Kids Are Awesome, No Kidding

In Cambodia, it’s common to see parents paying attention to the behavioral development of children only when they are five years old. (Cough cough namely, when the children are enrolled into pre-schools and are found to have problems socializing or following instructions.)

A closely-held belief is that children, aged between 1-3 are just blank paper, waiting for us to teach them how to survive in the world, so parents only concern themselves with teaching the young ones how to walk, or talk. They think the social, emotional, and cognitive lessons can come later. THEN they’d spend years asking themselves, “How did this happen?” when the child turned out to be lacking in either cognitive, emotional or social skills even as adults. The crucial thing is that in the past few decades, research has shown that the first few years of our lives actually play a huge rule in laying the foundation for who we become later on.

Although a few books have been written, well, more like translated on this phenomena, I doubt the information is that widely spread, which calls for a more accessible spread of information, *drumroll* like this movie called The Beginning of Life, directed and written by Estela Renner.

The Beginning of Life is a heartwarming, informative feature documentary about how important the first years of human lives are. It was was filmed across Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Italy, Kenya and the United States, following the early lives of (simply adorable) babies and their family from various background ranging from stay-at-home dads, to same-sex couples, and single parents. You name it; they have it. It was also sprinkled with experts in the field of childhood development.

I think the central message is that instead of regarding children aged from 1-3 as blank slates, waiting for our input, we should regard them as what they really are: tiny adorable scientists. The reason is when we regard them as puppets, waiting for us to teach them how to live, we’re more prone to controlling behaviors when they do something we deem as unreasonable. We yell at them when they drop the spoon, again and again, (and again) even after the tenth time of us telling them not to. However, if we think of them as tiny alien scientists, trying to do experiments to find out who they are, and how the world works, instead of being annoyed at the spoon dropping, you’ll see that the baby is just trying to test their hypothesis about the dropping of the spoon.

“If I drop this, it will make a sound. Will it make another sound if I did it like this? Again? And again?” or
“Every time I do this, uncle does this ugly frowny face. What if I do it again, but this time, farther than before?” And when you do indeed end up with an ugly frowny face, the baby will all be like, “Yay, I understand uncle now!”

In these formative first years, the movie explains, what the baby needs from us is not total controlling instructions on how to live, but a good lab partner, who is willing to support them when they find themselves in sticky shit (sometimes literally). Instead of holding their hands and guide them through life, what they need is the freedom to explore, but with a hand at their back, ready to embrace them should they fall. The movie also shows the cliche but very true power of love. Affection from the adults around them, whether it’s from a single parent, a stay-at-home dad, a same sex couple, as long as it’s pure affection shown by attention, even something as simply as replying to their blabber, is enough to give the child self esteem which is crucial in motivating the child to explore, to persist, and to ultimately find success, not just in their early years, but throughout their lives as well.

I think everyone, even those who are not a parent, and not thinking of becoming one anytime soon, should watch this movie. Apart from the squeals you get from seeing too many cute children and their families, you can also reinforce your new view of small babies as tiny alien scientists. I mean, after watching this movie, I went out for a lunch break and spent a good 10 minute playing sword fighting (more like tooth pick fighting) with a 3 year old child. Sometimes, it’s good to get out of our conceptual adult mindset once in a while and just simply giggle with a child after you’ve lost to them in a sword fight.

You can watch the trailer of The Beginning of Life here, watch the movie on iTunes, and the six-episode series on Netflix, or find more information on how to watch it on Videocamp (here)! If you don’t mind waiting, keep your eyes out for UNICEF Cambodia’s possible free screening of this movie in the future (follow them here)!






Sugar, Spice and Everything Logical

For a society whose children pretty much memorize the four Prum Viha Thor (roughly translated as the four Brahma’s houses, or good knowledge to house your mind), and for a country which has, through toil and sweat, built literally hundreds of enormous statues symbolizing those four principles (the Bayon Temple, everyone?), the lack of its practice, even in the most “cultured” of citizens, is astonishing.

