Sunday, July 3, 2011

My last post

Before I leave Cambodia in a week, I wanted to make one last post about the end of service...

During our close of service conference in May, a returned Peace Corps volunteer played a game with us.  It was simple enough, one volunteer had a ball and threw it to another volunteer, then picked a question out of a hat to ask the other volunteer.  The questions, however, were commonly asked questions upon returning to the States. While some were ignorant in the true sense of the word ("Wow, Cambodia.  How was it living in Africa?"), while others were simply offensive. One question that the group was rather upset about was "Are you ready for the real world?"  I was asked a variation of this question before I left- "Oh, joining Peace Corps.  Running away from the real world for two years?".  I didn't go into detail then, and I won't upon returning to America, but here I would like to clear the air.  Simply put, I joined Peace Corps to join the real world.

While studying as an undergrad at Seton Hall, one particular International Relations class that I took focused on development.  One day in class, the teacher offhandedly mentioned that 80% of the world lives with 20% of the world's wealth, while the other 20% lives with 80% of the world's wealth.  I was lucky enough to have been born into the minority with the majority of the world's money.  This statistic was one of the driving factors that solidified my decision to join Peace Corps.  So questions or comments about leaving or reentering the real world are ones that I just simply disagree with.  I wanted to leave America and see how most of the world lives.  And in two years, I was able to live like 80% of the world's population.  I'm very proud of my service and the Peace Corps.

The things that I have learned range from very personal ones to universal themes.  I have been able to grow professionally, as a teacher, person and woman.  Some of the lessons are ones that I expected 100%.  These lessons include:
- How to create a project in the developing world with very little resources and money
- Khmer culture ranging from religion, customs, traditions, relationships, education, etc
- How important personal relationships are
- Encourage the youth just a little and they can soar
-I can't change the world

These lessons are all very universal for Peace Corps volunteers.  There is no way that one can transfer these lessons to another, rather the volunteer must learn these lessons for her or himself.

In addition to these lessons, there are some skills that I attained, that I am extremely proud of.  These are skills that I think only Peace Corps volunteers can learn.  Most volunteers in Cambodia live on their own, so they can avoid learning these skills.  While they have been annoying to learn, I think that it sets us apart from other volunteers and has brought me closer to my family and community.
- How to wash my clothes by hand
- How to shower at a well outside and be properly clean
- The appropriate hand positioning of greeting children, peers, elders, monks and the king
- How to shower using a bucket and rain water
- How to eat rice three meals a day
- How to navigate the market and find the best fruit
- How to use a squatty potty (porcelain hole in the ground) and not pee all over my shoes (too much information?)
- How to use the bathroom without relying on toilet paper
- How to properly pray in a Buddhist pagoda
- How to cross the street on a bike without being hit by motos coming from every direction
- How to use chopsticks to pick up just about anything
- Khmer slang and swear words
- Read Khmer body language and pick up on when someone feels- sad, mad, confused, doesn't agree, uncomfortable, etc.
- How to sleep through funerals, weddings, rooster crowing sessions, dog fights, crying geckos, mice scurrying, cows mooing, babies crying and motos/cars/trucks honking.  And I used to be a light sleeper....

Learning these lessons has taken a long time.  While some have come naturally and others have been difficult to learn, I am happy that I have learned so much about Cambodia.

But where does this leave me now? Peace Corps has three main goals.  First, the volunteer provides technical training to host country nationals.  Second, the volunteer teaches his or her community about American culture to increase cross-cultural awareness.  Lastly, the volunteer teaches Americans about his or her country of service to increase cross-cultural awareness.  These lessons will not have been learned in vain, since I plan on coming home and finding a Khmer community to be a part of.  I also plan to make presentations where ever possible and become a part of the teams to help recruit more volunteers.  I wasn't able to express this properly to my community, but Cambodia will always be a part of me and I will continue to work for the development of the Cambodian people for the rest of my life.

I left my community yesterday.  The week leading up to my departure was uncharacteristically sad and dreary.  I had a lot of loose ends to tie up (cleaning, packing, various purchases) and a lot of goodbyes around town.  It was a draining week.  I didn't sleep that well on account of the stress and emotions.  The last few days already seem like a blur between spending time at home and seeing all of my friends and students all over town.  My host family had a party for me on my last night at home.  I had been giving out gifts all week and I received some pretty incredible and touching gifts that will decorate my future home.  My sisters cooked fried noodles and spring rolls and my host siblings and their families all came over.  I supplied the wine and we had a low-key, but nonetheless fun party.

The following morning, my host siblings and three students came over to "see me off".  We waited at my house from 8:00 until the us picked me up outside at around 9:20.  My host mom avoided everyone else because she was crying all morning and I teared up a few times but kept it together to spend the last few minutes together on a happy note.  Then the us came.  The tears followed immediately.  We all walked out to the bus and it felt more like a funeral procession.  We loaded my bags then I said the final farewells to my incredible family and students.  Crying so hard, I sat on the front of the bus to tell the driver when to stop at Darlene's.  At Darlene's house, we did the same.  Darlene and I cried all the way to the next big district.  We were exhausted and devastated.  I forgot how tiring it is to be that emotional about these things.

Although it's so hard to leave, I believe that it's a good sign that I am so torn up and the people who matter so much to me were also sad.  If I didn't feel so sad, it would be a bad sign.  One friend once told me that the most worthwhile things that we do are always the most difficult.  And it's so true.

Thanks for your support over the two years.  It has really meant a lot to me and kept me positive when often times it was easiest to be negative.  I hope that you have enjoyed learning about my experience as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you.  I should be seeing you soon!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The home stretch

You have all been updated on my undertakings of the past two years and to be honest, these next two months aren’t going to have many (if any) projects apart from finding scholarships and possibly another health workshop.  Besides that, I am tying up lose ends and enjoying time with the people that I love here.  I’ve found out that I the kind of person who needs to map things out for myself or else I cannot understand them.  Having said that, I will organize my thoughts, fears and opinions in a manner that helps me sort out this mire of emotion, which is a list.

