2 09 2013

This is the last in a series of articles I’ve written for my hometown newspaper, the Index.

I’ve been agonizing over how to properly sum up the past two years of my life in a concise, yet meaningful way. Like any two years, my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia has been complex: full of personal milestones, frustrating challenges, and moments of boredom. In that way, it doesn’t feel much different than any other two years I’ve lived.

Yet, these two years took place on the other side of the globe in a context that was completely different from any I had known. Because of that, there’s an expectation that I have neatly-packaged insights that I can easily and eloquently relay when others ask, “How was Cambodia?” or “What was it like?”

I have no shortage of anecdotes I can share when asked these questions – mice shooting out of our toilet, getting bitten by the town’s infamous three-legged dog, running a half marathon through ancient temple ruins. However, interesting anecdotes only touch the surface. In the same way that the pizza you had for dinner last night doesn’t define how your week has been, the ant soup that I ate with my host family, while perhaps an amusing story, in no way represents the experience I’ve had here.


Although I know most people are not looking for anything but a brief response to their questions, I feel great pressure to give a more complete message about my time in Cambodia than a simple anecdote or two will allow. Crafting my story feels like a heavy responsibility because in telling my story, I also tell Cambodia’s.

However, this kind of in-depth reflection is difficult. How do I make sense of an experience that is so tangled up in who I have become that it’s nearly impossible to separate it from myself?

When thinking back on my Peace Corps service, and other formative events in my life, it becomes easy to slip into a rut of self-absorption. After all, living in Cambodia was life changing, so it should come as no surprise that I want to explore the wide range of emotions I’m feeling now that I’m faced with leaving it.

I feel heartbroken, for example, having to say goodbye to people who have become my closest friends and sources of inspiration.  I feel gratitude for all those who took the time to teach me a new word in Khmer, to share their stories with me, or to work beside me on projects. I feel pride for the effort and thought that I put into my service. I feel unbridled excitement to share my experiences with others when I return.


However, if I’m honest about my emotions, I also feel disappointed for the days I chose not to leave my house, for finding excuses to avoid studying the language when I had free time, for not trying harder to achieve equality in my workplace relationships.

And then there’s the doubt: doubt about whether, after countless hours of chatting and sharing meals together, I ever meant anything more to my host family than the 100 dollars of rent money I provided each month. I doubt whether my projects did more good than harm. I doubt whether the lessons I’ve supposedly learned over these two years will stick with me once I step foot back in the States.

If dwelling on my own feelings seems too self-absorbed — and it certainly does— shifting the focus to the many brave, resourceful, and open minded Cambodians I met throughout my time in country feels trite. The often cited idea that “they taught me more than I could ever teach them” undoubtedly rings true, yet appears so empty when written on a page for the millionth time. How do I shine a light on individuals like Hoan Hoak, who has become a leader in her community and begun to create a safe and just environment for women and children? How do I recognize Vanna, my student who is brave enough to teach older women about health, even in a culture where age equals respect? How do I give voice to these stories, and so many more, without it seeming forced or formulaic?

I imagine returning from an experience like Peace Corps is one of the only times in my life when I will be asked to summarize two years of my existence, including the place I lived, the people who influenced my day-to-day routine, and my emotional response to it all. It overwhelms me to try and make sense of it.


When I return to the States next week, I want to feel prepared to tell a nuanced account of what I’ve witnessed and experienced in the past two years. I haven’t figured out exactly what this story will sound like as it plays in my head and comes rushing out of my mouth. After all, some of the most powerful insights come long after an experience is over.

However, as I begin what I imagine I will be a long process of making sense of this journey, I hope never to forget the beautiful complexity of this country or my time in it. I will try to remember that this experience is more than an accumulation of anecdotes, self-righteous reflections, or formulaic stories of local heroes. I might not yet be able to supply neatly-packaged insights, but I can attest that it was two years like any other: messy, beautiful and finite.


Election results: Victory (and defeat) for both sides

30 07 2013

On election day, Peace Corps Volunteers all over Cambodia posted on Facebook that their sites felt “quiet” or “still.” Here in Takeo, I used the same words to describe the calm that took over the city on Sunday. However, this silence did not mean that Cambodians had nothing to say. On the contrary, the polls were packed with voters, many of whom indicated they were ready for a change.

