Experience exchange is becoming more and more important in contemporary NGO world. Sharing ideas and experiences, conducting study visits and work exchanges – all of these is a powerful tool for young professionals to increase and improve their capacities as well as for experienced specialists to share their knowledge and experience.
Today we are bringing you a remarkable example of KCD’s young professional – Say Visal, a former Child Rights Project Officer, who is doing his experience exchange placement in Germany for already 4 months, being a part of the volunteer exchange program sponsored by Bread for the World.
Hello and could you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Hello everyone, my name is Say Visal, I’m 25 years old. I come from Takeo province in Cambodia, but I moved to live, study and work in Phnom Penh in 2012. In KCD I worked as a Child Rights Project Officer, but now I got an opportunity to do my volunteering work in Germany. Here I work in a Child Center which is located about 1,5 hours from Berlin.
You mentioned that you moved to Phnom Penh to study. Can you please tell what did you study and where?
I actually have two degrees. One is General Management from CUS (Cambodian University for Specialities) and another one is TESOL – English Teacher degree from Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia.
So, how long have you been working in the NGO sector so far?
Actually, I started volunteering since I was in secondary school. Then, after I finished my high school and moved to Phnom Penh, I got an opportunity to do some volunteering work with an association called Cambodia Children and Youth Movement for Child Rights. Later, in 2018 I got an opportunity to join KCD as a Child Rights Project Assistant and then I was promoted to Child Rights Project Officer.
What are you doing in Germany now?
It is a new Program run by Bread for the World (one of the biggest organizations in Germany) that gives an opportunity for people from the Global South to spend one year volunteering in Germany. This year is the first time Cambodia is taking part in it, so I’m one of the first generation of Cambodian volunteers who came to Germany. Before arriving here, I was already given a host organization and an assignment place. We had two months of preparation after we arrived. It included German language course and host seminars to be well-prepared for work in this country. So, after two months of learning German and seminars, I was sent to my assignment place.
My host organization is mostly working with children. It is a Child Center, so we work on providing children with some life-skills, like, for example, cooking classes, consultancy and counseling, and some free-time activities. Sometimes we also go to the primary school and do some games and sports activities or even teach children and their parents how to use Social Media in a right way, because now they spend too much time in their mobile phones.
Could be an interesting experience to bring back to Cambodia, right?
How long have you been in Germany and how long are you going to stay?
I’ve been here for almost 4 months now and I’m staying for another 9 months. The overall program duration is 13 months.
So, how do you like Germany so far?
Big question. Cambodia and Germany are very different. My first impression of Germany was about transportation. Here they have a lot of different types of transportation, like subway, trains, buses, trams and so on. So you can choose the transportation that you like, and it is very effective. I do not see many traffic jams. It was also a little bit difficult for me to get used to the time difference.
Another thing, that is different from Cambodia is that people here are very direct. They will tell you very straight if they don’t like something or refuse to do something. In Cambodia, people would always try to find a softer way to say the same thing. For example, if I do something wrong at work my boss or my colleagues are going to tell me directly. So it feels a bit strange to me, because I have never experienced that before.
I also sometimes find it difficult to make friends with German people. They smile less than people in Cambodia and I have a feeling that they care more about themselves. So in order to make friends, you usually have to be introduced by someone, while in Cambodia you can just start speaking to a random person. But I must say, that it was mainly my first impression and now it’s getting better since I understand how things work.
Was it easy for you to get used to German culture?
I think, it was easier for me, because I have experience of working and studying with foreigners in Cambodia. So, it took me around one month and now it is getting better every day. Now I understand much better the way people work and communicate, so there is no cultural shock anymore.
And what were the biggest challenges (if any) that you have faced so far?
I think, the biggest challenge for me is language. Here people don’t always want to speak English. Even though they know it, they prefer to speak German. I work with children and I know they study English at school, but they don’t like to speak it. And my German skills are not yet enough to communicate with them in their language. So sometimes it’s hard for me to find out what people mean or I even have to search for someone to help me with translation. I also sometimes get confused, because all the things at the streets or in the supermarkets are written in German too. It is slowly getting better, but I still see that I need to learn more German.
