Shared Experiences, Different Contexts

30 03 2012

The wonderful thing about having lived in our host community for six months now is that the relationships we’ve been cultivating are finally turning into real, meaningful friendships. Unfortunately, that means that lately, as these friendships solidify, we’ve been privy to a lot of difficult stories. People in the community have been opening up to us about their struggles, and in many ways, the recent stories we’ve been hearing are just like the ones faced by our friends and family in the US. They are stories of lost love, infidelity and infertility; tales of sacrifice, deceit and family feuds. And while it’s easy to write these off as “normal” problems, there always seems to be one element in each story that snaps us quickly back into the Cambodian reality. In telling these stories, I hope to describe how these shared human experiences can be complicated by cultural factors that many of us from the United States are never forced to think about.

Tim on his way to grab a drink with a friend

Take for example, the heartbreaking reality of seeing someone you love marry another man. This is the tear-jerking, devastating plot of hundreds of sappy movies. It’s a story line that, in some way, we can all relate to. And we all probably know someone who feels like they missed out on their true love. However, for our friend here at site, his story played out a little differently. He had been courting a girl for months and was absolutely smitten. Then, one day out of the blue, he received a phone call from her, asking about the status of their relationship. He replied that he needed another year or two to save some money before marrying her. Then, she dropped the bomb: her parents were forcing her to marry another man. After all, they feared she was getting too old to find a good suitor and this young man makes more money than our friend. Parental acceptance and money certainly play a role in marriages in the United States, but it isn’t often that parents force their children to marry someone. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that the parents of the bride and groom would then sit down to negotiate a bride price. Although many would agree that money is an important factor to consider when looking for a partner, it just doesn’t hold the same social, financial and political power in the US as it does here in Cambodia.

Or, let’s take the story of a neighbor of mine. She was married very late, and tells me on a regular basis how old and ugly she was on her wedding day. Her husband has been married before and has children, but my neighbor does not. She desperately wants children of her own, pleading with me almost daily to have four kids so I can send her two. Often she asks me if I am using any form of birth control. When I reply affirmatively she looks to the ground, and, maybe it’s my imagination, but she almost seems angry. Recently I found out that she traveled to Vietnam on three occasions to visit a fertility doctor, but the doctor was not able to help. Other women in the neighborhood tease her and tell stories about their young nieces who are having their second or third child already. In Cambodia, infertility is almost always considered the women’s fault for reasons ranging from hot blood to bad karma. Additionally, married couples in Cambodia have to reproduce in order to complete their social roles; it is extremely rare to see married couples who choose to remain childless. So, not only does this neighbor have a medical condition that makes it difficult or impossible to have children, but she also carries a load of guilt and a sense of failure, surrounded by an environment where other women are having, on average, nearly five children over the course of their lifetimes.

One third of Cambodians are under the age of fifteen

Finally, husbands cheat on their wives the globe over—sometimes, unfortunately, even with sex workers. But when a man from our village decides to visit a brothel, there is a one-third chance that the prostitute is under the age of 18, and a 55 percent chance that she was forced into the industry. The Southeast Asian sex industry is a much more abusive system with a much broader scope than that of the sex industry in the US. Currently in Cambodia, monogamous married women account for approximately 40 percent of new HIV infections because, in a society like this one where male infidelity is highly tolerated, men serve a bridging role between relatively high- and low-risk populations. Fortunately, I do not know of any women who have been infected by their cheating husbands, but I do know of plenty of men in my community who frequent brothels or beer gardens; married men who pay for sex. I know several other Peace Corps Volunteers whose host fathers or direct supervisors engage in these activities, as well. And as our relationships with these people grow, whether we’re bonding with the men or the women, our role and our realm of influence become simultaneously more important and less clear. With an estimated 40 percent of Cambodian men frequenting brothels, it’s a widespread problem that not only presents deep emotional implications for those affected, but also life-threatening health implications.

Many times when people travel abroad they conclude that “we’re all the same.” And, to a large extent, I believe in the shared human experience. However, these three stories illustrate the ways that problems we consider to be more or less universal can morph based on the context. I tell them not to elicit pity for these individuals because they don’t want or deserve it. It’s simply another insight into the lives of of my coworkers, neighbors and friends, and a way for those of you back home to better understand the context in which Tim and I are currently living.

