Tangled

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Katie

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Warm Fuzzy Feelings

30 04 2013

Time has been racing by since we got back from vacation. It’s impossible to believe that we’ll be leaving our site in less than two short months. Exacerbating our warped perception of time is the fact that our schedules have been packed recently, with no real indication that things will slow down before we leave.

Last week was the first full work week since Khmer New Year. My week was a varied one, a reflection of what my life at site has become. It included weighing sessions, meetings with my girls’ club, preparations for Camp GLOW, planning sessions for the domestic violence project, English classes, and a refresher training for village health volunteers. Tim was back at school, teaching a full schedule for the first time in about six weeks. In addition to work activities, we spent a lot of time catching up with our host family and friends, who we hadn’t seen in some time. We had been feeling like vacation marked the beginning of the end, so it was encouraging to kick off the last stage of our service with such productive and fun activities.

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

Our host dad playing with his grandson this week

On Saturday, we went to Battambang to celebrate the marriage of our very first Khmer teacher. Sothearith introduced us to Cambodia’s language and culture during training in Takeo nearly two years ago. He has proven to be one of the most effective teachers and friendliest guys we’ve encountered in our time here. We were excited to be able to join in his wedding celebrations, especially because we had been hoping to get back to Battambang one more time before heading home. In addition to the wedding festivities, we were able to sneak in a show at the circus (the second time, for me) and a quick swim in a brand new rooftop pool. Clearly, when I describe my busy schedule, I’m using a loose definition.

These kids are AMAZING!

These kids are AMAZING!

Overall, it was a really fun weekend, that had us regularly reminding ourselves how good our lives are here. There’s been an awful lot of warm fuzzy feelings about Cambodia lately, not to mention dozens of new thoughts I’d like to share as our time winds down. Let’s hope I can find the time and energy to do so, even as my schedule continues to gain momentum in the upcoming weeks.

Katie

 

 





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!

Katie





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!
Katie





Celebrating the Highlights of 2012

31 12 2012

This year was the first full calendar year that I’ve spent outside of the US, so it comes as no surprise that there is much to celebrate about 2012.

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

January: In a Phnom Penh deli with AM

A Special Visitor

The year started off with a visit from one of my dearest friends from home: Anne Marie. We spent a week or so hitting the major Cambodian cities, but the best part of all was definitely just spending time with her. It was a great start to what ended up being an equally great year.

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

April: Hanging out on Halong Bay

Trip to Vietnam

During Khmer New Year in April, Tim and I headed off to Vietnam for three weeks of vacation. We made our way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way to see the hills of Dalat, the beaches of Nha Trang, the colonial architecture of Hoi An, and the caves of Dong Hoi.

September: Tim's hospitality students at a hotel in Siem Reap

July: Tim begins working on his hospitality project with this great group of young people

Hospitality Training Begins

With the support of a local NGO and all of you, Tim began managing an intensive hospitality training program for disadvantaged youth in the community. It was the perfect opportunity to combine Tim’s interest in cooking, available NGO resources and a expressed need in the community.

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

July: The current group of volunteers welcomes the newbies at the airport

Welcoming the K6s

A milestone for those of us who had reached the one year mark, welcoming the new group of volunteers to Cambodia reminded us all of how much we had learned and how far we had come since arriving the year before.

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

August: Teaching project volunteers about childhood nutrition

Understanding and Embracing my Role

In August, my project work took off, helping me to see the results of all the hard work I had put in during the first year of service. In the course of a month, I took the girls from my health club to Camp GLOW in Siem Reap, I helped organize and lead a training that would kick off a childhood nutrition program, I started teaching “the monsters” and I got to share some of what I learned with the new volunteers at their training.

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

October: Visiting the beach town of Sihanoukville

Hitting the Beach

For our second Pchum Ben, Tim and I decided to take a quick trip down south to visit the relaxed towns of Kampot and Sihanoukville.

October: back to school

October: Back to school

A Second School Year

Immediately following our trip down south, Tim’s second academic year at site began, giving him the opportunity to once again work in the public schools with his choice of counterparts. He was especially excited this year because he knew what to expect and had already developed deep friendships with several teachers at the school.

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

November: Seeing my parents for the first time in 16 months

My Parents’ Trip

In November, my parents came to visit and we spent ten days hitting all of the tourist activities in Siem Reap, including the alligator farm, the silk farm, Apsara dancing, the floating villages, the Angkor National Museum, the ceramics center and, of course, the temples.

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December: Ringing in the new year in style

The End of 2012

Here we are at the end of the year! Tim and I are celebrating all of the triumphs (and challenges) of 2012 in style in Siem Reap.

Thanks for all of the support and love this year. Wishing everyone a great 2013!

Katie





Happy Thanksgiving (again)!

22 11 2012

Time for our third annual Thanksgiving Day post from abroad! Just like the last two years, this year each of us has prepared a list of things we are grateful for.

