January 2012

In our very first round of training with the RHAC leadership team in October of 2010 we had the privilege of getting to know two young men who have left a real mark on our lives.


Real Theng was a big, funny and enthusiastic young man who thoroughly embraced each lesson and had many probing questions about the concepts of the moral values lessons. He was so taken with the Joseph story that Bill ended up adjusting two later lessons to complete the story. With a genuine desire to learn more, he requested a copy of the source of these lessons to read on his own. He very rapidly began integrating these lessons and teaching style in to his work with youth in the schools.

Chan Theng had joined the organization later then Real Theng, and quickly got the nickname “Fake” Theng. He was very gentle, quiet and thoughtful, taking each discussion in and seriously looking at how these truths impacted his own life. He too, immediately began taking the lessons to the youth and within several weeks was teaching them at a camp with over 500 youth in attendance. Just a few weeks ago, ChanTheng made a decision that he needed to enter into a relationship with the author of these wonderful truths. He is now the key leader in our project and is thoroughly convinced that this is the only way to fully impact the lives of Cambodians.

Yesterday we heard the very sad news that Real Theng had lost his life in a drowning accident in the Mekong River. For our praying friends, we would ask for prayers for strength for this very close knit  leadership team as they come to grips with the loss of a promising young co-worker and friend. I know that many of these sweet people are honestly seeking to find the source of the dignity, compassion, peace and hope that we have been talking about and that is our prayer for them.

Unlike my husband, who does this for a living, I have never claimed to be a teacher. Perhaps this is the chief reason that I love the CHE (Community Health Education) lessons. Each lesson plan has been designed to meet the needs of oral learners and to present truths using a high degree of learner participation. Each lesson begins with a problem using a simple role play or diagram, which helps the learner to understand the problem and its importance to their situation. The participants are involved in discovering the causes and solutions to the identified problem and are then encouraged to share these with their neighbours.

In the lesson on the use of alcohol, ten seeds are used to take the participants through a voting process to determine the extent of usage amongst men, women and youth.  It is fascinating to watch movement of the seeds from “bottle” to “no bottle” and  the animated discussions until they finally agree on a percentage of households that use alcohol and then the percentage of the average household income is spent.  In our target area the youth insist that 80% of their income is used for alcohol, the women felt 70% and the men 30%, so we settled on 50% for the purpose of the exercise. We then have them agree on an average household income and use this to calculate the amount of money spent annually on booze.  In our target community of 12 communes each with about 210 families, they were totally shocked to discover that more than $1.5 million dollars leaves their very poor community each year.  With eight members of the Commune Council and Women’s Committee participating in the training some good discussions ensued.

In the afternoon one of the CC leaders in the training took us to his small village where he rang the gong until a crowded gathered in the village pagoda, then he and several others practiced the lesson.  The crowd was largely women and it is the men and youth who are the heavy drinkers.  It was just awesome to see these women, for the first time with a powerful tool to prove their case and a Chief who taught it to them.  We left him there making promises that the CC would address this issue in the near future. One CC Chief had in fact been through this lesson about six months ago and he was only too delighted to share his story with everyone.  I will share that in my next post.

Last Sunday we made the seven hour trip north to Siem Reap, thankful for a very comfortable vehicle, fabulous driver and great company. The evening was spent settling into our hotel and making the final preparations for our first joint TOT with RHAC and TWR staff. This is a pilot project in an area just north of Siem Reap which is made up of twelve communes with about 210 families per commune. TWR staff, Kimsong, Marianne and Sangva are not only essential for translation purposes but are very effective facilitators and, of course, can do it in language of the participants.

The purpose of this training was not only to train local trainers but also to enable us to better understand the curriculum that is being taught throughout Cambodia and to demonstrate the importance of integrating solid moral values into the information they are providing. Our class consisted of ten local RHAC staff, ten Youth Peer Educators and ten members of the Pouk Commune Council and Women’s Council. The CHE lessons are designed to draw out information through role plays, demonstrations and discussions rather than simply giving out information and the participants excitedly took part in each activity.

