Monday, February 15, 2010

Sua sadie Chnam Tmie!

 Just an example of how unbelievably artist some of my students are.  The assignment was to "draw your favorite place" and this student drew Angkor Wat. 

Sua sa dye ch’nam t’mai! (Happy New Year!) Over the course of this year, I have already celebrated two New Years and I still have one more to go.  Western New Year was celebrated in Kampot with a bunch of volunteers and Chinese New Year was celebrated in Battambang with my Khmer family, who knows what the last New Years will bring…

Chinese New Year was a riot.  The first day, which was Friday, February 13 was probably the biggest day.  There was a really big lunch with all of my host siblings and their spouses and children.  My oldest host brother, Manlee (who is Chun Lai and Chun Liap’s dad) came home for the occasion.  He has been working construction at Banan Mountain, which is still in Battambang, but it’s pretty far away.  From what I can gather, which usually isn’t much, he is working construction on the road.  The meal was amazing, as it always is.  After the big lunch, I went to a meeting at the UME for our International Women’s Day event, which is coming along really well.  We expanded the schedule to include a workshop on public speaking, which will present a project for the students, which will be to speak to the females at their schools about what they learned at the session.  It will be very beneficial to teach the girls a skill as well as presenting them with information on women’s affairs in their province and country.  We ate left overs for dinner that night from the luncheon feast. 
 The offerings to the ancestors on the first day of Chinese New Year

Saturday was day two of Chinese New Year, as well as Valentine’s Day.  If you are wondering, yes, Valentine’s Day is a huge deal here.  There were stalls selling roses, blasting Khmer love songs.  I did what I do on most Saturdays which was to meet up with the other volunteers in town at what we call, “The Spot” which is actually the “Espresso House Café”.  That is the family that I have become friends with after the mother, who was a cook at a restaurant run by Americans quit and started her own restaurant with her husband and four children.  The kids are all so hard working and they balance their education and running their small business.  We always try to send people there to eat because the food is really good and they are such a nice family.  Their business has been doing really well.  So, we went to breakfast there then I came home for lunch with my family.  While eating there, my brother Huck told me that it was Chun Lai’s birthday and there was going to be a party.  I didn’t really know the protocol for birthdays, so I called up Darlene and we went to the market and bought him two trucks and a police car.  Since there aren’t really any Hallmark stores here, I took the present to my friend who owns a little café/bakery/western store (the place that made my birthday cake) and asked them to help me wrap it and she did a wonderful job making it look good for him.  I came home with Darlene and people starting coming in for the party.  We ate a feast of shrimp, fried spring rolls and of course, rice, on bamboo mats outside of the house.  We ate cake before dinner then after we ate fried water beetles, at least that’s what I think they were.  They were actually really good and I ate two.  They weren’t cockroaches but I don’t really know what they were.  Better not to ask questions sometimes.  Huck gave me some sparkling grape fruit juice, but some man (I have no idea who is he, a friend maybe?) handed me a beer and told me to drink.  I didn’t really know what to do because it was the first time I was drinking with this family.  Just to remind you, Khmer people don’t really sip on beers, they cheers and chug.  It is always really difficult to strike a balance between not being judgmental but not getting smashed.  My host cousin asked me if this is the first time that I tasted beer and I didn’t want to lie, so I said that I have tried it before.  My host sister was drinking and was pretty drunk after only a few drinks.  My host mother was really concerned that I was drunk and everyone kept asking me if I was drunk.  I only had one beer, but that is enough to do in most Khmer people.  I didn’t want them to think that I was drunk, but I also didn’t want them to know that my tolerance is probably better than most of the men there, not because I drink that much, but just because it’s in my genes to be able to drink more than the average Khmer person.  My host sister’s brother in law took a liking to me and gave me a rose (that he stole from his sister in law) and gave it to me out of friendship for Valentine’s Day.  It was so awkward because I didn’t want to insult this man by totally rejecting him but I also didn’t want to give off the impression that I was interested in dating him, because I’m not.  The best way to avoid these situations, I have learned, is simply ignorance.  Literally ignoring the comments or just pretending that I don’t understand what he is saying worked like a charm.  My family was getting a kick out of it and I made a joke out of it, so it was fine.  My family would probably love for me to marry a Khmer man, especially one that they know and really like.  Don’t get me wrong, he is a nice guy, but I didn’t really come here to get married.  If something happens, ok, but it’s not my goal.  I actually had a conversation during the week with my host mother and sister about how I came to America to teach and help, not to have a boyfriend.  They thought that it was funny when I explained that I am taller than most Khmer men, so I can’t have a “song saa” (boyfriend) who is Khmer because they must be taller.  That night, I ended up staying up until 9:30, which is so late for me.  I’m sure that they were confused when I didn’t head to bed at the stroke of 8, which is what I do every night. 

