When I first arrived in Cambodia nearly nine years ago, I made a habit of attending music and dance performances by Sovanna Phum, a traditional performance troupe. In the Tuol Sleng district of Phnom Penh, the troupe performed every Friday and Saturday night on a wooden stage tucked under a thatched roof surrounded by luscious plants. Though the stage was a mere few feet from the busy city street, it felt worlds removed, a secluded enclave and an enchanting entrance to Cambodia’s culture.
Though the location and the organization have changed, my enchantment has not, and it is my good luck and pleasure to be able to share that enchantment with students. Now, it is groups from Cambodian Living Arts that perform regularly on another evocative stage built beside the National Museum. The musicians, dancers, and performers are largely veteran students, teenagers who have come from mostly impoverished beginnings to achieve a professional level of mastery. My American students attend a performance, visit rehearsals, and experience a one-night home stay with families of the performers. The cumulative experience is, I hope, both sobering and uplifting. I also hope that, over the course of their time here, my students gain knowledge of Cambodia’s tumultuous history, fluency with the country’s customs, and an appreciation of the culture. I hope they feel the passionate intensity underlying Cambodia’s arts—in my mind the heart of the country—and that they go on to do something with that inspiration.
But, my basic hope is a simple one: that my enchantment rubs off. I want my students to fall in love with Cambodia the way I did and through this country enter a world of constant exploration and learning. If the enchantment sticks, then they will come back for more, in this country or another, and the world will be better off. These teenagers, a number of whom had never stepped foot on a plane before flying here, will become the educated, compassionate, and well-traveled humans that this world needs.