It is most unusual, especially for the TWR guys to be part of “Comprehensive Sexuality Education Concepts” training but a joy to be allowed to teach “Self Esteem: I am Unique”, “Self Control” ,“Critical Thinking/Decision Making” and “Beliefs Have Consequences” and to reinforce such concepts as the duty and responsibility that comes along with sexual rights and the short and long term impact of decisions made related to sexuality and health.

On the fourth day we went out into one of the villages and the students facilitated three of the lessons in a pagoda with about thirty villagers, mostly women, using some of the role plays and methods they had learned. It was a real joy to see how the people so quickly grasped the concepts and the debate that followed. As the leader of the village was a student and lead some of the discussion, it was pretty cool to see the women now with some cold, hard facts demanding that the head man now teach these same lessons to the men and make the needed changes.

The almost two years of background networking and training really only begins to make sense as we see this information taught by Cambodians to local villagers in their own heart language. The lessons are incredibly powerful and in most cases this is the first time that people have the language and tools to understand, teach and discuss the day to day problems that overwhelm them.
We left very excited and tired; Bill with pneumonia, and a real sense that this project has the potential to change lives and communities. The radio broadcasts that TWR provides will continue to  reinforce these very Biblical concepts and provide contact information for individual follow-up.

I have been working in Cambodia for well over four years now, seeking to bring together an effective partnership among committed groups and individuals that help to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people. There is no doubt that it is a wonderful thing to find a strategy that effectively addresses the needs of those whose lives you wish to impact and then to have others realize that the value of this approach and seek to join us. However, this week we are seeing firsthand the enormous challenges this creates.

It is notoriously difficult to set up appointments in advance in Cambodia. This was until just recently an overwhelmingly oral society anD emails and even text messages from foreign countries are often overlooked. So as usual I arrived on Sunday  for a two week stay, with a huge list of people we need to or want to connect with during this time and only one solid appointment.  Fortunately, $3.00 at the airport gets you a local phone card and with the use of Facebook and emails, tuk-tuks and lots of help from gracious Cambodians who will drop whatever they are doing the moment you show up at their office, it all begins to fall into place.

My co-workers Bill and Sharon are here with me and we enjoyed some time on Sunday getting caught up, debriefing on their recent trip to India and planning for the training scheduled for next week.  By Monday morning plans began to fall in to place to meet with the three key partners in the Health Project.  From there we managed to meet with three other agencies that we know are currently using the CHE strategy with a goal to reactivate a regular CHE Working Group for Cambodia. Next it will be two other organizations that we believe could be very strategic partners.

Then there are the incidental meetings or divine appointments that just happen along the way. Socheata, the wife of one of the staff from RHAC is a lecturer at a private university who saw our moral value lessons and thought that her students would benefit from them.  She has been wondering about integrating the material into her course work so invited us to come and take over her evening class. Sharon and Bill did a great job with a lesson on character development and honesty with very enthusiastic participation by the students and I am sure these young people will always remember the “big Canadian” who demonstrated servant leadership.

Sharon continues to finalize the schedule and manual for next week’s training in Siem Reap and I am frantically working on a final report that is due for funders of the initial phase of the health project. Early Sunday morning we will join up with three TWR staff for the five hour drive up to Siem Reap in the air conditioned comfort of a very fine RHAC vehicle. We will miss Su Min’s serenade with his ukelele, but he will meet us there. Steve also has just started his tenth term in Kuala Lumpur teaching ENG4U so is unable to assist this time around.

As the project continues to grow in participants and impact, it has become increasingly apparent that we need a full-time Cambodian coordinator, fluent in English and Khmer, to head up this project on a continuing basis. There are funds for such a person for at least a year, but finding someone who has all of the necessary credentials and capabilities is going to be an act of God’s grace, and nothing else. Please pray with us for this outcome. We have a made a wonderful start in our outreach to the hurting people of this country, and we very much want to see it taken to the next level.