The preliminary election results show the ruling party, the CPP, losing 22 of their previous 90 seats in the National Assembly. This shift significantly reduces the gap between the CPP, now with 68 seats, and the largest opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), with 55. International news sources say that the “surprising” results show that the CNRP has “leveled the playing field” and “made a strong showing.” However, based the on the (limited) conversations I’ve had with people since the election, I think many CNRP supporters feel angry or unsatisfied. The gains in the National Assembly do not make up for the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to remain in power for another five years or for the alleged irregularities that took place at polling sites across the country. “The results are fake, and we’re mad,” I was told by a young man I know, who was visibly still upset by the CPP victory when I talked to him late Monday afternoon. “If that’s the number they’re admitting,” said one Twitter user, “imagine what the real result is.”

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

From The Cambodian Daily: A riot in Phnom Penh on election day

International organizations are not satisfied either, with Transparency International saying that it is “very difficult to proclaim this a free and fair election.” In addition to the complaints leading up to election day, which included highly censored media and difficult voter registration processes, there was a long list of voting day concerns, as well. In some cases, voters would show up to the polls, only to find that someone else had already cast a ballot using their name. Some people’s names were left off the list entirely, while a few of the names on the list supposedly belonged to people who had already died. The other issue that was widely covered was that the ink used to indicate that someone had voted was easily washed off, leaving an opportunity for individuals to vote more than one time.

It was these issues that led to a riot in Phnom Penh’s Mienchey district on Sunday, where two military vehicles were destroyed. There were also reports of violence against ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians at a few polling stations. Overall, though, the violence was contained to a handful of specific areas.

The violence has been limited, and I would guess that it will remain so. Despite the hard feelings, members from both parties can feel as though they achieved some sort of victory this election day. The ruling party continues to hold the Prime Minister position and maintains a majority in the Assembly, while the opposition party gained 26 new seats and clearly demonstrated the people’s desire to change the status quo. The CNRP is challenging the results, but all in all I believe this was the safest outcome for the country.


Change or No Change: Cambodia’s Fifth General Election

27 07 2013

Tomorrow, more than 9 million Cambodians will travel to nearby schools and community centers to cast their ballots in the country’s fifth democratic election. With campaigning banned today, it is the first day of silence in weeks. The roar of political rallies has become so familiar recently that today’s tranquility feels a little like the eerie silence before the storm.

I can’t say with any certainty if there will be a storm, or what it would even look like, but it’s hard not to wonder what the aftermath of the election will be. A Cambodian acquaintance recently told me, “If the CPP wins, the country will go to war. If the opposition party wins, the country will go to war.” Although I believe this to be an overstatement, the election is a significant event for people both locally and internationally.

This year, there are eight registered parties on the ballot, down from 11 in 2008 and 23 in 2003; however, two have been receiving the vast majority of media attention. The first is the Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP, which has won all four previous elections and is the current ruling party. CPP’s Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, is the longest serving leader in all of Asia. On the other side is the largest opposition party, an alliance between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, now called the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

This year’s election has received quite a bit of international attention, with many sources voicing concerns about corruption. Some allege that more than 10 percent of registered voters don’t exist. Others say that the ruling party controls all accessible media. Some have gone as far to say that this year’s elections will be rigged, or worse yet: the least fair in history. I’ve heard firsthand many people complain about how difficult it’s been to register to vote or to move their voting location, which indicates unwieldy bureaucracy if not worse.

However, a local friend of mine recently told me that this year the Cambodian people feel freer than they ever have. He believes technology is the reason. Now, young people have smart phones and computer access, which allow them to explore information they couldn’t reach before. People can share their ideas without consequence, he told me. When I asked if that was the case in the 2008 election, he quickly said it was not. Cambodians, he said, have never felt so free to express their opinions, on both sides of the spectrum. “Because of this, we all understand each other now, even if we don’t agree.” Supporting this sentiment is the fact that this is the least violent campaign season yet.

