About six years ago a few determined Peace Corps Volunteers started the Create Cambodia Festival. Their good idea was to bring provincial students together for a celebration of traditional and contemporary Khmer arts. When I first heard about this group during our Pre-Service Training, I knew immediately they were my tribe. I wanted to be part of this. But, unlike other festivals, this wheel gets reinvented every year by each new group of incoming Peace Corps Volunteers. Scheduling a festival is like herding cats. Try doing that in Khmer while negotiating through cultural differences and our mutually distinct concepts of time. This year we held the festival at a new venue, which added another series of challenges around food, lodging, and transportation. My committee mates deserve all the credit for diplomacy and grace (and a lot of patience) while the itinerary morphed like a flip-book into a new animal every week.
In fact, our Create Cambodia Committee reminded me of a play by Michael Biglow Dixon titled The League of Semi-Superheroes. The characters in this play actually have ordinary skills, but super optimism. Optimism certainly was our superpower. We believed it would all come together—and it did, despite last minute cancellations from key partners. We persisted. We adapted. We improvised. Our students were delightfully focused and engaged in workshops led by Cambodian Living Arts in music and dance. They got tips from a photographer on “the rule of thirds” and went on a short photo safari to capture a Perfect Picture on their phones. Another artist provided clay and the kids got into it up to their elbows building tiny elephants, apsaras, and bowls. At the end of the day we were all tired, but happy.
After a family-style dinner at the hotel they were ready to dance to Khmer Pop, till the DJ shut it down at 9:30 p.m. The next morning was a holiday—the King’s Birthday, so we got in line with the rest of the holiday traffic and rolled out of town. We stopped to look at the “waterfall” at a small dam and to buy lotus flower seed pods to snack on. The kids sang the rest of the way home.
For many of our students, particularly in the far northern provinces, the Create Cambodia Festival was a long ways from familiar. But the distance was not just measured in kilometers. We ask our Art Club and English Club students to do something that isn’t part of everyday conversation in this country. We ask them to express themselves. In a culture that is more comfortable with community consensus, self-expression is not often an option. Our student artists showed remarkable poise. They got to meet new friends and learn new skills. Most importantly they were given a respectful place to show their artwork and their performance abilities. Now it’s their turn to Play It Forward as they bring back to their schools a workshop on what they learned—because They are the world, they are the children.