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.

DSCN0995

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.

DSCN9993

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.

382310_10200686787276146_1755071118_n

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

Advertisements




Tim’s Index Debut!

27 02 2013

Tim took a turn writing an article for my hometown paper, The Index. It was printed in this week’s edition, but you can also check it out below.

Education has no doubt been on the minds of many in Homer over the past couple months with the opening of the new Homer High School. The new environment, technology, and facilities are certainly exciting for students and teachers alike. With these changes in mind, it seems relevant to share our experience with schools here in Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the school system is still trying to bounce back from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. After the systematic killing of educated Cambodians in the late 1970s, the reestablishment of public schools proved to be difficult. Villagers became teachers with no specialized training and often less than a high school diploma. With a storage closet full of weapons and ammunition, the teachers held classes in the mornings and defended the town from Khmer Rouge raids at night. This continued in our area until approximately 1995 when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fled further west toward Thailand.

 

DSCN2206

Eighteen years later, the Cambodian school system has improved at a breakneck pace. New high school teachers are required to have completed either a 2 year teaching program or a 4 year bachelor’s degree. Additional schools are being built regularly, school libraries are flourishing thanks to international NGO (non-governmental organization) support, and professional development for teachers is on the rise. It is truly remarkable how far the school system has come considering all the work and money needed to completely rebuild it nationwide.

This fact is often cited at the local high school where I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grades as a Peace Corps volunteer. My job here is to teach collaboratively with the English language teachers, helping them improve their English and to better develop student-centered techniques. Cambodian culture holds authority figures such as teachers in very high regard so many classes consist of a teacher lecturing for two hours with little student input. In all classes, but especially in English, this isn’t an effective method.

Culturally, teaching in a Cambodian classroom looks very different from Homer High. Uniformed students stand up for teachers as the instructor enters the class, when they are asked questions, and when teachers leave the class. If students need to ask permission from a teacher or if they come to class late, they politely raise their hands to their chin in a praying position and ask for forgiveness. When students walk near teachers outside of class, they will lower their heads to show respect. Showing respect in these ways is hugely important and students never fail to follow these customs.

 

DSCN2201

Overall, students are very motivated to learn. Many financially-able students attend private classes in addition to public school, making for a 12-13 hour school day. Students in our area also travel up to 25 miles to attend high school, since many areas still do not a school available. These students generally stay in a shared house near the school with 25 other people, all sleeping on the floor. Public school is technically free, but families must pay for uniforms, transportation, food, and monthly exams. For this reason, many students from poorer families drop out of school after 9th grade due to financial constraints. Adding that the consensus that public school is largely ineffective due to large class sizes (50:1) or absent teachers, the dropout rate is staggering. It is simply not expected for Khmer teenagers to study beyond the 9th grade in many villages.

The physical environment of the local high school can also prove challenging. There are six classroom buildings for the 1250 students between 7-12 grades. Although there are some newer classrooms with ceiling fans, and a quickly aging computer lab, there is no electricity to run these items. Each classroom is filled with wooden desks for 40-50 students and a large blackboard. The buildings themselves are relatively open in order to make studying tolerable in the Cambodian heat. The open windows and cement walls make noise a constant issue, especially with younger students. In the back of the school there is a small pond and a plot of land for the students to plant corn for their class in agriculture.

As any teacher knows, being in the classroom is both frustrating and inspirational. It has been rewarding over the past year and a half to see my co-teachers become better instructors despite the challenges facing them, and the students have been inspiring models of perseverance through their desire to learn and make a better life for themselves.

-Tim





The Index: Small Town Spirit

17 01 2013

Here’s my latest article for my hometown paper, The Index

When I look back on my childhood growing up in Homer, one of the most pleasant feelings I have is remembering the small town environment. There’s a wonderful, friendly, uncomplicated spirit in places like Homer, where parents let their children play free without fear, where neighbors say “hello” when they pass each other on the street. No one’s in much of a hurry, and friends spend the evening chatting on the porch about how so-and-so is back in town, “Did you see him?”

This same spirit is one of the things I love about rural Cambodia. Don’t get me wrong, I am crazy about the energy of big cities, but there’s a grounding force that exists both in Homer and in the small Cambodian town where I currently live. Upon first consideration, you probably wouldn’t think these two places had much in common, but the pace of life, the friendliness, and the tranquil character is surprisingly similar.

The pace of life here is, well, relaxed. Some might dare call it slow. The unrelenting heat has a lot to do with it, stealing the energy from everyone and leaving them to retreat to shaded hammocks for the hottest hours of the day. All day long, really, life is lived outside the house, where the shade of a stilted home and a gentle breeze can take the edge off. Families and friends spend much of their free time talking about the weather, the harvest, and what they’ve eaten, as they sprawl atop wooden platforms used both as tables and beds.

Image

Like in most small towns, there isn’t much in the way of formal entertainment. The closest thing to a Cascarelli’s we have is an outdoor restaurant where middle-aged men can be found watching the latest boxing match or playing a game of Cambodian chess. Whenever I walk in, I see the same familiar faces, drinking iced coffee made too sweet from the heaps of condensed milk.

Not too far away, there’s a small volleyball court, where the younger guys play a few games against friends for a pot of money. The women gather across the street at the market, the center of all social activity. Just down the road is the river, where you can find men casting their fishing nets, and children splashing around.

During this time of year, bright tents and loud music fill the streets, a sign that wedding season has arrived. The multi-day marriage celebrations are the most extravagant of all the rituals observed here, although housewarmings and memorial services are also big events.