Meta, Karuna, Obekha, Mutita.
Meta, Karuna, Obekha, Mutita.
Meta, wait, what do these mean again?

When recited too often, with not much explanation, and even less examples in reality have made these concepts too abstract, so abstract that they remain mere letters strung on a paper, rather than practices where you mind should reside in.

Now try blanking your mind, and take a long look at the people you see for a day:

  • How many of them scowl at passer-bys in traffic with their brows knotted, eyes suspiciously screwing, with a barely noticeable sigh? I’m absolutely certain that you’ve been one of them. Or maybe you are looking at these scowling commuters with a scowl firmly fixed upon your face right now! Would you feel this annoyed if you tried to be a bit more understanding?
    “Yes, he’s cutting the line. But then again, he’s probably never had a proper education and was never really taught to think about the little things he does on the road.”
  • How many of the gossips you have overheard would be non-existent if only these people were more open to the possibility that *gasp* maybe they are not the only credible judge in the universe? That others are entitled to have their own motives, struggles and choice as well?
    “She’s so fat…. and that is probably because she feels too helpless in trying to change the way things are.”

When the news of a tragic young teen suicide reaches the public, you bet your ass there are going to be an unending stream of comments which resemble these:

“That kid had everything one could wish for. What a shame she killed herself! Such a waste of space.”

“She was so young, so fresh. I just don’t understand. She shouldn’t have done it.”

“Just a spoilt kid who didn’t know how to handle life.”

Now, how many of the “judges” put the efforts in trying to understand the circumstantial evidence, motives, and influences of the case before handing out their verdicts?

This is an unpopular opinion, but I believe even the government deserves our empathy. What sort of fucked up thing happened to make some of them this corrupted, selfish and so woefully incompetent? As much as I want to dish on the 2017 New Year road sign, if you really think about it, how many competent people are really working for the government? What were the alternatives they had? Or maybe… Maybe that was all they had learnt. Some time before this new year, an official ended his/her day with a sense of pride in his/her chest, believing he/she just made a great contribution to the celebration of his nation’s coming new year.

Of course, at this point, many simply give up on being empathetic altogether because it makes them wushy-smushy. It makes sense that when you are constantly trying to glimpse from others’ viewpoints, there’s this threat of losing your own footing, and the sight from your stance. That’s the risk of not putting your equally valid wants and needs on the agenda.

If you just charge straight from empathy to decision without adding more digits, you might find yourself transformed by your decisions (or lack thereof) into a passive little weed, swaying hither and tither by the wind of people’s perspective, unable to hold a firm stance and introduce any change.

  • That old cocky guy who cut you off in traffic might never learn he’s not as smooth on the road as he thinks he is
  • Your overweight friend who keeps chomping down an alarming amount of weight might never have the push to finally don the gym armor and work out
  • Kids might just get influenced by romanticized suicide (born out of too much empathy, I dare say), and choose to reach the light at the end of the tunnel by themselves instead of braving the road bumps when some minor inconvenience happens
  • and probably the worst of all, our government might just stay slothy, corrupted and continue to produce eye-jarring designs year after year after year.


This is exactly when logic comes into play.

After thoroughly (as thoroughly as you can) analyzing the problem from others’ standpoint, zoom out, and zoom back into your own flesh just to make sure you don’t become that boneless little weed. Many nice people run the risk of burning out by being overly compassionate, helping people all the time without taking their own needs and wants into account (we can’t all be Buddha, you know).

Some altruists might claim to be eating just for the sake of having energy to do noble services to others. Well, wouldn’t it be a nicer world to live in, if those altruists also enjoy eating and still able to help people?

Come back into your own perspective. What do you think of this? How does this action affect your wellbeing? For example, you might see where an abusive friend of yours is coming from. They might have had a terribly abusive childhood. Their efforts in building a codependent squad might stem from their insecurity and abandonment issues. Yes, you can see all these motives and past heartbreaks, but how about your side of the sob story? How have you been affected by their actions? Are you willing to put up with their problematic behavior?