Things I will miss-
  1. Khmer hospitality- there are ample cases of Cambodians, most of them people I know, but sometimes not, who look out for me.  The most extreme example was while I was taking a tuk-tuk to my student’s house for a party with my friends who were visiting from New York, when my phone fell out of my pocket and two women on a moto caught up to us to tell me.  I told the driver to turn around, and right as he did, a teenage boy pulled up on a moto with all of the pieces for me.  Then took off in the OPPOSITE direction.  More simply, there have been countless times where I ask someone where something is, and they send their son/daughter out to show me where it is. 
  2. Ma- My host family has been amazing and as the matriarch, she has made my time here so comfortable and enjoyable.  My Khmer isn’t stellar and she can only say “hello” and “thank you” in English, but we still have a good time.  She asks me really funny questions and isn’t shy about teaching me about Cambodian- the good parts and bad.  She is very frank with me about her time during the Khmer Rouge, not for sympathy, but as an ambassador for every mother who went through that awful time with small children.  She had a four year old and baby that both survived, which is simply incredible and speaks to her character and gumption.
  3. The Chuns- Chun Lai and Chun Liap, as you well know, are my host niece and nephew who live at my house.  I haven’t had the privilege of being an aunt just yet, but I have been given a sneak peak with those two.  Coming home and them running to say hello and demanding to play.  They each have their own personalities- Chun Lai is a little boss man who calls the shots, is adorable and knows it.  He’s so charming and clever, I cannot wait to come back in a few years and see what a little heartbreaker he is with his teachers and fellow students.  Chun Liap is the sweetest girl.  Her family misinterprets her Down’s Syndrome for being slow, but while Lai is all about himself, she can read a room better than any adult in the family.  She knows when someone is upset and will come over and be cute to try to cheer them up.  I have been so fortunate to spend time with them.
  4. My students- Out of over 3,000 students at my school, I was able to make a close relationship with 11 of them.  I was able to watch them grow from awkward, self-conscious juniors to confident, thoughtful seniors.  Most students, much like myself when I was a student, go through the motions without much vigor.  I just happened to find a few of them who were willing to go WAY above and beyond the call of duty of study more and learn.  This means biking 5 miles on awful roads at my beck and call to volunteer and study.  I wasn’t the greatest teacher to those students who were unmotivated but teaching these 11 was so much, it seemed unfair to other teachers.  As a volunteer, I will never see the outcome of my work.  Cambodia didn’t change because of what I did.  But I am so positive in my faith that they will grow up and administer the changes that are needed here that I can leave a happy and satisfied volunteer.
  5. Battambang- I was so lucky to be placed in this site and enjoyed my time here.  The people are really laid back and welcoming, but every volunteer says that about where they were placed.  I got to know this city and it’s people.  Moreover, I watched it grow in two years in ways that are amazing.  In ten years from now, it won’t be recognizable.
  6. Peace Corps- Even though I get angry at the politics at times, I believe in its goals and aims more today than I did when I left.  After seeing so many people and organizations interested in the selfishness of aid rather than development.  I have a belief that development is a 50/50 agreement since the host country nationals are the ones that have to live with the development, and if they do not agree or aren’t interested, that isn’t development, that’s a waste.  Learning the tricks of the trade can be so frustrating, but failing is a part of success and without it, I wouldn’t have learned how to help the developing world help itself.  It isn’t easy, but it is the most effective (cost effective too to boot). 
  7. Other volunteers- It is/was fun to meet up in a city and do American things with other Americans.  It was such a breath of fresh air.  Most of us are like-minded, but that doesn’t mean that we always agree.  We always joke that you have to be a little crazy to join Peace Corps.  Peace Corps, typically, attracts people who have the following characteristics- adventurous, idealistic, confident, active, etc.  But sometimes we can be stubborn, hard-headed, overzealous, etc.  These characteristics make for some fun and memorable times.  I also feel a connection to them similar to those connections for friends from grade school, high school, college and teammates- that we went through something together that others may not get.  I’m sure the readjustment period will include a lot of texts and stories to soften the blow of being thrown back into American life.
  8. Khmer prices- $4 for a cup of coffee?  I pay 30 cents!  $30 for a 4 hour bus ticket?  I spent $4!  $200 for a pair of jeans?  I could pay for a year of university with that!  I could go on for days, but going from paying $1 for a nice lunch to $12 is going to be tough.
  9. Lack of options- At first, it made me mad, but now, having more than a few options seems so stressful.  For lunch do I want fried noodles or fried rice?  Easy.  Just imagine picking out cereal- there are so many options.  Do I want a kiddie cereal? Chocolate? Fiber infused?  Other volunteers have commented that this is one of the most difficult things to readjust to because it’s just so excessive.  How many options do we need, really?  Even at the one supermarket in Cambodia, I sometimes walk out with very little because there are too many options (I read a really interesting article about this in The Economist and it talked about how consumers tend to not buy any product if there are too many options instead of just a few, so imagine how I will handle this!)
  10. Lack of technology- When I came to Cambodia, the iPad was still a secret in a lab and we came here with alien technology and were way ahead of the game with technology in Cambodia.  We were given very basic phones (think of the phone you got in 1998), but we didn’t need much more than that (it is a phone, after all, we don’t NEED to be able to send an email from it).  I charge my phone once every few days, sometimes once a week, and the coolest “app” that it has a built in flashlight.  Cambodian technology hasn’t really advanced much, but wifi is pretty easy to find and skype is easily accessible.  But in America, that is clearly not the case.  I finally saw an iPad when my family came to visit and still don’t really get it.  Every time I read an article, I am floored at what phones and trinkets can do.  I have no idea how to work any of these things and I wouldn’t be surprised if my house resembled the Jettson’s instead of the one that I left.
  11. The excuse “oh, I don’t know how”- This excuse, in Khmer is “at che” and can be used for anything.  If my words fail me and I can’t describe what I want to, I say “at che”, which means I know what I want to say but I cannot say it and that usually is good enough.  I’m good about trying to eat new food, but if I have tried it before and hate it “at che” is all I need.  In America, it may not fly if someone asks me to try something and I say that I don’t know how to eat it, because that doesn’t really mean anything.
  12. My bike- I thought it was a drag at first to ride my bike all the time, but I know how to get around the city and in Phnom Penh, I am able to save money and see more of the city if I take out a bike instead of getting a tuk-tuk.  I’ve never been a big bike rider before, but it’s nice to get out and exercise
  13. Using the same jokes to charm- Because not so many foreigners can speak Khmer, it is extremely easy to crack the same jokes time and time again to break the ice.  For example, when someone tells me that I speak Khmer very clearly, I tell them that they do too.  Gets a laugh every time. 
  14. Lots of free time to read- I wasn’t a huge reader in America, but I have enjoyed having enough time to read a book per week.  The Peace Corps library is ever expanding and I have been able to read a few books that I should have years ago in class, books that I have always wanted to read, recommendations from friends and in general a wide range of topics.  I have also been able to read recycled Economist magazines after my friends finish with them.  They are so dense that it takes about a week to read it (at least for me), but it has helped to keep me informed, even if I read the magazine a few months after the event has happened.  I just finished the one that looked in depth at the uprising in Egypt and it came to press right after Mubarak stepped down.  Regardless, it’s pretty timeless and their predictions are pretty spot on, so it’s still pretty current.  When I come home, however, I probably will need to get my own subscription and not nearly the amount of free time, once I get a job.
  15. The “I’m a teacher” card- I have been known to play, in some cases overplay, the cards in my hand.  While in college, I played the “I’m a D1 athlete” card more than I care to remember.  In Cambodia, since teaching is a very respected profession, wearing a sampot (the traditional teachers skirt) automatically gives me a little creditability.  Saying that I am a teacher while at the market, or really anytime that I think it will help me, can help me when I am bargaining or explaining while I live here.  This card, however, expires once I step foot on that plane back to America

