Saturday, March 15, 2014

WOW...Just Wow!

Many of you will recall that I taught embroidery to the youngsters at Honour Village two years ago. (If you click here, it will bring you to a blog that I wrote about that experience.) It was a huge challenge that proved to be extremely rewarding, and I was truly looking forward to continuing needlework lessons this year. 

In preparation, I joined the DMC Mentor programme, who sent me several mini-kits to teach beginner counted cross-stitch. I assembled 60 more mini-kits of two additional designs, and gathered a substantial amount of embroidery floss, aida cloth, several pattern books, and some larger, more advanced kits, all generously donated by family and friends. 

Not too long after we arrived, it became evident that my help was needed in Kindergarten. Sue, the founder of Honour Village, had been unwell for some time, and hadn't been able to teach. I've always said volunteering is not about what I want, it's about what they need, and so I set aside my plans to teach cross-stitch and plunged myself wholeheartedly into teaching English to 4 and 5 year-old Cambodian children. It's been a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work, and I've even succeeded at organizing the kindergarten teaching materials and introducing some different teaching tools and methods. 

In the meantime, a couple of new volunteers came on board who were willing to teach cross-stitch, even though they'd never done it themselves. I took some time to 'teach the teachers' and set them loose to work with the kids. From the results I've seen, a lot of kids started and gave up, and some did 'whatever', not the projects I'd planned. Of the 40 or more that made a first attempt, there were two that graduated though the three kits, and have gone on to do a further more complicated project. I'd call that success. I'm hoping the volunteers who taught those kids got as much pleasure out of it as I did two years previously.

I have to admit, a little part of me was bummed-out about not being able to teach needlework, and a bit saddened at seeing so many kits started, not finished and just wasted. I just kept reminding myself that there was a bigger picture I wasn't quite able to see yet.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance encounter with Glenys, the woman who heads up 'Women of Worth Cambodia'. When I mentioned I'd come here to teach needlework and ended up teaching kindergarten, she asked if I'd like to share my skills and knowledge with her ladies. Women of Worth has set up a 'collective' of eight ladies from a very poor village outside Siem Reap who make and sell items,through the WoW (Women of Worth) shop here in Siem Reap. Some items are also sent overseas or sold online. The women receive the bulk of the profit from the items which provides them with an income and helps them to better their lives. 

It worked out really well, because I could teach the ladies in the morning two or thee times a week, and still get to my kindergarten classes at Honour Village. On my first visit, I brought several bags of craft materials, yarn, fabric, embroidery floss, and more! I spent the first hour talking about some of the ideas I had for them, and the next hour we did a fairly simple, quick, and fun craft.

Teaching the ladies to make flowers with yarn and plastic canvas.

Five ladies out of eight caught on very quickly
and had their flowers finished before the class ended

We sent them home with enough materials to make another flower.
The following week, blooms were everywhere!

The next session, I decided to start cross-stitch.
It was a challenging session because we didn't have a translator.
It took a while to get some of the ideas across, and once they 'got it'
they were stitching up a storm.

The first cross-stitch project was a ladybug.
Only two colours - red and black
and many of them were well on their way to completing it
before the two hour session was done.

Intense concentration 

We sent them home with a whole sheet of plastic canvas
to cut out their own shapes, and several lengths of yarn
to make more flowers.
We also sent them home with two more mini cross-stitch kits,
featuring a butterfly and a bouquet of flowers

Cross-stitch was REALLY challenging
and for some very frustrating.
Not having a Cambodian interpreter made it all the more difficult.
To make sure they'd come back for the next session,
we enticed them with the prospect of learning embroidery!
I showed them my 'sample bag',
which is the project I did with the kids two years ago.

On the back is a project that I completed on my own afterward.
It's a sampler of many different types of embroidery stitches.

All the ladies were excited about learning embroidery,
and it was much simpler to teach.
As I'd done with the children, I showed them the stitches one-on-one.

Most of them caught on really fast and were excited to return
for the next session.

We worked together on embroidery for two sessions of two hours each. The second session was held on a Saturday morning, in the shade of a hut in the very poor village where these ladies live. Seeing their homes, and the meagre conditions they live in, made me so aware of how difficult their lives really are. One of the women who works in a restaurant in the city came home on her break to learn a few stitches. Now THAT'S dedication! By the end of that Saturday, I was confident that most of them had learned all the basic stitches, and those who hadn't could learn from the others.

