Saturday, July 30, 2011

Interviews with American Exchange Students

By Chhan Samnang, Eng Sokhunthea, Heng Promsovannpor, Heng Sreymom, Huot Lyheng, Ing Veasna, Leam Sunleang, Lour Sokna, Morn Doungmonyrath, Ngov Houtchhay, and Samnang Vitheavy

As University of Cambodia (UC) students, we recently had the opportunity to design activities and conduct interviews with visiting American exchange students. Skylar van Steemburg, Anna Limbrick and Timmothy Crandall stayed in Cambodia for approximately two months. They took intensive Cambodian history, culture and language courses at UC. This is a part of a student exchange arrangement between UC and Payap University in Thailand (SEACS: the Southeast Asia Comparative Exchange Program), and a result of the partnership between the two universities since they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in November 2009. The American students previously spent two months studying at Payap in Chiang Mai.

The purpose of the exchange program for the American students was to expand their knowledge about the region, gain insights from experience and interaction, actively compare the neighboring countries and cultures, and share personal experiences and insights with Southeast Asian students.

In the following article, we discuss why we believe exchange programs are valuable. The article also summarizes the activities we organized for the exchange students’ visit and our interviews with Timmy Crandall, who is an International Business student from Marietta College, Pennsylvania, and Skylar van Steemburg, who is a student from St. Lawrence University, New York, majoring in Performance and Communication Arts.

Exchange Programs Are Valuable

First-hand experience through travel and cultural interaction is one of the best methods of learning. It provides more than what can be learned by only reading books in a library. It adds a live dimension that cannot be taught by instructors in a confined classroom. This does not mean that instructors and books are not valuable, but the information gained from experience adds a considerable depth and variety that is often difficult to communicate in a lecture or read about in print.

UC student presentations for the exchange students
You can read a thousand articles about prahoc, but you never really know what it is like until you see it, smell it, touch it, and taste it at a Cambodian hang bai or household dinner table. Even then, you should sample several recipes to get a better understanding of it.

Exchange learning allows the foreign students a chance to talk about their own cultures, experiences, ideas, opinions, and life. When they share this directly with us, local Cambodian students who often do not have the opportunity to visit other countries, it makes it more real and alive than what can be gained from any other media.

In addition, an outside perspective from visitors teaches us much about how our own culture is viewed and the unique aspects of it. We can learn about each other. It was useful for us to see how young American university students first experience Cambodia and what they think about Cambodia and Cambodian university students. It teaches us how they see and experience us. We learn about ourselves.

Activities and Interviews

As hosts, we were very pleased and honored to give the exchange students a warm and friendly Cambodian welcome and share experiences with them while they stayed in our country. We put together a three-hour series of presentations which described everything from traditional culture, current fashion, thoughts of the future, and the young generation’s perspectives on Cambodian history, particularly the Khmer Rouge period. Our view on Cambodian history was important because we were able to discuss how tragic events and subsequent rapid development has affected our lives and the lives of our families.

Student interviews at Phnom Udong
We also planned an excursion to Phnom Udong, where we had a traditional Cambodian outing. We ate local food at the foot of the mountain, talked about history and rural culture, and then discussed Buddhism as well as the history of Phnom Udong. We climbed the hill, found a nice comfortable spot by one of the historic stupas, and conducted hours of informal, in-depth interviews and discussion.

It was fun and exciting. We had a wonderful time and a very good interview. We talked about Cambodia before and after the Khmer Rouge Regime. We also talked about youth culture, and even discussed sensitive topics as adults and students seeking educated insights.
It was interesting to discuss their ideas of Cambodia prior to their arrival. Timmy and Skylar said they were really scared before coming because of what some Americans think of the country, especially what their parents thought about Cambodia.

“Cambodia is so scary, and my mother did not want to allow me to visit Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge Regime that. . .[she has]. . .known through television,” said one of the exchange students. “Everything, however, is completely untrue [about the dangers and conflict]…Cambodia is a beautiful place with friendly people.”

They also added that whenever Cambodian people meet them, the Cambodians always say, “Hello, how are you?” They found this to be kind, friendly, and warm. They also thought it was nice that Cambodians were so interested in them and their culture and way of life.

