Ellems teach English in Cambodia, enjoy immersion in country’s culture
PARKERSBURG — John and Sherry Ellem and their daughter Sara enjoyed teaching English in Cambodia while experiencing the culture of the Southeast Asian country.
The Ellems’ trip to Cambodia from Dec. 11 to Jan. 14 included a three-day stop in Tokyo, Japan. Their trip was arranged by Global Service Corps.
“The Cambodians are the most friendly people,” John said Tuesday. “They are always smiling … genuinely happy.”
Being around the Cambodians for a month, Sherry said their country seemed to be the happiest place on earth. “They enjoy life, always kind and smiling,” she said.
The trip was triggered by Sherry being awarded a Segal Education Award while serving with the AmeriCorps several years ago. She chose to apply her award to an educational experience in Cambodia.
“Sara (who is 13 years old) and I decided to join her as we knew it would be the trip of a lifetime and great experience,” John said.
The Ellems, of Washington, W.Va., received several days of orientation in the capital city of Phnom Penh.
“We received tips and instructions on teaching English as well as various information on Cambodian culture, including how to show proper respect and the proper ways to greet people — known as Sampeah,” John said.
Sampeah involves placing your hands together and in front of your head or chest and bowing. The older the person you greet is, the higher you hold your hands. When greeting monks, the hands are held toward the top of the head, John said.
While in the capital city, the Ellems toured the Royal Palace and visited a prison used during the Khmer Rouge regime, in which two million Cambodians died from 1975-79.
The Ellems taught in various grades at the Universal English School in the town of Oudong, about 90 minutes northwest of Phnom Penh. John described it as a wonderful experience.
“Since the town of Oudong is in a more rural area, many of the people and students were not used to seeing Westerners,” John said. “Many people, including the children, stared at us with great interest and giggled a lot. They were genuinely interested in American culture and in learning English.”
John said the students were respectful and stood up whenever a teacher entered the classroom.
“The work of teaching was challenging but also very rewarding and a lot of fun,” he said.
The Ellems celebrated Christmas with the students, including a birthday on that day, and participated in an awards ceremony for the top students.
They also celebrated the national holiday that marks the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
There were no washers and dryers, electric or gas stoves, refrigerators or microwaves in the rural areas of Cambodia, John said.
But everybody has a smartphone and Internet use is prevalent, even in the countryside, John said.
The Ellems stayed with a family in Oudong. They ate traditional Cambodian dishes every day, hand washed their our own clothes and prepared food in an outdoor kitchen.
The Ellems enjoyed attending a two-day traditional Cambodian wedding in a home next to where they were staying.
The wedding included various types of ceremonies and a lot of great traditional food, they said.
The Ellems visited the town of Siem Reap, where the temple of Angkor Wat is located. This large temple complex was constructed starting in 1113 and covers many acres.
The Wood County family enjoyed the fresh, deliciously cooked meals. Sherry noted the abundance of fresh mangoes, lemons, oranges and bananas.
“The food was amazing,” Sherry said.
John said the Cambodians eat a lot of fish.
Even though it was not the hot season when the Ellems visited, temperatures every day normally climbed into the 90s. There was no air-conditioning outside of the capital city, so the Ellems used fans to keep cool at night.
John spent a week at the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Center near the base of Oudong Mountain, about seven miles from where the Ellems were staying in Oudong.
“During my time there, I woke up at 5 a.m. for some brief meditation and then joined the monks and nuns for breakfast at 6 a.m. After breakfast there was more meditation instruction and practice, including doing a wonderful walking meditation,” John said.
“In the afternoon we had some free time as well as meditation practice and then in the evening I taught English to a group of monks and nuns,” he said.
Although the monks and nuns were serious students, John said, they had a lot of fun — “especially as we worked our way around the language barriers.”
Phnom Penh has skyscrapers and signs of foreign investment, John said. He said Cambodia is an inexpensive country to visit.
Sherry noticed that many of the families in the rural areas had a shop in front of their homes.
Sherry recommends visiting Cambodia.