Filling My Own Tabula Rasa
During the past winter vacation, I achieved a bucket list goal by volunteering in Cambodia. Cambodia is a war-ravaged country with a wounded history. Colonized by the French from 1863 to 1953, it subsequently went through a war against Vietnam and had to face the Khmer Rouge. The unceasing social strife and discord forced the country to become one of the world’s poorest. The volunteer trip, held by Sogang’s Chapel, covered the half expenses of eleven other undergraduates. It was supposed to fun.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when I was notified that the school I first stayed in was a former POW camp. Located in Phnom Penh, BannteayPrieb is an institute that provides technical education for the handicapped who suffer the scars of Cambodia’s conflicts. BanteayPrieb students suffer from various ailments that range from PTSD-induced mental illness to amputations. I stacked bricks to build a hennery and cultivated a wasteland nearby, both physical acts that I deemed the handicapped - obviously - unable to conduct. But the physically challenged, with an amputated arm or a limping leg, assisted us with the moving of bricks and cleaning up. And no matter how hard the labor was, they always smiled and mouthed “thank you” whenever our eyes met.
I had the opportunity to conversate with one of those beautiful pair of eyes at New Hope for Cambodian Children (NHCC), a boarding school for orphans that specifically focuses on helping HIV positive children. Chivorn, unlike most other NHCC alumni, recieved a job offer along with a small house from the NHCC foundation. I didn’t have to ask him why his paintings were graceful, gorgeous, and so strong that they incurred inside me even a bit of veneration. The paintings, however, were mostly black. I snapped out of my moment of stunned amazement when Chivorn invited me inside his house I had been staring at his works through his window for over ten minutes.
Chivorn told me that he mostly used the color black because of his harsh upbringing. “Most people’s lives have both good and bad moments. But my life has been filled only with sad things. My parents passed away when I was young, and the only legacy they left was their HIV virus. To express my feelings, I used the color black.” Chivorn, however, found his own happiness and meaning through other people viewing his paintings. “I saw people looking happy after seeing my pictures. They told me that they were moved. I realized that the color black I use to express my sadness can be a happy and bright color to someone else. Also, I came to know that sadness is relative. Now, I draw my paintings in black to express my inner world and to express the happiness of my world.” Chivorn was a true artist, who sublimated his pain into art on his canvas of life.
Volunteering at a foreign country was a fad, a dispensation of good intentions conducted mostly by college students in better-off situations. I cannot say that my trip to Cambodia didn’t include a slight amount of condescension. It wasn’t me who helped their dire and hard situation. It was a younger friend at NHCC who taught me a lesson through his will to help, and it was Chivorn who filled my blank thoughts with his beautiful paintings.