Serving in the Peace Corps as a Married Couple: Part Two

10 12 2011

Tim and I will, from time to time, be offering insight on what it’s been like to serve in Cambodia as a married couple. If you haven’t seen Part One of this series, check it out here.

When deciding whether to accept our invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, one of our biggest concerns as a couple was what our housing would be like in Cambodia. Before leaving, we had been married for 20 months. Of those twenty months, we had lived with a roommate or host family for 14. So we were more than ready to move into a space of our own. Then, the Peace Corps Washington staff told us that we would be spending the following 27 months with a host family. Oh boy. It was the single biggest issue that we discussed when making our decision, but we ultimately decided that the inconveniences of living with a host family could not possibly outweigh all of the life-changing experiences that coming here could offer.

As you probably all remember, Tim and I got to live together during training. This does not always happen with couples in the Peace Corps, but with the way that our training was organized, we ended up in the same village. During training, Tim and I had a much more traditional homestay. We had one bedroom in a house, and we lived with a mother and her teenage daughter. We ate all of our meals together, watched TV or studied together, and generally interacted with one another for several hours each day.

Despite this, we were still given a lot of independence, and although there are many factors involved, my impression is that much of that independence was given because we were married. So while some other volunteers felt like their families were watching (and, at times, criticizing) their every move, we were free to wash our laundry, clean our room and go for bike rides with no scrutiny. When I got food poisoning at the house, the family insisted I eat some food, but promptly backed down when Tim explained that I was not ready to eat yet. From what I’ve heard from other (single) volunteers, their experiences were much different and their families were much more involved and worried.

In many ways, the fact that we are married helps us fit in with Cambodian expectations. “Good” men and women get married (albeit a little older than we did). Once you are married, you are seen as being responsible, independent and capable in a way that your single counterparts are not. Our training host family both trusted our judgment and knew that we had one another to rely on, relieving them of some of the pressure to take care of us.

Being married also let them see our personalities much more than if we were living in the house alone. It can be very difficult to feel like yourself when you have to speak in a foreign language all day, but Tim and I have the luxury of speaking English together. This means that our family got to see us talk, study and play together in a way that we were unable to do with them because of the language barrier. I think this helped them see us as more complete (and happy) people than what they could see when we had to rely on our Khmer. Furthermore, if one of us was having a bad day or struggling with the language, the other person was there to pick up the slack with the conversation and help smooth things over. I think our family was less likely to be hyper in tune with our individual moods because the other person acted as a sort of buffer in those situations.

As training came to an end, we were eager to learn about our permanent site. Even after 17 months of living with families abroad, I have never been good with homestays, and I was quite nervous about what our housing situation would be at site. Turns out, it is fantastic! Tim and I have the entire upstairs floor of the house and have been given a huge amount of independence.

We have the freedom to cook all of our own meals and have our own bathroom. We come and go as we please. We have plenty of space so we aren’t attached at the hip all day long. We don’t even necessarily see our host family every day, but they are there whenever we have questions or need advice. It’s been an ideal living situation for us so far.

Of course, every couple’s situation is different. Some have nicer or bigger places than us, some don’t. Some have host families that are more involved than ours, some don’t. I have to say though that Peace Corps has been willing to work with all volunteers on issues relating to housing. If a volunteer isn’t comfortable in his/her house, s/he isn’t going to be happy and probably won’t be as effective in the community. I have total faith that the PC Cambodia staff would help us out if we felt like we needed even more independence in our homestay. Luckily, this isn’t an issue for us.

So, it turns out that housing, an issue that was almost a deal breaker for us, has turned out to be one of the highlights of our experience so far. It’s been wonderfully reassuring to feel like we have a home here in Cambodia. We can walk into our second floor apartment, plop down in the hammock and feel completely comfortable. We can eat exactly what food– and what quantity of food– we want. We can have private conversations without feeling like we have an audience. And–this is really exciting!– I can hold Tim’s hand or sit close to him without offending anyone or making others uncomfortable. These little things make the world of difference after a hard day.

Katie

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One response

12 12 2011
kbergen

Can’t wait to be eating your fabulous food. Soon, my friends, very soon :D And I’m so glad that the housing situation has worked itself into such a positive environment!

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