I was contemplating making a list of things that I won’t miss, but I realized that my list of things that I will miss is much more powerful than the things that I won’t, so no need to focus on the negative.  But, I will not miss the roosters crowing whenever they feel like it. 

I am to the point, though, in my service that I am really looking forward to coming home, but I just set the date for my last health workshop, which will mean that Vida and Kimny (the two students who have done the other two) will be in charge of the whole thing and I will be on the periphery.  I’m also working with Phanet, Darlene’s co-teacher who has become one of my closest friends here, and we will both work towards getting those 10 students scholarships, but since the applications cannot be completed until after their national exams in July, Phanet will pick up where I left off.  It’s reassuring to know that the effort will continue on after I am gone.

Chun Lai and Chun Liap are still away, but should be coming home soon.  I cannot wait to see them! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Overdue update

Within the realm of Peace Corps Cambodia Volunteers, April is known as the month we can have a break and take a vacation.  Khmer New Year is always in the middle of the month, but the date changes from year to year because the holiday (like most Buddhist holidays) is celebrated according to the lunar calendar.  This year, the holiday was from April 14-16, but school ended the last week in March and will resume next week.  For much of April, people are allowed to go back to their “homeland” to celebrate Khmer New Year.  Many of my students took two weeks to go back home to be with their families.  Last year, there wasn’t much to do and besides my trip to Vietnam, I didn’t do much.  This year couldn’t have been more different (which is my excuse for not writing a blog post for some time…)

April 1-3- Siem Reap.  Because I had been at site for 1.5 months, I decided to take a trip to Siem Reap for the weekend as a refresher because I knew that April would be a really busy and crazy month.  I went with my friends Keiko and Lisa and it’s always great to be around friends in a western setting.  There is nothing really to report, but because our friend Tyler has an apartment there, we were able to do really American things there, which is a great change for us.  We cooked fajitas, played wiffle ball, swam in the pool and swapped music.  For us, that is a big deal, but it sounds like a typical weekend for an American. 

April 5- After grade 12 students finish their first semester exams, they typically have a party with their friends to celebrate their accomplishment.  My grade 12 students invited me to their party, along with Darlene (who couldn’t attend because she was in China) and Phanet, Darlene’s co-teacher (who also volunteers and is a counterpart for many of our projects).  Phanet borrowed her dad’s car and we drove out to Kimny’s house, which is about 7k from the high school.  I am always awed when I see just how far my students travel, and the conditions of the roads that they travel on multiple times per day.  We arrived to a feast of banchayou, which is probably my favorite food.  I have described it before, but in case you forgot, it is first made from ground rice that makes a batter.  The batter is spread on a wok and covered with a lid to cook.  Next, a paste mix of pork, carrots and some other ingredients are put in the middle, along with bean sprouts then covered again to cook.  The banchayou is then taken off the wok and folded on a banana leaf.  My students must have made 50 of these.  We all sat down (after drinking a coconut) and ate our meal.  To eat banchayou, there are a few different ways.  First, you can tear a part of the banchayou, wrap it in lettuce with some basil and cucumber, then dipped in a sauce, which is made from chopped peanuts, fish sauce and chili peppers.  Or you can cut up your banchayou in a bowl and add some vegetables and sauce and eat it like a salad.  Either way yields the same great taste. 

The party was really fun because it had all the important components to a fun party- music (we played Khmer New Year music in preparation for the holiday), great food and spectacular company.  The students are always great to be around, and I really enjoy spending time with Phanet.  She is a great role model for the students and they love to be around her.  They are so respectful and really admire her, so it is great for her to be around them too. 

April 7-9 Although the wedding didn’t start until April 8th, the 7th consisted of a lot of last minute preparations and setting up the tents for the wedding.  The house was converted to a proper venue for a wedding, which basically means that everything at the front of the house was moved out or upstairs.  All of the offerings were wrapped and sorted.  One interesting Khmer tradition is to use speakers to announce to everyone in the village that there is a wedding, which seems silly because they give everyone invitations anyways, but regardless, the speakers started that night. 

April 8th, the first day of the wedding, started at 3:45 am when the hair and make-up workers set up shop in the kitchen, right next to my bedroom.  My friend Lisa came for the wedding, and we drifted in and out of sleep and watched the preparations.  The actual ceremony started at 8 when the guests arrived and walked the offerings down the street then back again.  I was part of the welcome crew at the entrance, with my host mother and sisters.  I felt honored to be up there. 

The ceremonies lasted basically all day.  There are many different parts that I don’t really understand, but it takes longer because the bride changes clothes so frequently.  Over the two day affair, I counted 12 different outfits.  That includes costume, shoes, jewelry and sometimes hair and make-up.  So what could probably have been a few hour ceremony took all day long.  It’s pretty exhausting, but here are the pictures and hopefully a sufficient description.