And after that, assume you are a floating eye connected wirelessly to a mob of consciousness somewhere looking down at the issue. In case you didn’t catch that totally awesome simile, it’s to look at the issue more objectively (well as objectively as your human flesh allow, anyway). This is done to determine the best course of action which would be in the best interest of the both of you. By doing so, you might:

  • end up creating a workshop, or a social media campaign which aims to educate older people of the little do’s and don’ts on the road.
  • having a heart-to-heart with your friend, and maybe also become her gym buddy.
  • donating to mental illness organizations who provide consultation for suicidal folks.
  • ending a friendship on a relatively good term
  • or when next year comes rolling around, you might try to create a petition for the government to hold a bid for the best design firms for their logo because you’re sure even you can beat last year’s record.

Or… you can just do nothing. But this doing of nothing, laced with empathy is, I believe, still better than doing nothing laced with bitterness and hatred. Buddhism says that to hold onto anger is like palming a burning charcoal. Continue doing it, you burn your palm. Throw it at people, it scorches their bodies. Why not just throw it into the bonfire of life and invite others to join the dance?

In this case, at least one person in the world is less annoyed (hint, hint, it’s you). Now, go get that wall of empathy built. You’re already one fourth of the way to completing your house of mind!


Worshipping Idols

“You’re so cool, idol. I love you.”

“I’ve seen you in that video today. So idol!”

“I. D. O. L.”


Here are just variations of how people have been jokingly employing the term “idol” repeatedly for about 300 times to me now. I know it’s all a trend and show because honestly? I’ve done it to quite a few handful of unsuspecting victims too. You have to admit it’s refreshing to be creating this culture of admiring and shamelessly admitting your respect and pride for someone. I mean, what sort of people DO NOT want to be praised for their efforts and hard work? However, just like with many things, if done wrong, this mere idolizing can mean serious trouble because if you have not noticed already, idol doesn’t just mean someone whom you have considerable admiration for, it also means this.

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 6.07.34 PM Yeah, that’s right. It also means something that you pray as part of your religion. If there’s one thing I know for sure about this implication, it is this, you think of someone as FAR, FAR above you- this enlightened know-all being who’s leisurely hanging out in the clouds spewing one genius work after another without so much as a sweat. Lowly earth-worms like you can never aspire to be half that successful.
So what do you do? You idolize them. You say, oh, he’s born a genius. That’s why. She’s been doing it for 10 years; of course, she’s fluent in it. I can never ever be that committed. Oh, you know, his mind is extraordinary. It just can’t be explained.  No, of course, he doesn’t have any flaw. There’s nothing that she can’t do; maybe save for being a failure.

You call them gods. You do whatever it takes to convince yourself that no matter how much you work, you, a chanced mortal can NEVER achieve that level of excellence.

You know what you’re subconsciously doing by practicing this sort of idolizing? You’re setting a huge air cushion ready for your future fall. Instead of crawling your way to success, you’d rather label that success unattainable; thus, relieving you of any blame for not attempting. And the result? Without the goal of achieving success, instead of practicing, instead of putting in the work and time needed for improvement, you waste your life burrowing from one hole to another, convincing yourself all the way that you can never be a god after all, so why try?

Besides demotivating you to achieve greatness, this idolizing of humans also means you are effectively removing yourself from their friend list. there-are-two-ways-to-dehumanize-someone-by-dismissing-them-and-by-idolizing-them

By idolizing someone, you’re choosing to see them as immortal instead of blood and veined humans with flaws, biases, emotional distress, and childhood trauma (everybody has those; especially artists). That’s why many fans lament about being disillusioned after getting to meet their favorite idol (mostly celebrities).
“I don’t know who he thought he was. He was not all that impressive.”
“She didn’t even know what piece of writing I was quoting! And I’d thought she was smart!”
Well, can you blame them though? You set up this perfect standard for someone, and then blame them for not fitting into the cloud-pacing goddess image that you’ve created for them?

