Thursday, April 29, 2010

Into the 10th month now....

 My host brother Huck, on his 24th birthday

I know that it has been a while since my last post, so I will do my best to catch you up to my present situation….

After my trip to Vietnam, I was really excited to get back to work (teaching) and my regular schedule.  Well, that didn’t really work out like I had hoped.  The school year is tricky because the religious holidays are based off of the lunar calendar, so it’s difficult to know when those are.  The other holidays, such as the King’s birthday, are the same every year, but the school year is littered with various religious, international and Cambodian holidays.  It’s difficult to get back on track when the school year is disrupted like this.  So, Khmer New Year holiday was scheduled from March 29- April 20.  The teachers and students at the school said that the students may not come to school during the week of April 20th because they “may want more days off”.  I took that to mean that not all of the students would come, but we would have enough to have class and at least make the most of coming to school.  Well, I was wrong.  I went to school on April 20th to find about 5 motos parked outside of the office.  Not a good sign.  As for class, out of my 70 students in each class, about 5 kids came.  I went to two of the classes and we just talked about what we did for Khmer New Year.  Because there were so few students and I spent last week in PP, I didn’t want to teach something new or even review because we would have to do it again two weeks later.  Essentially, it was a wash of a week.  At first, I was really mad because it seemed to be a waste of time, but I was able to spend a lot of time with my students and we had fun.  I helped one 12th grader with her iPod that her cousin sent to her.  I met with my loyal English Club students and we started to work on our public speaking project.  I realized how frequently in high school students are obligated to present something to their classes (regardless of the subject or means, students are always giving presentations in America).  I wanted my brave students to work on this task.  So, like many ideas that I have here, I had to start from square one.  The students that come in had no idea how to do any of this, so I had to explain to them the types of public speaking (informative, persuasive and instructional/how-to) and encouraged them to not do persuasive.  We made lists of ideas to present on and scheduled a field trip to the university library.  Now, my high school’s library was two floors with an electronic system, but at Net Yong High School, we have about 200 books and most of them are American girl doll books, such as Samantha’s Big Day or Meet Kirsten!.  Those are some fine reads, but not in this case.  I talked to my friend Raya, who works afternoons in the American Corner library, and he gave me the ok to have my kids come and research their ideas.  The next day we set off for the library.  There were only two kids who came, which happens from time to time, but it worked out better because I was able to give them my attention.  The girl, Kimny, who came to our International Women’s Day event was REALLY nervous because she had never been to a library and she told me that she has never done research and had never used a computer.  When we walked in, they both (as in Kimny and Vida, the boy who I write a lot about) both signed up for a library card, which only costs 50 cents.  Vida decided that he wanted to present on how to improve study skills (which is a great topic because study skills aren’t really taught here) and Kimny wanted to present on a famous person.  Because there aren’t that many internationally famous people in Cambodia, she chose to present on Hun Sen, the Prime Minister.  We started in the Encyclopedia while Vida looked for books on his own.  There was a small little blurb about Hun Sen and she was able to get some information from that.  The other books didn’t mention Hun Sen at all, so we went onto the computers.  I could see how nervous she was because she had NEVER used one before, but we went to Wikipedia and looked at Hun Sen’s page.  I know that many of you believe that Wikipedia is not the best source, but because she had never used anything like this before, I didn’t want to overload her and scare her off of research.  She took notes and had some difficulty with it, but was able to get some good information about him.  Vida was unable to find any books, but started messing around with google searches and I left them alone to search on their own.  For about a half hour, Vida helped Kimny with some basic computer ideas, such as email and google.  It was so great to see them branch out and go at it themselves, without me holding their hands.  We still have a long way to go, but it was a pretty great first step.

