Saturday, July 24, 2010

Peace Corps is HARD!

This past week was a milestone for a few reasons.  First, it marked the one-year point since leaving my house in Oak Park on July 21st.  It was also Darlene’s 50th birthday and the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations.  All three of these events made for an awesome weekend in Phnom Penh.

The story first starts with something that I should have done a long time ago- getting wedding clothes made.  After I was asked to come to a gala thrown by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, I realized that the time had come. My host mother was thrilled when I asked her to make me an outfit; she has been wanting to for a long time now.  We went to the market to buy fabric, which essentially entails three parts- the fabric for the sampot (the traditional Khmer floor length skirt), the outside see-through fabric for the shirt then the fabric for inside.  I chose to do it right, which means to pull out all the stops and my host family was there for every step of the way.  I chose an entirely red outfit and my family approved, saying that red looks beautiful with my meat, which I suppose means my skin.  The next step was to choose the design for the shirt.  Chun Lai, my 4 year old host nephew was really into the whole process and sat with me while I leafed through the countless magazines to choose the style that I liked.  Every picture that he saw, he asked me “Sro line te?” which means “Do you love this?” It was fun at first, but then I told him that I loved them all, but that wasn’t good enough.  Thus we created a new game I like to call “Do you love this?”  Simple enough.  I finally chose the style I liked, but asked my host mom to make the sleeves not to puffy.  Over the next few days, my host mom, host sister and one of her employees cut, sewed and applied glitter to my outfit.  I was given specific instruction on how to wear it (aka how to zip it correctly and hide the zipper) and basic information about my sampot- essentially don’t get it wet! That last part made me nervous because I live in the tropics and sweat more in one week then I ever have in my entire life.  Regardless, the night before I left for PP, my host mother made the final touches and we packed it in my bag after I woke up at 5:30 the next morning.

I have found myself in quite a routine here.  One days where I teach or have other meetings, I wake up at 6, shower, eat my breakfast and drink my coffee while reading then I head out around 8:50 to teach or work on my health project.  When I go to PP however, it is a little different.  I buy my ticket at the hotel across the street the day before for the first bus out, which is at 6:30 which means around 7:00 Cambodian time.  I wake up, shower, get dressed and ready, then walk across the street to eat gwee-tee-you, which is basically noodle soup, with coffee.  The girls that work there also work for my host mom, so they are always into where I am going, why and when I will come back.  After I pay my bill, I stand on the side of the highway and wait for the bus to come get me.  I usually chit chat with some of the villagers around me and get on the bus.  It takes about 5.5 hours, so I sit back and relax as best I can.  Sometimes it isn’t so easy, but the ride is beautiful and I almost always travel with Darlene, so I have a buddy to pass the time with.  It was also Darlene’s birthday, so we were in high spirits once we entered the city! We check into our guest house and relaxed until we went to the Peace Corps Office to get our money.  The new PC group had just gotten in that day so we were able to meet a few.  They looked really overwhelmed at tired, so we tried not to overdo it.  

We showered up and went to get foot massages at a really great spa.  There were four of us- Darlene, Jessica, Chrissy and myself and before long we were laughing and speaking Khmer with our masseurs.  They told us that Khmer people believe that those who have moles on the bottom on their feet are destined to travel and live far from home.  Two of us did, including myself.  We had a blast at the massage and went to get Italian food for dinner, which is always a hit.  We sang happy birthday and headed back to the guest house.  