And now another challenge is weather. It is completely different from Cambodia. I’m not used to winters or cold temperatures, so it is hard for me.
Is there anything that you don’t like about Germany?
I don’t think that I have something that I don’t like, but I wish I could see more smiling faces here.
You have already spoken about it before, but maybe you could tell more of how German working culture is different from Cambodian working culture?
Another thing is that everything needs to be planned ahead – at least one month or two months. You need to know what are your tasks to do and nobody is going to tell you what to do – you need to decide it by yourself. You can always ask for advise, but you must be sure you already have something before you go to ask. So I had to adapt and also start doing medium-term planning. That’s why it took me some time to find time for this interview.
In the beginning sometimes I felt that people were strict to me, but now I realize that it’s not about being strict, it’s about being direct.
So was it easy or difficult to fit yourself into German working culture?
At first it was hard. Especially in my first month. I had to plan everything, sometimes I missed the bus or the train and got late to work and my colleagues were direct to me. But luckily I have my mentor, with whom I could discuss this and get some good advise. So after one moth I learned their perspective and working culture, so now it’s getting better. I think I was also lucky to get experience working with foreigners at KCD, so I already had an impression about Western working style.
Visal, what are the two-three main things that you have learnt from working in Germany?
I think, it’s not much different from what I talked about before. I would say, first is the working style – you know clearly about your tasks and responsibilities. You should know what your tasks are and be highly responsible for them. You still have people who can help you, but you should be the one who can lead the whole thing.
And another thing is the value of planning. I mean, I do it in Cambodia too, but here it is really important to have things well-planned and well-prepared.
Right now I have only spent two months working here, so there might be more important things that I will learn, but for now these two are the most important for me.
In general, what are your expectations for this exchange placement?
Expectations are actually very basic. I want to learn something different and spend a year to experience something new like working style, culture, the way people make connections and communicate. I think, it would be great for me to learn all these things, because when I come back to Cambodia it will make my work with foreigners much easier.
And another thing, while working in Germany I expect that I can share something from my experience or my knowledge. I should not forget that I came here not just to learn, but also to share.
So did you manage to contribute your knowledge and experience to the organization you are currently involved in?
Not yet. I think I need more time to prepare and learn more. Especially about the kids I’m working with. Kids here and in Cambodia are very different. In Germany they are more independent, so I need to plan and find the way to present my Forum Theater knowledge to them, because I really want to do it. To the moment, I only managed to share share some things about my culture and the country I’m coming from.
I’m also a part of Bread for the World’s Youth, because I could see that just working with children was not enough for me. One of their areas of focus is child labor. So I talked about this issue in Cambodia. I was also able to join a few climate change demonstrations that they made and was involved into selection of German volunteers that will be sent to Cambodia and other countries next year.
How, do, you think, this experience in Germany will influence your future career?
I think it will definitely help me to improve my soft skills like planning, open mind and sense of responsibility. So it will help me a lot in the future, because now in Cambodia people learn to adapt and these skills are becoming highly valuable. I also think, my experience in Germany and my understanding of German working culture make me ready for some good opportunities.
Visal, what are your expectations after this volunteer placement?
I want to come back to Cambodia and share the experience that I got in Germany. I feel like there are many things that I can give to my community and to KCD.
I also want to be helpful to people who will undertake this program after me, because I’m the first generation of Cambodians taking this program, so I believe, I can give some valuable advise to other people who will be lucky to take this program after me.
What advise can you give to your fellow Cambodians who would also like to go for to Germany for this kind of placement?
First of all, make sure that you are ready. I mean, that you know what is the program about and make sure you fit the requirements. You should also have something to share to them and not just for you to learn. So think, how you can contribute to your host organization.
Another thing is be open-minded, because you are going to experience something that is sometimes completely different from your country. For some people it is a challenge, but I consider it as an opportunity to learn something new. So, be well-prepared, be yourself and have a clear perspective.
And one last thing, be clear of what you are going to do after the end of your placement. Because this program is not about what you do in Germany, but it is about what you do after you return to your home country.