Friday, October 22, 2010


Well, I’m back.  The two-month blog hiatus was due to my computer breaking.  But due to the genius of Vannak, our It specialist, he resurrected my Seton Hall issued laptop, and even fixed the g on my laptop so that I don’t have to copy and paste it every time I need to type that letter.  For this, I am eternally grateful.

This means that I have many things to update everyone on.  From the top:

Mom and Dad’s trip
My host family and my parents
Talking with the university students
Dinner with Darlene!
My parents came to visit for a little less than two weeks in September.  I was nervous about them coming for a few reasons- people tend to get sick when they are exposed to a Khmer diet, it would be too hot, I wouldn’t be a good host, etc.  The trip started off a little rocky.  The plan was for me to take the bus to Bangkok to meet them, spend two days there then head to Phnom Penh and begin our Cambodian adventure.  About an hour and a half before my bus was scheduled to leave, I got a call from America.  My mom told me that they were stuck in California for a night or two.  Their plane was half way from Chicago to Tokyo when there was a mechanical error and they were rerouted to San Francisco.  I had just been telling my host family the night before that I haven’t really cried since I have been in Cambodia.  Well, when my mom called and told me that I needed to sit tight, I totally lost it.  Crying in the internet cafĂ©, trying to figure out what the heck to do wasn’t too fun.  But, after I pulled myself together, I exchanged my ticket to Bangkok for one to Phnom Penh.  A few friends were in town, so I was able to pass the time with them.  My two closest friends came to PP just to meet my parents.  We had a blast together in PP.  We went to the killing fields, Tuol Sleng, which is the school that was turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge period.  We then took a taxi to Battambang.  I have been waiting for my parents to come to do a lot of the touristy things.  The mornings were dedicated to touristy things and the afternoons were dedicated to my parents meeting people and seeing what my real life is like.  My host brother and his girlfriend came everywhere with us.  My host family was thrilled to meet my parents and my host mom made my real mom a wedding outfit.  When I look back on the week that we spent in Battambang, it’s tough to remember that they were only in Battambang for a week.  They met many of my students, rode the bamboo train, ate a lot of Khmer food and fruits and got a pretty good taste of what my life is like.  It was such a strange feeling because my Peace Corps experience is the first time that I have done something totally on my own.  College was a taste, but my parents came to visit a lot, stayed at my rented house, came to games, so it was different when I was able to show off my new life to them.  I had been working for a year on this project and it was such a pleasure to share it with them.  I was really proud to see how well received they were.  For example, my host brother built a summer house in a district about 2 hours away from my house and the house warming party (which is a religious ceremony) happened while my parents were in town.  So we made the treck out there; six people in the front of a pick-up truck and my dad in the back with all of the fruit, water and drinks.  They were able to hold their own because enough people spoke English there and had a good time. We were eating noodles on grass mats and my dad excused himself to stretch his legs.  My mom and I sat with my aunts and sisters for a while then decided to check up on my dad.  When we walked down the stairs (which leads to the outside because the house is on stilts), we see my dad sitting on a table with about 12 Khmer men around him, hanging on his every word.  Some things are so universal, like men drinking beer, sitting around and sharing stories.  It was a perfect example of how they dove right in and took everything in.  They were totally selfless and followed the itinerary I made for them.  We went to Siem Reap to see the temples, which I had also been putting off until my parents came.  Overall, the trip was fantastic.  It was so great to share Cambodia with my family, and share my family with my community.  People are still talking about them and daily people ask me how they are and if they are coming back.

Stopped to buy some custard apples on the way to the house warming party.

Mom and I at breakfast in Battambang

Health Workshop
Presenting the gift to the village
A few days after my parents left, my health workshop started.  The funding came in a few days after we finished the project, so that was a little stressful.  But I am at a point in my service where I can handle those things, plus my team was so spectacular that it all seemed to work out.  We spent an hour and a half each morning at the organization, teaching about (in order)- hand washing, teeth brushing, mosquito borne disease, water purification and dehydration and oral dehydration salts.  The team consisted of Sophai, who is a college level volunteer from the NGO we worked with, Kimny- my stellar student who I invite to everything including English Club, International Women’s Day and any other project I make and last is Vida, the boy who lives at the pagoda and is the hardest worker of all time.  I taught with Vida and he was such a great partner and teacher.  I spoke in English and he translated.  Kimny and Sophai taught together at the same time that Vida and I taught.  We spent the afternoons at a school behind a pagoda in a very poor village.  We asked the village chief for 80 students, thinking that 100 would show up when in reality 160 came.  While that was stressful (we bought soap for each child, but didn’t have enough for everyone, so instead we gave gifts to each family instead of each child) it was good that more students came, because then their moms came and listened to what we said about health.  There were some curveballs thrown in there, but the team did a great job of facing them and coming up with a solution.  I was so proud of Sophai, Kimny and Vida who were such great leaders and role models for the children that we taught. 

