Sunday, February 13, 2011

Post Chinese New Year.

To my fan base:

Since Chinese New Year, not much has happened.  It was a pretty lazy two weeks.  Classes were canceled for Chinese New Year February 2- 4, then last week were semester one exams.  My coteacher wanted me to monitor this test, aka play the bad guy and stop them from cheating.  I refused to do this for a few reasons.  First, every test that we have, he never does anything while I try to find the offenders and has never once marked a paper or even told me that someone was in fact cheating.  Second, he made the test.  I have no problem monitoring my own test because I know that we have covered literally everything on that test 3 times and that the students are capable of doing very well.  But when I looked at his test, it was way to hard for them and some of the answers didn’t make sense.  I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because it’s incredibly insulting for me to tell him that the test isn’t good or is too tough, so I had to tell him that Peace Corps doesn’t allow me to sit in for the semester exams, which isn’t the case, but when in doubt, blame a Peace Corps policy.  The next reason is that I don’t know what he is doing behind the scenes- did he give the test to the students already?  This isn’t me being paranoid because both of my co-teachers did that for every test last year.  The last reason is because the semester tests are really important to the students’ grades.  If I come down really hard on them in my class, while every other grade 10 student is cheating and copying, it’s really not fair to my students.  I want them to learn the material on a monthly basis, but these tests determine which class they will be placed in for grade 11.  So, because of all of these reasons, I opted out of the tests.  My co-teacher seemed to be satisfied with my reasoning.  If I have learned anything here, it’s that some battles aren’t meant to be fought, and that was one.  Blaming Peace Corps is a fool-proof excuse because not many people are familiar with the intricate policies and protocol, including most Peace Corps volunteers, so it’s usually a safe bet.  But it’s not a card to be played all the time; it’s a special occasion card. 

As always seems to happen here, a two week lull usually leads up to a month of endless projects.  This weekend really saw the start of my busy streak that will take my right into April.  It’s crunch time for our International Women’s Day because some of the volunteers have to spend time in Phnom Penh for training, so this week will be really crucial to making sure that we get it done.  The last minute running around stuff is old hat now, so that isn’t even stressful.  But on Saturday, a group of us cranked out the budget and schedule, which will make for a very informative event.  The theme for the year is “Strong Women, Strong Cambodia: Balancing Education, Family, Health and Tradition”.  Kind of long, but it basically nails it.  We will have three guest speakers- the first is (hopefully!) Darlene’s co-teacher Phanet (the woman who takes us to the fortune tellers).  She will be talking about self-esteem and how to gain confidence.  She’s an incredible teacher and friend, she supports her family and balances the roles very well.  The second speaker is our doctor for Peace Corps.  She survived Pol Pot and studied in Vietnam and America.  She’s going to talk to the girls about how she really values all aspects of her life and how she created the balance between doctor/wife/mother/daughter.  She’ll be really great for the girls because she is from the countryside and her family was very poor and she is really a self-made woman.  The last speaker has yet to be solidified, but if all goes according to plan, she will make a presentation about feminine health and hygiene and reproductive health.  There are many misconceptions about feminine health because girls are usually too scared or shy to ask about something because they don’t want to seem different or weird.  And it may seem like the girls are too young for reproductive health, but in a country where 25 is considered past marrying age, juniors and seniors in high school are the perfect audience.  We will also put on a skit about health advocacy.  Many people, men and women alike, do not ask enough questions when they go to the health center or a hospital. This skit will demonstrate how typically people just accept what the doctors say and have no idea what it even means.  Then we will show them a woman who asks many questions and leave more informed and in better control of her health or that of her family.  We are all really looking forward to it, but this week will be filled with invitations, meetings, translations and seeking out funding (any ideas are more than welcome!)