Khmer New Year only lasted 3 days officially, but it really was a week.  Cambodians all went home to their “homelands” and the country was pretty much shut down for a week.  It was a rather boring week and therefore I went into PP on Sunday, which was the day after the field trip to the library.  We had training on Tuesday and Wednesday, but a bunch of people came in early.  The purpose was to begin the preparation for the arrival of the K4’s and their training.  I am in the K3 group and the year ahead of me if the K2 group.  We are only the third group in Cambodia (the K stand for Kampuchea, which is the Khmer word for Cambodia).  It was very strange to sit in a room with all of the K2’s and K3’s because we have never all been together.  Moreover, we were talking about the next group coming in! The school year is almost over and the K4’s will be here in July, that means that we won’t be the babies of Peace Corps Cambodia anymore, such a strange thought.  We spent Tuesday and Wednesday coming up with ways to improve training for the K4’s.  The K2’s also had a conference about COS, which stand for Close of Service, which is essentially when they end their tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  

 Chun Lai eatin some cake

We also talked about summer projects.  After living here for 7 months, I have decided that my summer projects will most likely not be projects that I create on my own simply because there are so many projects already in progress here and it makes more sense for me to join a team and help with something that is in the works instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.  The next few weeks will consist of teaching, of course, and looking around for non-governmental organizations that need more manpower.  Obviously I will not just sign up for anything, so I am going to get a feel for what I want to do and how I can help.  It’s really exciting to think about being able to take part in some really great projects.  While I enjoy teaching, there are so many things that are happening here that I want to be a part of. 

In PP, we did what we normally do- shop for things that we can’t get at site and eat western food.  We all go back to site with digestive issues, but it’s worth it.  It’s funny though, because a common topic of conversation with my host family is that in America, I only eat rice once a month, but in Cambodia, it’s usually twice a day.  Well, now I NEED to eat rice once a day or I feel sick.  I crave rice and I never really thought that I would.  So, sometimes when we are in PP and we are making plans for lunch or dinner, we bypass the western restaurants and head for the 50 cent plate of rice and pork and feel really satisfied. 
So that brings me up until today.  My next few weeks will be at school, but the school year is really winding down.  I graduated from college almost a year ago and my first school year as a teacher is almost done.  Some really strange things to think about.  It makes me look back on my nine months and ask myself where they went.  At this rate, I will be at the COS conference wondering where my two years went.  It scares me that time can move this quickly, but also gives me comfort because those volunteers that are unhappy tend to comment that time moves really slow for them. 

 JaNise and Jacqueline at the Chinese Noodle Shop- $4 and we ate like QUEENS

I hope that all is well at home with all of you! I miss everyone and love to get updates, so please feel free to contact me either here or my email address is
I have also posted a lot of pictures on my facebook account, so check them out if you are on. If not, find someone who is if you want to see them!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


 The craziness of Ho Chi Minh City's traffic

I want to apologize to my loyal readers for my two week hiatus, but I wanted to gather my thoughts about my recent 12 day venture to Vietnam before I posted. 

So, let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start (just a Sound of Music reference…).  I left Battambang on April 1st and spent the night with my friend and travel partner, Jacqueline.  While we both love Cambodia, we were both itching for a trip and spirits were really high that night and we left early the next morning for Ho Cho Minh City.  I had previously set up my visa at the Vietnamese Consulate in Battambang, so that was one less thing that we had to worry about at the border.  It was really painless and the trip there was pretty cool because it was a place in Cambodia that I had never been.  We drove through a bunch of other PC volunteers’ sites.  It’s always cool to see one of my friends homes, even if it is from the air-conditioned bus passing through.  Nonetheless, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City around 2:30 and the culture shock set in.  Although Ho Chi Minh City is close in proximity to Phnom Penh, it seems light years ahead.  I never thought that I would ever be amazed by a vending machine, but I couldn’t help myself gawk at it while we strolled through the park on the way to the market.  It was obvious once we set foot into the market just how different Cambodia’s markets are to Vietnam’s markets.  For instance, they have much more to offer and it is so much cleaner.  There were ever land lines in the individual stores! Needless to say, we were astounded by the array of goods that we simply don’t have in Cambodia and therefore spend way more than we wanted to.  Regardless, we had a good time walking through the market (Ben Thanh Market) and relaxing with a coconut and talking to a family from Hong Kong.  