And without leaving room for them to be flawed, to be irrational, to be dumb, you’re effectively cutting all bridges to connect with them on a deeper level. You may be able to hold a decent small talk with them every once in a while, but without giving them the chance to be vulnerable, good luck getting close to them.

Conclusion? I think what I’m trying to get across is this: it’s very tempting to put labels on people, to give them a two-dimensional mask and write them off as perfect or dumb, but humans aren’t nearly always so neat, are they? Before calling someone your idol again, ask yourself, am I merely respecting one aspect of their life, or am I effectively shining their statue and putting it on my shrink?

Latrine Is the Shit

*Funky commercial tune for a video before cutting into the main topic*

(Seriously, watch the video first)

Fortunately, born and raised as a lower-middle class city gal, that was not something I ever had to face. No matter how old, manually or automatically flushed, I had been lucky enough to never stay in a house without a toilet. Even my grandparents in the province had that old manual toilet where you had to squat (which I learned years later that it was actually better for your intestines, but that’s another matter).

Open defecation was, in my mind, something of the near past. There were stories of how my parents squatted in the bush and used banana leaves as their trustworthy toilet paper, well, in this case, toilet leaves. I linked open defecation to barbaric war-times necessities which should not exist in our peaceful time of the present. And boy, was I wrong.

That whole assumption changed, when I had to live with a host family for a few days before our journey into the Prey Lang Forest in Kratie Province in 2015. Not a single one of the dozen of houses in the village had a working bathroom, or a toilet for that matter. We had to bathe in the river, and defecate anywhere we saw fit.

I’ve learned a lot during my stay there; perhaps the most memorable one is to never poop in the place where many others also like to poop. I also learned that instead of being a past necessity driven by war time desperation, open defecation is still a reality for some Cambodians.

Further research breaks that delusional assumption because according to the World Bank, as of 2015, open defecation is still a reality for more than half Cambodians as only 42% of the total population had access to sanitary latrines.

That is 8.67 million people who have to rely on the old fashioned squatting bush-leaves style and risk poop mines in the dead of the night to relieve themselves!

Hopefully that shall not be how things will stay and we are expecting the numbers of latrines to grow because according to the Phnom Penh Post, the government has a goal to bring the number of people without latrines to 40% by 2018, and to 0% by 2025!

And that’s a wise choice because open defecation, well, the lack of hygiene in general, is an important cause for diarrhoea, which results in the deaths of more than 750,000 children under the age 5 every year worldwide.

According to a report from World Health Organization, in 2013, an estimated 14% of the deaths of Cambodian children aged under 5 is due to diarrhoea-related diseases. That’s about 2,000 children who could have lived and grown up to be a limitless possibility of personnels had they had access to clean water and simple latrines!

As if killing children (and sending their parents into fright) is not evil enough, diarrhoea, and poor hygiene in generally is also linked to growth stunt!

Though not directly deadly, stunted growth has been found by the WHO to cause a greater risk for premature death, delayed mental development, reduced cognitive capacity, and what’s more? It can even be passed on to the next generation.

You may think children who are victims of stunted growth are so because they lack the necessary nutrients to grow healthily.

That is the case, but not the whole case.

Apparently, a review article found that the lack of WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) also plays an important part in the development of stunting (oh, the irony). Children who lacks access to WASH face more frequent bouts of diarrhoea, parasitic worms, and environmental enteric dysfunction (short as EED which is a disease that causes chronic inflammation, reduced nutrient absorption of the intestine and also weakens the function of the small intestine).

Appropriating that to the Cambodian context, it has been found that, in as late as 2010, 40% of children under 5 were suffering from stunted growth! That’s 600,000 children that might grow up to have delayed mental development and reduced thinking capacity just because of malnourishment and lack of WASH! One wonders just how many of the irrational people one sees on the street and online everyday, struggling to form an appropriate justification for their environmentally-and-socially destructive behaviour might just be an unfortunate result of such simple causes.