There was only time for one more session, and we needed supplies to complete the project. Glenys and I met for lunch the next day (Sunday), so I could direct her to the 'sewing corner' in Old Market, which is tucked away down a very narrow, obscure aisle and hard to find. We were in search of some special items and particular fabric for a fabulous project I was goig to teach the following morning. Sorry folks, I can't reveal what it is, because that will ruin the surprise gift a few of you will be getting from me! Suffice it to say, we are hoping this item is going to sell like hotcakes and will net these ladies a ton of money!

Last Monday, we worked together sewing up this new article. Although not everyone was able to finish, they have the design well in hand. At the end of two hours, it was time to say goodbye, and wish them all good luck. I was overwhelmed and deeply touched when each of them presented me with a gift of their own handicrafts as a thank you!

Some of the beautiful gifts I received.
as a 'thank you' from the ladies

A big 'thank you' gift from Glenys,
who runs the WoW program..
a handbag made from sarong fabric
that one of the ladies has made.

Earlier on this year, I used to wonder what my purpose at Honour Village was. Perhaps It might not have been about Honour Village after all. Amazing how things turn out sometimes.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Whiter Shade of Pale

There's a disturbing phenomena in this country that I didn't become aware of until I lived here. It's the obsession with white skin. A pale complexion, especially in women, is considered beautiful, and for some, the desire to have it is all-consuming. The whiter one's skin, the more attractive that person is perceived to be.

Among Cambodians, there is a definite perverse racism about dark skin that is tacit and rarely verbalized. I've heard them mention 'black' people, only to discover later they weren't referring to people of the negroid race, but to their own countrymen born with darker skin. Once,a tuk-tuk driver was pointed out to me as 'the black one'. Funny, because to me he didn't seem more black than the other tuk-tuk drivers he was with. Apparently, there's something they know (or see) that I don't.

I won't deny I've noticed variations in skin colour within the population, yet it's never occurred to me to make a distinction. To me, they're all Khmer people, and quite honestly, I find them to be among the most beautiful people in the entire world, not only because of their stunning facial features, but  also because of their openness, goodness and trustworthiness. Still, I find it very alarming to hear remarks from Cambodians like: "Black people are bad" or "Watch out for black people in Phnom Penh. They are all robbers."

I will never forget my introduction to the Cambodian concept of 'white is beautiful'. On our first 'tour of duty' in Cambodia, while teaching children to embroider, a young girl of about twelve stroked my hand, and said 'Teacher, your skin so beautiful!' I looked at my wrinkled and gnarled old hand next to her smooth young skin, and said, 'Oh no. Teacher's hands are old! Your hands are so young and beautiful!', and she replied 'No! You white. Me black!'

I immediately asked my translator to tell the class that in my country, we think that brown skin is beautiful. I told him we even have special machines that we lay in to make our skin brown (tanning beds). Looking at their faces, I suspect they all thought I was ready to be committed.. especially the male translator. I've since learned that males apparently are the ones who drive this whole sick notion, because they want women with white skin and light hair. (Probably not much different than men who prefer blondes.)

Here in Cambodia, women go to great lengths to have 'white' skin. Even in 40C degree heat, they will wear gloves, long sleeves, hats, big sunglasses, and masks to shield their skin from the sun's tanning rays. They pile on light coloured make-up to appear whiter, especially when getting dressed up for wedding parties. Here are photos of four Cambodian women at a wedding party we were invited to two years ago.

The scary part is they use skin whitening products, which I've read may have toxic chemicals. Read this article from the Phnom Penh Post: 'Dying to be Pale'.  I'm not interested in lightening my skin (or risking toxic chemicals), and I've found it very difficult to find toiletries here that don't contain skin whitening ingredients. See for yourself!

Shower cream

Body lotion

Skin cream

Body whitening emulsion

Underarm Deodorant
(I need white armpits??)

More body lotion

Sun screen

Pore minimizer cream

Bars of soap

Body bleaching cream

Night cream

More antiperspirant

Bigger-than-life-size advertisement 
in a shopping plaza

Interesting to note that the women pictured on these products and in the advertisement look far more North American than Cambodian. Sadly, through unrealistic advertising, manufacturers in North America have helped create a generation of self-loathing females longing to be thinner and prettier. Sadder still to realize they're now conferring these bizarre standards on the women of Cambodia, and adding a little twist of 'white' to the mix for good measure.