The Rest of Summer
We celebrated the one year mark as Peace Corps Volunteers when the K4’s swore in last month.  All of the k3s came and it was a lot of fun to see the new group, all bright eyed idealists and celebrate completing training.  A few of us went to the beach in Sihanoukville for the weekend, which was extremely relaxing.  We stayed in a cheap guest house then brought food to a private beach and paid $1.50 to spend the day there.  Money well spent. 

Second School Year
School officially began October.  But I started teaching last week.  The English policy changed this year- instead of studying 4 hours of English per week, grade 11 and 12 students will study English for 2 years.  When it came to making my schedule for the year, I decided to teach two grade 10 classes (which meet for 2 hours, twice a week, so 4 hours for each class) and open English Club for grade 11 and 12.  Formal teaching is going well and I have a really great coteacher.  He is really excited about learning new ways to teach and we are a good team so far.  My English Club hasn’t really started.  On Tuesday, I met the students who will make up the club- some old faces but a bunch of new kids want to study, which is great.  We had a hard time finding a classroom to study in because there are more classes than there are classrooms at my school, so it was tricky.  We finally were approved for use of the computer room, which isn’t used anyway.  It’s usually locked, but we were given special permission to use it.  It’s a much better option than studying in the library, mainly because the library is more of a storage room without a chalkboard.  The computer room has enough room, privacy and a dry erase board.  The format is going to change a little bit this year- last year we studied various topics with no real format or system, but that was very very informal.  This year I want to create more incentive for the students to be involved (which they are already, but provide some structure to the club).  We are going to have themes for a few weeks.  So the first theme is geography.  Because the students are constantly looking for ways to improve their vocabulary and are very curious about the rest of the world, we will go over continents, regions, climates, etc.  This may seem basic, but most Cambodians don’t know the continents.  It will be really beneficial to be teaching various subjects in English.  They will make dialogues, write stories, have listening exercises, and other such activities.  They will most likely lead into each, for example, geography then travel.  I’m also going to try to incorporate important dates into the lessons (such as World AIDS Day). 

Secondary Projects
During training, the staff told us that the first year of Peace Corps involves a lot of trial and error.  The second year, however, is trying to make projects sustainable and phasing out of service.  We have about 9 months left until we leave the country.  While that probably sounds like a long time, the entire month of April is a vacation and June and July will be centered on packing and preparing for the return to America.  So, I am just trying to invest my time in the projects that I have established.  Outside of my school, where I will be spending every morning, I will be spending much of my time at the university.  Every afternoon but Wednesday will be at the university.  We are starting a new group of English Club students of year 1 students.  The older “generation” is continuing studying English in the form of debate team and TESOL exam preparation.  I will be there from 2:00-5:00 then teach my brother and his girlfriend from 5:00-6:00.  On Mondays and Tuesdays, I will teach American culture lessons to the English clubs and Thursdays and Fridays will be help with pronunciation, grammar, critical thinking and answering any other questions they throw my way. 

I’m also starting a leadership club at the university.  The Manager of the English Department asked me to help with this project.  We will essentially form a club of 40 university students interested in community development.  There will be three parts to this- 1. case studies of well known leaders and exploring how they became successful (ie what qualities should a leader demonstrate?) 2. providing the students the tools to develop community development projects.  This will entail passing along a lot of the information that I learned in training and over the course of my service.  This means things like doing a needs assessment of the community, creating community interest, fundraising, baseline data, carrying out programs, self-assessment, sustainability and other such topics.  3. practical.  Each student will be in a group that is either interested in a topic or working in a specific community.  They will need to create a project and carry out the project.  This will result in a wide variety of projects with the hope that the students will carry on with these projects.  Many people believe that you must join an organization or have a paid position to work in development.  We will teach them that you don’t need that much- passion for your project, community interest and a few resources.  Something as simple as creating an English class in the park for homeless children or a community clean up.  I keep trying to tell them that change and progress comes from the young generation- you don’t need to have a position of power to make an impact. 