April 9th started much the same, with a 4 am wake-up call.  I made sure, though, that I got my hair and make-up done because I didn’t the day before.  There were too many people and I had no advocates for me (usually my host sisters and mom look out for me in these situations where I feel weird, but they were clearly swamped with stuff to do), but I got it done for the second day.  The first day is all ceremonies and not too many people come.  It’s typically family, close friends and the grandmothers (I believe that Cambodian pagodas would collapse without grandmothers or “yays” as they are called here).  The second day is more what we would categorize as the reception, where many people come, eat, dance and drink.  There was a small ceremony in the morning, but then people started to come for the “nyum kah” which means literally the “eating at a wedding”.  Lisa, who was lent and eventually given a wedding outfit by my amazing host sister, and I sat down at a table with a bunch of yays and ate rice with women all over the age of 60.  Yays are the coolest and because older people are so respected here, they can basically get away with anything.  They say what is on their mind and it doesn’t matter.  They are great company. 

Like all of the young people at the party, Lisa and I started drinking with my host family and soon enough were dragged onstage by my host sister and couldn’t leave for an entire song.  We rotated between drinking and dancing, mainly because everyone wanted to drink with the foreigners or dance with the foreigners.  The concept of sipping or casual drinking simply doesn’t exist here, so that concept combined with everyone wanting to drink with the foreigners led to a lot of Angkor beer for Lisa and I.  It was really fun and almost two years of experiences like this, we can hold our own and know enough to continue to drink water and dance.  The Cambodian way to drink is, much like everything else here, communal.  Drinking happens as a group.  Everyone says “joll guy-you”, which means “enter glass” but cheers for us, then drinks.  Sometimes they want to drink the whole glass.  I typically say, “oh no, I can’t do that, I have to drink one by one”.  One by one here means one at a time, but in Khmer it’s “muy muy” and “muy” means one.  So when I said that I wanted to drink “muy muy” that got twisted around to drinking one glass at a time, chugging the whole glass and led to a night long joke. 

All said and done, it was a blast and I was really glad to be a part of it.  The weddings that I have gone to before are as follows:

- A math teacher at my high school invited me to his daughter’s wedding 3 months after I came to Cambodia and had never talked to this teacher before
-A man who works at the orphanage where I built the hygiene station (I knew him the best out of all of these weddings, besides my host sister)
-My initial host family when I came to visit Battambang during training
-The sister of the woman whose stand I buy soap and detergent from

Having said that, going to the wedding of someone that I know and moreover being a part of the family and ceremony makes for much more fun and enjoyment than just being the token foreigner that everyone stares at throughout the meal. 

April 10-12 Early the morning after the wedding ended, I got on a bus to Phnom Penh because my friend from high school and her boyfriend came to visit.  We spent two days in Phnom Penh.  We did some sightseeing (the Royal Palace and the National Museum), shopping and ate some really good food.  Phnom Penh is enjoyable when you know how to get around and where to go.  Phnom Penh as really grown on me and we had a lot of fun. 

April 12-14 Early on April 12th, we got an early taxi to Battambang.  We checked into the hotel and went to my host family’s house, but Ma was the only one there.  My host sister went to visit her in-laws with her husband (who moved into our house after the wedding) and my host brother went to visit his wife’s family for Khmer New Year in a province in the south. 

I told her that we would be back for dinner that night then went to Kunthea’s house, who was my student at my high school and now is a first year student at the university that I work at (and an English Club member).  A lot of my former grade 12 students came back from Phnom Penh for Khmer New Year and wanted to make banchayou (see April 5th’s description of this food).  It was so great to see the students from last year and Catte and Tucker were able to get to know some of my students.  The food was so good and we had a lot of fun hanging out and talking as a group.  It was great to get updates from the students who are now in university.  They are all doing really well, but I could tell that they were happy to be home and have a break.  Most of them live in dorms or rented rooms and it seems tough to live so far from home without anyone familiar.  But they have grown and are more confident. 

April 13th was a fun-filled busy day that started with seeing a fortune teller after breakfast.  Phanet came as our translator and Tucker and Catte got their fortunes told.  This is the same fortune teller that I went to one time before and he is a numerologist.  Because he calculates one’s fortunes by the day that they were born on, the month and the year (year of the rabbit, not 1987), I was able to get my brother’s fortune told.  I won’t go into details, but he has a good fortune.  Tucker and Catte seemed to be satisfied with their fortunes.  Overall, it was a really fun experience. 

After the fortune teller, we rode the bamboo train, which is always fun.  Phanet had never gone and really enjoyed it.  It’s a great way to see the countryside.  We then ate lunch together and went back to the hotel for a nap.  After our nap, we took a tuk tuk really far down the road next to the river to my student Ranin’s house.  My current grade 12 students (the ones who threw the first banchayou party on April 5th) wanted to meet Catte and Tucker and invited us over for fruit and drinks.  Ranin lives right on the river and it’s so beautiful there.  The students were able to practice English and take pictures.  Ranin lives even further than Kimny, about 15k out and a few of the students lived right near him.  It is always incredible to see where my students come from and just how much time and energy they spend traveling. 

On April 14th, the first day of Khmer New Year, we went to my host family’s house to go to the pagoda, but I found out that my host mom wasn’t going until April 15th, so we decided to head to Siem Reap a few house early.  When I came back, my host mom apologized that everyone was so tired after the wedding to really celebrate anything, which I totally understand. 

April 14-16- When we got to Siem Reap, we checked into the hotel and swam in the pool and ate lunch.  It was a very relaxing hotel and we were taking on the temples the next day, so we wanted to enjoy some pool time. 

April 15th- we went to the temples really early, but because of Khmer New Year, there were so many people there.  Since it is considered a pilgrimage for many Cambodians, families typically save up their money all year and come with a lot of people.  We were still able to walk around and see a lot of the temples.  After the temples, we were pretty tired and came back to the hotel and swam a bit more (they had a great pool).

The next morning, we took a flight to Phuket, an island on the coast of Thailand.