Katie:

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I must confess that when I fully allow myself to think about my life and all the reasons I have to be thankful, it’s overwhelming. The truth of the matter is that my life is so good I don’t even know where to start.

Being in Cambodia is such a privilege in and of itself. It’s been an unbelievable experience that I am so grateful for. Learning a new language, meeting new people, working on new projects, and basically shifting my entire reality has helped me grow in countless ways I couldn’t have otherwise.

Throughout our time here, we’ve even been able to share our experiences with several friends and family members who’ve come to visit. Although I’m thankful for all those visits, today I am especially thankful for my parents and their willingness to travel across the globe to see us. Their trip is certainly a highlight of my time here that I will not soon forget. But those who haven’t come to visit have still shown their support in the forms of emails, letters, packages, text messages and phone calls. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m grateful not only for the people who have expressed their support, but also for the ways that technology and infrastructure help keep me connected to those I love, even when I’m 8,000 miles away.

I’m grateful for folks back home, but I am equally grateful for those inspiring individuals who I interact with regularly here – both Cambodians and foreigners. There are countless people who have challenged my beliefs, taught me life lessons and set an example for me to follow. Lucky for me, my husband is included on that list. Tim continues to impress and inspire me with his daily choices, always putting others first and genuinely striving to help those around him. I am so thankful that I can feel at home with him in any place around the world.

Living here serves as a constant reminder of all I have to be thankful for: the ability to be globally mobile, clean water, shelter, access to education and information, a steady source of income, my health, and so much more. It’s a humbling and motivating existence that I’m so thankful to have. I feel so fortunate, and I hope this Thanksgiving you all do too!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tim:

I’ll admit it. This year, Thanksgiving completely sneaked up on me. It wasn’t until I was lesson planning for my private class on Wednesday night that I realized that we were hours away from the best holiday of the year. I guess the lack of fall smells of cinnamon, cloves, and pumpkin combined with some ridiculously hot weather to continue what seems like my 16th July in a row. Without a little advanced notice, the usual Thanksgiving questions all hit me at the same time: what am I thankful for? How much turkey should I buy? Is gravy sold by the gallon?

I guess you could say we’re doing a sort of minimalistic Thanksgiving this year, so the final two questions will have to wait. There’s not much turkey to be had and no time off, so we’re planning on a making something special on Saturday and celebrating then. But, all tradition is not lost, as we mark our third thanksgiving abroad in a row, the blog of thankfulness continues!

Since this entire thankfulness blog cycle has been spent in Cambodia, some of the usual cast members this year have largely been reduced to tiny voices on my cell phone. Nevertheless, I have a lot to appreciate about these faceless people on the other end of the line (can we still say line?). Mom and Dad continue to try to understand our lives here as difficult as it is to do. Mom saying the name of our town over and over until she gets it right or Dad miraculously following Cambodia in the news without touching a computer both mean a lot. The tiny voices I hear are nothing but loving, supportive, and eager to learn. They spend exorbitant amounts of money to send packages halfway around the world, powerlessly hoping the beef jerky doesn’t get mistakenly sent to Colombia, Cameroon, or, inexplicably, Indonesia. Mom still writes letters that never arrive because one or two have made it eventually. All of these things and more add up to a bounty of support and love felt from a very long way away.

I’m thankful for Katie’s parents who, despite a mountain of reasons not to, came to visit us in Cambodia last week. Not many people would fly 10,000 miles to a completely foreign place just to see their daughter and her husband for ten days. The trip was a blast and so very much appreciated.

 

I’m thankful for everyone at home that has helped financially with projects or just spread the word about Cambodia. Your generosity was both impressive and lightning-fast.

I’m grateful to have never had a dull day here. This experience has lent me a thousand stories and tens of thousands of reflective moments. Being able to come here has been incredibly enriching in all aspects. I’m so thankful for the privilege to do what I am doing where I’m doing it.

I’m thankful to have some wonderful students who continue to amaze me. Waking up at 4 am and studying from 6 am to 7 pm every day is an inspiration. Despite the fact that their class with me is their 12th straight hour of class, they are full of smiles, meaningful questions, and enthusiasm.

I’m thankful to have some excellent coteachers, counterparts, deputy school directors, host family members, random market ladies, and hilarious neighbor kids in Kampong Kdei. We have had nothing but wonderful interactions here. I have been completely lucky to be able to work with teachers that enjoy teaching with me and who are generally just fun to be around. They have helped us in countless ways over the past year or so.

I’m thankful for fellow PCVs who are absolutely hilarious to be around, who make me think differently about the world, and who make me proud to be a volunteer. We have a truly remarkable group of volunteers and staff in Cambodia.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, I am thankful for Katie. An eater of my food, a fixer of my grammar, a kicker of my pants, she has obviously had a profound impact on who I am today. We’ve had another wonderful year together and I’m certain next year will be even better (a flushing toilet may help that fact). I’m thankful for the past and looking forward to what the future brings.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!





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.

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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.

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Katie