged self esteem, destructive behaviour, hopelessness and a lack of trust.

Individuals and families often do not understand that trauma can lead to outbursts of anger, depression, and panic or sudden grief, or that traumatized people may be more suspicious and afraid and have a tendency to withdraw from society. Often those who suffer from these symptoms are viewed as abnormal or even mentally ill and there is little sympathy or compassion for their plight.

Without counsel or insight into their grief, anger and depression, and with nowhere to turn for help, many seek relief in the abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex and violence. Many young Cambodian women were raised in child labour or refugee camps with little healthy parental influence and are ill-prepared to face the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.

What is needed is some basic knowledge about these pressing issues. If help were available, many Cambodians would seek the help they desperately need. Armed with support and insight into the trauma they have been through, they will come to realize that their feelings are normal and justified and begin the road to recovery for themselves and their family.

Sitting in Sihanoukville it is easy to imagine this place crowded with tourists. It is a beautiful beach; three beautiful beaches in fact, the nicest easily being Sokha Beach. Riding the bus back to Phnom Penh it is easy to see why the place is almost completely deserted, except for the hardy and the foolhardy (not quite sure which of those two categories we fall into).

The bus ride is brutal: five hours made worse by interminable traffic down sometimes impassable stretches of road. You have to earn a nice vacation in this part of the world. The places that are easy to get to are overrun by the truly obnoxious. On the long ride back we amused ourselves by thinking about the worse vacations we have had here. They are few and far between. Even Phuket, whose Patong Beach has to be one of the most vile spots in Asia, was made bearable by awesome Thai food and a fun dance spot. We even got to visit with our Bangladeshi mission buddies on that trip, so that can’t be all bad.

The Sunset Terrace restaurant at Sihanoukville is going down in the memory banks as one of the nicest, though. Great food (very inexpensively priced) fabulous service (Did you twitch, dear? The waiter wants to know if you need something), and a balcony seat to the gentle lapping of the South China Sea at our feet while the little fishing boats made their way back to port through the sunset.

We did our duty back in Phnom Penh, though, hiking out to Central Market to pick a sample of “favours” for the guests at our daughter’s wedding. I will reveal no secrets except to say that we have some nice choices for her to choose from. Then it was back to a newly renovated and very clean looking Sisowath Quay and the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for a light bite to eat before heading back to the Billabong for the night. I was up at 5.30 to catch the morning flight to KL. Pam will remain in PP for another couple of days to do ministry business.

We had breakfast in the dining room this morning. There was the endless buffet, there was the staff (of 17!) waiting for our every whim to be expressed, and there we were, entirely on our own. There was no way we could eat all of that food by ourselves! We felt so bad!

After breakfast we went for a walk. It was about an hour down Independence Beach. We weren’t in a hurry and it was hot. At the end of the beach there was a trail leading across the peninsula. We forged ahead with some trepidation and found ourselves in a fishing village clinging to the side of the sea. We were hot and tired and stopped to have a coke. There, in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny Cambodian fishing village we chatted to the owner in English about the weather, and the daily catch. Ours is a powerful language.

The strip ahead was Sokha Beach, like Independence Beach, totally deserted and absolutely gorgeous. We hiked the mile or so to the Sokha Beach Resort, a multi-million dollar affair in the process of building a huge addition to their already extensive property. It looks like the new building will be a casino; further evidence that with the completion of the airport, this place is expecting a boom. We stopped for some ice tea at the bar by the pool. Like our hotel, the staff at Sokha were delighted to see us, and sad to see us go. We had to promise to come back.

We hiked down the rest of the beach and over the top of the next peninsular. The path looked like it came to a dead end, but we found a path down through the Cloud Nine Resort to the beach at Ocheateal. Now this was different! Ocheateal Beach was crowded with little bars, restaurants and hiker hostels. This was clearly where all the people come in Sihanoukville. We strolled along the crowded beach, then grabbed a tuk to the centre of town to buy a few groceries.

On the way into town Pam spotted the local office of RHAC, one of the NGOs she is working with, and part of the reason why we are in this remote corner of the country. While I chilled at a local spot called the Holy Cow, Pam met with Dr. Rath and introduced herself and the work she was doing with RHAC in Phnom Penh. It was a productive meeting and the kind of connection that the Lord seems to have provided for her at every stage of this strange adventure we are on.

We bought our return bus ticket to Phnom Penh, grabbed some snacks at the Orange Grocery, and caught a tuk back to our hotel. The water had been calling to us all day, so we finally headed down to our own little beach to cool off and catch a few rays at the end of the day. It was a long day and we were grateful to head back to our little room early.

It is five hours from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It needn’t be, but the bus has to make a dozen stops in order to maximize its load, and not all of them are on the main road. But the bus was air conditioned and we had the front seat on the second deck with a clear view of the road ahead, so the time was spent taking in the pleasant countryside and chatting about the resort ahead of us. There is only one other staff member at Taylor’s College where I work who has ever been here, and he wouldn’t go anywhere else. Every vacation time he would head back to Sihanoukville. He described the place as paradise on earth. It makes you curious when you hear comments like that.