Katie





Good News: Camp GLOW is a go!

28 03 2012

While we’re on the topic of projects, today I got great news: A proposal I recently submitted with two other volunteers was approved through the United States Agency for International Development! Woot! The proposal is to have a four-day girls’ empowerment camp in August. Girls from three villages (including the one where I live) will come together in Siem Reap to learn about women’s health, rights and opportunities. The camp is modeled off a popular and long-standing Peace Corps project called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), but has been organized in way that is very specific to the Cambodian context. I’m thrilled to be working on this project and am thankful to be working alongside two other great volunteers.

Expect more updates as the project progresses.

Katie





Promoting the Arts in Cambodia

27 03 2012

In the last post, I highlighted some of the projects that other Peace Corps Volunteers are currently working on. You may have noticed that several of them had to do with the fine arts. To many people, arts-based projects might not seem like a priority for a country where only 29 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities, where the life expectancy is nearly 20 years shorter than in the US, or where 40 percent of children suffer from stunting due to malnutrition. And while it is certainly true that there is still a need for more traditional development efforts, arts education has an important place in the country’s future for a few reasons.

First of all, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, people who appeared to be well-educated or artistic were targeted. We see this phenomenon during many genocides because regimes tend to feel threatened by creative, outspoken or forward-thinking types, for obvious reasons. In Cambodia, 90 percent of those who had knowledge and skills related to Cambodia’s long tradition of artistry were killed, leaving behind a wave of youth with no recollection of trades such as weaving, stone carving or  silversmithing that were mastered throughout the generations before them. Physical evidence of these art forms was destroyed, as were many meticulously designed wats, which were pieces of art themselves. Musicians, dancers and songwriters were killed. Writers were murdered. Filmmakers were executed. The result is that contemporary Cambodia has little collective memory of its own rich art-based traditions and culture and, unfortunately, that this part of its history could disappear forever.

Khmer pidan (silk weaving)

Preserving culture and tradition is one highly important reason for arts education, but it’s not the most compelling reason for me. Rather, I find it important because of the way that it expands a person’s– and a country’s– ability to think, imagine, innovate and question. We hear the arguments often in the US, as arts programs routinely face cuts in public high schools. Arts education encourages critical thinking, problem-solving and cognitive development. It promotes craftsmanship and discipline. Arts education appeals to a variety of intelligences and learning styles that traditional schooling excludes.  It facilitates the development of personal opinions and visions. And, of course, the arts are linked to improved performance in language development and certain areas of mathematics, such as spatial reasoning.

These benefits are critical for students all over the world, but this is especially true in Cambodia. The reason, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, the education system has been rebuilt in a way that does not promote formal critical thinking skills. Students spend six hours a day copying notes from a blackboard and mindlessly memorizing facts with little understanding of their context or importance. Textbooks are not written in such a way to encourage students to delve deeper, nor are teachers trained to engage their students in these discussions. Activities that we take for granted in the US school system, such as group work, mock debates or science experiments, are virtually nonexistent in most public schools here. Without these kinds of activities, students are left to passively sit on the receiving end of education, without developing the skills mentioned above, which are critical for the personal and collective success of the students. And without these skills, people cannot truly have agency in their lives or make informed decisions about their wellbeing.

Stonework on the Banteay Srey temple

Second, it seems that Cambodians are very often afraid to voice their own opinions, even on topics that we might consider to be mundane or without consequence. This stems not only from a long tradition of saving face, but also a recent history of violence toward those who spoke out. While this might, at times, help them preserve their reputations in the community and ensure their safety, I believe there is much to be gained from encouraging free expression, both when looking at short-term and long-term effects. In fact, I cannot imagine a positive future for Cambodia without opening up the public realm for more personal expression, political and otherwise.

Traditional development efforts are important in Cambodia, and Peace Corps Volunteers spend a significant amount of time providing health education, equipping libraries, and installing wells and hand washing stations. However, because Peace Corps Volunteers typically live in more rural environments and are able to develop strong personal relationships with Cambodians, they are uniquely positioned to influence people on an individual level, empowering them to dream, to wonder and to strive for more. And I believe arts education can do just that.