One of the funniest parts of our trip was our inability to stop IRB-ing.  What is that, you ask?  It is a little technique that we learned in training and it stands for intentional relationship building and one volunteer refers to it as BFF-ing.  Anyway, it is the effort to let people know who you are, why you are here and establish some sort of relationship.  It is what we do all the time and our IRB-ing skills have really skyrocketed at site, but clearly we don’t know how to not IRB and talk like a regular person.  We kept telling anyone who would listen that we were from America, but we work for the US Peace Corps as English teachers.  Oh yes, we speak Khmer and we live with Cambodian families.  Yes, we miss our families, but we love Cambodia and are really happy there.  Essentially we had the same conversation with anyone who showed ANY interest in us.  I guess our Peace Corps training staff would be really proud of us. 

 The One Pillar Pagoda

The rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh City was spent being tourists.  Our first full day there was spent at the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum and a pagoda, of course.  The Reunification Palace was the home of the former President during the 60’s and became a symbol of the fall of Saigon in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks broke down the gates.  It was built in the 1960’s and based upon “modern design” and therefore looks something like a Brady Bunch home.  The War Remnants Museum was exactly that, a museum of artifacts from the wars fought between Vietnam and French and America.  There was a large emphasis on the American war, however.  While it was very awkward to be on the other side, there was one thing very clear was we walked around the two floor museum- no matter the cause, war is such an awful thing.  It brings out the worst and divides people in ways that are simply grotesque.  Clearly I have a non-violent stance, being a PEACE Corps Volunteer, which is one of the reasons that I gave up two years to live here in Cambodia.  That’s neither here nor there…. The pagoda was beautiful, but after living in Cambodia and spending much time in pagodas, it wasn’t much to write home about.

We stayed at a family-run hostel in Ho Chi Minh and the family was really nice.  We weren’t excited about our fifth floor room without an elevator, but the father came to my rescue when I locked my keys in my backpack.  We lock up our bags when we leave with those little luggage locks and I had the genius idea of leaving my keys in my bag because there was no need for them.  The father went out and bought a little saw to saw the lock off.  We were happy that we stayed at the place run by a family. 

The next day, we went to the train station and boarded the train for Hanoi.  We left Ho Chi Minh City at 12:00 and embarked on our 31-hour train ride.  It really wasn’t as awful as I thought that it would be, but it wasn’t that fun.  There was not much to do except watch a Jet Li movie dubbed with Vietnamese translations or attempt to play solitaire.  I remember when I interned in New York with the Peace Corps Recruiting Office, one of the woman that I worked with was a volunteer in the Ukraine and she told me that when you are a PC Volunteer, you get used to the idea of a long bus or train trip really quick simply because there is no other option.  This time last year, I was complaining about an 8-hour bus trip to North Carolina with my softball team, how times have changed.  While we were making our plans for our trip to Sapa, Jacqueline said, “Well, it’s only a ten-hour train ride, so it won’t be that bad.”  I agreed with her, but it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized just how long ten hours really is, but we were acting like it was nothing. 

When we got to Hanoi, it was night and we were really tired, so we dropped off our things at our hostel and ended up just eating dinner and going to bed early.  The next day, we switched hostels to the one we originally intended, which is a European-style backpackers youth hostel.  It was way more our feel than the other place, plus it was about half the price.  We stayed in a dorm room with two French girls who liked to sleep more than sight see or go out, so we didn’t really see much of them.  We spent the day in the historical part of the city, starting with the One Pillar Pagoda, which was built about 1,000 years ago by the King at the time as a symbol of fertility.  We were too late to see Ho Chi Minh’s remains at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was a common theme of our time in Hanoi.  We walked around the city and ended up on some side street and since we don’t know any Vietnamese, when it came time to order food, we usually just pointed to what someone else was eating.  The food in Vietnam is really good and we had pho at least once a day, sometimes more than one.  Pho is basically noodles, chives, broth and meat.  There is a lesser version in Cambodia called gwee tee you, so we ate all the pho we could.  We then went to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1076 dedicated to studying the doctrine of Confucius.  The design and architecture are Chinese and I almost forgot which country we were in for a few minutes.  There is also a section of stone diplomas to honor the few students who completed the rigorous curriculum.  It was very serene there and was a great place to walk around in the hectic city.  Next, we went to Ho Chi Minh’s residence, which is behind the Presidential Palace, which was the home of the French governor.  After the French were thrown out, Ho Chi Minh refused to live there and instead there was a modest house built behind the palace.  The landscape and view was gorgeous, but the house was really small and actually looked like house a Peace Corps volunteer would live.  That was all the sight-seeing that we could do in a day, so we went back and ate dinner then went out.  We were both very impressed with our ability to go out at night then wake up the next day and take advantage of the city.  