I’m starting my Life Plans Club, but I want to change the name to Life Skills.  I met with my contact at the university and expressed that I don’t want to lecture or do something that can only apply to a few students (I have less than 5 months left now!).  So the solution was Life SKILLS Club, which will be a weekly workshop, held in 6 different sessions, which will probably have around 200 participants overall, and we will focus on one skill every week.  The first lesson is on goal setting, how to set them and how to achieve them.  Seems simple, but this lesson usually goes untaught because there aren’t many sports teams and classrooms are much different here.  The other lessons will include: resume writing, resume building, cover letter writing, interviewing and professional skills, basic nutrition and one other topic that I haven’t thought of yet (any suggestions are more than welcome!) 

I am also planning an event for the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, but I don’t want to jinx my project proposal, so I will fill you in on that once it’s approved, but it’s good….

Every Peace Corps volunteer has a very different experience, but also seems to learn the same important goals.  One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the group of students that I work with who went to America.  They are in the beginning stages of launching their Green Club, of which I will be their first member.  They learned the skills to create and carry out a project, and I have the opportunity to not lead them, but rather follow them.  They have an awesome plan and I will be there whenever they need help, but I think that my role will be more of a trainee, which is very humorous to all of us. 

The other thing that I have been able to be a part of is the opposite of a cross cultural exchange.  I am always making an effort to represent America and engage in discussions about Cambodia and America.  It’s one of the most important jobs as a volunteer, I think. I write in this blog to inform my friends and family about this incredible country that I am in.  When I come home, I will continue to spread what I have learned here, but with this blog, I am able to share my stories and insight into Cambodia on a larger scale (I have a fan base in India, Germany and South Korea, who knew!)   But since they have gone to America, I am able to see their interpretation of America as a Cambodia.  It’s incredibly fascinating to hear them inform others about America. 
I was sitting in their presentation this weekend when Reaksemey, a totally pistol, made a few comments that really stuck with me.  The first was that Americans all appreciate honesty.  I have heard them say this before, but then it hit me, we say the exact same thing about Cambodians.  Every single Peace Corps Volunteer has been called fat during her time here.  As an American, this is one of the most honest things that anyone has said to me.  But these students were talking about how Americans want a straight answer, especially when asked about oneself, for example: “why did you do that?” In Cambodia, you would never ask anyone that because they put their reputation on the line.  Maybe that is the case in America, but it’s a saving grace if someone can admit to what they did, but here that is a loss of face.  It’s funny to me how one word can mean something so different to two different countries.  It also puts me in check about making gross generalizations about other countries when a student says “American kids can do anything that they want” or that “Americans don’t respect old people”.  If they stayed with my family during my upbringing, they would probably be singing a much different tune.

The next thing that she said was that during some events, there were things that happened that they didn’t understand.  For me, this happened when I first came here and the bathroom was a hole in the ground and a big water basin.  For them, it was going to the university bathroom and not understanding the automatic sinks, soap dispensers and hand driers.  The difference is clearly superficial, but if there is or isn’t technology, how universal is that embarrassing feeling that you have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on.  Raya, the group leader, told me that the first time, he thought that he had to place his feet in a certain way and spent about 5 minutes understanding what was happening. 

The last comment was one that I will never forget.  Reaksemey is wise beyond her years and incredibly mature for her young age of 19 and continues to prove a common perception, that teachers can learn a lot from their students.  Her dad, who had incredible English, asked the group to explain the main cultural differences between America and Cambodia.  There were two fathers there who spoke English, but the other parents couldn’t speak a word and clearly were a little overwhelmed to be sitting in an air-conditioned room with the Embassy, looking at a slideshow while their son or daughter spoke rapid English about a country that they knew very little about.  But Reaksemey’s response was that “we always think that we’re right and we shouldn’t judge other cultures because we think that what they are doing is wrong.” I thought that it was incredibly mature of her not to point out the obvious and vast differences between our cultures, but rather said something that made us all the same- that knee-jerk reaction to think that what the other person is doing doesn’t make sense or is wrong.  She then cited that in America, it’s ok that people shake hands/ touch and speak informally regardless of social status or age.  She said that it was strange at first for her, but then she realized that is just the way that it is, not right, not wrong but rather how people do things. 