Another thing that has defined the climate of this election season is the return of Sam Rainsy, the head of the former political party named for him, after four years of self-imposed exile. Rainsy’s return has invigorated the opposition party, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets of major cities as he campaigns across the country. When I asked Cambodian friends and acquaintances if Rainsy’s return would cause people to vote differently, they said no. However, I would guess that it’s given people more energy, maybe even more hope.

After noticing that the Cambodian National Rescue Party campaigners seemed to be more enthusiastic during their rallies, I was told by several people that these campaigners hit the streets shouting their slogan of “Change or no change?” because they are truly excited about their party. Sometimes, I was told, CPP campaigners are paid to attend rallies, and some will do so even if on election day they vote for the opposition. The fear of saying no, when paired with the extra income, is enough motivation for some to join these events, but maybe not enough to feign enthusiasm.

Genuine supporters of the CPP do exist in large number though, and they hold up economic growth and infrastructure development as the biggest successes of the party. These are thanks in part to Cambodia’s strong relationship with China, which has invested nearly $10 billion into the small country. Some argue that development has come at a high cost, with land grabs and deforestation being cited often.

In addition to touting development,  the CPP has historically also relied heavily on the message that they freed Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. This message becomes less and less powerful with each passing year, as a greater number of voters have no memory – and little knowledge – of the atrocities that occurred during that time. In fact, the youth movement has been notable this election season, with one-third of voters between the ages of 18 and 30.

Tomorrow, the eyes of many will be on Cambodia. Some have already written it off, arguing that there’s no chance of a free and fair election; but for many more, tomorrow’s election will be a litmus test to see if the Cambodian people are ready for change.

Stay tuned for the results.


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.


Reflections on Cambodia: Year One

17 07 2012

 As we near the one year mark of service in Cambodia, I’ve spent a fair amount of time processing the experience. As the days and months pass, I simultaneously seem to understand more and less about the complexities of this country and its fragile future. Although I could never speak with any authority on what Cambodia truly is, I’ve put together the following list of things Cambodia has become to me. I hope it provides insight into this place and the twelve life-changing months I’ve spent here.


Cambodia is a friendly smile and a nervous laugh. A “hello,” shouted from the rice paddies. It’s the hushed murmur of “barang” as you pass by, and the demanding “Moak bee na?” from a stranger. Cambodia is a string of small children chasing your bike. And a moto driver who stops to stare.

Cambodia is the smell of urine. Of fermented fish and rotting meat. It’s vomit on a long bus ride or the oniony scent of the country’s most beloved fruit. It’s incense burning near a spirit house.

Cambodia is pork with rice. Soup with rice. Noodles with rice. Cambodia is rice with rice.

Cambodia is the sound of roosters in the mornings and dogs at night. The monks’ rhythmic chanting drifting from the wat. It’s the discordant sounds of a wedding or a funeral. Dishes clinking next door or a baby crying. Cambodia is Pitbull and K*Pop, Karaoke and Prom Manh. It’s that same female voice, shrill and submissive, blaring from the TV. Cambodia is the deafening sound of a monsoon falling on the roof. And it’s a silence, a devastating silence, when voices should be heard.

Cambodia is the one glass eye watching everything you do.

Cambodia is emerald fields and killing fields. Disappearing forests and lakes filled with dirt. It’s a flood that ruins the crops. Cambodia is border wars and broken promises. It’s a billion dollars of aid and discouraging results.

Cambodia is 3,000 NGOs. It’s expats in coffee shops and sexpats in brothels. It’s bodyguards in the most exclusive of night clubs. It’s flocks of tourists, “Tuk tuk, lady,” and markets filled with cheap souvenirs. Cambodia is children begging on the streets. Amputees and orphans. It’s mediocre Western food.

Cambodia is its history. Cambodia is Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a delicate balance of optimism and fatalism. It’s stories of the Khmer Rouge told in a whisper. It’s cheap beer and men who can’t hold their liquor. Cambodia is rovul taking afternoon naps in hammocks and sipping iced coffee on red plastic stools.

Cambodia is whitening creams and painted nails. Bright colored shirts adorned with lace and beads. It’s flexible fingers stretching backward, feet shuffling as music plays. It’s orange robes or bare bellies. Sampots and collared shirts, or tight tops and miniskirts.