 The Temple of Literature

We went to the Museum of Ethnology the next day, which is dedicated to the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, which there are a lot.  It really got us excited for our trip to Sapa, which is home to a few ethnic minorities.  We especially liked the section about the Khmer minorities in Vietnam.  On display were the sampots that we teach in everyday, as well as the kramas that the men wear everyday.  From there we went to the Hanoi Hilton, which was the prison that was used to hold POWs during the Vietnam War, including John McCain.  We toured around the rooms as they displayed how the prison was used to house Vietnamese rebels and how the French used it to torture and kill.  The music was really scary and the lighting was dark.  We then came to the part about how the Vietnamese used the prison against American POWs.  There was a sign that discussed how well the prisoners were treated as well as pictures of them playing basketball, celebrating Christmas and altogether enjoying their stay.  Like I said, we were on the opposite side of the equation this time, so I left with the same feeling of just how awful war is. 

The next day, we had seen everything we really wanted to and the traveling really got to us, so we went to the shopping section of town and then went to the water puppet show, which is an old Vietnamese tradition.  We went into a theater and listened to a Vietnamese band narrate the various stories through music.  There were a lot of families there and I think that it was one of the cooler things that we saw there.  The pictures don’t really do it justice. 

 Water Puppets

We left the next morning for Sapa, which was a ten hour train ride then an hour bus ride to the mountain side town.  It is really close to Laos and China and we were thankful for the cool weather.  We were awed instantly at the beauty.  Like I said, there are many ethnic minorities who live there and still farm on the mountainside.  The fields looked like steps and when we came into town, we were really pleased with out decision to go there.  As for sight seeing, the most to do is to take a tour through the mountains, which we did.  The markets were flooded with woman and children selling jewelry, clothing and purses.  We really relaxed there and met a lot of cool people.  Unlike the rest of Vietnam, most of the people there spoke English, so we were able to communicate and learn a little more about their lives.  The food was really good and we stayed at a cute French hotel with really good food.  The nightlife for us consisted of getting food massages then singing “YMCA” at a karaoke bar that only had 5 people in it, all Vietnamese.  

 The mountainside in Sapa

A Hmoung Woman, Voo, with her daughter, Coo in Sapa

The trek back to Battambang was awful, to say the least.  We left Sapa in the morning on Sunday, April 11th for Hanoi.  We took the minibus to the train station and were appalled to find out that there weren’t any seats left.  We freaked out a little because our flight was at 7:00am the next day to Ho Chi Minh, so we were really scared we were going to miss our flight when a man come up to us and told us there is a bus.  It was a lot less money and the bus had all recliners.  We found out soon why people still preferred the train, however, it was sooo windy that we had motion sickness the whole time.  Regardless, we made it back to Hanoi safe and sound, which was a relief.  We spent the night at the backpackers hostel and woke up at 4:30 and made out way to the airport.  Despite the fact that we witnessed the drama of a 50-year man throw a tantrum about a bag, we checked in and were so thankful for the 2 hour flight, instead of a 31 hour train back.  We stopped in Ho Chi Minh for lunch (it was Monday by then).  By this time, Jac and I were really missing Cambodia in general and were so happy to hear a man next to us say “Kinyom jung ban nyum bye” which means “I want to eat rice” in Khmer.  We both stared and each other then struck up a conversation with him in Khmer, but he wanted to practice English.  He lives in PP and thanked us at least three times for being volunteers in Cambodia and bought our lunch for us.  Not to say that anything bad about Vietnam, but there is something so special about Khmer people.  They are just so friendly and warm and we really missed that when we were in Vietnam.  Meeting this guy and talking to him really made us realize that we were in the right place.  By that time, we were itching to get home to our families.  We took a bus into PP and once we crossed that border, we were instantly happier.  Jacqueline stopped at her site and I proceeded into PP.  The trip from Ho Chi Minh to Battambang in one day is just too much, so I left PP early the next morning.  I was so happy to be able to speak Khmer again and felt like I was home.  The tuk tuk drivers were all happy to see a foreigner who can speak Khmer.  When I got home, my family was all happy to see me and at dinner, Huck told me that he asked Chun Lai if he missed me and his response was “nuk nah!” which means “I miss her a lot” which warmed my heart.  It feels good to be back, except for the heat.  It’s so hot. 

