This Year’s Girls’ Club

30 03 2013

I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned much about my girls’ club this year because, well, they’re amazing! I’ve been meeting with a group of 25-30 eleventh graders weekly since January. I wasn’t able to find a counterpart to help me teach this year so I decided to have the girls themselves co-teach with me. Each week, we pick a different topic related to health or gender, and one student volunteers to co-teach with me. I usually meet with that student once individually to plan the lesson and review the content. Then, later in the week, the student helps me teach the lesson to the rest of the class. Not only does this help the girls practice their own leadership skills, they’re often better at conveying the messages in more engaging and easy-to-understand formats than I am because of the language barrier. Some of our classes this year have covered nutrition, menstruation, and gender roles.

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

One of the club participants acting out her role as the mother in the role play

In February, I met with the girls to teach about International Women’s Day, which is celebrated each year on March 8. Like last year, I thought that this presented a good opportunity for the girls to organize a small project to celebrate women’s rights. We first talked about different aspects of being women in Cambodian society, shared stories about women we admire, and talked about our own goals for the future. Then, I tasked them with completing a project, any project, to mark the special day. After much deliberation, the girls decided they wanted to do a role play about domestic violence. I reminded them that were in charge of the entire process, from writing the script, to acting it out, organizing the performance, gathering props, and fundraising if needed. They enthusiastically agreed. They had one catch: They wouldn’t be able to organize it in time for March 8. They asked if they could perform later in the month.

In the weeks that followed, the girls met frequently, even during exam week. This week, for example, they met for eight hours of preparation. They scheduled a meeting with the school director to ask for permission to perform at the school. They invited all of the teachers to join. They fundraised the cost of a sound system and microphones. They recruited some boys to play the male parts. They wrote and memorized a 40-minute script that illustrated multiple types of domestic violence. They were truly incredible.

When the group was asked, "Who wants to be the village chief," this girl bolted up. "Me! Me! Me!"

When the group was asked, “Who wants to be the village chief,” this girl bolted up. “Me! Me! Me!”

And today was the big day! Today was the day they acted out their role play for  between 400-500 students and teachers. Not surprisingly, I thought they were absolutely fantastic! I can remember being in high school plays, getting nervous to perform in front of the 100 or so people who would show up in the middle school gym where we held the events. Now, multiple that by five! And add in the fact that there was no adult director, no make up artist, no costumes or props. They put it all together themselves, and I have to admit that it was one of the most organized Khmer events I have attended during my service!

The girls’ club will take a break for few weeks now. Khmer New Year means that classes are suspended for vacation and students return to their villages. Tim and I will be heading out for vacation too, but I’m excited to meet with the girls again when we get back.

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

Setting the scene to educate about child abuse

During our first meeting after Khmer New Year, I will be announcing which 10 of the thirty girls will be attending Camp GLOW in May. Our provincial girls’ empowerment camp has been funded again this year, with girls from six communities joining the activities. Each community can only bring ten students, which means I had to find a way to choose who would attend. Taking into account club attendance, leadership qualities, and a written application form, I decided today which ten it will be. They are all wonderfully kind, brave, and socially-minded young women. Just the type of students who can benefit the most from GLOW. Although narrowing it down was difficult, I couldn’t be happier about the group. Only one short month until GLOW!


So Many Reasons to Celebrate

22 03 2013

What a fantastic week it’s been! Tim and I have been bombarded with reasons to celebrate all week long. Here’s a taste of some of the events that have kept us smiling this week despite the hot, sticky weather.

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Domestic Violence Awareness Workshop

So many things to be thankful for under this heading! First of all, I received the list of funders this week. I am completely overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends, family, RPCVs and even complete strangers! What a wonderful feeling to have so much support. You should all expect a thank you message this weekend! You are all amazing!

Then, of course, we actually held the workshop. All week long, I was so impressed by the great facilitation skills shown by my counterpart, Sothin. I am also thankful for all the ways that Meghan, a fellow PCV, helped me out during her stay. Most of all, though, I was in awe of the bravery, optimism and commitment to equality shown by all of the project participants. They were a wonderful group to work with, and I can’t wait to see them in action in their villages soon! I’ll write more on this training later, but for now I’ll revel in all of the positive energy.