It is now time, ladies and gents, to keep our eyes glued to the very simple yet largely ignored cause of supplying each household with a suitable latrine, not only for the sake of relieving all mothers of the bride an embarrassingly shitty moment (puns intended), but to also relieve children of the future unnecessary deaths, and needless stunting of their very-well-deserved growth!

Shhhh Shhhh

“No….! Not another presentation assignment!”

“But, teacher! The topic is too complicated for me!”

“I swear to God. This is way beyond what I can do!”

“*general groaning noise with unintelligible mumbles*”

These are what I usually hear; either uttered by my students in English class, or classmates in college when something remotely challenging is assigned. Groans of agony laced with genuine despair ripple through the room as students attempt to fruitlessly bargain with the teacher citing that the tasks are too difficult.

Well, that’s the goddamn point!

Listen, here, my dudes. You’re in a classroom because you wanted to learn, right? You wanted to improve your understanding of something whether it be English, drawing, or photography.

You suck right now. You are speaking broken English, drawing hands behind a body, or take blurry pictures with hideous exposure.
But you’re learning! You have your teacher to guide you and your classmates to hold you tight when things get tough.

I know it’s hard to admit to yourself that you suck. It’s frustrating to not be at the level you wish to be, but that’s the reality. You’ve gotta accept that you suck, but that’s not all. Yes, you suck now, but with lots of tears and sweat (literally), you will improve.

Listen to me. No one, and I mean, no one can get to where they are now without the fear of falling, without trying something new, without actually falling. If you don’t believe me, think of someone you deem as successful in a field you’re most afraid to fail. Shoot them a message asking them how they started out. Seriously, do it so that your illusion of natural talent will be shattered. Even when it comes to arts, there’s only 10% talent, and like 90% hard work.

Or you can think back to any skills that you possess now. Any skills will do- hair-curling, bicycle riding, driving, singing, reading, heck, even writing Khmer. Try to think back to the first time you tried to do it. Did you just magically pick up a pencil and write beautifully cursive Tom Teav story? Nope. You were likely in your first grade, struggling to even hold the pencil right. It might have taken you almost a year to even fit your ក into the square of paper provided. You see? Anything worth learning takes time and practice. If you have to live by any rule, let this be it.

Think of challenges as not obstacles, but bosses you have to fight to level up. What’s the point of a game if you are never going to level up and just run around the screen all day? You might not be able to defeat the boss at the first, (or the tenth) try, but with enough persistence and swearing, you will finally slay that piece of hardened broccoli and continue to the next level!

As Michelle Obama, the first black and Ivy League graduate first lady of the United States who got to where she is today with many doubts, sweats and failures put it:

“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages. And I know that because I’ve seen it myself. […] Life will put many obstacles in your path that are far worst than a bad grade. You’ll have unreasonable bosses, and difficult clients and patients. You’ll experience illnesses and losses, crises and setbacks, that will come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet.”

If you want to improve your public speaking skills, you’ve gotta speak. If you want to be a renowned painter one day, you’ve gotta paint. It’s simple, but it ain’t easy.


Complimentary reading on living life like a gamer: Player One, Listen Up.

Time Is not Money.

We have a popular saying which goes something like, “Time is Money”, but is that true? Is time equal money? Just think about it; you can covert time into money by working, sure, but can you convert money into time? Can you, say, buy an additional second onto your life with your hard-earned cash?

Not exactly, so I propose another way of looking at time. Time is not just money; time is life itself. Yup. Your time ends when your life ends. Your life is spent when you use your time.

As Annie Dillard said (in her book, The Writing Life), “How you spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

When you spend the afternoon soaking the sun in your backyard with a dog lying lazily nearby, that’s an afternoon of life gone.

When you use the whole night tossing and turning thinking of an ex with whom you are certain you can never get back together, that’s a night of your life gone.