Yesterday didn’t really feel like Chinese New Year because no one at my house was really home.  I was actually sort of happy that we didn’t have a huge celebration, again, because two days was enough for me.  I’m not as young as I once was, so I can’t party for three days in a row.  

This week is testing for grade 11, so I will not be teaching.  My coteacher asked me to come and I said no, because I am not going to be involved with the tests.  He doesn’t agree with my no cheating attitude (rather a think for yourself attitude) so I decided to avoid the frustration and instead get some other work done.  We will be going into PP next week for 8 days, so I want to do as much work as possible for this International Women’s Day event before we leave.  I will teach all through March, but there isn’t much school in April because of Khmer New Year and I will most likely be in Vietnam, so this school year is really winding down.  After April, we have class in May and the tests start in June for semester 2.  The time is really flying and before I know it, we will be at the year 1 mark.  

 This is a close up of the New Years tree that was set up near one of the spirit houses.  It's decorated with Chinese ornaments and lights.  Reminds me of another holiday I know....

I will be leaving for PP on Sunday and until then, I will be tying up lose ends here and maybe even visiting an orphanage or exploring BB a little more.  We all kind of realized that coming back to site after a trip sucks at first, but giving it a few days to get back in “volunteer” mode really makes it enjoyable.  

Today (is in Tuesday) I taught 10Q and did laundry.  I am going to set up another meeting for our event then probably just hang out with the babies.  Today I was playing with both Lai and Liap and they were just beating me up.  Hitting is affectionate but also out of anger.  This, I guess, was affectionate, but it really hurt.  Liap slapped me across the face then laughed for 5 minutes and pulled my glasses off my face.  Perfect.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I'd rather be.....

Hello everyone!!! I heard that there is a lot o snow in America now! Just wanted to let you know that, unlike America, the cold season has officially ended, and that means that sweaty teacher has made a comeback.  I am so hot when I teach class (outside it is about 90 degrees and the classes don’t have electricity) but I have gotten over the embarrassment that is my life a long time ago.

I have been traveling on the weekends and it has been pretty fun.  But on the bus home, I always feel a sense of remorse because I feel like I am living a double life and after the bill of the weekend, I realize that it is excessive.  But, I am able to see a lot of Cambodia with people that I really enjoy, so I shouldn’t feel guilty.  I guess the guilt is a good sign, but it would be rather wasteful if I didn’t take advantage of how small (and amazing Cambodia is).  I always feel really refreshed after these trips and it is actually really important for my metal health.  My mom put it all in perspective when she said that on those trips, I am actually being myself because at site, I am a teacher, constantly concerned about being conservative, I am at home by 6:00 at the latest and when I am away from site, I can let my hair down (literally), speak English and literally be myself.  I realized, though, that in transition, I am able to meet people that I would never have the opportunity to meet.  There have been many people who say that they have never hear of Peace Corps or even talked to an American.  So even when I am traveling, I am able to converse with people that I would never have the chance to outside of sitting on a six-hour bus ride from PP.  It is just a really weird change once I step off the bus. 