I am surprised by the date every time I look at the calendar.  I am getting excited about coming home, but there is plenty to keep me in the zone.  I just like to plan and think ahead.  One thing that has been a major topic of conversation for us has been what people often refer to as the real world aka, a job.  I have already started looking for some jobs and updating me resume, but how can I briefly explain living in Cambodia on a resume.  Good thing I have about 5 months to figure that out.  I have started to make some plans for coming home, which thankfully will be in the summer, not in this wretched winter.  Although no plans are set in stone, mid-July- August will look a little something like this: Chicago, the east coast, job searching and lot and lots of family time.  Until then, it will be lots of teaching and sweating, because it’s officially hot season again.  Good news for my laundry, but bad news for my fan.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fortune Teller Round #2

This week started with a package from my amazing friends from grade school (yes, we grew up together and still are extremely close, not many people can say that...).  In the package were many inside jokes, as well as Ascension basketball, soccer and volleyball jerseys.  So I took them outside and put them on Chun Lai and Chun Liap.  So now we have two Chargers in Cambodia. 

This week was Chinese New Year, which is the most important holiday in my house.  And, to avoid confusion, although Chinese New Year was from February 3-5, we started to prepare about two weeks ago.  This week, my family (not including me) bought the offerings for the ancestors.  This means anything from food to fake representations of things that the ancestors would need for the afterworld.  This includes, but is not restricted to: fake money (in dollars and yuan), passports, clothes, shoes, credit cards, plane tickets, bank books, razors, alcohol, cell phones, glasses and belts.  When I asked Huck about it, he told me that he had a dream where his dad told him (his dad passed away in 2003) that he doesn’t have much money left.  So, this year, we burnt a lot of fake money.  My friend Lisa, who is another volunteer and came for the festivities, noted on her trip in that she saw someone burning money.  She didn’t realize that the money was fake and assumed that they were really rich and literally had money to burn.

Chinese New Year’s Eve was the big celebration night.  Cooking started early in the morning and the food was presented on a table for the ancestors and in front of the spirit house inside, while my host sisters cooked inside, the men, children and my host mom burned the offerings.  When the ancestors had had their fill, we had a big feast.  Keiko came in to visit, as did Lisa.  The food is always so good and it was a lot of fun.  Everyone napped and Lisa, Keiko and I went into town.  I had a little tire problem- we were riding two people to a bike which was call Khmer style.  Well, my rear tire had a little too much air and popped near the market.  It made a really loud noise, similar to what I image a gunshot sounding like.  It doesn’t help that I am currently watching a lot of the Wire (an HBO show about gangsters in Baltimore and the police officers that try to catch them).  When we came back home, Keiko and I started to prepare our spaghetti for dinner.  We had leftovers from lunch, but I made a huge batch in place of the fried noodles.  There was rice, of course, but Americans and Cambodians alike enjoyed the spaghetti.  I am pretty confident now in cooking Italian food for Cambodians over a wood burning stove.  I can cross that off my list.  Darlene and another volunteer joined us for dinner, so we had a lot of foreigners and Cambodians all together.

Host sister in law making an offering

Host mom and host brother in law enjoying some spaghetti

Keiko watching the dragon competition in China with Lai and Liap (the competition is two people in a dragon costume jumping around)

Chun Lai and Lisa

The offerings being burned

Keiko and Chun Liap

The dinner table

Two number two was similar to the first day at night, but lunch was rather tame because my family went to visit an Angkorian Temple in a nearby district.  But, for dinner, it was a pretty big party.  Although no one knows when my host mother’s birthday is, her daughters decided that Chinese New Year is a good time to celebrate her birthday.  Huck told me that they have only celebrated her birthday once before.  She was so happy to have a day to celebrate her birthday with everyone.  I cannot imagine only celebrating my birthday twice, and she is three times me age.  Because Chun Lai was born on February 14, it was a combined party- Ma and Chun Lai.  Because my host mother is getting older, it is a big deal to turn another year older (if we had a party for Huck, it would just be really weird).  As I have said before, rich children and old people are the only ones who celebrate birthdays, so it was a big day because we had both. 