The next day was all about preparing for the gala that night.  We went out early after breakfast at the market in search of purses.  The first market was a bust but we ended up finding really great wallets that doubled as clutches.  Darlene and I went to the market to get 3,000 reihl (75 cents) manicures and pedicures.  We had a little time to relax, then it was time to prepare for the gala.  We showered and got ready and it took about 5 minutes to figure out the zippers and latches and everything.  We walked downstairs to take pictures and the staff of the hotel was loving our outfits.  When we walked outside, the entire block came outside to look at the American women in Khmer clothes.  We went to Raffles, which is the most expensive hotel in the country and were directed to the ballroom.  The Ambassador (Carol Rodley) greeted us outside the room and directed us in.  It was obvious that we were the only Americans in Khmer clothing.  After the national anthems and a video about relations between Cambodia and America, we sat down to our dinner, which was out of this world! We had steak! It has been well over a year since my last steak, but it was so good.  The Marine Pacific band played during dinner and the Ambassador requested the Happy Birthday song for Darlene, so she stood up and everyone sang happy birthday.  Two former ambassadors came over to talk, as well as many former Peace Corps volunteers and we had to rush to eat our food between the mingling. We went across the room to speak to our country director and along the way, Jessica and Chrissy were stopped by the Minister of Education to comment on Peace Corps and our clothes.  We took a lot of pictures with many of the workers.  We met so many people, and so many people commented on our clothes, which was symbolic of American- Cambodian relations.  One former ambassador told us how he worked so hard to get PC into Cambodia during his time in the Embassy, but the first group came two months after his post finished.  Another ambassador, who is the one who opened the American Corner at the UME, which is the university I work at, commented how glad he was that Peace Corps finally came while he was Ambassador.  Many Khmer women commented about how they felt uncomfortable in their clothes, but when we came, they felt better about it and thanked us.  At the end of the night, our country director offered to take us home, but it took us about 20 minutes to walk 20 feet out the door because people kept approaching us.  It wasn’t a long event, but it was one that was so much fun to be a part of.  I always knew how important Peace Corps is to diplomacy and international relations, but I never realized just how important it is.  The people who talked to us were Cambodian diplomats, teachers, lawyers and American marines, diplomats, journalists, etc.  I was really proud to be there to represent the Peace Corps side of it.  Likewise, I was especially happy to tell the story of my outfit.
 Close up of my shirt

Jessica, Darlene, Chrissy and Me

 Darlene and I with former Ambassador Joseph A. Mussemeli

The group with our country director, Jon Darrah
We were wiped out after the party and headed back to the guest house.  We ended up just going to sleep.  Darlene and I decided to head back on Saturday morning instead of staying.  “Let’s quit while we are ahead.”  We had a fantastic weekend so we bought our tickets for Battambang, ran some errands and headed back.  It always feels good to be back.  I ran into a tuk tuk driver I knew right when I stepped off the bus, then saw a moto driver whose daughter lives in Chicago, chit chatted with a group of men near my house then my host sister saw me and offered me a ride on her moto.  My backpack was heavy, but due to the no moto policy, I finished out my walk.  

This weekend was a lot of fun, but it was a rarity.  I always considered myself lucky to be placed in Cambodia, especially a former volunteer at the gala told me about how during his tour in Zambia, he was exposed to rabis and had to travel 12 hours just to get to the nearest phone.  I have to travel about 20 inches to my purse to get to the nearest phone.  Regardless, it was a weekend to be thankful- for my health, for my placement, for diplomacy and international relations, my friends and family (both real and host).  Now it’s back to “real life”.   

Friday, July 9, 2010

American nostalgia...

Happy belated 4th of July everyone! Independence Day has never really meant so much to me.  I went into Phnom Penh for a party at the Embassy and a much needed break.  I had been at site for a month and a half, so I was itching to get away.  I met up with a bunch of friends and we found an awesome guest house and tried to keep it cheap by sticking 4 girls to a room and buying groceries and using out kitchenette.  Needless to say, I headed back to site after a great weekend much poorer.  But totally worth it! The party at the Embassy was a blast.  It felt so American.  I even won a door prize- the 2002 archives of the Phnom Penh Post.  I would have preferred the round trip tickets to Bangkok, but it’s always fun to win stuff.  It’s a really beautiful book. 
 Phnom Penh archives 2002