It is now Khmer New Year and my family isn’t really doing anything today, but tomorrow we are going to the pagoda, which will probably be an all day affair.  All in the name of cultural exchanges.  I am really happy to be back and can’t wait to start teaching again.  A student called me this morning to wish me Happy New Year and to have good luck and good health.  So, to all of you back home, during Khmer New Year, I wish you good health, good luck and all the happiness forever (this is something that my students say to me a lot, even if it’s after English Club or class…)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The long awaited event.....

Since I am leaving for Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow morning with my friend, I thought that I should update my blog to tide my loyal readers over for the next two weeks (which is how long I will be in Vietnam, probably without internet). I am currently in PP and will spend the night here then set off for Vietnam in the morning. I thought that I would be able to make it all the way from the BB to Ho Chi Minh City in a day, but that’s about 12 hours of bus travel, which is not that fun.

Since my last post, I have been handling my free time well. While I feel strange that I am not putting on my sampot (the traditional Khmer skirt) and blouse, jumping on my bike and heading to school, but it is nice to have some time on my own. I spent the free time relaxing and trying to enjoy my free time but meeting with friends and making arrangements for our event (that happened yesterday, more to come on that later in the post….) For a one day event, we really had our work cut out for us. We had to arrange many things that we never really expected. For instance, because the entire event was in Khmer, we had to translate everything, which takes a long time, since we only have one translator, who is a man who works at the UME. I have been to the UME at least twice a week for the past 2 months working with the English Club, but also making sure that our program was coming along well. Working with the English Club at the university is really a pleasure. The students are really fun and it’s nice not to have to worry about teaching grammar and to engage the students in discussion without pulling it out of them. The way that the club works is that the man (Raya, who has become a close friend) copies an excerpt from the World Book on a particular subject. The students mainly ask me how to pronounce the difficult words or what they mean. We also talk about what the weeks lesson (last week was diabetes and the lesson before that was cancer). We also tend to talk about other things that have nothing to do what the photocopies from the World Book are talking about. For instance, one student asked me what it means when someone says “Nice tutu!” I asked him where he heard that, and he told me that he heard it on a TV show. I then explained how tutus are special clothes for ballet dancers and the rest of the hour was littered with tutu comments. I have also been able to increase my ties with the university, which is fun for me because working with students closer to my age on a more personal level is actually really fun. Because I am continually learning about the way that things work here, I have come up with a really great system with Raya, who is the man in charge of the English Club at the UME. We learned in training that Khmer people tend to go about things in an indirect way, which means that for Americans, it is difficult to get to the point, which is what we are after. After a few times of me not understanding the customs of programs like this, I told Raya that I won’t be upset or angry, I just need to know how things work, so please just tell me how to do it and we can get more done. It worked well and we are openly communicating, which is a good sign for events to come.

Last Saturday, we had a party at the high school for the end of term and the end of student teaching. The end of term is sort of a misleading title because all of the classes, besides grade 12, finished their term about a month ago after their tests. But grade 12 tests are a really big deal, so the end of their tests means a month long vacation, which Cambodians refer to as a “small vacation”. There are a few reasons for this vacation: end of grade 12 tests, end of practicum for teacher trainees, then Khmer New Year. Khmer New Year doesn’t start until April 14, but the students decide that they don’t want to learn, so that settles it, no class for a month. Khmer New Year is a three day affair and I will be coming back from Vietnam just in time for the occasion. There was a lot of confusion because school isn’t really officially canceled, but the students don’t come. In America, when school is canceled or we have a holiday, everyone knows months in advance. In Cambodia, I was supposed to hop on my bike and head to school to see if the students came. If a decent amount come, then we have class. But if not, then no class. I decided against this, because it just seems so wasteful and told my coteacher that I wouldn’t be there. I texted my favorite student, Vida, and asked him if we had class (the teacher asking the student if there is class???) and he said that he went to school on Monday and he was the only one there, so he wouldn’t be coming to school. I knew that if Vida, the most determined and hardest working kid that I have ever met is not coming to school, then chances don’t look too good for the rest of them.