The exchange students were also very interested in Khmer food. Timmy and Skylar tasted many different kinds of traditional Khmer food, such as Khmer noodle, Khmer barbecue, and prahoc. When comparing the food of Cambodia and Thailand, they found that Cambodian food is a bit salty, whereas Thai food is usually spicy. They added that food is very wonderful because it can be the identity of one country. For example, Khmer noodles or prahoc are the identity of Cambodia while hamburgers or hotdogs are the identity of the United States. We all laughed. They also shared with us that eating the local foods made them feel like they were locals, and that it was “very amazing to taste various kinds of food that represent a country’s culture.”

They also described how young people living in America differ from those in Cambodia and Thailand. Skylar stated that she was taught about sex education since primary school, and people talk about sex everywhere. At the same time, most American teenagers talk to their parents about sex without much hesitation or shame because their parents are their best friends, according to Skylar. The two students described it as part of being responsible. To not discuss it would be considered more irresponsible. They said that they feel their parents should know about this and can give them advice.

“In America, sexuality is a vital part of life that everyone has to face it,” said Skylar.

In addition, some American students do not live with their parents while they attend college. In college, they are expected to live independently in dorms, apartments, or other housing. It is part of “growing up” and being able to live on your own. Some students may even live with their boyfriend or girlfriend. According to Skylar and Timmy, Americans are supposed to be mature and relatively independent and responsible by their late teens and early twenties. In fact, they see themselves as being a burden on their parents if they still lived at home past this age.

They shared with us that American teenagers and college students are very independent, as they go out to nightclubs and have fun by themselves. By contrast, Cambodian teenagers do not have the freedom to do so. It would be inappropriate and disrespectful. Nightclub life in Cambodia has a different meaning than it does in America. It is seen as immoral and dangerous in Cambodia. It is dangerous because it is viewed as negative and can be harmful to the reputation of the individual and the family.

They also shared with us their experiences as university students in America, as well as the culture of American universities. In the United States, almost all of the university students live in dormitories while only a small percentage live off campus. Based on their experiences, classes start at 10 am and end at 5 pm. They take a full course load of classes, but classes are only about three or four days a week, and there are no classes at night or on weekends. Most of their free time is used for studying and completing assignments, and they have plenty of time for work, socializing, and participating in various activities. They explained that part of the American university experience is to learn from inside the classroom, as well as outside of the classroom. The idea is to learn how to become responsible for oneself in an independent social environment.

When comparing their university experiences in America and Cambodia, they found that they could walk to school and leave it very independently in Cambodia, unlike in America where most of the time they stayed in their dormitories. They also shared that American dormitories are not always as free and independent as they may seem; the dormitories often have strict rules about security, visitors, and curfews.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about studying in America is the tuition fee. According to Skylar, a university education can be very expensive and students may spend up to $60,000 per year. Some universities are more affordable for students and do not cost that much, but they are still on average much more expensive than a university education here in Cambodia. We learned that education in America is often incredibly expensive—so expensive that it seems almost impossible.

We also learned that American universities are places where diverse students from all over the world, such as China, Japan, Africa, and France, share ideas and culture. In addition, students can create a club of four or five people and establish their own projects. If the student clubs need some financial support, they can make a request to the appropriate department in the university. The club will be supported if it presents a good idea. Many American students also join clubs or teams to volunteer in community service projects. According to the exchange students, it is quite important for university students to create a culture of helping each other, building support and encouragement, and enhancing creativity through diverse perspectives and ideas.

Picnic and interviews at Phnom Udong
After spending a few weeks in Cambodia, Skylar and Timmy have changed their perspectives on the country, in regards to history and the media. Despite theatrocities of the Khmer Rouge period, which dominated what they had originallythought about Cambodian culture, they now see Cambodian culture and the country’s educational system in a much more positive light: full of hope, optimism and friendliness. Skylar and Timmy also encouraged all Cambodian students to study hard and be committed to applying for exchange programs because students will gain a valuable experience from studying various topics and ideas from different parts of the world, such as culture, standards of living, and food. Finally, they stated that students should not have any high expectations of or be judgmental towards other cultures if they are selected to study abroad. It was both a warning and encouragement. In their case, they were quite happy that their expectations of a very dangerous and depressing Cambodia turned out to be wrong. Indeed, Cambodia was very alive, active, fun, and full of hope--as seen in the younger generation of Cambodian students.

Source: UC Bulletin March 2011, Page 28, 29 & 31

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