I think to a certain level, we all are aware that how we spend our time is indeed how we spend our lives. We tend to think of life as something far away, maybe at some distant time in the future when what we do will have a more significant impact on our overall lives. It’s easy to get carried away by the minute details of life that you forget every morsel of the day counts, that when you take your last breadth, this exact moment with all the other seemingly insignificant moments will add up to the big picture of what your life really is.

So, what’s the point? Well, the point is, for me at least, that we should put more weight on how we spend our seconds. Before committing ourselves to any arrangement, social gatherings, projects or work, we need to see it as a part of our lives that we will never get back. We all have a limited time to spend on earth, so each breathe, each activity should count to make that experience as happy as possible. I guess, in a sense, this shows us that it’s okay. It’s okay to not pressure ourselves to take part in a gathering, or commit to a project we are indifferent to because damn! Even if it’s just for an evening, that’s a part of our life all the same.

Happiness Tour Package

2016 has been a year full of new, exciting travelling experience for me. I mean, it literally started with a domestic solo trip, followed by a few more international solo adventures. Though I’ve not achieved the ultimate backpacker status by visiting the entire world this year, I believe I’ve gained enough insights, well, enough for a short blog post anyway. Essentially, this experience just confirms my suspicion that travelling advertisements are definitely too good to be true. In a typical exotic island advertisement you see on the internet, there is always that one typical girl doing yoga on a rock with a smiling face, and a hot guy sunbathing on the beach with heaps of alcohol involved. The catchphrase is always about experiencing something amazing, wonderful and can ultimately bring us happiness.

Now, that’s the deceptive promises that travelling agents give us. Book this flight, they say, your happiness will be guaranteed. Well, guess what? It’s not. I’ve written about the arguments for and against travelling with some supporting researches here, so this is just a more personal complimentary reflection.

You see, I believe happiness (here, loosely defined as having pleasure and satisfaction) generally comes from two sources- outer and inner ones. Outer sources of happiness may include a nice weather, a comfortable bed or an air-conditioned atmosphere. We may also get the sense of wonder and awe from seeing the stunning arrays of colors from a sunset on a mountain peak or a three-thousand-year old man-made structure that embodies the heart and soul of the civilization that created it.

The thing is, yes, you can get this kind of happiness from travelling. Book a trip to, say, Egypt and its most luxurious of hotels and you’re all set. The problem with this though is that you need money. Without money, you can’t get in close and personal with anything of typical natural or cultural value. Going to the museum, getting into a world heritage site and sleeping on the softest bed you’ve ever lain in cost you bucks. Even camping and mountain climbing needs you to spend for the trip and preparation. If you don’t have the money, mate, you’ll still be deprived of such happiness-generating factors no matter where you are. Just take a look at the poverty-stricken local people in your destination. They are literally living in the most magical place (you think) day in and day out, yet they are still miserable as long as they don’t earn enough to cover their day to day struggle.

The second type of happiness- the more personal, more sought-after happiness is the one that comes from within. It’s a person’s ability to see, understand and appreciate the things around and inside of themselves. Needless to say, this is definitely not dependent upon the environment. You can be as contented in an old hammock in your backyard reading the afternoon away as you are trekking in the famous jungles of the beautiful Amazon. It’s obvious that if you want to escape demon inside your mirror, travelling will probably fail you since that demon also travels from one mirror to another, following you to every corner of the world. If you don’t acknowledge and make peace with it, you will never escape its wailing cries, no matter how many exotic islands you’ve scuba dived in.

This year’s adventures have freed me from the illusion that I can become a happier person just by travelling alone. No, I can be a happier, more contented person if I have enough money to spoil myself during trips. And to seek for an inner happiness, my boring old balcony is as great as any place to do so.

So in conclusion… travelling serves no purpose then?

Definitely not. Go pack your back and book your flight because despite everything, travelling still provides you with a unique opportunity to explore a different way of life, and meet new interesting people whom you would never have met otherwise.  It will force you to listen and trust your survival instinct and learn to live independently. Rest assured that you will definitely change as a person after an adventurous trip, but just remember that happiness? That’s definitely not a complimentary feature in your travelling package.