I have been meeting with a group of 5 Khmer students who won a scholarship from the U.S. Embassy to attend a conference on leadership from the university where I frequently work.  I knew that they were applying for this because Darlene was on the committee that conducted the interviews.  She was pretty fuzzy on the details of the trip, but I knew that there was a group going (including one of my closest friends in Cambodia, a man named Raya who I work with on all of my projects there and high school students who I work with in English Club).  Once the news was out that they were going to the U.S., we started to discuss the details and our game plan for preparing the group.  Here is what the conversation looked like:

Kealan: So, what state are you going to?
Raya: Of, the name is very difficult to say.  Um, I…Illinois?
K: Raya, that is the state that I am from!
R: No, you are from Chicago.
K: Chicago is a city, Illinois is the state! (Note: States and cities are really difficult to explain and very confusing for my students)
R: Oh, the school is Northern Illinois University (where my brother in law went to school and their best man works!)

I told my parents about these students coming and they were able to work something out- my mom is going to NIU to the welcome luncheon.  My parents met these students during their trip and spent an afternoon fielding questions and practicing English.  Such a small world!

So, I have been working with them every other day to prepare for their trip.  We had lessons on what to do and what not to do in America.  We talked about clothes (they are leaving in Sunday and it has been about 75 degrees on the coldest days recently.)  It has been a blast meeting and preparing.  For example, they have to make a presentation on the Sangker River, the river that cuts Battambang in half.  We were talking about pollution and one student mentioned the people that have houses over the river and use the river as their garbage can.  “During the day, they just dump their shit into the water.” I know that he meant to say something less harsh, such as feces, but in Cambodia there is only one word for “poop” so all the various forms that we have in English are confusing, especially the swear words.  That lesson turned into swear words, what they mean, when to say them and when not to.  I was debating on whether or not to talk about this, but then I imagined one of them saying something to their host families like, “My family has a bitch, but it stays outside.” Clearly the meaning is a female dog, but that wouldn’t be well-received. 

I am so excited for this group.  They are spending 3 weeks at NIU then traveling by bus to Washington, D.C.  I still cannot believe that a group of my students are going to where I’m from.  They will live with host families and have many of the same concerns that I did, just reversed.  Toilet issues, food concerns, weather.  They thank me after every session, but I am just so excited to help prepare them.  There are students coming from 5 countries but I want them to be the most prepared and informed.  At the end of all of it, how can you really prepare someone for life in anther country?  You can’t, but I’m just trying to ease them into the shock of America by little lessons: unlike Cambodia, boys can’t just pee anywhere, that is against the law.

In other news, there is currently a Vietnamese Expo in Battambang.  I went with Darlene and was expecting something much different.  I thought that it would be, well, not what it was.  It was essentially the market, but in a vacant field and more open.  My students are really into it, but I don’t really see the hype.  This weekend is also the boat races in the river.  Water festival is next month in PP, which is the culmination of the rainy season, when the Tonle Sap River floods and reverses flow.  It is a religious ceremony and marks the beginning of the cold season (thank goodness, but it’s temporary relief, the hot season starts again in February…) Battambang is having the races this weekend and the winners start the really long trek into PP for the races next month.  They have to drive the boats into PP and use a tractor engine on a huge flat bed to transport the boat in, so it takes a really long time.  Between the Vietnamese expo and the boat races, there are a lot of people in town and a lot is happening.  Next week should be back to normal, though.

Wedding season is quickly approaching.  I have yet to receive any invites, but I am sure that they will come soon.  My host mother and sister are extremely busy making new wedding clothes for clients. 

Birthday party
I went to my host aunt’s birthday party two weeks ago.  She turned 71 and is the oldest sister in my host father’s family (my host father passed away 7 years ago).  I went to the birthday party last year during my first month in Battambang.  I remember feeling so weird and didn’t know anyone or what to do, but this time around, it was a lot more fun and I understood a lot more of what was being said.  My family didn’t have to babysit me and I had a good time talking to my cousins, aunts and other family members.  During the first year, I would look back on my senior year and try to figure out what I was doing at that time one year earlier.  For example, mid-January is when softball starts, so I would think about going to the training room, preparing for the New Jersey winter when we went outside.  Now, when I look back on “what was I doing this time last year?” it’s all Peace Corps stuff. It’s a fun little game that we all like to play. 

I have a count in my daily planner of the days in country and the days left to go.  I am at the point where the days left to go are much smaller than the days I have been here.  I have about 9 months left here.  That seems like a really long time, but I am busting my butt to make sure that I invest as much time as I possibly can into my projects and relationships that I have created.  If my time here (almost 16 months) has taught me anything, it’s that time flies.  No, that’s not even right, that expression doesn’t do it justice.