It’s traffic and trafficking. Five on a moto and a truck piled high. It’s tai chi as you cross the street. It’s hanging on for dear life.

Cambodia is bats and spiders, snakes and mice. So many damn mice. It’s monkeys and elephants, lizards and butterflies. It’s plankton that glow in the dark.

It’s protractors and white out. Perfectly straight lines and meticulously taken notes. A sea of blue and white as children parade to school. Cambodia is a head ducked with respect, a face that’s been saved. Cambodia is so many vowels that all sound the same.

It’s squat toilets and no toilet paper. Stilted houses and burning trash. It’s life in a garbage dump, in its most literal sense. Cambodia is open defecation. It’s polluted rivers and a toxic lake.

Cambodia is rice farmers. Factory workers. Small business owners. Cambodia is a yay with a checkered kroma tied on her hairless head. A grandfather speaking French under his breath. It’s a teacher trying to do the right thing. A mother standing up for her community. Cambodia is a seller in the market, giving a discount and a smile. It’s a tour guide, beaming with pride.

Cambodia is exhilarating, inspiring and exhausting.

And, for now, Cambodia is my home.



School Year Wrap up

22 06 2012

The school year has just about ended with semester tests finished for everyone but the 9th and 12th graders. You would assume that semester tests would mark the end of the school year, but the students and teachers are required to be at school for a few more weeks until the official end date. The end result: the students and teachers sit around looking at each other, but no class is held. Call me old fashioned, but if I don’t have to do my job, I’m not going to come to my place of work that day. In my mind, it seems like an awful version of workforce detention (reminds me of this), in which nothing is completed or produced or fixed or….how American of me.

The truth is, the teachers really seem to like hanging out, talking with each other, gambling, and being anywhere but home. One of my coteachers teaches three days a week but is at school at least five, because he’s bored at home. And, although it’s not true for him, for many students and teachers home means work. Home means farming, cleaning, cooking, childcare. Being at school is a reprieve from these activities and many students and teachers admit preferring six hour purgatory to a “free” day at home. The point is, school’s out (basically). One school year down and only one to go. Time is flying. So with a sudden lack of schedule on my hands, I think now is the time for some productive (there it is again!) reflection on the school year.

Surprises (also known as Wait…..What?)

I think most Peace Corps volunteers have these moments when we hear something, nod our head as we always do to appear agreeable, then suddenly our jaw muscles slacken and our heads turn to the side like an inquisitive puppy as the news finally hits us, culminating with a half-stuttered, “Wait…..what?” As we adjusted to the culture the first few months, there were a lot of these moments. Once, in the first few days, as I began to ask students questions, my coteacher would just shake his head, saying, “She’s from the village, she doesn’t know.” As he tried to redirect me toward the 4-5 advanced students in the class, it was clear that once students were left behind, they weren’t given much opportunity to get back on track. Those from the “villages” often were never taught English in 7-9th grade as they should have, but now had to compete with students with three years of English under their belts. Meanwhile, teachers would ignore them because they were “from the villages.”

The other few surprises came from what I thought I was prepared for: corruption. Finding out that all teachers have money deducted from their salary for political party dues was a bit staggering. All teachers are officially card carrying Cambodian People’s Party members. Without it, they can’t be teachers. I had assumed there would be some corruption, but assumed that the students would not be directly affected. However, as I mentioned on an earlier blog, students are not only charged to take exams, but they are overcharged by a factor of ten.


There have undoubtedly been some positive changes from the past year. First, my coteachers have improved their speaking and listening ability in English significantly. They are great students, soaking up anything I teach them, and immediately use the word, phrase, or technique so they won’t forget it. They are enthusiastic about being able to practice  their English and seem to see the value in it.

My coteachers have been able to pick up teaching techniques that require very little to no preparation. These are my bread and butter, knowing my coteachers often don’t have the time to prepare much for class. Ideally, some lesson planning would be great, but let’s keep in mind that Cambodian teachers make in a month what American teachers make in a day. Motivation is in short supply when everyone needs second and third jobs. Perhaps more importantly, the coteachers are realizing that a student centered class is a lot more fun than speaking in front of the class for two hours.