Integration here is a really strange concept.  Everyone talks about “being integrated”, but what does that even mean?  How does one even become integrated and how do we even know when we get to that point?  Well, I realized that maybe I am becoming “integrated” (whatever that even means) last week.  I had a flat tire when I came out of an internet cafe.  I knew that are places to get a flat tire fixed on my side of the bridge, so I decided to just walk my bike there.  I ran into a man who is a “motodup”, which means that he drives his moto for a living.  He is always parked outside of a restaurant that I eat at every now and then and he always tries to chat with us.  I saw him while I was walking my bike and he directed me to a place that he knew.  Furthermore, he stood with me and made sure that it was fixed properly.  It turns out that he has a daughter who lives in Chicago and before I knew it, we were talking about the price of the electricity that we get from Thailand.  I could tell that this guy had been dying to talk to an American.  As you are reading this, you probably don’t understand how this little, minute action really made me feel at home.  And of course, I will be looking up his daughter once I go back to America.  When I got off the bus, I saw him and we had a little conversation but it was more personal this time.  I was walking to get my bike, which I had left at a restaurant in the center of town.  Darlene and I have become friends with the family and I asked them if I could leave my bike in their house and they looked after it.  When I got there, my bike had (yet another) flat, but their son took the bike to a bike repair shop on his moto and got it fixed for me and refused to accept money.  If you are wondering how he got my bike there, he rode his moto while holding onto my bike as it rode passengerless.  These two very, very small interactions really go a long way when you are a 23-year old year old living in a different place.  It was really reassuring to know there are some people that are really looking out for me.  Battambang is a big place, but I continue to feel increasingly comfortable here.
 Our trip on the bamboo train. 

As for teaching, I have really hit a wall.  Of my four classes, I really enjoy two of my classes but the other two are a little more difficult.  It’s tough to teach when the curriculum consists of a book that is ten years old and has lessons on windsurfing, which is a word that I have never even said until I came to Cambodia.  Plus, there are literally no resources besides a chalkboard and chalk.  But, there are small accomplishments that really keep me going.  For instance, we played “Robot” in my class after learning how to ask indirect questions using “Can”.  For example: “Can you please tell me your name?” as opposed to “What is your name?”.  The way that the game is played (which I learned during training) is the teacher (me) is the robot and the robot has to do what the students ask so long as they as a question using “can questions.”  One class was asking questions about what I look for in a guy, but this class was more easily amused.  I actually danced for them and sang.  One girl asked me to speak in Khmer to the class and when I said “Kinyom chimua Kealan.  Kinyom mock bee Amerik bontai ail lonee, kinyom rua now Kampuchea” which means “My name is Kealan.  I am from America but now I live in Cambodia” they were dying,  I kept going and told them about when I tried to buy fruit.  They were all clapping and laughing so hard but I was happy that they got to see how shameless I am about speaking.  They actually told me that my Khmer was very clear, which made me happy.  After class, I was walking to my bike when Chakriya, who is one of my favorite students, asked me to come with them to the canteen.  They ordered papaya salad for me, which is so delicious, but super spicy.  While I really like spicy food, I am a huge baby.  They even ordered me the “at hul” (not spicy) and I was dying.  My lips were on fire when one student looked at me and said “Cher, you need water”  I tried to play it cool, but I chugged that glass in a second.  They were asking about the upcoming Chinese New Year (more on that later) and we talked about America and just life in general.  It is pretty amazing to be able to hang out with students in their true element. 

