If Wesley Hedden were a sundae, he’d be a hefty scoop of Neapolitan ice-cream topped with spicy nuts, drowned in chocolate sauce with a handful of deep-fried crickets on the side.
As far as personalities go, he’s colourful. He also has an insatiable sweet tooth and a taste for foods that crawl up walls. He’s also one of the only barang I know who looks good in a krama.
He’s also complex, quirky and big-hearted and the founder of an organisation designed to build bridges in education and culture across Southeast Asia.
At the age of 22, when many of his counterparts were stumbling through their Spring breaks on beer-soaked beaches, Wes plunged in to help with the Hurricane Katrina clean-up in New Orleans. He then leapt across the world to China where he spent two months teaching English through Princeton In Asia, then moved to the Vietnam Delta in 2006 where he taught for two years and started digging deeper into Asian culture.
“There’s something special that makes me feel connected to this part of the world,” he said, thrusting his hands deep into his baggy chino pants.
“Between the people, the food, the lifestyle and the pace of life….the way people interact and socialise….and the fact I know how to get around Asia better than I do the U.S. and can have a bigger impact here…I could imagine myself staying forever”.
What this means in real terms is that Wes speaks Vietnamese, Cambodian and Spanish (he majored in Latin American studies at Tulane University and spent time in Buenos Aires and Nicaragua) and has just returned from two months in Yangon studying Burmese (another country where he’s spent time helping in hurricane relief).
It also means he’s doing more than just relishing the cuisine and cheap lifestyle. He’s putting his loy where his mouth is.
It was 2009 when he arrived in Cambodia as a volunteer for VIA (Volunteers In Asia), first living in Battambang then in far-flung Ratanakiri province. It has been his home ever since (along with frequent visits to Vietnam, Burma and Thailand for work).
And, while he’s a self-confessed extrovert who rarely sits still for more than a nanosecond, he admits some of his happiest hours were spent hunkering down in a cottage in Ratanakiri with only a couple of rats for company.
“I loved it,” he grins as he wrinkles his brow, sweeps his hand across the back of his neck and wraps his legs around the chair like a pretzel. His clear, pale blue eyes sparkle from behind wire-rimmed glasses and he laughs as he recalls his rustic lifestyle.
“I hiked in the mountains every day, swam in the lake and ate two kilos of fruit every evening. The worst day was when I got stuck in a briar patch on a mountain since I was all alone. I started to panic and freaked myself out until I was able to cut my way out of it.”
Being stuck in briar patches notwithstanding, Wes is a man who enjoys challenging positions. He used Bob Dylan songs to teach English to his NGO colleagues, got himself locked into a dorm room with 10 of his students in Kampong Speu, and “accidentally” ate handfuls of ants while digging into a bag of snacks.
There’s also something endearing about a fellow who relishes chowing down on blood cockles, spends his spare time studying Burmese and taking salsa classes and throws his heart into everything he does.
In 2009, with a Carrie Gordon fellowship from Princeton University, Wes started the Sarus Exchange Program in Cambodia to bring together his two passions (other than food): Education and Southeast Asia. In addition to his position as SEA Programme Director at VIA, he is now well into his second year of operation for Sarus, which is designed to build bridges between Cambodia and Vietnam by bringing together young people from both countries.
Former Google Global Manager, Max Erdstein, who is on the Sarus board, describes Wes as “persevering”.
“I first met Wes in 2008 when he was teaching in Myanmar and was impressed with his passion for Asia and commitment to education and young people,” he said.
And his students are filled with enthusiasm for his charismatic personality. One describes him as “thoughtful; good at multi-tasking and kind to people”. Another says “Wes is fast, intelligent, flexible and humourous”. And one of his 2011 alumni says “I respect Wes for his passion for East Asian cultures and his effort to help the community. He’s a soft-spoken man and very careful in his speak”.
The six-month programme selects 10 students from each country and introduces each to the other’s customs and culture. During this time, they participate in a series of seminars, field trips, research studies and community projects as well as living together for two weeks in both countries.
The idea was born after Wes was exposed to stories from his Vietnamese students about how it was dangerous in Cambodia and how the people weren’t intelligent or ethical. When he attended a conference in Phnom Penh, he heard the same prejudices about the Vietnamese – that they were spies and the people were deceitful.
“I kept hearing those messages and, since there’s a history of conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia, decided it was important to start a programme to help develop relationships between them,” he said.
Wes selects the participants from dozens of applicants who complete an application describing why they want to get involved. They have included the son of a motodop driver and the daughter of a farmer as well as youngsters from rural backgrounds. And, now that the fellowship has ended, he’s financing it all on his own dime, working constantly to raise funds from friends, supporters and contacts around the world who hear about his work, not a penny of which goes to pay him (they need to raise $3,000 by June 1 to reach their goal).
“These young people are the backbone and future leaders of their countries,” he said. “Not only do they have a great passion to learn and work together, but they’re extremely open to challenging themselves and learning how to share their feelings diplomatically and vulnerably.
“I’ve seen a great sense of team awareness and cooperation skills develop during the program, especially when they get together for our group projects of building toilets in a Cambodian orphanage and constructing a massive flood wall at a school in Vietnam.
“It warms my heart to see how everyone connects – and it was really special for me when I heard that 16 of last year’s alum planned a trip together in Cambodia, went on holiday to Sihanoukville then went to the orphanage to do volunteer work with the kids.
“And the best part of it is that, after spending time together, they discover they aren’t so different after all.”