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Lheang, my Hero

As you all know I have just returned back after volunteering in a school in Cambodia. This story is about a student Thoch Chorlheang and my special bond with him.

It was my first day at school as a volunteer teacher in a new town of a new country. I felt like a kid who was going to start his first ever day of education. Lack of a common language had made me both excited and nervous. I was wondering how I am going to communicate with students who understood very little or no English.
I had already charted out a rough plan of my way of teaching after meeting with people at the NGO who had apprised me of students’ current level of knowledge of English.

Here in school, after the customary round of greetings and introductions, all students settled in their respective seats. As the normal scene in any class, I could see them whispering and discussing me. Ignoring them, as I started discussing about the curriculum and related stuff with their regular teacher, I heard a voice.

One of my classes.

Sitting restless on the third row, a student asked something in Khmer (Cambodian native language) which even his regular teacher was finding it difficult to answer, not because he didn’t understand but for want of an honest answer. When I insisted the teacher to translate for me, he hesitated…. fumbled for words to put it in such a way that I don’t feel offended.
It was a straight question about me. And it was, why I have come there to waste my as well as their time.

Lheang, that fidgety student of grade 6 had every right to ask such question. After all, he had seen a couple of people in the recent past coming for a few days or maybe for a week and trying to ‘teach’ something to the students to achieve a tag of ‘volunteer’. Sometimes they do it to utilize a couple of free days that they have in hand from their travel itinerary. Such diversions disturb the flow of studies and leave the students confused.

I was taken aback.

I had not come like other travellers looking for avenues to kill a few days to suit my travel plans ! My visit to this country and this city had sole purpose of volunteering; for not days but for months. I had eagerly waited for this day, after enquiring, submitting applications and clearing all hazards relating to volunteer in this school. And I had come here not only to teach but learn from them in a friendly way !

So, it was now a challenge for me to come up to Lheang’s expectations. No other student seemed to have the guts or concern to ask this but Lheang was their voice. Will I be able to add to their knowledge and vocabulary? Will I be able to instill confidence in them for English ? Will these kids appreciate my work? And most importantly will I be able to make a place in their hearts ? All these emotions bothered me constantly.

I worked really hard towards achieving it. Never in my life I had taught anybody. From the first day itself, I let the regular teacher complete the course for the day and then would take over from there asking/ drawing/ narrating/ acting out the things. If you have read my earlier post, you’d know how little English they knew. I would repeatedly encourage the students to speak, write and to come up to the board to write or draw. At the end of the day I would then go home and prepare for the next day.
This approach brought result in the first week itself. The children started looking forward to learn new things everyday.

Thoch Chorlheang, my hero.

Lheang is very intelligent and a hard working boy. Way ahead of others in his class, he was always first in writing the answers for any question and waited impatiently for my next question. But ask him to speak or come on the board, he would shy away.

He wants to become an officer and knows he needs to study hard for that. He always carried a large, heavy carry bag which contained his lunch boxes, change of clothes besides usual notebooks & books. The strap of the bag was broken so he has to lift it. He is very poor, couldn’t afford repairs let alone a new bag. After long school hours, he goes for more English tuition. By the time he returns home, it is nearly 10 hours.

His full name Thoch Chorlheang was quite difficult for me to pronounce! I asked him several times everyday and showed my helplessness at getting it right. His teacher told me that his name is after a very famous Cambodian film hero. So, from first day itself I had started calling him Hero after trying hard to pronounce his name. Not wanting to speak to me directly for lack of spoken English, embarrassingly he would again blurt out a few sentences about me to his teacher at the word ‘hero’. This had become a daily routine.
There are many other cherishable incidents with him which I won’t mention here.

One of my goals was to prepare them to write letters. The teacher said I was crazy. Although they knew what a letter was they had not written or read one , even in Khmer. They had not gone outside their town in their whole life. I bought some picture postcards and other materials related to posts, showed them photos of post offices, maps … everything and explained to them. Since they learn computers also, it was easier to teach them what an e-mail was.

Fast forward to three days back, I received a short mail from him. Of all the people, a mail from Lheang, my hero ! I am on cloud nine!

“Dear teacher,
How are you? I am fine. thank you.
I stood first in class in exam. I study well.
I miss you very much. When you come to Cambodia ?

Your student,
Thoch Chorlheang”

I can see how difficult it would have been for a 12 year old to save some money, take time out to go to a cybercafé and write a mail.

As I write this, tears flow down my cheek. Lheang, you are my real Hero !

And yes, I still can’t pronounce your name properly. 🙂

63 thoughts on “Lheang, my Hero”

  1. Nisha, I have no words to describe what a wonderful post this is. As someone who teaches, albeit mature students nothing is more gratifying than seeing students actually practicing what you have taught. And when they connect with you after you have left, it’s a magical feeling.

  2. I have tears in my eyes and running down my cheeks- this is such a wonderful post. A post which showed the bravery of a young man and the bravery of a wonderful woman- both of you together have made a great thing- you have exchanged knowledge. I really was so deeply touched by the email he sent!!!!! You have touched a life (and I can see he has touched your life)- and now both of you have touched my life…isn’t that what life is all about??!!

  3. Nisha,

    First of all, a silent appreciation for a month which you spent so well. You did a great job!

    Isn’t it beautiful to see this once war ravaged country slowly getting back on road? I had imagined not very good things about Cambodia before I went there, but the experience was totally different! This small nation gives hope.