As for Chinese New Year, since my family is Chinese, it is a pretty big deal.  It will be a three day even starting on Sunday, which is also Valentine’s Day, which is a big deal here, or so my brother Huck and my students tell me.  So, Chinese New Year is a three day event with a lot of food, drinking, music and pretty fun parties.  It is pretty unreal how universal holidays are.  When it comes down to it, it is really simple- there are customs then after, everyone enjoys themselves and the company of family.  It always makes people reflect on just how lucky we are to be alive and to be around each other.  Of course there is the ritual of the pre-ceremony fight, which I witnessed first hand during training.  My host family was preparing to go to the wat and my sisters and mom were all yelling at each other.  I don’t know what they said, but it was so obvious- my mom was yelling at my sisters for being too informal, to which the girls all responded that they don’t have any clothes to wear.  But once that issue is resolved, it is really uniform how people sit down, eat the traditional food and simple enjoy themselves.  There is so much preparation (my family has been preparing for weeks) but once the tables are cleared and the dishes are washed, that is the real holiday- being around each other.  Simply having a day set aside (or in this case three) to simply appreciate the past year and celebrate what is to come is customary, regardless of religion, language or country.  We tend to complicate the process, but it’s the end result that is the important part.  Maybe this is just me not having a holiday that I am used to for a while, but it is actually rather obvious when you back up and look at it from the side of the world.  

 I talk about my friends here a lot, so here they are: (In the back, left to right) Jessica, Meagan and Keiko (in the front row, left to right) JaNise, Jacqueline and Me

As I have posted about a few times before, we are currently right in the midst of planning an event for International Women’s Day at the university which will focus on the importance of education.  We had a meeting and they approved the event, so now we will have another meeting tomorrow with the Ministry of Education, the university and the volunteers.  I am really thinking long term for this (as in making a weekend long event over the summer with a few volunteers from different provinces).  I asked a female Khmer teacher to be my counterpart and she was really excited about it.  Our game plan is to bring in 5 female 11th graders from each of our schools (there are 6 volunteers participating).  We will make small groups of 4 high school girls and 2 university students, who will be the group leaders.  The event will be completely in Khmer, so the girls feel comfortable and so that they are able to express themselves.  We will have 5 speakers from 5 different professional careers (a doctor or nurse, a woman from an Ngo, a professor at the university, an accountant and a woman from PP who works in the international sector).  We want the women to talk about how education was the bridge to achieving their goals.   Many of the girls want to be doctors, but they have no idea how to become one.  We are all really excited and it is coming along really well.  We will be presenting our schedule and budget plan tomorrow. 

As for my home life, I came back from PP two weeks ago to find a new member of the family, which is common.  His name is Meow and he is a really annoying cat.  I guess he is a good pet because he only eats bugs and mice, but he always wants to come into my room and I get really stuffy around cats, so I have been trying to get him out.  Chun Lai is as great as always.  My family is trying to force him to call me “Ming” (aunt) or “Bong” (sister) but he doesn’t really do it and calls me Kealan all the time, which is fine with me.  Chun Liap is walking a lot, which is fun because she couldn’t when I first came.  It’s really enjoyable to watch her grow.  Except for when both Chun Lai and Chun Liap cry at 6am when I am actually able to sleep in… Chun Liap has cried a few times and the family passes her along to me when no one else can calm her down.  She is so cute because there are a few times when Chun Lai and I are playing and she will hear us from the kitchen and crawl as fast as possible outside.  She is a really loud breather, so we can always hear her breathing and laughing in anticipation of playing with us.  There are times that having babies around isn’t so fun, but they are a pleasure when I have had a crappy day because they are always there with a smile and a “sua sa die” (hello).  My host brother Huck is getting really good at English and I realized that when he picked up on how frequently I say “it depends” and he asked what it means.  He also told me that he was really confused on how I say “little” because it sounds more like “liddle” (said very fast).  It was pretty impressive that he was able to pick up on the slang because sometimes I forget that English isn’t his first language.

I will be in PP next week for in service training, which basically means a week of sessions during the day and pizza at night.  We found a bowling alley in PP and that was a blast! There is also a movie theatre, so maybe we will go there too…..

I realized that teaching is not really my cup of tea (as in I don’t want to do once I get back) but I am trying to make the most of it and enjoy it the best that I can.  Starting this International Women’s Day event has really kicked my mental health back up.  I feel better in class simply because I now have a project that is not related to teaching English.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my students and I am really liking my job as a teacher, but sometimes it feels like the barriers are a little too much and it really weighs me down.  This project has really revitalized me.