On the home front, I have started teaching my host brother and his girlfriend English every night in our kitchen. It was really cute because one night at dinner, Huck asked me if I had some free time at night from 5:00-6:00 to teach him and his girlfriend, Navy. Between regular classes and English Club, I am really busy, but I knew that he probably worked up the courage after months of being too shy, so of course I said yes. It’s funny because when I walk into the kitchen from my room at 5:00, they both address me as they would a teacher and Huck has accidentally called me “cher” a few times, at which point I told him to call me Kealan, always, no need for the “cher” title. They are good students and I can see how much they are improving already. Navy is very shy, but that is not rare in this culture, but she is getting much braver and has even put Huck in his place a few times. As for the rest of the family, Chun Lai is still the cutest kid in the world and Chun Liap, his little sister, is still in Takeo province, which is where we had training and is about eight hours from the BB. I asked when she would be back and they said when the dry season harvest ends, in about 3 months. This made me extremely sad because she is staying with her great aunt and will not see her mother, brother or father for about 6 months, and she’s only a year and a half old. Huck told me that this happens because “she’s sick and she falls down a lot and her mom can’t work when she is there.” I’m pretty sure that she has Down’s Syndrome but children aren’t really tested for those things here. She is such an angel and I really miss her, but I feel awful that she is not with her family, but then again, these are things that I don’t understand, so I can’t pass judgment because I have no idea what is really happening.

End of the event happiness picture to show what strong women we are: Cher and students (from left to right)- Kimny, Sothea, Sophy, Sony and Charkiya

As for International Women’s Day, I have given a pretty detailed description of the events leading up to it, but I failed to describe how I chose the 6 females from Net Yong High School (my school). Each volunteer did it differently, but I decided that I wanted to choose the students who have shown leadership in class or around school. Brave girls who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and let their voices be heard. I also knew, because of the nature of Khmer girls, that they would feel much more comfortable if they came with a friend or someone that they knew beforehand. We split them all up and they were essentially forced to make connections throughout the province, but for their immediate comfort and simply to get them there the day of, I chose three sets of two friends. The first two girls were from my grade 11B class, Chakriya and Reaksmey. I have blogged about them before- Chakriya is a little pistol that is not afraid to speak her mind and Reaksemey is my host cousin’s daughter (the one from the funeral festival). They both are really smart and because they are in such a high class (11B), I know that they will be going to university and because they have a little money, they have a much better chance of success (sad, but true, it’s the same in America….) The reason that I like them so much is because when I stopped teaching their class, Chakriya apologized for the whole class and tried to get me to come back, that’s really brave. Reaksemey is the “cleverest” female in the class and is not afraid to put any of the boys in place. The next two girls, Kimny and Sony, are from my 11D class and English Club. When I first came, they were extremely shy and although they sit front and center in class, they never spoke. Well now, that is NOT the case; they are the first to volunteer to read or write their answers on the board. In English Club, they are the most consistent students and really are determined. They are the daughters of farmers and while I know that they don’t have a lot of money, they aren’t the poorest of my students. The last two girls, Sophy and Sothea, live at the orphanage that we visit a lot. It’s misleading because a lot of children who live at orphanages actually have parents who are alive, but their parents simply cannot afford to pay for them and they have a much better chance at success if they stay at an orphanage. They are the sweetest girls and although I don’t teach them, I have been able to get to know them around school and through the orphanage. I chose them because they have the odds against them. I know that not many people express their faith in them because their parents aren’t really their main caretakers anymore. Darlene and I went to their orphanage to deliver invitations that were written by the UME and stamped by the Provincial Office of Education in Battambang, and therefore were super official. They don’t have cell phones, so Darlene and I headed out there on Sunday and delivered the invitations to the girls. Sothea was at the market, but Sophy was shocked that I was inviting her and she must have reread the invitation 15 times. She was so happy and I know that she is really nervous about it, but they both are really independent. On top of all the regular obligations of a Khmer teenage girl, they also have to look after the younger kids at the orphanage and there are a lot of them. But they provide the affection and love that those kids don’t really get from anywhere else. They are two of the happiest and sweetest girls that I have met and I really want to let them know that I believe in them, and I think that this was a good venue for that.