At the Embassy with JaNise, a fellow PCV

I cooked pasta for my grade 12 students to return the favor for when they cooked me banchayoo (see my last post).  I bought olive oil and spaghetti noodles in PP and my students took me to the market to help buy all the vegetables.  I know how to buy onions and tomatoes on my own, but I know that they really enjoyed taking care of everything at the market and walking around the with American teacher, so I went along with it.  We went back to my student Kunthea’s house (where we had the last party) and cooked together.  There was only one student who has ever had western food (a hamburger of course….) and they kept saying “We have heard of pasta, but never had it!!”  Now, I’m no gourmet chef, but it was pretty good pasta and they loved it.  I also brought along half a jar of peanut butter that I got in PP to make some PB&J’s.  We used the left over bread to put the peanut butter on and they loved it.  They cleaned out the jar and were sticking their fingers and bread in there to get every last morsel.  One girl even took the jar to buy another one at the western store.  They were so cute about their first “American” meal.  

Cooking the pasta.

Sitting down to the feast.

Reachaney loved the pasta.

Sovath getting every single morsel of peanut butter. 

The whole gang!

As I approach the halfway point in my service, I have really been looking at the past year of my life and how different so many things are.  I still have a year left, but it’s weird to think about how quickly you can change and not really even notice it.  Every now and then there are little indicators of just how different my life is and I think that they are positive, because these changes can sometimes mean integration or even independence.  But, I will be coming back to America in a little over a year, which means these changes will stand out once I get back.  Now the reasons for these changes can be because I am in Cambodia, or simply because I am in Peace Corps.  Or maybe they have nothing to do with either.  Regardless, I want to walk you though them (these are meant to be silly, for the most part):
·        Throughout college, we abbreviated Madison Square Garden as MSG, for example: “When you take the New Jersey Transit into New York City, Penn Station is right underneath MSG.”  Now, when we say MSG, it refers to the chemical flavor additive that our families frequently cook with and is rather addicting.  So now, when I say MSG, it’s more along the lines of “My food didn’t have enough MSG in it tonight” or when I received a text from my friend that said “I had a huge allergic reaction to MSg tonight and now I have a huge cold sore looking thing on my face.”  I even sing the song on the commercial with Chun Lai when it’s on TV. 
·        I frequently tell my host family that in America, I only ate rice one time a month, which was actually a stretch of the truth, it was more like one every two months.  I tried to explain that there are other kinds of rice in America, such as wild rice or various Uncle Ben’s flavors, but that was just more confusing so I dropped that concept.  Well, now, if I don’t eat rice at least once a day, I feel sick- stomachache and/or headache.  Yes, I crave rice like a junkie craves his next fix.  While I was in Vietnam and Jacqueline and I were trying to find a restaurant (and they had some really good western places) , we actually passed up the pizza place for the roadside rice stand for $1 on more than one occasion.
·        Khmer people are very affectionate, so hitting can be both affectionate or a means of disciplining.  When I get together with my friends (other Peace Corps Volunteers) and someone makes fun of someone else, we do the “Khmer fake hit” which is essentially raising your hand high above your head in a mimic hit pose.  Mothers frequently do this to children when they don’t eat their rice here, but people also do it when they are being made fun of, in jest.  Well, I do it and I don’t mean to, I sometimes just find my hand over my head without thinking about it.
·        As a student athlete, there were some days when I was just too tired to shower after practice, especially if we had practice early the next morning (I’m going to get dirty again in like 8 hours, so what’s the point?).  I know that this is gross, but oh well, I did it.  Not frequently, but I did.  However, one year later, if I don’t shower three times a day, I feel so dirty and gross.  Granted I sweat much more now than before, three showers a day, sometimes four, everyday.  
·        I no longer speak in contractions.  Because it is confusing for my students when I speak in contractions, I have eliminated them from my vocabulary.  When I talk to a fellow American, I find myself saying something like “Oh, I cannot go to the market today because I do not have free time.”  I need to pick that back up upon my return stateside because it sounds pretty condescending.
