Domestic Violence Awareness Project Update

26 05 2013

Today was my last meeting with the volunteers for the domestic violence project. This week, each village group will present the final two lessons: the impacts of alcohol use and preventing domestic violence. In one week, the project will be complete. I’ll share more about the results then, but for now, here are some quotes (loosely translated) from today’s meeting that help show the situation in the villages, the attitudes of the project volunteers, and the impact of the project.

A volunteer talks about the different kinds of domestic violence

A volunteer talks about the different kinds of domestic violence

On the current situation:

“We have a lot of domestic violence in the village. The only way to prevent it is to educate them. Educate them every day. Educate them always.”

“There are a lot of men in my village who drink beer. They don’t really work. They come together to drink every day. Then some of them go home and beat their wives or kids.”


On the community education sessions:

“When we go promote these [domestic violence awareness] events, men don’t come. They say, ‘It’s women’s rights. It’s women’s rights,’ and they don’t participate.”

“Before, only ten people would come to community meetings. Now, maybe twenty or thirty come participate. It’s much more than before.”


On preventing domestic violence:

“We come home from work, everyone’s exhausted, and the children are crying, the dishes need to be done, the rice needs to be made. We can prevent domestic violence by helping each other. Help each other with the children, with the rice. If we help each other, there’s no violence.”

“If we feel angry or in a bad mood, we can go to work or go exercise instead. This is a way to prevent domestic violence. We can end it directly.”


On the impact of the project:

“Now, we are brave enough to talk about this [domestic violence] in the community.”

“A good thing is that the people in the village have a lot more knowledge about domestic violence and children’s rights now.”


The Peace Corps Identity

23 05 2013

I was recently asked what the most surprising thing about my Peace Corps experience was. One of the things that came to mind was what I am calling the “Peace Corps Identity.” Sitting in my Pittsburgh apartment two years ago, imagining my time as a volunteer, I envisioned a very autonomous experience. I expected to be at site for the vast majority of the two years. I expected to be working on projects alone, or with Tim. I expected to be completely separate from other volunteers once our pre-service training ended. I think we’ve all heard the Peace Corps stories, probably from the 1960s (and likely fabricated), of a volunteer not seeing another American for the entire two year commitment. That was more or less what I had envisioned.

Boy, was I wrong. First of all, there are a million reasons to leave site, from Peace Corps trainings in Phnom Penh to NGO meetings in the provincial town to supply runs for upcoming projects and events. All of these trips create opportunities to connect with other volunteers, who either live in the place you’re visiting or have come in for similar reasons. Not to mention that sometimes (gasp!), volunteers actually leave site for purely social reasons.

My cohort (K5s)

My cohort (K5s)

I’ve also collaborated with other volunteers on projects. All of my main projects required some amount of collaboration, whether it was brainstorming project design ideas, facilitating trainings together, or putting one another in contact with useful resources. This means that over the past two years, I have spent a lot of time with other volunteers. And even though I would say that I spend less time with other volunteers than most, I still feel as though I see them vastly more regularly than I had ever anticipated.

This regular communication has, not surprisingly, led to friendships, professional contacts, and a strong sense of group identity. I love the group I came in with and would be willing to help them in any way that I could, even if I don’t always necessarily get along with all of them as individuals. I have to admit, being a Peace Corps Volunteer – and a K5, more specifically – has seeped into the way I view myself and my personal identity.

One common thing we PCVs do together: Eat ice cream

One common thing PCVs do together: Eat ice cream

This may not be surprising for some. After all, plenty of people identify based on their high school or college. It’s not unusual to feel such a strong connection to groups like fraternities or sororities. Some people feel their identities tied closely to their hometown, their dance troupe, cribbage club, or neighborhood association. I just have never been one of those people. I had never identified so strongly with a group identity before, but it’s happened here in Peace Corps.

It didn’t just happen to me, either. The Peace Corps Identity is a powerful thing. I remember witnessing it during my short time in DC a few years back. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers were willing to interview, or even hire, people just because of their shared RPCV status. Peace Corps networking events, job fairs, and social groups were everywhere I turned. Joining Peace Corps – and I would argue, completing your service – gets you a ticket into a special club. Looking back, I should have realized the hold it had on people, but I didn’t. Only now, as a soon-to-be RPCV can I see how strong the bond is, even if I can’t fully explain it.


Invisible and Unrestricted in Bangkok

22 05 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. It all started when I visited Bangkok in April. One day while sitting on the outdoor staircase of a luxurious shopping mall, I became fully absorbed in watching people pass me by. I was energized by the vast number of people on the street and, in particular, their diversity. I felt instantly as though I could disappear into the masses, not to be noticed sitting among the Thai business men and women, the university students, the international bankers, the tourists, the “lady boys,” the street vendors. There was nothing noticeable about me, nothing remarkable. I hadn’t experienced that feeling since I left the States a year and half earlier. It was such a relief.