We have been talking about going to Sihanoukville ourseleves for some time, hoping to wait long enough for them to finish building the airport there. But we can’t wait forever, and the airport is taking its own sweet time, so we decided to come by bus. We weren’t sure what to expect. We had been to Kep, further along the coast, some time ago, and found it to be largely deserted and somewhat sad; another victim of fifty years of war this country has had to endure at the hands of others.

There is a town here, unlike Kep which is just an abandoned shell, but there is not much going on. This hotel, the Independence, built in 1963 and recently refurbished, is almost entirely empty. This is a four star hotel – the kind of place we can never afford, built on an absolutely gorgeous stretch of beach, charging us 50 dollars American, including an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast/brunch that goes on forever – and the place is deserted. There are six guests in this 150 room hotel. The other four don’t speak English.

The effect is surreal. We walk down to the pristine beach, dotted with thatched cabanas, and we are alone. We sit beside the Olympic-sized pool, surrounded by the pool bar and the massage huts, and we are alone. We sip tea on the balcony in the Sunset Restaurant listening to the waves break gently on the shore and we are alone. Except for the staff, of course, they are everywhere. They hold the doors for us whenever we approach. They stand ever ready as we sit beside the pool, in case we want something. They greet us in the hallways, as if their very survival depended upon our existence, which I suppose in some kind of way, it does.

All the attention makes us a little nervous. We are both used to being ignored, and actually prefer it that way. We are hoping that the airport is finished soon, so that all this investment is rewarded by clientele. Obviously a five hour bus ride from Phnom Penh is not going to bring the Europeans and Americans flocking here in droves. An airport will be good for the local economy and good for Cambodia in general. But I have to admit that having such a gorgeous place all to ourselves has been a quirky little treat.

We are in Cambodia on a working holiday this week. Pam’s working and I’m on holiday. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was in Phnom Penh, but it was over a year ago, and there have been some changes. For starters the place is a lot cleaner. There is a lot of new building, and the reconstruction of the riverfront is now complete, and it looks very nice. We had a nice lunch at the FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) down by the water and took a stroll in the late afternoon just to enjoy the view.

But they still have tuk-tuks, and it still costs no more than two American dollars to go anywhere in town. We love tuks, and not just because they are cheap. We love them because they are open all around and they don’t go too fast so you can take in what is going on around you. And you can’t take ten steps in this city without being asked if you want a tuk. Okay, that can get annoying, that is true. But we walk miles in KL looking for cabs, so the convenience is pretty nice.

Pam booked us a room at the Billabong, a nice little hotel in the heart of the city with a pool and a tiny clean room for 35 dollars. It was here that we met Lewis and Kristen Burke, a nice missionary couple from Tennesee who have been running an orphanage in Kampot in the south of Cambodia for nine years. We had a good talk about the perils of importing Western missionary ideology into the midst of Asian poverty. They have had their share of Asian families trying to sell their children to the orphanage or denying parentage – basically orphaning their own child – to get them into American hands.

It is not the worse thing that happens to children in this country, but it is part of the problem. Pam will be meeting with part of the team she is working with while we are here. But for the next couple of days we are going to get some rest and relaxation in Sihanoukville, on the coast.

The Canadian Pre-University program is an excellent one: student-focused, skills-driven, staffed by some of the most educated Western university trained professionals working in Asia. Unfortunately it is virtually unknown, not only by Asians, but by Canadians as well who treat their own vastly superior educational product with a great yawn of indifference.

That’s our loss as Canadians, and mine too, as I would love to work in the next CPU program in Cambodia, for example. Except there isn’t one. In fact outside of this program I would be hard pressed to find something like it. Most of the other programs in Asia are very much content-driven, with all the deadening, dreary accumulation of facts ingested merely to be regurgitated at exam time that such a curriculum implies.

The closest thing to what we do in Canada is the IB program. It has a similar focus on skills and is similarly student-focused. If I ever do move on from CPU it would likely be to an IB school. Not that I want to move. But in teaching, as in most careers, it doesn’t pay to put all your eggs in one basket. So this weekend I took some training in the IB program, so if we reach the place where we have to move on, I will now have the qualifications to do so.

I must say I found the courses of study initially off-putting. The restrictions of what books and authors you are allowed to pursue struck me as constrained. But as I made my way through the workshop, I found myself coming to understand the program in a more sympathetic light, and by the conclusion of the workshop had begun to see its rationale more clearly and more enthusiastically. The opportunity to establish a network of teachers throughout the region with similar educational programs and objectives is an encouraging one.

The icing on the cake for the weekend was the opportunity to meet with a former student and his new girlfriend who are now working as educational consultants to students from the Middle East seeking to get further education in Malaysia. As I have mentioned before, this country is an educational hub in South-East Asia, and Anoosh and Ari are seeking to tap into that market and provide a much needed liason service to negotiate visas, scholarships and admissions for prospective students. It was great to see admitedly one of my favourite students again, and to share an outstanding meal and get caught up on each other’s news. A wonderfully fulfilling weekend, that has left me totally exhausted. Fortunately there are only three days this week before the mid-semester break which we plan to spend in Cambodia on a working holiday.