·        Last year, one day after practice, my roommates and myself made our lunches and sat down to assess our stance in the BigEast, etc, and when I took a bite out of my tuna sandwich, there was a hair in it.  My roommates were so grossed out and I lost my appetite and didn’t eat anything else all day, although we just had a 4 hour practice.  Now, if there is a hair in my rice or fly in my soup, which is common, I just take it out and move on.  I think back to that tuna sandwich and I could kick myself because at least that was MY hair! Here, it’s someone else’s, or some sort of weird bug.  I cannot believe that people actually send food back for even less than that! All I know is that I wish I had that sandwich now, such a waste…
·        I saw a picture of myself from a “business casual” setting and the fact that my knees were showing was so mortifying.  Likewise, I was watching the British Office and someone on the show was showing their knees AND shoulders in the workplace.  I couldn’t move beyond that and enjoy the show, so I turned it off (aka I closed my computer) came back to the show a few hours later when the shock wore off.  No one in my family has seen any further than my knees or shoulders and I plan to keep it that way.
·        I always correct my students when they translate Khmer phrases directly into English and they just don’t make sense.  For instance, in Cambodia if something is fun, they say that it is happy.  So holidays, birthdays, vacations, etc. are described as happy.  Or, when a student wants to leave early, they say “Please, cher, I want to leave first”, which is something that I took as a competition, like who could leave first.  Well, now I speak in those Khmer phrases in English.  I told Huck that Vietnam was “very happy”.  I also announced to the university English Club that I had to “go first” because I had to teach.  I just embrace it now, even though it doesn’t make sense in English.
·        When I graduated last year, I was SO excited about doing absolutely nothing before I left.  I spent the summer gallivanting around New Jersey, Chicago and even Ireland.  I reveled in the fact that I didn’t have a job for the first time ever and ate everything in site because “I may not get to eat this for another 2 years”.  Well, now that it’s summer again, I am working so hard to make sure that I am as involved as possible. I have started second guessing taking little side trips with my friends to make sure that I am working enough at site.  I know that it is what I am supposed to do, but it’s just interesting to see how one year can change so much.  I cringed at the thought of work last year, but this year I am out everyday trying to find projects that I want to take part in.  I also don’t have access to a couch and never-ending freeze pops in Cambodia, so that helps.
·        There are some Khmer noises that are part of my daily vocabulary now.  When a seller tells me a price that is “t’lai nah!” (it costs too much), Khmer people (and I am now included in this group) make this noise and for lack of better definition would be “uuuuhhhhfffff”.  Most important is the facial expression, which is of pure disgust and a hand wave is usually thrown in, too.  We use this from tuk-tuk drivers to fruit vendors and it works every time.  I think that the noise is an important because while we speak Khmer, it is something that Khmer people do too, so it shows a sign of integration.  There is a noise that I think is only popular in Battambang, and it’s a noise of surprise.  If I had to spell it, it would be “uah-uh!”.  When I walk out of my room and Chun Lai sees me, he makes that noise.  Sometimes we shorten it to just “uuuuhhhhhh!”.  A student used it when we were taking about ghosts, too.  I don’t really know if we do this in America, but noises are pretty important here.  A noise + an expression such as “too expensive” really drives the point home.
·        Because Cambodia is a very communal place, we have grown accustomed to always eating family style.  When we go out, we will all share and split things even if we order a salad or burrito.  Ordering beers separate and not getting a pitcher is such a strange concept.  This concept has really transcended the “food category” and now includes hair products, electronics, clothes, etc.  I sort of feel uncomfortable not sharing things now.  I will just be grabbing things when I get home because it’s just so natural now.