The busy streets of Bangkok

The busy streets of Bangkok

Living in a small Cambodian town, I am a spectacle, always on display. I tower over the Cambodian women, my short brown hair adding to my visibility. My skin is whiter than my Khmer friends’ and my nose more defined, and they are sure to tell me so every day. Physically, it’s impossible to blend in. Socially, too. Despite having solid language skills, there are still loads of miscommunications, awkward situations, and times when I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. These things make me stand out, and although I am generally embraced by the community, sometimes I just want to disappear into the background. Unfortunately, that’s not an option since I’m the only foreigner in town (excluding Tim, of course). The anonymity in Bangkok felt like an escape from my life in a metaphorical fishbowl.

Bangkok also made me realize how limited my life in rural Cambodia is. I’ve fallen head over heels for this country, but it remains true that my existence here is very narrow when compared to life in the US. Living in such a traditional setting means that in order to be effective in my work, or be accepted socially, I need to adhere to as many of the local customs as possible. For instance, in the past two years I have never left my house with my shoulders or knees showing. In fact, I wear a collared shirt out whenever my laundry pile will allow because that’s what women my age generally wear. I’m also restricted in who I can spend my time with, as it is not customary for men and women to spend leisure time together in public, let alone by themselves. I have been advised to avoid alcohol, some say even coffee, because good women do not drink these things. Furthermore, my social role is seen primarily – if not exclusively – as being a wife and a future mother, and much judgment comes from the fact that I do not do the daily cooking and that we do not yet have kids.

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

These limitations regarding the way I look, spend my time, and am viewed by the community are only part of the story. Operating in a foreign language each and every day is probably the biggest limitation. I rarely feel like I can express myself fully, due to both the intercultural element and the language barrier. It’s very difficult to maintain even the basic threads of identity, like humor or intellect, in a foreign language, which can result in feeling isolated.

Sitting in Bangkok though, observing what seemed to be a large middle class walking through the streets, I realized that some of the restrictions I feel also stem from the economic situation of Cambodia. In the US, I’d spend my weekends going to a baseball game, catching an art flick at the local movie theater, dining out at the newest restaurant, baking a favorite cake recipe. These, in small part, were things that defined me. It’s difficult to have leisure activities like these in a country where so many live below the poverty line. It’s difficult to act on my individual preferences and tastes when the market stalls all sell the same variations of factory-produced clothing gone awry or when the nearest concert venue is 250 kilometers away. If I am defined, at all, by what I do in my free time, rural Cambodia leaves me the same as everyone else, taking naps in a hammock and watching the same soaps on TV.


Naps: Cambodia’s favorite leisure time activity

The pressure from these restrictions, somewhat self imposed as they may be, built up slowly. Before going to Bangkok, I would not have even been able to articulate their existence. But in Bangkok, I felt more me than I had in a long time. It was a relief, a release. We spend our lives figuring out who we are, what we enjoy, where we fit into our world. To then be transplanted to a new world where we are unable to maintain the same sense of identity we worked so hard to create, is exhausting.

Coming back to my small Cambodian town after Bangkok was easy. I wasn’t so sure it would be. I effortlessly slipped back into the routine of shapeless dress shirts, half-understood conversations, and lunchtime naps. Truth is, realizations about my somewhat stifled identity were not enough to overshadow the things I’ve come to love about living here. They do color my experience though and, until now, had been missing from my stories. Living in Cambodia has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, but I did have to give up a part of myself to make room for Cambodia to come in.


The Cycle

21 05 2013

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my hospitality students that needs to be retold. It seemed to be a perfect example of how poverty shows itself, and influences the lives of generations. I hope I can explain it accurately, as this instance impacted my own thinking in some pretty profound ways. Most importantly, this is just one story of dozens we’ve heard during our time here that shows the lasting effects of poverty and just how difficult it is to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Mun lives in a house with thatch walls and a thatch roof. The family has a small patch of rice paddy just behind the house that only provides enough rice for the family for a few months. There is no toilet and no water source besides a couple of rain basins. His sister works in a factory in Thailand to help support the family. His father sleeps in a pagoda and drives his moto in Phnom Penh, hoping to earn some cash giving rides around the city. Mun’s mom works as a farm laborer when there is work planting, transplanting and cutting rice, but the rest of the year she remains jobless.

As a result of his family’s precarious financial situation, Mun dropped out of school in 7th grade and became a monk. This is a common life path for many poor Cambodian boys, when “free” public schooling becomes too expensive for families to afford. For Mun, becoming a monk and moving to the pagoda meant he could continue to study informally, and work on his English with older monks. This sparked an interest in English that continues today.

Two years ago, Mun was in an all too common moto accident in Phnom Penh and suffered a head injury. The doctor at the hospital offered to relieve the pressure on his brain for a few hundred dollars. Lacking the money, Mun’s family was forced to take him home without treatment, hoping his condition would improve on its own. After weeks in bed, Mun was slowly able to stand and then walk with support. He is not fully recovered even now, and often has trouble concentrating, standing for long periods, and walking evenly. Mun hasn’t seen a doctor since his initial hospital stay.

Mun and I meet at least twice a week to fine tune his English, work on life skills, vocational skills, and math skills to better prepare him for his dream job: being a receptionist in a hotel in Siem Reap where he can meet tourists from different cultures and continue to practice his English. During one of our many conversations, Mun talked of his injury once again, complaining that he was still weak and couldn’t yet work. He was hopeful however of a new medicine from Japan made from kelp that was being sold in Siem Reap. His aunt had purchased some for stomach problems and had been cured. Would it possible for me to help him pay $170 for three weeks of the medicine?