April 16-20- We flew from Siem Reap to Phuket, but connected in Bangkok.  Although the layover was short, I took advantage and got some Burger King for the first time in almost 2 years (I wish they had a Wendy’s!).  While in Phuket, we stayed in an incredible hotel, right on the water.  Our days consisted of swimming in the ocean or the amazing pools (they were fresh water, a good relief from the intense waves and salt).  It was incredible relaxing and we spent our days reading, laying poolside and getting burnt.  We went into town a few times for food and snacks, but when the weather was bad (it rained a few times), Tucker and I watched baseball on his laptop and it was so nice to watch a game, regardless of who was playing. 
April 20-22- On April 20th, we flew from Phuket to Bangkok and stayed at the Mandarin Oriental.  I was happy to be in a more developed country.  They had some things there that I hadn’t seen in almost two years- a subway, Starbucks, malls with real stores and so on.  My interest wasn’t in seeing the Royal Palace since we have one in Cambodia! Thai culture and Khmer culture don’t seem to be so different and I knew that I would rather spend $5 on a gift for my host niece and nephew and not on an entry fee to a museum that is really similar to something that we have in Cambodians.  My host family would be upset with me if they ever knew that I compared Thai culture to Khmer culture (since they don’t really like the Thai, like most Cambodians) but the last leg of the trip was enjoyable, for me at least, because I felt like I wasn’t in a developing country.  This trip was a chance for me to refresh my spirits for my last few months here. 

Catte and Tucker left for New York early on April 22 and we said our farewells at the airport.  I took a van to the Thai border with Cambodia and although I was so nervous about the crossing, there was no reason, because the only other people in my van were a woman and her son, who were Khmer.  She spoke incredible English and works on the Cambodians side of the border for the Catholic Church and told me that I could be in their taxi, since they were traveling on to Phnom Penh.  So, they dropped me off, right at my house.  I was home in record time and was so happy to see my host family, even though Chun Lai and Chun Liap are still at their grandparents’ house far away. 

Now it’s back to site life.

This trip reinforces something that I have really seen here- karma.  Whatever you want to call it, I truly believe in the idea that universe seeks balance and regulates the good and bad.  On the trip, when I was being grumpy or rude, something bad happened to me.  But when I was friendly or positive, something good happened to me.  It is such a simple message- treat others poorly and you will be treated poorly in return, but treat others well, and you will be treated well in return.  It may not be as immediate as we’d like, but it always seems to balance out. 

Another important aspect of this month has been goals #2 and #3 of Peace Corps, which are to increase the awareness of American on the part of Cambodians and vice versa.  This is a job I take every seriously, as you can see by this blog, but having visitors is such a great way to work towards accomplishing this goal.  My family has been able to come visit and now two friends, which means that there are now 6 more people who know about Cambodia that may never have.  Likewise, my students and host family have very directly interacted with my family and friends and now I am not the sole representation of America for those who have met my family and friends.  There is a possibility of more visitors, which only increases the awareness and interaction between people who would NEVER be able to meet each other.  It’s incredible to be on this side of it. 

Sorry for the delay, but as you can see, it’s been a really crazy month.  Things will probably not really go back to normal because I have a lot of things coming up, but I will be better about updates for these last 2.5 months, I promise.  School starts again today and I’m not too sure when it will end officially and what is happening at the university, but English Club for my grade 12 students will be happening, undoubtedly.  I need to find things to fill my time, but not wastes of time. 

In other news, Chun Lai is starting school next month, so I will be taking plenty of pictures of him in his school uniform.  I cannot wait to see how cute he will look. 

As of April 25th, 641 days in Cambodia, 78 days to go.  I like to keep that in mind.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Because Peace Corps is now 50 years old, there is a worldwide initiative to inform more people about Peace Corps, maybe you have noticed.  I had my project this week, and Darlene had hers last week.  

One part of my Peace Corps service that I haven’t really gotten used to is the inconsistency of business.  March was one of my busiest months out of my entire time here, but that is a really good thing, especially because I feel the pressure of making sure that I am productive with not much time left.  The first half of the month was crazy busy with planning for International Women’s Day and the actual workshop.  Then the second half was busy planning for my kickball game.  In between these two events was a lot of teaching (about 6 hours every day), so needless to say, this month absolutely flew by.  April is just around the corner, which is the time for us to take a break, have a vacation and enjoy Cambodia without the pressure of teaching English every day.  Before I get into that, I want to tell you about my kickball game.

You may or may not know that I was an athlete in America and sports have been a really big part of my life.  Most of my close friends are former teammates or other athletes that I met in college.  I wanted to do an athletic event in Cambodia, but up until now, there has never really been the opportunity.  There were times when I forced a project onto people and it didn’t go over well, because, quite frankly, I was the only interested in the event.  I was careful not to do this because I didn’t want to turn people off to sports.  In Cambodia, there are sports teams, but there are a few teachers at my school who are paid PE teachers and coaches, so that meant that I couldn’t start a soccer, volleyball or basketball team because there were people assigned to doing that already.  When Peace Corps sent us information about the chance to create a community project to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, I thought about how much fun a sports activity would be.  I had also just been introduced to an Ngo school in Battambang, located at the train station.  The train station hasn’t been used for many years, but there is a fairly large community of squatters living there.  It was very clear initially that these are children that are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, gang activity (yes, there are gangs in Cambodia), substance and drug abuse, etc.  There aren’t too many employed villagers and there is always a group of men gambling and drinking outside of the school.  The school does a great job of creating education and youth development programs, but I thought that a community event day would be a really fun way to celebrate the 50th anniversary.  We collected the children from the community and had two practices to teach them how to play.  I chose kickball for two reasons- because a lot of kids can play and because sports are usually set aside for boys, so playing soccer may have made the girls feel uncomfortable.  But, it was confusing for them because kickball is basically soccer combined with baseball, and they don’t know baseball.  Thankfully I had my 9 loyal youth leaders from my grade 12 English club to help coach and prepare.  I also asked my former coach from Seton Hall softball, Coach Vander May, if he could donate t-shirts, which he sent about a month before (thanks again Coach!) and Darlene got 20 UTexas t-shirts (she was a dean at UTexas before joining Peace Corps).  We taped numbers to the back and made the event UTexas vs. Seton Hall. 