Last two things: fashion here cracks me up and despite the conservative nature of clothing here, I think that it is pretty funny to note two very popular t-shirts in the BB currently.  The first is “I f***ing love to cuddle” and my favorite “I’d rather be snorting coke off a stripper’s ass”.  That is not a joke.  Anyone want one?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The tale of Dara

My house on a typical day

Well, I am currently into the second half of my four part service and it has really made me reflect on my time here so far. Much like any endeavor we take on, it is difficult to know if you are doing the right thing at the time. Sometimes we realize immediately if we acted in the right way or the wrong way and sometimes it is not so cut and dry. With Peace Corps, it is the same. You can do something and immediately regret it and sometimes it takes weeks or months to see the reaction to your action. The reason that I am even saying this is because I had the rare experience of seeing first hand the fruits of my labor. For the sake of this story, I will call the student Dara (I still do not know all of the names of my 350 students…) Well, Dara is a boy in my 10Q class and he is probably the biggest trouble maker of all my students. For the most part, the entirety of my 10Q really makes an attempt to learn, although they are still not as strong as many of the other 10th graders. Well, Dara is pretty inconsistent in attendance but very consistent in making trouble for me during the class. The class is pretty dominated by girls and the boys sit together in the back. Within this group of boys, there are probably 5 boys that participate and are at the top of the class (they are also in English Club). So, when Dara comes to class, he sits in the back and distracts all the boys, never takes notes and refuses to speak English. When I ask him where his book is, he will say “now pdaia” which means at home. Much is the same when I ask him where his homework is, “at mein” which means I don’t have it. Well, this week, he was especially rowdy with his two cronies in the back. We started an exercise with seven questions and I told them that they were each to do one. They didn’t understand, so another boy explained it. They kinda freaked out and tried to plead with me, but my response was that if you come to class, you come to work, not to sit. Everyone is fair game in my class. So, the other four students wrote their answers on the board and these three boys went to the board and wrote their answers. One was right and the other two were just completely wrong. One sentence said “I never used to eat to the moon.” (The exercise was to take words from a table and construct a sentence.) Well, we went over the answers and I was very patient with those two and we all worked on the answers together. My coteacher usually calls those boys “not clever” and makes fun of them, but I decided that I wanted to show them they can actually do this. I tried to praise them as much as I could and make fun of myself to divert the attention from those students. Well, the next day, I was waiting outside the classroom when Dara came up to me and started a conversation. Now, he can’t really say much in English, so his questions were “House, where?” After he asked a few questions in English, I decided that he felt really uncomfortable, so we spoke Khmer. He asked about my siblings, if I am happy in Cambodia, do I miss my family, etc. He also told me a little bit about himself. He lives at the pagoda and is from a district pretty far away. There were some kids making fun of him but he didn’t really care and we actually had a nice conversation. I thought that maybe he was just trying to suck up after the class before, but when I walked into the class, he moved his seat away from his posse of boys and instead sat next to my coteacher. He took notes all class long and when I used a little Khmer, he said “very good” and gave me two thumbs up. I noticed that he was talking to the coteacher a lot and pointing to the board, which I took as an indication of asking her a question related to the class. Maybe it was an act, but I really think that he made a turn around. He is a total tough guy. What really stood out was that he moved seats. When I first came to Battambang and was trying to figure out what classes to teach, I was really torn up as to whether or not I would be able to teach 10Q. I knew that the class would require much patience and that the students wouldn’t understand me. I mistook their confusion as laziness for the first few months, but now I really understand the class and I can honestly say that this class is my most rewarding. Who knows why there are in that class, maybe learning disabilities, eyesight issues, they are poor, etc. I knew that I wanted to teach classes 11B, C and D because their skill level and interest would be high. I was torn up about 10Q because I didn’t know if I would actually do it because let’s be honest, patience isn’t my strong suite. But, this whole experience is about challenges. I want to develop these skills and teaching this class is really helping me to learn. Of course I am learning so much with my grade 11 classes, but it’s different. I am seeing the growth of a different kind of student. These are kids are different from the other ones. There are a lot of those kids in my English Club and teaching them can be so frustrating, but when they understand, it is the best part. Last week, we listened to “Real Love” which was originally written by John Lennon, but Regina Spektor sang it for a charity CD for Darfur. We listened to the song and wrote out the lyrics then talked about the meaning. They were so proud of themselves when they got all of the lyrics. I had to help them with a lot of the lines, but they were so happy and after we ended, I heard a bunch of the girls singing the song as they walked away. All in all, it is so important to remember that this is a marathon. I am in the second part of a four part series. You can have your highest highs and lowest lows within hours of each other. But those little victories along the way are what is keeping me going. I am curious to see how Dara progresses now that he (hopefully) has made the decision to study.