Painting by famed Khmer artist and Tuol Sleng survivor, Vann Nath

If this strikes a chord with you, you can check the previous blog entry for links to donate or to learn more about the arts-based projects currently going on in Peace Corps Cambodia.

Katie





Current Peace Corps Cambodia Projects

24 03 2012

Tim and I are lucky to serve in Cambodia with around 100 other energetic, creative and passionate volunteers. This means that any one time, there are 100 of us collaborating with our host communities on project ideas. So I wanted to share with you some of these projects to  give you a small taste of the great work that volunteers are doing across Cambodia. Please understand though that this is not in any way intended to be a comprehensive list.

As you will see, some of them still need additional funding so please click on the links to donate if you are feeling generous. (Please, do be generous, but not too generous though, Tim and I have some projects in the works too! We might need your help soon as well!)

Disclaimer: This information comes from talking with people, checking Facebook, etc. To the best of my knowledge the information below is accurate, but it’s possible I’ve made mistakes. If you have any questions about specific projects, I can contact the volunteer working on it.

Recently Completed/In Progress

  • Youth Volunteerism Workshop: 50 students in Kampong Thom province came together to brainstorm areas for youth involvement in the community. Then, in small groups, they designed projects, created budgets and planned how to implement them. Projects ranged from dental hygiene education in the health center to a climate change awareness day to a conflict resolution workshop.
  • National Creative Writing Competition: In several high schools across the country, students took part in a creative writing competition. The judging was not based on grammar or spelling, but centered on the use of imagination and creativity. Out of the local winners emerged national winners who will now go on to compete with students in Peace Corps countries across the globe.
  • Spelling Bee: Recently in Banteay Meanchey, several volunteers worked together to organize a spelling bee. Similarly to the writing competition, students first competed at their local high schools and then advanced to the provincial level competition later on.
  • Traveling Health Fair: All of the volunteers in the province in Pursat worked together to conduct a traveling health fair for the high school students in the communities where they work. Topics included exercise, team building, girls’ empowerment, traffic safety, and clean water, among others.
  • Kampot River Clean-Up: Earlier this month, several Peace Corps Volunteers partnered with an NGO and several local schools to host a river clean-up. Over three hundred people showed up, including expats, students, teachers and local government officials. The participants spent several hours walking or rowing up and down the Kampot River, cleaning up the massive amounts of trash that pollute one of the city’s finest resources.
  • Make Maek Exhibition: One volunteer in Battambang spends much of his time creating space for art in the community and providing artistic education and outlets. He currently has an exhibition at an art gallery in town that has been recognized by both national and international news outlets for the way it is opening up the art scene in northwestern Cambodia.

Coming Soon

  • Create Cambodia Arts Festival: This project aims to start the first national arts festival for young people. Students from all over the country will meet together in the capital to share their talents, ranging from dancing to painting to fashion design to poetry. They will not only have the opportunity to connect with other artistically-minded students, but also to meet professional artists and representatives from NGOs and art programs. You can donate to the project here.
  • Traveling Art Show: After attending a series of art instruction workshops, students in schools across six provinces will create a piece of art inspired by the famous Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The artwork will then be displayed through a traveling art show. To donate to this project, which will help foster creativity, confidence and optimism among the participants, click here.
  • Libraries: Libraries are not a part of cities and schools here in the same way that they are in the United States, so building or equipping a library is a common project for volunteers. Currently, there are two volunteers accepting donations for their library projects, both in the southeastern part of the country. Please consider donating to their projects here and here.

So congratulations to all of my fellow volunteers on the extraordinary work you’re doing! I can’t wait to see what other great ideas emerge from this group.

To those of you back home, if you want to see what projects are waiting on funding  at any time in the future, you can check the Volunteer Projects page on the Peace Corps website. And, finally, if you’re wondering why so many of the projects focus on the arts, check back soon for some commentary on that.

Katie





Highlights during the Heat

22 03 2012

Just thought I’d share a few moments of happiness. Between the heat, the break from school and the lead up to Khmer New Year, March has been the slowest month here so far– the only slow month, really. Luckily for us, there have still been many great moments sprinkled in to lift our spirits just as we think that we will go crazy from boredom.