After all the arrangements, Peace Corps informed me that the Embassy would be coming with a film crew to document the event which will be included in a piece for Khmer TV on Peace Corps Cambodia.  This actually really helped me because I asked one woman who has a store right near the school and center of the village if she could tell everyone that CTN (the Khmer equivalent of NBC) would be there to film.  She must have done just that because when we showed up at 7am, there were already some kids ready to go.  We made teams and handed out t-shirts.  Some students from Texas sent posters and my grade 12 students made posters in Khmer, so we had a photo shoot before the Embassy arrived.  Once the Embassy came, we stretched, which is really funny and started to play.  Because we had practiced, the game wasn’t nearly as rag-tag as I thought that it was going to be.  We stationed one of my grade 12 students at each base to help the children remember to run to the next base, so after a child kicked the ball, they ran to “sister Samphoa” who reminded them to run to second/ “brother Sophoe” and then to third or “sister Nara”.  Darlene was all-time pitcher for Texas and I was all-time pitcher for Seton Hall.  We played pitcher’s hand, which means that if the pitcher has the ball before the kicker gets to first, they are out.  Seton Hall was in the field first, and it was clear very quickly that Texas was STACKED!  I divided the teams up based on age/ height, but I clearly didn’t do a good job, because Seton Hall had all the babies and Texas had all of the older kids.  The first inning went something like this- Texas scored 5 runs and Seton Hall had one hit and didn’t score any runs.  Texas was clearly having more fun and my kids were a little bummed, but we turned it around in the second inning and scored more runs.  We rigged it a little so that Texas didn’t kill us too badly and that helped, but we were able to turn the sadness around and it was a lot of fun.  Some kids were able to kick the ball really far and we had a few home-runs.  But every time a run was scored, everyone cheered and the kids were having a lot of fun.  The end result was 19 for Texas and 9 for Seton Hall.  Although I am naturally very competitive, the point was not the score; the kids had so much fun that it really didn’t matter.  Whenever we scored a run, we all high-fived each other, jumped up and down and celebrated.  It was a fairly short game, but it was a blast.  We played for probably 45 minutes then took pictures and drank some water. 

While we were playing, my friend Meghan led the Bozo Bucket section for the babies who were too little to play.  I think Bozo Buckets may be only a Chicago thing, but we set up three buckets filled with candy and the children threw a ball at a basket and if they made it, they got a piece of candy and if they made all three, they got a cookie.  It kept them occupied and happy. 

Many parents and older siblings came to watch the game, too.  So at one time, we had about 50 kids playing in the kickball game, 50 kids playing Bozo Buckets and about 20 parents watching the game.  The goal of having a community event was a success because we had a lot of people there, and they all seemed to enjoy it.  The parents held the signs for a while and got into the game. 

My description doesn’t do it justice and hopefully the pictures help, but I want to get the video to post, because it sounds really haphazard, which it was, but it was really typical of Cambodian kids, especially homeless ones.

During the game I was pulled to the side and interviewed, in Khmer.  I was really nervous about this for a week, and then the night before the big game, I reminded myself that I make myself look like an idiot every single day.  That’s not me being too hard on myself, it’s a fact.  Every volunteer feels that way.  I mean, look at the situation- I’m an American female that lives in Cambodia and tries my best to learn as much as possible and help where I can, of course I am going to look dumb every now and then.  My interview wasn’t good, but I said the things that I meant- that I love Cambodia, playing with children, learning about Cambodia is important to me, so on and so forth.  We will see how the video turns out.  We are having a party at the Embassy where they play the video on May 18th, so I’ll let you know then….

It’s a weird feeling because this may be the last big project that I do here.  I want to find my grade 12 students scholarships, but that is not really a project but rather a personal thing that I want to do.  I will finish out my Life Skills Club (basically a class where I teach about skills such as goal-setting, professional skills, how to write a resume/ cover letter, etc), American Culture class, my formal classes and English Clubs, but to be honest, I shouldn’t be starting new projects.  I have about 16 weeks left and that’s how long it takes sometimes to start new projects, so I will see the projects that I have started out and maybe do one more health workshop, but my time is almost over.

Having said that, I am really happy that an athletic activity was one of my last because sports mean a lot to me.  I’ve always thought that sports are not just about how to hit a curveball or hitting a three pointer, but rather the deep rooted lessons.  Those lessons are incredibly important to these children who are literally fighting for their lives at the age of 5 and they have to look out for themselves, because no one else will.  I saw two of the little kids who played in the games at the market begging for money then later that same down begging for money outside of a restaurant.  Sports, on the other hand, require discipline and working with others for a common goal.  I believe that many kids end up in a bad situation because they are trying to look out for themselves (join a gang for protection and possibly business reasons), but how many successful athletes do you know personally who are selfish?  It doesn’t work that way- the teammates that I had that looked out for themselves never reached their full potential.  Another important lesson from sports is dedication- these kids can’t really go to school, so their schedules are really inconsistent.  They are also really bored and have too much free time.  Playing a sport fills their time with something that is not harmful to them and promotes exercise, teamwork and hard work.  They have a lot of bad influences around them and around Battambang, these kids are known as being the toughest crowd around.  I plan on playing kickball with them when I can because there is always a group of kids hanging around and positive activities are hard to come by in that community.

Up next is my host sister’s wedding on April 8-9.  I went to the market with my host mom to buy fabric for a new dress.  I feel awful because they were banking on me to invite all of my Peace Corps friends to the wedding, but all of them will be out of the country because April is our free month to travel because of Khmer New Year.  I think I will be flying solo for that one.  But the preparation is fun so far and really similar to my real sister’s wedding.  I will have a detailed report on that after the fact. 

The day after her wedding ends, I will be taking the bus into PP to meet one of my closest friends, Catte, and her boyfriend.  We will be traveling around Cambodia for a week then going to Phuket and Bangkok, Thailand.  I am really looking forward to showing them Cambodia because I think that I have insight, relationships and connections that most tourists don’t have and I’m really excited to show off Cambodia to them.  There is so much to learn and I know that they are both really interested in learning about the Cambodia that you can’t really get from a travel book or tour.  Thailand will be incredible because although I love Cambodia, I need a break.  I have been in Cambodia for a year now without leaving, which is actually a long time and I’m looking forward to seeing Thailand.  When I come back to Cambodia, it will be the last week in April and phasing out will really start.  It’s a strange feeling because my students and host family are already talking about me going home.  The best to describe it is simply being torn.  I am excited to see my family and friends, but I am so incredibly san about leaving Cambodia.  I am thankful for the last few months though, because I plan on spending them with my host family, students and friends. 