We sang Happy Birthday for Ma first, then Chun Lai.  It’s really popular in Cambodia to spray silly string and fake snow at the conclusion of the song, for some reason, so that’s what we did.  While we were singing, Ma and Chun Lai were thanking the ancestors and gods and wishing everyone good luck.  We then set up tables for dinner.  I gave Ma her present, which was a jewelry box and Chun Lai money.  Last year for his birthday, I bought him a bunch of toys and was the only idiot there with a present, besides Darlene.  This year I learned my lesson and got some money out of the bank.  It’s tradition to put them in little red envelopes, but I didn’t have any, so I asked Huck for two- one for me and one for Darlene.  I would have felt weird giving my host mom money because I am the only one at the house who gives her money to live there, and I give her money once a month, so I opted for a jewelry box because she doesn’t have one, but she has a lot of jewelry.  It was a fun night, but by the end of the two days of celebration, I was holiday-ed out.  The third day is the day reserved for traveling.  My host mom asked me to go to Pailin, which is the bordering province with Thailand, but I opted out.

Ma's cake

Ma, host sister, her son and Navy, my brother's 

Ma and I in front of the Chinese New Year tree

Fake snow

The reason that I didn’t go to Pailin was because I had set-up another session with a fortune teller, with Darlene and her co-teacher.  This fortune teller was a numerologist and lives very close to my house.  Darlene and I met her co-teacher outside of the numerologist’s house.  I wasn’t quite sure the protocol and hadn’t really prepared much, so I was just flying by the seat of my pants. 

In this compound, there was a big house and a few smaller ones and the numerologist set up inside one of the really small houses, so we all took off our shoes, sat on the grass mats opposite the numerologist, who immediately started chewing his bettle nut and leaves and took out our notebook and pens.  Just like last time, I will try to recreate the conversation, and my thoughts are in italics and all of this was translated by Phanet, Darlene’s co-teacher.

Numerologist: What is your birthday?
Kealan: January 17, 1987. 
N: What is your sign? 
K: Rabbit.
N: What day were you born on?
K: the 17th
N: No, the day of the week.
K: Uh….. I should know this from the family tradition of my Mom telling us about the day that we were born on our birthdays.  Maybe I can figure this out by going backwards. 
*here is the point where I write down the day of the week that my birthday fell on, going backwards.  Anyone who knows me well can attest for how awful I am at math.  I started with “2011- Monday” and tried to work backwards.  I came up with Friday, then I got the idea to use Darlene’s cell phone (I forgot mine at home) and used the calendar “application” on our phones (our phones are from circa 1996) and it said Saturday, January 17, 1987.  I trust a machine over my own math skills, no matter how many times I have dropped this thing.
K: Ok, Saturday, January 17th, year of the rabbit.
N: Your good fortune started this year, January 2011.  This year and next year will be two good years.  In these two years, you will get a job and get married. 
K: This is the second time that I have heard this.  Pretty much the same as the last fortune teller.
N: In general, you are a good person.  But, you need to consult with your elders before you make a decision and if you follow what they say, you will find what you want. 
K: My parents are going to love this part…
N: Do you have any questions?
K: Yes, I want to know more about these two years.  You can’t just mysteriously say that this year and next will be awesome and not go into details.
N: You will get lots of money.  Darlene has ancestors looking out for her, and you do not. 
K: Oh ok. What?  I have ancestors too! And note to self, ask Phanet what “mein liap” means in Khmer. 
K: I also want to know about this future husband.  Please don’t tell me he is a relative.
N: That will be your choice, but it will happen soon, within two years you will be married.  The best choices for you, as a rabbit, are men born in the year of the ox or year of the rat.
K: Phew! No cousins for me! Note to self, look up years for oxen and rats.
K: Do you see anything else?
N: You will have your own house and when you build it, the house should face northwest and when you sleep, your head should be pointing southeast. 
K: When I build a house? And about children? It still creeps me out talking about my future children, but when I’m told which direction I should sleep, I think all bets are off and it’s ok.
N: You shouldn’t have an odd number of children.  So don’t have 1 child or 3 children, you should have 2 or 4.  Any more questions?
K: What about this job?  This career path?  Will I go back to school or get a job?
N: Don’t worry about the job.  You will get a good job and you will not continue your education.  Don’t worry about the next two years, they will set up the rest of your life, which will be a good life. 
K: Can you tell me about my family?  About my little sister?
N: What is her information?