Teaching requires a fine balance between emotionality and practicality. Teachers that are too emotional don’t last long. They take personal offense at all the jibes and insults; those “slings and arrows” that get hurled our way from disgruntled students. It undermines and undoes them; they end up discouraged, disillusioned and ultimately defeated. Teachers that are too practical die a different death. They become cold automatons, selfish and self-centered, serving no one joyously, and few effectively. In my time I have seen both come and go, and neither are a pretty sight.

For those of us that remain on that middle path – seeking to meet the practical requirements of the curriculum and staying sensitive to student needs – the road is long and filled with both burden and heartache. But the rewards, when they come, can be awfully sweet. At the end of a tough day at work, I received the following letter from a former student:

Dear Mr.Wise,

You haven’t heard from me in a few years, and I am not even sure if you remember me, with the amount of students you teach each year, but I was in your English4U class in 2008 with Ozzy, not sure if you remember him as well.

Anyway, moving along, maybe it is because of graduation goggles (from: How I Met Your Mother), that has left me pondering more so about the future and reflecting on the past, which has lead me to this, writing you an email to once again let you know what a pleasure and an honour it was to have you as a teacher.  

Though I am certain many of the older adults will not consider 3 years a very long time, the past 3 years has taught me plenty. Considering you are still a teacher, with grades and all, I am happy to report I graduated recently on schedule with a GPA of 3.0 and offers of masters and honours. I do feel that that is an accomplishment to be proud of because from being slightly cocky into thinking I can pass everything, to failing and working my ass off after, I am still learning. (My strengths, my capabilities, and my weaknesses included).

In the past 3 years of studies, I have come into contact with many lecturers. Some, as dedicated to teaching as any teacher could be, some indifferent, and some even cruel enough to tell me that I will fail (not to worry, I proved her wrong with my 5 Distinctions), but never one as kind and as caring you are to your students, and so willing to share your culture and life back from your home in Canada, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I still catch up with you and your wife through your blog occasionally, please send her my best and if you would please, that I think the work she does is very admirable. I suppose after all the rambling, I should get to the point and say that, ICPU was a great experience for me, I worked hard, played hard, so hard I did not even realize I was a merit scholar until graduation day, that was a nice surprise. Never having really excelled in high school, it thought me that I am capable as long as I am willing.

After studying Public Relations for 3 years, life again has taken a funny turn that I myself did not expect. I have turned down the offers to pursue masters and honours, to my father’s dismay, to pursue early childhood teaching. My only hope is that I can one day be an educator as caring and as kind as you once were to me.


Pui May

For this I labour; not for financial gain or recognition, but only that I might have the privilege of inspiring some young person to be the man or woman that a loving God intended them to be. If I was that to you, then I have been well repaid. If I was not, please forgive my failings. I promise you that I will not quit striving to be all that God intends me to be as well.

New Year’s resolutions are the province of the young. By my age we have leaned – often to our chagrin – that resolutions are much easier to make than keep. Basically you are not going to do what you are not inclined to do no matter how often you tell yourself to do it. Behaviour has to become habitual before change becomes permanent. We would save ourselves a lot of grief if we took a look at where we want the long term direction of our lives to go, rather than looking for quick fixes to sometimes intractable problems. In practical terms this means simply we need to reinforce our strengths and moderate our weaknesses.

My strength has always been my love of learning. God has made a marvellously complex and beautiful world. Mankind will never come to the end of discovering about it if we last a million years. I love discovering that world, either through literature, art, science, music, travel, or social interaction. An easy and productive resolution for me is to continue to learn throughout the coming year. I don’t need to worry about the specifics of that learning, since often that growth is organic rather than pre-planned. I might set out to learn Mandarin and find myself reading French instead. I might plan on developing music and find it is computer functions I spend most of my time with. I can’t really control all the specifics, since I have no idea what this year will bring. But I do intend to continue to learn at every available opportunity, and to continue to give deference to the One who enables that understanding. My resolution then is to spend less time in the coming year consuming, and more time creating, for that is the essence of learning.