One of the things that was really important to me was to be available to students for questions, support, and opportunities to practice English. My formal “office hours” did not work, but through lots of urging, I now have students that are not so afraid of the cultural power difference between us and come sit with me and my coteachers during breaks to ask questions.

Lastly, the coteachers are starting to admit that the curriculum could be stronger. There was a strong need for them to follow the book exactly and make sure we cover everything in each chapter, whether the material is good or not. They’re beginning to be really good at knowing what is important to teach, what is important to teach differently from the book, and what is useless in this context.

Not Going to Budge

Despite the improvements, as meager as they might seem, there are certainly things that just will not change. Issues like taking money from students, allowing cheating, and poor teacher attendance are just not going anywhere. These are the realities that  I can discuss with our coteachers, but I don’t really see changing much during my tenure here. Also, getting my coteachers to sing. It’s just not happening.


There are lots of really positive people around that I would dare say are inspirations. First and foremost, is my counterpart and friend, Vanna. As a first year teacher, he didn’t get paid for seven months of teaching. He borrowed money, lived thriftily, and never missed a class until I took him to a training in Phnom Penh in May (even then, he left exercises for his students to have done when he came back). He lesson plans for hours a day, comes to every class, and is just a great guy to be around. If this is the new wave of young Khmer teachers, Cambodian schools will be vastly different in ten years.

Second, there is an old man who teaches Khmer. He knows English and French, and is overall a brilliant guy. More than any other factor that is inspiring is his consistancy. I think the Cambodian education system could be vastly improved with some very simple consistancy. This teacher comes to every class, arrives on time, teaches the full time, then goes home. I’ve never spotted him around the teachers’ card table, and he avoids the overly social teachers’ lounge. He doesn’t take money from students and always goes to class. For this, he is both revered and ostracized by other teachers. While some teachers invoke the group mentality as a reason not to stop earning money from tests, he shows that one person can change things.

Lastly, there is a particularly strong student in my English club whose family lives 45km from the school. Twice a month, she bikes the 45km to see her family for a day and a half, then bikes back. During the week she stays in a shared house with 26 other girls that are receiving scholarship money to finish high school. She studies hard, and talks often of university, knowing she won’t be able to go without a scholarship.

Focus for next year

What are my next steps? Mostly, I’m going to focus on cementing these improvements into the school. There is no clear indication that the improvements so far will continue after I leave, so next year will look a bit different. I will turn to more of an advising role to the teachers, making sure that they are implementing the changes that I’ve shown them. I taught a lot this year, and want to see my coteachers take the lead next year.


Protests in Cambodia

9 05 2012

I have to admit it: I was wrong. A few months ago, I wrote a post, in which I speculated that the likelihood of Cambodians to actively protest would be low. I said:

“Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.”

However, as of late, land and labor protests have been at the center of national (and international) news. Unfortunately, many of these protests have ended in violence. In February, for example, thousands of garment workers had gathered to demand better pay and working conditions when the governor fired into a crowd, wounding three women.

Then, last month, a prominent environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was shot and killed by a government official while attempting to expose the dangers of the widespread illegal logging industry.

The late environmental activist, Chut Wutty

The most recent demonstration has been land grab protest  in Phnom Penh. One day last week, a group of women made a radical statement by stripping down to just their underwear in front of the National Assembly. Then, the following day, five women were injured by riot police.

So it appears the spirit of protest does exist in Cambodia, despite the risks. In an age when one lone fruit seller or a single tweet can change the political landscape of an entire region, it’s hard to know if these protests will be the catalyst for any bigger movements. Either way, I think the protests– and the subsequent responses– provide an interesting look into current Cambodia. It certainly is a country ripe for change.


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.


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.


“Make the Story be about the Poor”

2 02 2012

Earlier tonight, I came across a new post from Tales from the Hood entitled, “American Culture 101: More blessed to give than to receive.” It’s a passionate article that links the giver-centric American attitude with the contemporary humanitarian aid industry. Drawing upon examples in current pop culture and American history alike, the author makes the argument (among others) that we Americans love being the giver, and therefore, diminish the role of the receiver, whose role is only “to accept and be grateful.”