    I can see that you had a great trip. Its always a joy to come to your blog. Keep traveling and keep being a great and inspiring storyteller 🙂


  4. Usha Amudan (@ushaonthego)

    Sweet!!! 🙂 It’s a nice feeling to have made a difference in someone’s life. Your volunteer stint in Cambodia sounds fun! Gonna buzz you for details when I head there. 🙂


  5. Nisha jee,
    wonderful post.

    Before i was eagerly looking forward to your post to know about a new place but now a days your post touched the heart. your recent two post living a expat life & this Hero has hit the right string of heart.
    Eagerly waiting for ur next post.

  6. A sweet touching post, Nisha! Kudos to you for having instilled in them the confidence to broaden their horizons in such a friendly manner. The email gave me goosebumps, I can only imagine what it must have done to you!

    All the best with the contest! 🙂

  7. Wonderful post, Nisha! I am curious about your answer to your “hero’s” initial question. A lot of times, I actually face the dilemma myself if I’m helping or hindering a person by being in their lives temporarily. It will be great if you could actually write a post on your decision to volunteer and the process you went through to narrow down the location, logistics etc.

  8. This is a really great success story. I can see how moving it must have been to receive a message from one of your skeptics as to why you were volunteering.

  9. @Sudhagee,
    Thank you very much. I Hear you on that. It’s actually a magical feeling. 🙂

    Thank you very much for your kind words. It really has made me very emotional. I do hope we can meet sometime when he grows up.

  10. @Puru,
    Cambodia is coming back to its tracks very fast. The people are hard working & honest are left to fend for themselves. The govt isn’t helping them. I have been posting about it on my Facebook travel page regularly. I hope you are reading them. 🙂

    Thanks once again.

  11. Ok, This one made me a bit emotional. Very heart touching. This is the kind of travel I want to do one day. I can understand Hero’s disdain for volunteers. I used to wonder does it really benefit the students when people volunteer for few days. I think it’s helpful only if a volunteer serves for 1 years or for months at stretch. I think the email you got from him is your best souvenir ever?

    1. Thank you.
      I so agree with you. He actually taught me many things in his own way and made me realize the facts.

      Yes, indeed the souvenir is my precious possession. How many of us get those? 🙂

  12. As you know, not only do so many tourists come thinking that if they volunteer for a few days that they can pat themselves on the back and then “feel good about themselves” but also Cambodia is notoriously known for scams with these kinds of tourists. However, it looks like you found a great school and program to work through. I’m sure both your lives have been changed!

    1. Yes Leanna, that’s so true. And Cambodia? It’s there in many other countries. It works both ways.
      Organizations also want money in the name of doing charity.

  13. That’s a beautiful story. It’s so great what you did, giving your time and skills to teach. I’m sure those kids will always remember what you did for them.

  14. What an incredible boy! It’s great that you were able to inspire him and that you let him teach you in return as well. I understand his concern about the volunteering – it must be hard for the children to see so many teachers come and go and just stay for a few days. It’s great that you were able to stay for several months! I wish him all the best and hope he can achieve his dream – he clearly is putting in a lot of work!

    1. Thank you Kathrin for your kind words.

      Yeah, that was quite a shock for me. I am glad that Lheang thought about it and could muster courage to speak up.

  15. What a moving post… Really inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story. And for the Hero Lheang: may you be blessed and life a happy and good life!

  16. What a wonderful story. It sounds like you had a great time in Cambodia and really made a difference. Well done on your volunteering efforts, you deserved the gift of the email you received from him.

  17. Great story and such a nice experience you’ve had! 🙂 And that little Hero is so cute and smart. Love how you’ve called him “Hero”, after he was named after the movie person. Things like this are so rewarding when volunteering, right. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  18. This post is wonderful! Such a brave child! I admire him a lot as it takes a lot of courage to stand in front of the teacher and a stranger and question them as to why they have come. The guy is going to go a long way if he gets the proper resources and the right environment.

  19. OMG, Nisha you have touched my heart with this blog. I seriously feel proud to have a circle wherein people like you exist! I loved the letter sent to you by Hero and so wish the best to him and you in life.

  20. What a lovely and heartwarming story! It is so great that you are volunteering and teaching while abroad! You definitely inspire me to follow in your footsteps!

  21. The transcription of Lheang’s letter is the original one? I mean, Did he have any English mistakes? Or did write it exactly as you post it it here, in perfect grammar and English. Congratulation for making them learn so much.

  22. What a heartwarming blog post. I too would feel the pressure if a student thought I was there to waste their time and not really committed as a volunteer. The letter at the end sent to you was simply beautiful.

  23. What a great story! It’s such a good thingto selflessly contribute to education for those who need it the most and has the worst access to it. I’m happy about each and every of these kind of stories. You’re such a great person for helping these kids to do betterin life! 🙂

  24. Wow Nisha, you are not the only one with teary eyes. I am touched too. I used to be around kids a lot in my hometown. Nowadays, I am away from the surroundings of kids and your post just reminded me of the warmth. 🙂

  25. Oh wow, what a touching story. To have touched the lives of your students makes you very special indeed. Good on Thoch Chorlheang for speaking his mind initially on your first meet – I bet they do see many a volunteer passing through without pure motives – just wanting to kill a day or two. It’s very interesting to know that the students pick up on this sense of ‘voluntourism’ and don’t appreciate it. But it sounds like you made an incredible impact on his life, and obviously he on yours in return. It really does sound like a very special bond you will remember for a lifetime.

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