My second resolution has to do with my weakness. I have a tendency to laziness. Nobody looking at me from the outside would suspect this, as I keep it well under control; but I assure you it is there. In order to moderate this weakness I need to more consistent in self-discipline. Again it really doesn’t matter how I discipline myself, only that I do so. I could say that I will get up at such a time and do this number of sit-ups to trim my flabby gut and strengthen my wimpy back, but that isn’t the measure of self-discipline. The measure is that I discipline myself in every aspect of my life from watching television to pausing for ten minutes every hour to stretch and unwind; to reading literature instead of pulp fiction; to leaving my room tidy instead of a disorganized mess. All of these things rebuke my sloth and train me to give a more careful account of my time to my Maker.

Now for the final resolution. As a Christian I understand that mankind in made in the image of God; that is to say he/she has mind, flesh and spirit. My first two resolutions speak to the mind and the flesh; the third must address the spiritual side of my nature. Again it is useful to look at the long term direction of your life; where you want to be at the end of it. Clearly, for a Christian, that goal is to be more like Christ. For me that means I need to be kinder and gentler; not just on others, but on myself as well. For this I need to call upon the Holy Spirit, for this is a deep work of the soul and will not be accomplished through human effort alone. Only God the Spirit can bring about spiritual change. For this I need to spend more time meditating on His word and praying in the spirit, which is what I plan to do in the coming year. And that is by far the most important resolution of all.

I have had a lot of comments on my Hanoi post of a few days ago; some disagreeing strongly with my analysis, some more understanding of our perspective. One of those comments recently submitted deserves highlighting as a post of its own. So with many thanks for his courtesy and insight, here is the unedited comment:

Dear Steve, dear Pam,

Your opinion of Vietnam is shared by many, including Asians who move to Vietnam for some time. The usual comment is “Vietnamese people are so uneducated”. I think it’s true. Vietnamese education is based on being obedient and following the rules, rather than being creative and thinking by themselves; hence some aggressive behaviour, heavy use of lies and some tendency to swindle everyone -and not only foreigners. It often creates a love/hate relationship between expats and Vietnam, since they meet every day an equal amount of nice educated people and lousy bastards.

I think that foreigners who visit Vietnam are eager to spend money, eager to help the locals. Some (like me) don’t even mind the double pricing. After all, I don’t mind paying my meal 50.000 VND instead of 30.000: it’s still 5 times cheaper than in Europe, 10 times tastier and then I help someone earning a bit more than they’re allowed to. But their annoying lies and pushy attitude make many foreigners keeping their money in their pocket, tired of being taken for fools. Why sellers still don’t understand that being pushy make customers run away, it’s a mystery. Or just the consequence of the bad education system? Have you been to a shop where there’s a queue? No one respects it, they cut the line as if there would be a nuclear war the day after.

I remember a foreigner who arrived in HN and finally reached the bus stop near the airport (quite far away and hard to find). He climbs in the bus and the driver grumpily asks him to step out because he has a big luggage. The bus was not crowded; the driver could have asked to pay an extra fee for the luggage. But no, he just chased the poor guy without any explanation.

Hanoi is also the place where customers have the greatest trouble with hotels. Some staff are extremely rude and stupid. On the other hand, I happened to stay in a nice cheap hotel where the staff was nice and helpful. And I’ve met horribly grumpy restaurant owners there. On the other hand, Hanoi is the only place in Vietnam where a staff girl kindly refused my tip. And her restaurant was small and poor. So you see, love/hate is what I felt there.

I agree with your strong disappointment. I’ve also been to some parts of Asia and never ever felt such an annoying attitude. And to end my loooong comment, there’s a place in Vietnam where people are really nice, smiling and eager to talk with foreigners without trying to sell anything, although they live more poorly than in Hanoi: Buon Ma Thuot, in the Highlands. There’s a Coffee Fair in March and it’s really worth visiting.

Glad to know of your blog.




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