1.) An impromptu performance of traditional Khmer dancing, presented by the elementary school students near our house. The sound is very quiet, but if you listen closely you can hear the timid singing voice of the young girl in the front.

2.) Tim’s 26th birthday celebration, complete with a swimming pool, packages from home and a fancy dinner out.

3.) A serene (and silent!) brunch in a beautiful butterfly garden. I didn’t bring my camera, but this was the setting. Just imagine a plate of buttery blueberry pancakes on that table.

4.) The beginning of mango season!

Katie





Voices of Cambodia: Ra Sovanna

19 03 2012

We are happy to post our second edition of “Voices of Cambodia.” This one comes from a high school math teacher, Vanna. He is an English student of ours and is currently planning a summer project with Tim. This interview was conducted in English.

 

Name: Ra Sovanna

Age: 25

Occupation: High School Math Teacher

Tell me about yourself.

My family name is Ra; my full name is Ra Sovanna. I was the first child in a family with five members. I have two brothers and two sisters. My father is a teacher like me. He works in the District Office of Education. My mother is a farmer. I finished school in 2006. After that, I got a scholarship to study mathematics at Phnom Penh. At college, the school provided me to study English three years; the program was from Mary Knoll. I finished college in 2010. After I finished, I took an exam and passed it. Then I studied pedagogy one more year as a teacher trainee. Then, the school director assigns teachers to a province where they will teach. In October 2011, I started my new career as a teacher in Kampong Kdey until now.

What do you do in an average day?

Usually, I get up in the morning and water my trees—I told you I have mango trees around my pond—before school. I need to water them all and then take a bath and prepare myself for school. I don’t like eating breakfast at home so I eat at the school restaurant or in the market. I don’t want to waste time cooking in the morning.

Usually, I have 15 hours a week to teach. Some of the day, I am free, some of the day, I have to teach. Monday through Friday, I teach my own private classes from 11-12 and from 4-5 in the evening. After class, I am just coming home. Usually, my family is doing housework. I am maintaining my cows, looking to see if there is some cow trying to eat my mango trees. At night, after dinner, usually we join together watching TV. Maybe we spend 1-2 hours on TV shows. Sometimes, I don’t watch TV, I listen to the radio instead. I like listening to the news programs. Sometimes, I focus on Australia radio to practice my English listening.

Usually, I spend 1-2 hours preparing lessons for tomorrow, completing exercises in the book. Not every day though. Maybe on Saturday evenings, I just listen to music, don’t want to do anything else.

What do you want American people to know about Cambodia?

I really want them to know about the Cambodian culture, especially in the countryside how they are keeping their houses traditionally. And especially the weddings and national holidays like Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben. We show our nationality by Khmer culture.

How has Cambodia changed in your lifetime?

Many things have been changed during my lifetime, both positive and negative. Now, I just want to talk about the positive. According to my district, the infrastructure is much better developed than before. When I was young, the road could not be traveled easily. The road was very small, very few cars and motorcycles as well. Now, all of the roads are changing. They are trying to expand the road on the way to my village [just outside of Kampong Kdey]. They added rubber [blacktop] so we can travel more easily than before.

The educations system is much better than before. Before, many people did not value education, didn’t want children in school. They would just copy the parents on the farm, not go to school. They would work on the farm according to their mother and father. Now, people know too much about that. I think it’s because the local authority is working hard, trying to show the benefit of education. Now, more students in my village study higher and higher. Like me, I’m an example because I completed my Bachelor’s degree and even a pedagogy degree.

About the negative points, I think people in the village tend to use violence more than before. When I was young, there was few cases of violence. Now at funerals with dancing parties, usually the fighting occurs. Many adult people are in danger in this situation. Parents are concerned about the situation. When there is a wedding, there is a dancing party as well. Usually, fighting occurs. Yesterday at night, there was a wedding in my village. There was fighting between two gangs. They used a knife to cut [someone].

How do you think Cambodia will be different in ten years?

I think 10 years later, Cambodia will be improved, especially the infrastructure will be much better than now. Now, they construct new roads in many, many places so people travel easily. Electricity and water supply will also be available in the villages. In my village, there is no electricity, only water supply, but I think in 10 years there will be electricity.

According to the government policy for the merging of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries, the education system will be much better, especially relating to teachers’ salaries and the testing system. We still have corruption, but I hope 10 years later it will be reduced.