Peace Corps came for a health site visit and I went with the two medical staff (one is from America and the other is the sweetest Khmer woman named Navy) to this hospital called Emergency. It is really close to my house and I ride past it everyday, but I have never gone in. We went in to look around and it is simply remarkable. It is an Italian ngo and they cater mainly to accidents from all over the country. The medical care is completely free and the staff consists of medical professionals from Italy as well as Cambodia. They train doctors and nurses so that the international staff can phase out, which means that the hospital will be completely Khmer run and operated. It was a really great experience. I was able to get to know Navy, who is the newest Peace Corps medical staff member. She studied medicine at Tulane and UC Davis. She is a remarkable doctor and an even better woman. She embodies all the characteristics of being a powerful woman. She survived the war and educated herself, but never lost touch of her roots. She is extremely gentle and affectionate, which is very common amongst women here. I cannot say enough about her and I really look forward to getting to know her.

Darlene and I are working with two K2’s to plan an event for International Woman’s Day, which is on March 8. The event will hopefully be at the University of Management and Economics. We will meet in a week from Monday with the university and a ministry official to talk about the details. We want to pair up our high school girls with university students as a sort of mentor program. The theme will be about the importance of education and we will have guest speakers. Many of our female students know what they want to be, but not necessarily how to become it. We will most likely have 3-5 girls from each of our schools come to the UME and have the girls work together. It is going to be a really fun event and I am hoping that I will be able to lay the foundation for the girls’ camp that Keiko and I are planning. One of the amazing parts of Peace Corps is that we have this ability to say “Ok, I think that we need to work on empowering girls, let’s have a camp.” We are going to identify girls that we think are the best candidate for this position of leadership. At my school, we will most likely have an essay contest involving everyone interested.

The statue upon entering Battambang (symbolizes the tale of manu battambang, which means the man with the disappearing stick.)

English Club is going well. The grade 12 students are super busy because they have tests coming up, so they haven’t really been coming. But the grade 11 and 10 students are really consistent with their attendance. On Wednesdays, I usually meet with a group of grade 11D students in the library and we just talk and work on writing and they ask me questions. One student asked me if he could make a presentation to the group about Cambodian customs, which was such a great idea. So, we decided that every Wednesday, one or two students will make a presentation on something that interests them. We will all have a discussion and give feedback. That way we can work on public speaking as well, which is important. My goal for English Club was to have the students really run it, but I just monitor. This was such a great first step. I will be there to guide them and correct them, but they are really taking initiative in their club and their education.
A typical classroom in Cambodia (70 students to each class means about 3 students to each desk

I also went to PP this weekend. A bunch of volunteers went in and essentially did what our friends are doing at home- eating pizza, going to bars and seeing other Americans. What we do in PP is basically all of the stuff that we can’t really do at site- spend money, eat western food, buy bootleg DVDs and show our knees and shoulders. It is really refreshing to go into PP and really not have to worry about being really conservative and have our guard up. Obviously we have to be careful in PP, but I am at home by 5:00 every night in Battambang, but in PP I don’t have to worry about offending my family. While going into PP is a great break, I am always really happy to get back to site. There are currently tests going on at school, so I didn’t have class yesterday or today. Tomorrow classes start again and so does English Club. I’m excited to get back to the daily grind.

Typical wedding clothes for women