It was then that I felt the familiar pangs of cultural arrogance that had plagued me during previous conversations about traditional medicine in Cambodia. Although I had generally been patient throughout these discussions before, I found his request for money to buy something that almost certainly was a scam difficult to respond to calmly. Taking a deep breath, I slowly tried to break down the clear logical holes in his plan to finally improve his health. Why don’t doctors have this medicine? Why can’t you buy it in the health center in town? Why would a medicine that helped your aunt’s stomach cure your serious neurological injury? Even though there are commercials on the radio about the medicine, does that mean their claims are true? Why is the medicine so unbelievably expensive?

Mun answered question after question, but missed the greater picture. He insisted his aunt was better and that he would be better too if he only had this medicine. After a failed attempt to explain the placebo effect, the situation finally came into focus for me. Mun’s entire life determined how he approached the decision to buy this medicine or not. His lack of education and short time in an education system that doesn’t foster critical thinking left him vulnerable to scams. The lack of quality medical care in his country led to a distrust in modern medicine, which is inaccessible anyway since his family doesn’t have the money to pay doctors. The communal culture of Cambodia led him to trust his aunt’s experience more than his own lingering doubts about the product. Ultimately, the lack of money for education and health care was leading Mun to make poor decisions about his health out of desperation to get better. These poor decisions about his health would worsen his financial situation, which would worsen his health. The entire cycle of poverty was laid out in front of me. And, yes, it was soul-crushing.

In another world, Mun could have stayed in school to learn critical life skills, been able to afford a moto helmet to prevent head injuries, been able to receive adequate medical care after the accident, and had trust in local medical staff to treat him instead of snake oil salesmen. Instead, he’ll continue to consider “medicine” that costs a fifth of his family’s annual income while he still doesn’t get enough food to eat.


COS Conference

13 05 2013

This week, Tim and I are in Phnom Penh for our close of service conference. We’ll have two days of meetings that are meant to help us process our service, understand the nuts and bolts of transitioning to the States, and prepare us for closing out our projects at site. Despite the fact that it might sound fairly boring, the conference is a big deal for most volunteers, as it provides a sense of closure to the Peace Corps experience. This is the last official Peace Corps training before our service ends, and is therefore our last opportunity to see all the other volunteers from our cohort.

Good swing!

Good swing!

In order to celebrate the (near) completion of our service and spend some time with one another, the staff and volunteers have planned a few social activities on top of the formal meetings. Today was the first of those: a Sunday barbecue complete with swimming and a softball scrimmage. The weather was good and the food was better. However, the best part was seeing the Cambodian staff join in on the fun, learning to play America’s favorite pastime. All in all, a really wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

PC Staff watching the game

PC Staff watching the game

Tomorrow’s activity is a low-key trivia contest, but Tuesday’s river cruise is set to be a wild time. Most volunteers will head back to site on Wednesday, but Tim and I will stay here through the week so we can complete the medical and dental exams that are required before completing our service. It’s becoming more and more real with every day – our service is coming to an end quicker than we had ever imagined!


Camp GLOW 2013

7 05 2013

Last weekend was the third annual Camp GLOW in Siem Reap. Sixty-three students from seven secondary schools came to learn about women’s health and empowerment at this four-day workshop. I can’t say enough wonderful things about GLOW – it really is one of my favorite Peace Corps activities.

This year’s t-shirt design

You might remember from last year that Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a project carried out by Peace Corps volunteers across the globe. It’s an opportunity to bring girls together from different communities to share their experiences and build their leadership capacity. Like last year, the camp was funded primarily through USAID’s Small Project Assistance fund, with help from each of the participating communities. However, this year the project grew in size – from 39 girls from three schools to 63 students from seven schools. I brought 11 girls from my site, all of whom had been actively involved in my weekly health club.

Posing with some of the girls

Posing with some of the girls

Our philosophy with Camp GLOW has always been to bring in competent, inspiring Khmer women to lead the sessions, and this year was no different. The first two days of the camp were led by the staff at Our Strength, who focused on sexual health and healthy relationships. The Women’s Resource Center joined us again this year as well, leading activities on self-awareness, goal setting, and community education. There was one new addition to the line-up this year though, as we asked students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to lead a 4-hour session on career planning.

What does it take to be a good teacher?

In addition to the education sessions, there were plenty of fun activities to keep the girls engaged, including a newspaper fashion show, a pizza party, and a trip to Angkor Wat.

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Making a traditional Cambodian outfit out of newspaper

Cute nas

Cute nas

Now that the camp is finished, each group of girls is planning to teach 100 community members about what they learned at GLOW. Having seen the way that my girls organized and led the domestic violence education event for nearly 500 people in March, I feel confident that they will do a great job passing on what they’ve learned. Even on the van ride home from the camp, the girls were fearlessly teaching the other passengers about menstruation and reproductive anatomy.

For more pictures of GLOW, click here.