Hope all is well back home! 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

International Women's Day

Because I never miss a cute Chun Liap moment. 
I’m not a big crier.  That’s not to say that I never cry; I do.  It’s just not for the usual things- a commercial will make me tear up but not a sprained ankle.  My teammates used to cry over a bad game, hitting slump, being embarrassed in front of the team, etc.  I never used to cry at that stuff, I would just get mad.  Likewise, when something bad happens here, I don’t cry, I get PISSED.  That may be a character flaw, but it is something that I have noticed about myself.  My friends here cry over many things but I have cried a grand total of 6 times, which in Peace Corps terms is a dry well.  The first time was when I found out that my best friend’s mother passed away, then when I thought a student had leprosy, when my parents were stuck in San Francisco on their way to visit me and their trip was delayed by 3 days, when my host nephew died, when my friend Jessica went back to America and at my International Women’s Day event.  Now, as you can see, I am a rather emotional person when it comes to others.  I don’t think that I am tough or anything, I just don’t cry when I am upset about my own situation, it is usually because I am upset for someone else.  This last one was an eye-opener and to explain, I want to describe the entirety of my International Women’s Day program.

As you probably read before, I was faced with a little sexism in class when my co-teacher made fun of one of my students for entering her essay into the pool to be invited to the program.  After he did that, I chose to bring all 13 girls, even though we were only allowed 10.  I didn’t care because there was clearly a need. 

The way that I see it, before the program, I saw two important victories for women’s rights in Cambodia.  First, was when the university males came forward and said that they want to be incorporated into the women’s day event because women’s rights has an impact on their lives.  The second was when I gave the invitations to the 13 girls that I brought.  Because I said that I would only be able to take 6 grade 10 students and 9 submitted essays, they were nervous.  But when they all received their invitations and showed them off to their friends and classmates, I knew that they felt a little more confidence in themselves. 

The weeks leading up to the event were crazy.  Between getting all of the girls names, training the group leaders, creating and translating documents- we had our hands full.  But all the running around and countless hours of preparation were worth it when the girls arrived.  Philip, another volunteer, was in charge of the boys.  He was incredible and everything ran so smoothly because he told them exactly what to do, with the focus on the girls.  When the students arrived, they went into their small groups (they were all divided on purpose to meet girls from other schools and districts) and immediately made new friends.  Everyone arrived on time and we dove right in.  We started off with a little story called “The World Upside Down” which told of a world where girls were encouraged to stay in school and boys were taught to be shy and gentle.  The boys were taught to be quiet and learn how to cook, clean and care for women from their fathers.  The women were the leaders of countries and were the historians, scientists and leaders of the world.  When a woman was pregnant, her family prayed for a girl, and if the baby was a boy, they were happy, but secretly prayed for the next to be a girl.  Now, this story is pretty whacky, but then Dave, another volunteer, addressed the girls and said that if we reverse the word boy with girl and vice versa, that seems pretty close to the world that we live in.  We don’t wait either world, but keep this story in mind for the rest of the day. 
The next segment included me introducing an on-going exercise called 2 Baskets.  I told the girls to imagine that they were moving from their old house into a new one and they had two baskets- one was a pile of trash to burn or get rid of and one was to bring to the new house.  The exercise was for the girls to write down ideas that they learned and wanted to take with them and ideas that they believed before, but wanted to leave behind.  We prearranged 2 volunteers to read theirs.  Many girls wrote down their ideas throughout the day and there were some awesome ones- girls can make their own decisions, my gender will not determine my occupation, women’s rights don’t only have an impact on women, etc. 

After this, Phanet, Darlene’s fantastic co-teacher, presented on self-esteem.  This is a huge issue with girls in every country.  The difference is that the girls are never really taught how to improve their self-esteem.  Phanet talked about how important it is to value yourself and love yourself.  She told the girls how she studied biology and wanted to teach future teachers about biology, everyone told her that no one would ever marry her and that she should teach high school instead.  She refused and loves her life (and her teacher trainees are much better suited because of that).  She talked about her insecurity with her skin tone because she is dark (Cambodians, like many Asians, want to have light skin and often times put skin bleaching cream on their bodies), she touched on how frequently people called her dark and how it wasn’t beautiful.  She told the girls that her beauty came from within herself, not from what others told her.  The small groups had break out sessions about improving their self-esteem and each group commented on how they need to love themselves first and foremost. 

Three of my students. 

We then put on a skit of a doctor and a farmer.  Both are men.  The farmer goes to the doctor and the doctor asks the farmer some questions about his family.  He asks the farmer about his wife, and if she has a job.  The farmer says, no, she doesn’t, she stays at home.  When the doctor asks the farmer to describe his wife’s typical day, the farmer talks for about 7 minutes about her daily tasks involving, but not restricted to, waking up at 4 am, cooking breakfast, getting water from the well, seeing the children off to school, cleaning the house, working in the fields, selling food in the market, making clothes, doing the laundry, cooking lunch, etc, you get the point.  After this long spiel about her never busy day, the doctor asks the man, “wait, I thought that you said your wife doesn’t work?” to which the farmer says, “yeah, that’s right, she stays at home…”  This was a segway into Navy, our Peace Corps doctor’s presentation.  She told the girls about her upbringing, which is just so inspiring.  She told them how her family was torn about when she was 13 and they were relocated to a different province.  They lost their land and many family members died.  She knew before the Cambodian genocide (Khmer Rouge) that she wanted to be a doctor, and that nothing would stop her.  She had to walk miles to get to school, and then she finally got a bike.  She used to sell vegetables in the market for literally pennies to try to support her studies.  Her teachers were lenient with her because she worked so hard (she often times didn’t have the money to pay the teachers, even when rice and food were accepted as payment).  She never formally studied English but studied on her own.  She bought books and had conversations with herself to practice.  Her mom told her that she was going crazy, but that didn’t stop her.  She continued to study, work and persue her dreams.  She got choked up at one point and many of the girls were crying as well; you could hear a pin drop in there.  She told them about how we must dream and come up with a plan for that dream; dreaming simply isn’t enough.  Taking care of our obligations on the road to our dreams is how we can succeed as women.  Her children then talked about their dreams.  Her daughter, Merica, talked about how she wanted to be a model, singer, but now her dream is to be the first female Prime Minister of Cambodia.  Her son talked about how he wants to play in the NBA, or if that fails, play soccer, and also become a doctor.  He was cute, because he told the girls (keep in mind, he is 13 and is just starting to feel awkward in these situations) that he encourages them to dream, because they can accomplish it, if they dream and work.  Navy’s husband, who is also a doctor and from Battambang province talked about being married to such a strong women and how decisions were made at home, how they communicate and each has input into decisions.  We did a combination break out session and question and answer session- the girls drew their dreams while others asked questions.  And that brought us to lunch.  