Tim’s Birthday

This week, Tim had his 27th birthday! I was swamped with the workshop, so we didn’t get a chance to celebrate properly, but there are plans for a fancy dinner out soon. Happy, happy birthday to the best site mate I could imagine! :)

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

This week was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new building at the health center. Although I am still skeptical about the need for a new building, the ceremony was the talk of the town. More than 1,200 people attended, including a slew of government officials and bigwigs. With the excitement and pride surrounding the new building, I think there’s also a chance for me to influence the quality of the services offered there. The staff already has to change their routine to adapt to the change in scenery, so it is the perfect time to offer a few suggestions of my own. They also received a lot of new education materials with the new building, and I’m excited to start using them with patients!

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Another Wedding

This time of year always brings a lot of weddings, and this week was no exception. This wedding was particularly fun though because of the sweet village health volunteer who invited us. She is a younger volunteer, maybe around 30, who has always been very friendly and fun. At the wedding, she showed true Khmer hospitality by looking out for us at every step: making sure we had enough to eat and drink, saving our shoes from the giant pile that accumulates during the chants, teaching me to dance, and riding her moto home with us to make sure we arrived safely on our bikes. She just has a fantastic energy, and I always like spending time with her.

Becoming a Quaker

Another big event this week was that Tim officially accepted his spot in University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. He will be getting his Master’s in Social Work in Philly starting this fall! He received a nice financial aid offer, but also had an interview for additional fellowship money this week. For those of you in the States, please keep your fingers crossed. In Cambodia, we’ll have to figure out another way to send good luck to him because crossing your fingers is considered vulgar.

Here’s hoping you all had as good of a week as we did here!


Thank you!!

13 03 2013

Thank you to all who donated to the domestic violence project! It has been fully funded! I am blown away by everyone’s generosity and support. It comes at the perfect time too, as just this morning I met with the District Office of Women’s Affairs to  discuss the final details of the project. The venue has been secured, the participants have been invited, and the curriculum has been finalized! Less than one week until we begin the 5-day training event – I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

THIS is how excited I am!

THIS is how excited I am!

Thank you again! This project couldn’t happen without you!

A Note on Cambodian Language and Culture

11 03 2013

I can remember sitting in my high school Spanish class, listening to my teacher explain the idea that a culture and its language cannot be separated. As a 14 year-old who had never left the US , I remember this sounding cliche. It was one of those things that teachers were supposed to say, like how my math teacher would insist that I would someday need trigonometry for the “real world.” (Yeah, right.)

As I got older, I began to realize there might be some truth to the Señora’s claim. I began to learn about foods, customs and events that existed in some cultures, but not my own. After all, I realized, how could we have an English word for quesillo if the vast majority of native English speakers had never tasted one?

As my understanding grew, I began to fully grasp the idea that, as a culture, we only name things that are important to us. We’ve all heard about the Inuit people having many different words for snow, right? It’s the same here with rice, which is the center of rural life in most of the country. The Cambodian people have one word for rice when it’s still in the field, another after it’s been husked, and yet another for after it’s been cooked.

After having spent close to two years immersed in the Khmer language and culture, it’s easy to see that the two are connected to an even higher degree than that. The ways in which Cambodians construct sentences, the words that they use — these things are a direct reflection of their deepest value systems and traditions. Since I haven’t studied the history or evolution of the language, I can’t guarantee that all of these examples are truly connected in the ways I’ve inferred, but below I’ve listed some of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and apparent links between Cambodian language and culture.

Emphasis on personal relationships

Generally speaking, Cambodians are much more community- or family-oriented than Americans. This plays out in daily activities, as well as special events and, of course, linguistics. When Cambodians speak to one another, they rarely use the pronoun “you.” Instead, they call you a familial term, based on your age as compared to theirs. For example, I would call a high school student oun, which translates to “younger sibling,” while I would call a 30 year-old friend bong, or “older sibling.” There are many words to choose from, including a couple of different words for “aunt” and “uncle,” which are dependent on the person’s age, as well as grandmother and grandfather. This means that when speaking to an elderly woman, I would literally say, “How is grandmother?” instead of “How are you?” It’s a constant reminder of the close-knit relationships people have and the emphasis placed on our connections to others.

"How is grandmother?"

“How is grandmother?”