My students working on their public speaking project (from left to right) Sothea, Sony, Kimny and Sophy

So, let’s get to the point- celebrating International Women’s Day. The day started like most of mine here, with a 6:00 wake up call. I made a little oatmeal and a lot of coffee then set off for the UME. I knew that there would be a lot of “day off issues” but I really underestimated those issues. It was a mad house because my daily tasks included being the leader of the group leaders as well as teacher and the other various tasks that are included with setting up an event like this. It took us a while to get going, but once we did, oh man, it was non-stop until the end. I was talking to the group leaders as my students started calling me saying, “cher, where are you? We are at the high school!” After we checked the students in, we separated all of them into 6 groups and since there were 6 students from each school, that means that they were all separated. I don’t think they liked that initially, but soon enough, they were best friends with their groups, which was the goal (to make friends across the province of Battambang), which was accomplished within the first few minutes. Each group was led by 2 students from the UME and one student from the teacher trainee school that Darlene teaches at. I cannot tell you how impressive these group leaders were. It is in their nature to be shy and nervous, but they were so brave and initiated conversation and that rubbed off on the high school students, which made the event a success. Of course there were bumps in the road, but the main goals were achieved:

• For the high school and university students to meet and make connections

• To hear from 5 successful women about how to become successful

• To improve confidence by instilling the idea that success is possible, no matter your background

Cher with the students and Chakriya this time...

The first speaker was a woman who works for a computer ngo and talked about her recent trip to America. She talked about how leaning English was so important for her because technology is moving so fast and is such a great asset to one’s career, which pleased all of us volunteer teachers. She was totally right in what she said, though: knowing how to operate a computer and the internet opens to many doors. She went to high school in Battambang and talked about being raised here. The second speaker was a bank teller from ANZ bank. She was a really short speaker, but she also speaks English and graduated from the UME. Working in a bank is a really great job, so that was inspirational. We broke for about 15 minutes and came back together. We then had our first (and only, it turned out) break-out session. We had the groups each make a list of their goals, but they also made a list of challenges standing in their way of those goals. For instance, a goal can be that the student wants to be a doctor. But the challenge is that medical school is expensive and the best ones are in PP, which is really far. We were scared that a half hour wouldn’t be enough time, but the students were really thorough, almost too thorough. We ended up cutting down the presentation time. We ate lunch together and it was so tasty. One of the teachers at my school also owns a restaurant. We bought lunch for everyone- rice and pork with mango salad and some drinks. I was so proud of my students because two of them, Kimny and Sony, were sitting with other girls and when I asked how they were doing, Kimny said that she has a new friend and they both giggled. I was impressed to see that my students were all pretty spread out, talking to students from different schools. That is a really big step for them and I was really proud because I know that when I go places where I feel uncomfortable here, I tend to stick to the people that I know well. After lunch, we listened to a nurse from Emergency speak. There were three other nurses that came with her. Emergency is an Italian ngo that trains Khmer doctors and nurses and they provide free services to Cambodians. While they used to mainly provide services to landmine victims, most of the patients are motorcycle and bicycle accident victims. The next speaker was a professor from the UME. This is where the timing gets a little messed up… Everyone was really interested in hearing from the speaker from the US Embassy, so we decided against the second break out session so that the girls had more time to speak to the speakers. The last speaker was a woman from the Embassy. She was such a good one because she talked about how she didn’t like school and was never good at it, but she really loved English and was really good at it. She used to be an English teacher, but then she took the exam and passed and now works for the US Embassy. One of my students, Sothea (who is from the orphanage) asked her to talk about her schooling because she is not so good at school, but loves English too. I was so proud of how brave she was. It was a big deal to have the Embassy speaker there and Sothea worked up the courage to ask her something in front of 80 other people. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to have a kid because I was so proud of my girls. It may not seem like much, but I have had the pleasure of seeing them gain confidence over the course of the year, but to see them thrive at a workshop with these guests was probably the highlight of my service so far. I could see the wheels spinning because at first, they thought that they were unworthy and therefore were scared. Then after they heard these stories from women who were just like them, it was truly amazing. There were three women who work for Peace Corps Cambodia (Tharoth, Markara and Serak) and they each spoke for a few minutes about university, volunteering and applying for a job. It was a nice segment to have some insight into some professional aspects.