·        When transferring anything in Cambodia, there is a proper way to do it.  As an example, let’s use money.  There are two correct ways to hand money to someone, first is the “two handed transfer”, which is one hand on each end of the bill(s).  The other is the right hand on the money and the left hand on the right arm.  We noticed that during a Peace Corps meeting and I asked someone for a pen, I reached with both hands and the person who handed it to me used the other method.  The only one that is wrong is just one hand with the other arm dangling at the side.  A volunteer worked for a big US company and her job was to assess the customer service in various stores around her state.  She told us that Asian-Americans are much more likely to make an immediate purchase at the store that hands money/business cards back with two hands.  Interesting little fact.  Maybe that company can hire me because I am now an expert. 
·        Because beer is sold lukewarm here, we always have beer on ice.  Now, as an avid fan of milk with ice, I welcomed this cultural difference with open arms.  Even when we go to a restaurant that serves cold beer, we still ask for ice.  The thought of beer without ice these days is enough to make me not want to drink it.  There is nothing worse in Cambodia than a warm beer.  I had a rough day and called Darlene and asked her if I could bring some beers over to her house.  I stopped at my little stand and got some (cold) beer.  I also picked up one kilogram of ice to go with it, out of habit. 
·        While we were growing up, dinner in my house looked something like this: two vegetables, a salad, potatoes (most likely) and a huge piece of meat or fish for everyone.  After we were done eating our personal hunks of steak/chicken/pork/etc, my dad would always comment that we left a lot of meat on the bones.  It actually became kind of a joke and we would say things such as “you can’t be done, there’s plenty of good meat left on that!”.  The rule was: if I can’t cut it with my Cutco knife, it’s not going to be eaten.  Dad, here is the official apology: I’m sorry for not understanding when I was a little punk and sorry for those laughs.  I get it now.  My host family is pretty good about having enough meat, but I can honestly say that the amount of meat for my whole host family is about as much as I would eat in one sitting in America.  As for the bone policy, my game has turned around 100%.  I thank my lucky stars when the meat I scoop from the communal dish is without bone/fat.  And if there is a little bit of meat on some bone, it’s game on.  I will fight for that meat.  I get it now, Dad.  I’m with you on this from here on out.
·        I thought to myself the other day how nice it will be when I get home and I don’t have to worry about mosquitoes every night because there aren’t as many and my house isn’t as open in America as mine is here. Then it struck me, the seasons actually change in America! I won’t have to “deal with mosquitoes” outside of summer months because it is too cold and they die.  Which is what I may do when I undertake my first Chicago winter after becoming Khmerican (a fushion of Khmer and American cultures). 
·        I remember being younger and listening to my older sister, Katie, and my older brother, Pat, work on speeches at our grade school.  I always thought that it was so cool how they began their speech by addressing the principal, the priest, the staff and the other students (and any other guest that may have been there).  They usually started with something along the lines of “Father Jenks, Ms. Burns, faculty, staff and fellow students…”  I always envied the “Father Jenks, Ms. Burns” part because they were addressed personally.  Well, now that I work with two English clubs and they each had a segment on public speaking, each student stood up and addressed the group as a whole and then addressed me personally, either by calling me “Cher” “Sister” or “Kealan”.  So it was something like this “Hello Cher/Sister/Kealan. Hello everyone”  I was pretty taken aback when the first student addressed me personally.  One of the three groups of the university’s English Club had never presented before and they addressed me either by “Sister” or didn’t address me at all.  The man in charge of the group, Raya, chewed them out for not addressing the special guest.  I accomplished that goal of being addressed personally during a speech. 