Personal identity defined by relationship to group

Similarly, when talking about themselves in Khmer, people only occasionally use the pronoun “I,” choosing instead to define themselves based on their relationship to those around them. This means a mother speaking to her child would say the equivalent of “Mother loves child,” not “I love you.” Or, a teacher would say, “Teacher wants to go with student,” instead of “I want to go with you.” Based on my experience, this isn’t just a linguistic quirk either, it truly is a reflection of how many Cambodians view themselves and their identities: always part of the larger group.

Respect for hierarchy and authority

Working in a public school or health center, it doesn’t take long to notice that there is an unwavering belief in authority figures. Anything an authority says is unquestioned, and there are clearly defined lines between authorities and their subordinates.  Generally, at the top of the hierarchy are older people, men, and those with a great deal of money. The emphasis on hierarchy can be seen in the language too. Take the verb “to eat.” If we are talking about animals– or children even– there is one word used to mean “to eat.” When we talk about adults, there are a pair of different words we use. The words have the same meaning, of course, but they convey varying levels of respect. There is yet another word for “to eat” when talking to elders, and one more for royalty. So when Cambodians talk to one another, they are constantly reminded of the social status of the people they are talking to based on the verb used.

Indirect communication and saving face

It is well known that many Asian cultures place a greater emphasis on saving face than Western cultures. This can be seen in a number of ways. For example, as a foreigner, it means that sometimes Cambodians pretend to understand my heavily-accented Khmer instead of asking for clarification because they don’t want either of us to be embarrassed. Teachers say that “maybe” they will teach tomorrow because directly saying that they won’t is frowned upon. The indirectness is not only limited to the content of a message though, it can also be seen in the structure used. Cambodians use passive sentence structures very frequently, thus distancing themselves, or others, from direct responsibility. Instead of saying that a mother did not show up to the feeding sessions, they’ll say “I haven’t seen them come,” which softens the message. Instead of saying,”I didn’t teach today because it was raining,” they’ll say, “The rain made it so I could not teach.”

"Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow..."

“Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow…”

Relaxed sense of time

The Khmer language is largely tenseless, and, as such, allows a great deal of ambiguity. In English, a verb changes based on when the action happened– go, went, will go, am going, have gone, had gone, etc — but Khmer does not have this level of specificity. Not having tenses (which is an oversimplification, but mostly true), leaves the listener to infer when the action took place based on the context. However, as tempting as it is, it’s hard for me to say with any certainty that this linguistic ambiguity is a direct reflection of the loose attitudes toward time found in Cambodia. Cambodians do tend to value punctuality much less than we do in the States so at first glance, there seems to be a link between the language and the attitudes. However, many other developing countries have lax ideas about time while still using highly-structured tenses similar to English, so I’m not sure.

Predetermined destinies

One frustrating element of working in Cambodia for volunteers is that many times Cambodians see themselves with less agency than we see ourselves in the United States. By that I mean that, as a generalization, Cambodians don’t believe they can change their own lives to the extent we are taught to believe. Once poor, you will always be poor. Or, once your child is malnourished, she will always be malnourished. Many Cambodians seem to believe they do not have the power to change these things, perhaps for reasons related to certain aspects of Buddhism. There is one phrase in Khmer that seems to fully embody this idea though: awt jeh, or “s/he doesn’t know (how).” Any Peace Corps Volunteer teaching alongside a Khmer counterpart will hear this phrase a dozen times every week. For example, Tim will call on a student to answer a question, and his counterpart will immediately jump in and say, “He doesn’t know how. He’s from the village.” The connotation of this word, at least as I interpret it, is not that the student doesn’t know the answer. No, there’s a different phrase for that: awt dung. Instead, it implies that the student doesn’t have the capacity to know. He doesn’t have the answer today, nor will he ever have the answer. We should, instead, call on someone else. Once a student awt jehs, it is often believed he will never “know how.”


Happy International Women’s Day!

8 03 2013

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the holiday, which originated in the United States as a day to promote equal rights. The United Nations’ theme for this year is “A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women.” If you’re looking for a way to celebrate women and put an end to gender-based violence, please consider giving to my project. We’re scheduled to start training community members on how to prevent domestic violence and support victims of abuse later this month, but the project can’t begin without your help! Please click on the link below to learn more or to make a donation.