The whole group at the end of the day!

We ended the first section of the event with an exit survey and then gave each girl a t-shirt. We had a few ideas in mind and since we didn’t have a lot of funding, the t-shirts are the most straight forward shirts that I have ever seen but they are perfect. On the front it says “International Women’s Day Battambang 2010” and on the back is says “In Collaboration: Peace Corps Cambodia, POE Battambang, UME and the US Embassy” in blue writing, no logos, no frills. Straight to the point. I guess you get what you pay for ($3 per shirt). But the fact that they each have a shirt now to remember the day is pretty great.

All the UME, RTTC and high school girls listening to a speaker

The second part of the day was a segment on public speaking. The point of the event was to discuss these huge issues, but we proposed an idea to the girls: what will you do now? We broke into groups with our high schools and began talking about what our next steps are. The idea, essentially, is that they have this information from each other and the speakers and they need to share it with their family, friends and community. We will now work on a presentation to be made at Net Yong to tell everyone what was discussed. When I told the girls that this segment was part of the event, they were so nervous and scared, but when we talked about it during the workshop, they seemed a little more confident and didn’t flat out refuse to do it like they did before. The timing is pretty bad because school is not in session, but we will work on this to tell the other girls about it.

Overall, the day was a success, but there were a few lessons that I will carry over. First, an all day affair means only one shower that day, as opposed to the usual three or four, and in 100 degree heat and 80 people, the smell is not so great. Second, it pays to have a Khmer counterpart to be your partner throughout the whole process. This is twofold: things can be done better when there is one person with ideas and one that can make it happen. The second is that it’s always nice to have a translator at hand to help. We kept grabbing the same UME girl, who is amazing at English, but she was a group leader and kept having to leave. Another lesson learned was that when someone says that they will come, it doesn’t always hold true. There were many people that we went through a process to invite but didn’t even come, which will happen. The most important rule that will continue to pop up for the next 16 months (which is how much longer I have here…) is that the most important rule of Peace Corps is to roll with the punches. Nothing will be perfect. The two and a half months of preparation and headache and stress is worth it just to see your once shy, self-conscious student stand up, take the microphone and read aloud her answer about why women’s rights are important. I will do it again in a heartbeat because doing this is worth it for the girls. I just wish that you all could have seen it, it has been one of the most amazing things that I have ever witnessed. It’s not over yet, though, and I cannot wait to see how far these girls go now that (hopefully) this seed is planted. It will be so great to watch them transition into the next phase of their lives and I just hope to be a part of it.

I got a ride into PP with Peace Corps today, which saves me $5, which is about 4 meals at my lunch place. Jac and I today then heading into Vietnam tomorrow. I ended my first part of my PC service on a really tiring, but positive note. I will probably end up sleeping for the entire 33 hour train ride to Hanoi.

Happy Easter (tied as my favorite holiday with Thanksgiving). I don’t want to sound preachy, but we have a lot to be thankful for and it’s nice to remember that every once in a while. But it’s more important to reach out, even just a little. It doesn’t take money or things. A little faith in someone can go a long way. I thought of all of those people in my life that have helped me to get to where I am today, all my family, friends, coaches, teammates, etc simply by expressing their faith in me, obviously my parents and siblings are at the top of this list. We are always told that we can reach our goals by believing in ourselves, but sometimes someone else believing in you is the spark that is needed. I was lucky to have encouragement all my life and I never realized how far it can go until this event. I have always agreed with Peace Corps ideals and values, but one of the most important aspects of the human resource that PC offers is human emotion. I saw that in my covolunteers at the event and in the students that were there. It’s so easy to get down on all the difficulties and the things that may never change because at the end of my service, I may never know the fruits of my labor. But a little glimmer of hope is sometimes all it takes to keep me going. I’m leaving Cambodia today with a really “s’bai jet”, as they would say in Khmer to mean having a “happy heart”. I always thought that was a silly expression, but I think that it applies perfectly here.