* after some calculations

K: Saturday, April 22, year of the snake.
N: She has a good future.  She has a better future than you do. 
K: Maura is going to love this. Katie (older sister) and Pat (older brother) already have good fortunes, but Maura and I are the younger ones that are still trying to figure this out.  He doesn’t need to tell me about their good fortunes, because I can see that for myself.
N: She will have an easy life.  But, like you, if she wants a good fortune, she needs to respect your parents.
K: She may have a better future, but she’s in the same boat as I am with the consulting elders thing. What about her health?
N: She will have no accidents and no health problems.  You shouldn’t be concerned about her.  You should be concerned with your own future, not hers.
K: Treated.
K: Ok, back to me.  Do I have any health problems?  Will I be really sick as an old person or will I be active?
N: No big health problems. 
K: Ok, so these two years, why are they so good?  And what happens after these two great years?  50 bad years?
N: No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s nothing bad, but you will be able to create a life for yourself.  While these two years are great, they will continue for the rest of your life.  It’s not like a peak in your life, but more of an increase of fortune that continues on. 

* at this point, I stopped and let Darlene have her turn.  While her fortune was being told, I thought of a few questions. 

K: Can I ask another question?  You said that I don’t have anyone looking out for me, but Darlene does.  Are these ancestors or guardians that are still alive?  And how do I get them to protect me too?  I want a little protection too.
N: You don’t believe in spirits, so therefore they don’t help you.  How can something help you that you don’t believe in or look to for help.  If you start to pray for them, they will help you.  And you cannot just pray every once in a while, or when you think of it and need help, it needs to be everyday, regular praying. 
K: Touché
N: People born on Saturday always have ancestors, we must pray for them and look to them for help.  Also, people born on Saturday tend to get headaches and sore eyes easier than people born on other days. 
K: Thank you teacher.

So, that concluded my second Cambodian fortune teller experience.  He was really laid back and seemed to enjoy doing this.  We found out from Phanet that he has a lot of money and was trained by his father, who also was a numerologist.  He charges a fairly low fee and liked hanging out.  He didn’t really lie to us; if he didn’t know the answer he said so, instead of making something up or guessing. 

Darlene and I then took a trip with Phanet to her farm, about 16k outside of town.  I forgot my camera, but we will be going back because it’s so beautiful.  They have rice paddies, mango trees, banana trees, palm trees, coconut trees and probably a bunch of other trees that I couldn’t identify.  I also asked Phanet about “mein liap” which I thought meant to have make-up because liap is the word to put on make-up, cream, paint or really anything that can be applied to skin, or a wall.  But when I asked her, she said that it means to have things, like material things, such as cars, a house, computers, money, etc.  So what he was saying is that I will have more material wealth, which I hope is the case, because I have a computer that crashes every other day, a phone that pre-dates my college days and a terribly sick ipod. 

All in all, I really enjoy doing these things because it means a lot to Cambodians.  Cambodians tend to get either very into fortune tellers or adamantly don’t believe in them.  I tend to buy into it a little, but this man was really cool, because he kept saying that things were our decision.  Husbands, jobs, children, etc.  He made it clear that the future isn’t determined because I have yet to determine it.  But it is reassuring to hear that I am at the start of the best two years of my life.  I haven’t seen much difference yet.  But I do have a lot to look forward in the next few months.  My 24 years so far have been really great, so these two great years have a lot to live up to. 

The fortune telling journey doesn’t end here, however.  We know of two other fortune tellers that we want to consult before we leave.  Phanet is really into it and is excited to have Americans who are interested in it.  We are also getting better at asking questions and interpreting the interpreters interpretation of the fortune teller’s interpretation (that makes it seem a lot more complicated than it really is…)

Until then, happy year of the rabbit.  As Cambodians say, I wish you good health, good luck and happiness for this year and for the rest of your life.