·        One of my former teammates and best friends, Jenna Best, used to make fun of me for how much I love attention.  We both believe that it is due to my birth order (being the third out of four children, and being the middle girl) and it used to annoy me when we were on the bus during road trips for softball and no one paid attention to me, so she would humor me and listen to whatever I was talking about.  I realized real early on that doing Peace Corps and coming to Cambodia was about the best thing that I could have done for my never ending desire for attention.  I teach classes of 70 students and about half of them hang on my every word. Moreover, the teachers have a platform at the front of the room, so it’s almost like I am performing for the class (almost).  Granted I am talking about the present continuous tense or vocabulary, it still counts.  The attention still has not ceased although I have been here for almost a year.  Except now, the attention that is directed towards me is simply because of how different I am.  By being my normal self, people want to watch.  Sometimes when I am riding my bike and come to an intersection and want to cross the street, some people stop just to watch me to ride my bike because everything that I do is weird here.  I embrace the attention, but the only difference now is that I don’t seek it out, it happens naturally.  The only thing that scares me now is that when I go home, people aren’t going to stop to watch my every move.  I sought out the attention before and now that it comes to natural, I almost forgot how much I looked for it back home.  I will just have to cross that bridge when I get there in about 12 months.
·        As a DI athlete for the 4 years leading up to my Peace Corps adventure, second semester was flooded with practice and games.  Because we played double headers on Saturdays and Sundays, going out chances were so limited, and on the rare occasion that we could in fact, go out, we were really tired.  Now my Saturday nights consist of being in bed by 8:00, although I am not playing Louisville in the morning this time around.  The “going out” scene is probably still possible, but I just don’t really care to.  In general, the free time vs. busy time has reversed.  While there are days that I am really busy, it doesn’t really compare to how filled my schedule was during season.
·        I now talk to myself.  I’m not so sure why that started or even when that started, but it did.
·        While this time last year I could catch a 70 mph line drive at my face, I am now incapable of killing a mosquito.  They fly much slower than softballs, but it takes me a long time to finally get one. Maybe it’s the heat or the old age, but my reflexes are simply awful.
·        Oak Park River Forest High School (my former high school) was infamous for never having snow days.  It’s been like ninety years or something outrageous like that since the last one.  Every time there was a forecast for snow, everyone would cross their fingers (which is actually a sexual reference in Cambodia) and pray for snow.  Although the snow usually came, the snow day didn’t.  It used to really make me mad because we could have used that day.  Now when I go to bed and it’s raining, I cross my fingers and pray for it to clear up so that we do have school.  There are some days when I just have a feeling that we aren’t going to have school and I’m usually right.  Sometimes there isn’t even a reason; we just don’t have school sometimes.  My sister Katie really looks forward to her vacations because they come after a long period of working hard and teaching.  For me it’s the opposite, I look forward to teaching because there are usually long periods of vacation and free time.  When have I EVER complained about having too much free time?  Never, because it has never happened before. 
·        When we first came to Cambodia, there were a few of us who became obsessed with Tiger Balm.  It was mosquito season and Tiger Balm helps with the stinging and itching.  Well, after living with a host family, I realized that they use it not only for mosquito bites, but when my sister burned her hand, they used Tiger Balm on it.  Or if someone has a stomach ache, they rub Tiger Balm on their stomachs.  Now, being American, I usually reach for some sort of medication.  But, I noticed that recently when I have a headache, I reach for the Tiger Balm instead of ibuprofen.  I don’t even know why, but I do, and it works. 
·        While in PP, a bunch of volunteers went out with some westerners that we met over the weekend to a Pakistani restaurant and obviously, we ordered family style.  We each got a plate of rice, a spoon and a knife.  We shared all the dishes and about halfway through the meal, my friend Jacqueline called attention to the fact that the Peace Corps Volunteers were eating Khmer style, using the fork to put rice on our spoons and eating off our spoons while the other westerners were eating with their forks (the same as everyone does in America).  I think that we were all relieved that everyone else was doing it too, not just us…
Lastly, Chun Lai and Chun Liap have returned from Takeo province! I hadn't seen Chun Lai in about 2 months, so I was so happy to see him.  But Chun Liap was in Takeo for about 4 months, so when she came back, she wasn't really a baby anymore.  She walks and is talking and even sniffed me, which is the Khmer way to kiss.  So cute.