This is the second entry of a series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This second story is with Seng Porchhay (Sarus Exchange Program 2014).
Porchhay and I met in Siem Reap at an exciting coffee shop called Bio Lab. The extravagant decor of scientific looking equipment set an academic stage for our conversation, particularly once we learned that we both studied international relations as undergraduates.
Ever an eye for marketing, Porchhay said he knew that he wanted to participate in Sarus when he found a beautiful, idyllic description of someone in the mountains drinking tea on the Sarus website. He was looking to improve and expand his understanding of Cambodian/Vietnamese relations, and Sarus provided.
His Sarus journey started at an orientation with other Cambodian participants in Kampot, Cambodia. This is where they were guided through the process of collaboratively imagining and creating their group service project. They visited with people in Prey Chrey (along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam) to discuss the local community’s needs in terms of access to education.
When speaking about Sarus, Porchhay spoke mostly of the opportunity to engage in imaginative and creative experiences with the students. He and his fellow participants taught the students new skills including origami, drawing, and dancing (although the students taught them a few dances, too). The most memorable event was the football match, structured as a formal tournament. The nationalities were divided evenly. Talent was fairly separated. It came down to the last game: Wes’ (Sarus founder) team played against Porchhay’s best friend. Porchhay desperately wanted to beat Wes, asking to be substituted onto his friend’s team. It was raining. The field was muddy and slippery. Wes’ team won. More than three years later, it has not been forgotten.
Once the group moved to Vietnam, they completed construction projects at a school in Tra Vinh. His brief tenure as an architecture student proved useful in the basic handy-work. At the end of the program, the participants gathered together for the final night’s feast. They reminisced on the fashion show that portrayed traditional, cultural dress from both countries and talked about what they had learned. Porchhay says he gained a new perspective of life in Vietnam. He had understood the Vietnamese government to be oppressive, but was surprised by the happiness of the locals. We discussed the southern provinces of Vietnam where Khmer culture is still prevalent - including half of TV programs shown.
His time with Sarus is also when he first discovered videography and photography. He first learned basic videography skills during his time with Sarus as he and his peers worked to create a short documentary (available here on their Facebook page and also here on YouTube). After the program he continued to teach himself and learn the trade, and now works for the World Peace Initiative Foundation (based in Thailand). He has also recently begun hosting monthly mindfulness courses called “Peace In Peace Out (PIPO)”. At each of the four sessions, nearly 300 youth have attended.
Porchhay cited Sarus as the reason that his English improved, his perspective of Vietnam and Vietnamese people changed, and his awareness of social work piqued. He says, “I feel like I was so alive during the program” about having had the opportunity to lead and see how it felt. He’s also been driven to network more with people in Siem Reap - meeting fellow artists and peace leaders in various fields.
Porchhay ended our interview with thoughts from his international relations background - solutions for a better relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Amongst the technical solutions, he said Sarus is a step in the right direction. He said that his relationships with his Vietnamese peers are proof that peace can be found if people are willing to work for it.