Also, gasoline. Now, the price is too expensive, but I hope 10 years later the government tries to take out gasoline from the wells, and the price will be much lower.

If you could improve one aspect of your community, what would you improve?

I would like to improve education. Still many children are not available for study because their family is too poor and needs help from the sons and daughters. Education is important to improve in the village. Besides education, I would improve electricity. Now, in my village, everyone buys a battery and has to bring it into Kampong Kdey market every two or three days to charge it. We spend lots of money everyday charging batteries.

If you won $10,000, what would you do or buy?

I will buy a computer for myself because I want to use Internet at home. Now, I have a plan to buy a laptop, maybe next year. The rest of the money, maybe I give to my younger sister. She is now living in Siem Reap and wants to study for a Bachelors degree but is not studying yet. She is living with a Japanese organization that gives her knowledge and teaches her about the Japanese language.





The Index: Cambodia through New Eyes

18 03 2012

Here’s the latest article I’ve written for my parents’ paper. Most of the information won’t be new for regular readers but since I plan to post all of the articles, this one is going up too. To read the others click on: index.

 

Not long ago, a friend of mine from school came to visit me in Cambodia. After six months in-country, I got my first chance to experience the so-called “Kingdom of Wonder” through the eyes of a tourist, instead of a volunteer.

Cambodia has received a host of accolades recently from international news and travel sources. For example, the New York Times recently published a piece on the quaint, artistic town of Battambang, located in the northwestern corner of the country.  Around the same time, Lonely Planet, one of the most well-known travel guide publishers, polled more than 1,000 of its followers asking which country had most changed their lives. Just behind India, in the number two spot, was Cambodia.

After hearing of all of this good publicity, I was more ready than ever to leave my rural town for a week and explore some of Cambodia’s finest cities as a tourist. I was already well acquainted with Cambodia’s tourist mecca, Siem Reap, because I live a mere 60 kilometers away, but I was excited to spend time as a tourist in the country’s two largest cities: Battambang and Phnom Penh.

Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda area in Phnom Penh

My friend and I spent three nights in each place, which was just enough time to appreciate the charm of each. In Battambang, we rode the erroneously named bamboo train, which is neither a train, nor made of bamboo. Instead, it is nothing more than a small wooden platform that is powered by a motor to ride up and down the train tracks. A legitimate form of transportation for many locals, it has also become one of Cambodia’s most famous tourist activities, allowing visitors to peacefully see the countryside while the wind blows through their hair.

On the bamboo train

The highlight of the trip, however, was a performance by the circus, a group of 14-20 year old youth who are trained at a French-funded school outside of Battambang. The kids put on an exuberant and surprisingly professional performance that had me laughing out loud for the entire two hour show.

Our trip wasn’t all fun and games though, since we thought it was important to visit some of the sites associated with Cambodia’s tragically violent history. From Phnom Penh, we took a short day trip to Choeung Ek, where more than 17,000 Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge. There isn’t much to see at the site today, but the lone tower filled with skulls and bones of the deceased was more than powerful enough to make up for the small admissions fee.

The tower at the killing fields

It’s amazing how having a visitor made me feel simultaneously like an expert and a complete dunce when it came to Cambodian knowledge. “How is Cambodian Buddhism different from that of its neighboring countries,” my friend innocently asked the as we gazed up at the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. When she looked to me to find an answer, she was instead met with an embarrassing expression of ignorance.

This is why having a visitor was so reenergizing. Of course it was lovely to spend time with an old friend and to see a handful of new sites, but it also incentivized me to learn more about the place I am living and gave me a fresh perspective. It was like getting a new set of eyes.

When she came to the town where I live, my friend raved about the beauty of the trees, remarked about the calm vibe and was impressed with the friendliness of our neighbors. Her enthusiasm was contagious and soon I was viewing the town once again as I had when I first arrived. The potential she saw in the town, and in the work that my husband and I are doing, was a much appreciated breath of fresh air.

As a volunteer, it can be easy to get lost in the daily struggle of trying to be understood and  to find my place within the community, but seeing the country through a new set of eyes reminded me once again of Cambodia’s beauty, tenderness and, above all, potential.

Katie