Sony as a lawyer 

We had every lunch order prearranged, so delivering the food to the small groups as a piece of cake.  I attribute that to the summer that I spent working for a catering company.  We had the fish/ chicken thing arranged beforehand, so it was all worked out for us.  That’s how it was at our event.  Lunch didn’t take too long, which was good, because we just dove back into the event.  Cambodians have a break from school and work from 11-1 and spend at lease 30 minutes of that napping, so we knew that we had a small window to get them back on their feet before they got too tired.  We got the girls back into their small groups and did the human knot, which is where each girl crosses her hands and grabs the hand of another girl, creating a confusing mix of hands in the middle and the group has to work together to become a circle again.  They really enjoyed it and I was in one of the groups and it was a blast.  They were all laughing and it boosted their energy, which was exactly what we needed.  We then had the health speaker make her presentation.  She mainly works at the Catholic Church doing workshops on women’s health, so she was perfect for this.  Because Cambodians never have sex ed in school, she was able to talk to the girls about those awkward things that they have perhaps encountered, but are too scared or shy to ask anyone, even mothers and sisters. We kicked all of the males out of the room to give the girls their privacy, which turned out to be very beneficial since the girls asked some very personal questions that they wouldn’t ever had if there were boys in the room. She was a straight-shooter, which is what is needed to make an impact.  She told the girls straight what they needed to know about their bodies and how to care for themselves.  She also talked about reproductive health, which is crucial since these young women are just about marrying age, if they aren’t already.   There was a health advocacy skit, which demonstrated the wrong way to address a doctor.  She then offered suggestions when you go to the doctor.  Theary had to leave right after to go back to Phnom Penh (we brought her out of maternity leave) and Navy took over for the break out session, which were 8 hypothetical questions.  The girls answered as a group, and I was so proud when all 4 of my grade students stood up to answer questions (my grade 10 students were a little more shy).  After completing that portion, we asked the girls to complete a questionnaire and gave them their prize, a notebook and took pictures.  I was talking to my girls when I was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I started to cry.  I brought 13 students that day- 9 grade 10 students who I don’t know so well and 4 grade 12 students who I have been teaching since day one, so I know them very well.  They were in my formal class last year, as well as two years of English Club.  I was telling them how proud of them I am, when I just started crying, obviously tears of joy. When I first met them, they were meek girls, but put that aside for 5 minutes to ask me to teach them extra. Since then, I have had the pleasure of teaching them during my free time, focusing on critical thinking.  Watching them over the course of almost two years, I have seen not only their English skills improve tenfold, but their confidence improve, to the point where there was such a heated discussion between a few of them, so heated that students made comments like “well, I think that you are wrong” and “I really disagree”.  In Cambodian terms, that’s the equivalent of calling someone dumb and their argument even dumber.  The girls just made me so proud because I know how big of a sacrifice they make to come to this stuff and how it’s so against their nature not to stand up and speak their mind.  There aren’t too man chances for a Peace Corps volunteer to see the fruits of his or her labor (if at all), so seeing them there was just overwhelming.  They also just reminded me how much I am really going to miss Cambodia.  There are a few people that really mean a lot to me and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye, but I take solace in the women that they have grown to be.  It becomes clear very quickly while working in the developing world that progress is hard to make and it takes so long.  It just hit me then and there. 

Human Knot

University Students

NYHS students

Bringing it back to my softball days, I gave myself 4 big projects to do in my last 4 months- International Women’s Day, my kickball tournament, my health workshop and finding my grade 12 students scholarships.  One down, three to go.  IWD was very successful and to be honest, really enjoyable.  Last year it was a crazy day and was so stressful, this year, with a year and a half of experience under our belts, we were able to do it right and enjoy the day.  Next is the kickball tournament.  We had our first practice today.  The tournament will take place behind the abandoned train station.  There is a community of squatter families and children that will probably be evicted soon.  The school nearby is trying to offer the children an option to stay out of trouble, so I thought that a kickball tournament would be a good option on their only day off of school, which is Sunday.  I was nervous that kids wouldn’t show up, but that wasn’t an issue.  Each team had about 20 kids that could play, not including their baby brother or sister that their parents made take with them.  Many of the parents came to watch as well.  We will have another practice next Sunday and then the big game is on Sunday, March 27th, and I am confident that attendance will be sky-high by then.   My coach from Seton Hall donated 20 t-shirts and Darlene asked University of Texas to donated 20 t-shirts, so the game will be UT vs. SHU.  It should be really fun.  The rules are very rudimentary but the reason for the game is to have a community activity, not to find Battambang’s deadliest kickball player.  I chose kickball because all you need is a ball and a bunch of little kids.  We will have a kickball game and other options for younger children (maybe Bozo buckets?)  My grade 12 students were the coaches and they had a blast and got into it.  They are such great role models and these children are so vulnerable that it sends a great message to the community that there are people who still care about their children’s wellbeing. 

After the kickball tournament, we will most likely start our health workshop.  Maybe we can play a little kickball then learn about hand washing.  The health workshop will be in the same community, because they really need it.  These families are living in the vacant box cars, offices and really anywhere providing any shelter.  The children are very dirty because they spend most of their time outside and are really susceptible to diarrhea and other potentially dangerous ailments.  Again, my grade 12 students will be leading this.  This will be great for their resumes and also leads into the last project.  This school offers scholarships, so a few of my students will be able to get scholarships.  I told them that in order to apply for the scholarships, my students must volunteer two hours per week for two months (this is not the case, but I believe that they should give something to this community in exchange).  They are also really enjoying these projects. 

These 3 remaining projects are ones that I am really interested in for obvious reasons- I miss playing sports, the children need instruction in regards to basic hygiene and I want my students to go on to university.  All Peace Corps volunteers agree that they cannot change the country, the change must come from within the country.  We don’t have the means to change the higher ups, but rather the youth that may one day be in that position.  The impact is really small that we actually end up making, but that doesn’t make it any less important.  I am just figuring this out, and right on time, too.