Before I applied to the Peace Corps, I had three major concerns. One was personal, one professional and one philosophical. I’ve written about the other two previously, but wasn’t sure if I would blog about the philosophical concern I felt. However, this article provides a clear segue.

When considering moving abroad with the Peace Corps, I was concerned that the experience would be too volunteer-focused and would not adequately emphasize the needs of the community. This is a common criticism of volunteer-based international organizations and isn’t limited to the Peace Corps,  but also extends to my former employer in Argentina and other similar organizations. It’s a valid concern too since the composition of these groups is often young (read: unskilled and unfocused), independent (rebellious), privileged (demanding) Millennials. We– I consider myself to have many of these attributes, as well– require a lot of time, money and attention.

After investing all of those resources into Volunteers, the Peace Corps needs to ensure that we don’t leave service early. This is an understandable reason that the agency emphasizes Volunteer happiness. Another reason is because we are needed to promote the experience, to market their product to all potential future Volunteers. Add in liability issues and the administrative mess that stems from unhappy PCVs, and it’s easy to see how why it can get all too Volunteer-focused.

But what about the reason we are here? What about the communities where we serve? How do they fit in?

One argument is that happy Volunteers will be more productive in their communities, so by focusing on the Volunteer, you are also focusing on the community. I think this is fair to an extent. However, I think there is much more that could be done, on an organizational and an individual level, to increase the emphasis placed on the “receivers” of our efforts.

Globally, Peace Corps could modify the recruiting and application process so it truly examines and embraces the skills that Volunteers bring with them.  That way, Volunteers can be better matched with contexts where their skills are needed, thus substantially increasing the potential for positive impact on the community. And, while we’re at it, it’s absolutely essential that Peace Corps have an in-depth and up-to-date understanding of the specific contexts where it works. Only then can it really benefit the people it aims to serve.

Here in Cambodia, the language used during our training was astonishingly Volunteer-focused. Even the overarching topics of our trainings were heavily geared toward having a positive Volunteer experience, instead of emphasizing having a positive impact on the community. Sessions on community-based change and participatory assessments existed, but were, in my opinion, brief and underdeveloped. This needs to change if the program wants to shift its focus to the local people.

As individual Volunteers, we have the greatest opportunity to overcome the giver-centric tendencies mentioned in the article. We can do this by devoting more of our time to reaching a level of fluency that allows for a nuanced understanding; conducting thoughtful, comprehensive assessments that truly put value on the voices of the community; and putting our interests aside in favor of those of the community where we work. These are the things we could be doing, but most of us aren’t. At least not to the extent we could.

All of this is to say that I think that Peace Corps, as it currently functions, fits the model described in the article I read tonight. Peace Corps, for many young people, is an opportunity to have an adventure abroad and feel good about making a difference. From an organizational standpoint, PC relies on the happiness and safety of the Volunteers. These things lead to an organizational focus that strays from the people who are supposed to benefit from the agency’s efforts: the poor.

As the author of the article says:

We have to make the story be about the poor… We have to fight the urge ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations, to make the real story about processes and pipelines and logistics and budgets and technical standards. Of course those things are all important and we have to do them all well. But they are only means to ends. We have to keep the people we’re trying to help in the forefront of the storyline.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea of shifting the emphasis off of donors and aid workers. The poor should most certainly be in the “forefront of the storyline.” In this way (and in many ways), the author is right on, which is why I chose to share the article. But I’d quickly like to note that the one major flaw I find in the article is that it perpetuates the giver/receiver paradigm, which ultimately disempowers the community in many of the same ways that placing an emphasis on donors and processes did in the first place. Yes, the emphasis needs to be taken away from the donors, the aid workers and the Volunteers; however, we should stop using language that paints this as a one way process where we  give to them.

Regardless, it’s a constant struggle. One faced by Peace Corps, yes, but also by hundreds of other organizations with the best of intentions. And I have to admit, as development workers and Peace Corps Volunteers, it is can be a surprisingly difficult task to look beyond ourselves and make the story be about the poor.