No matter where I am though, the people in my town will respond with a smile, a “hello,” or a polite inquiry about where I’m heading. They’ll slow their motos down to ride beside my bike and ask about my latest English class or how my family is doing.

Image

The young people are especially friendly. High school students are often eager to practice their English any chance they get. The younger kids holler as they play outside together in flocks. With no real parks or playgrounds, the kids can be seen inventing toys using anything from a tree branch to a pop can to a sewer pipe. Besides the risk of illness, which is great of course, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Like Homer, it’s a quiet, safe town where the children can play as they like, largely undisturbed.

There are moments where I can feel each and every one of the 8,000 miles that separates this place from where I grew up. However, there are so many more – when I stumble upon friendly strangers on the street or see neighbors chatting outside– that I’m taken back by the similarities and try to breathe in that small town spirit.

Katie





The Index: Women in Cambodia

5 09 2012

Here’s the latest article for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

Much of my work in Cambodia has consisted of working with women and girls. Last year, for example, I led a girls’ health club at the high school. More recently, I organized a girls’ leadership and empowerment camp. Currently, I’m working with a local nonprofit to field test lessons about gender-based violence, as well as managing a project that helps mothers identify ways to raise healthy kids.

These activities, initially borne out of a desire to address the inequalities and injustices faced by Cambodian women, have also helped deepen my own understanding of the complex situation for women here.

Some of the inequalities Cambodian women face don’t seem very different from those facing women in the United States: lower wages for the same work, underrepresentation in leadership positions, domestic violence, and rape. In addition, women here, like in many American households, bear the majority of childrearing responsibilities, are in charge of nearly all household chores and are expected to work outside of the home, as well.

Although some of these issues may seem familiar, some of the struggles Cambodian women confront are all but unimaginable for many in the US. Human trafficking is rampant, particularly near the Thai border and in tourist hotspots. Arranged marriages are still all too common in the countryside. Each year, about 2,000 Cambodian mothers die during childbirth. Plus, sweatshop workers are almost exclusively women, and although this is one of the only steady employment opportunities for unskilled female laborers, it often comes at a high risk due to the hazardous conditions of many factories.

Women’s social roles are also restricted to a degree that I have not seen in mainstream America. There’s an often-cited Khmer proverb that compares women to a piece of fine cloth and men to a piece of gold. The cloth, if stained, is impossible to clean. However, if a piece of gold becomes dirty, one can simply wipe the dirt off, making the gold shiny once again. In the context of modern-day Cambodia, this means that a woman’s reputation can be permanently destroyed for drinking a single beer in public, lighting a cigarette or even being in a room alone with a man.

These social norms depend heavily on geographic location, with big cities seeing more relaxed rules. However, even in the village where I’ve been living, a mere 60 kilometers from the country’s most touristed and, arguably, progressive city, these narrow ideas of gender prevail.

You don’t have to look hard to find exceptions though. There are countless women bucking traditional gender roles and attempting to address inequalities head-on. There’s Khim Pisey who, with just a high school education, has gone on to manage a drop-in center for local women. There is Somaly Mam, whose anti-trafficking work has made international headlines. There’s Jessica Lisha Srin, a Cambodian rapper who is paving a new road for women the music industry. And there are the high school students from my leadership camp who are now educating their community members about domestic violence.

Cambodia has a long way to go before women can enjoy the same privileges as men, but after spending some time here it becomes easy to see that although the challenges are innumerable, so, too, are the women who, one step at a time, are fighting for a better Cambodia.

Katie





The Index: Revisiting our Trip to Vietnam

30 05 2012

If you haven’t gotten enough of our Vietnam trip already, check out this piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

As my husband and I crossed the border into Vietnam on the first day of our vacation, it was obvious that we were no longer in Cambodia. We had only moments before left the brown, desolate Cambodian fields when we were greeted by a bright emerald hue that could only be cultivated by expensive irrigation systems and chemical treatments. Both places were experiencing the dry season, but Vietnam’s land immediately looked more productive and profitable.

Green rice fields were not the only thing we noticed from the bus window as we entered the country, approaching the southern capital of Saigon, now referred to as Ho Chi Minh City. For one, motorcycle drivers were separated from the rest of traffic by a concrete barrier instead of weaving precariously through the pickup trucks and oversized SUVs like in Cambodia. On top of that, most motos were graced by only one or two people—not the four or five that we were used to. Plus, all of the drivers were wearing helmets. What a surprise!

During the next two weeks, as we snaked our way up the country to Hanoi, it was these little differences that we noticed the most: lush, green parks dotting the cities, garbage trucks collecting trash from personal and public trash bins, French-inspired pastries for sale, house plants dangling off of apartment balconies. After ten months in a semi-rural Cambodian village, these small signs of comfort and wealth were often the topic of conversation.

Overall, Vietnamese city life looked different than what I’ve experienced in Cambodia. In Ho Chi Minh City, wide boulevards, modern skylines and a slew of international restaurants greeted us when we arrived. In fact, the size of the city was a little unsettling at first. With six million people calling Ho Chi Minh City home, it’s significantly larger than Phnom Penh, which houses a mere 1.5 million Cambodians. With so many people and such a developed tourist industry, Vietnam predictably provides refuge to a large and aggressive group of scammers too. Since Cambodians are well-known for the friendliness and warm smiles, this was one of the most marked differences of the trip.

One similarity between both Vietnamese and Cambodian cities, however, was that the majority of day-to-day life happens outdoors. Streets were packed with a range of vehicles including the obvious cars, motorcycles and bikes, but also ox carts, bicycle-powered taxis and vendors who traveled on foot to sell you fried treats or fresh fruit. Sidewalks in both countries are lined with food stalls or simply with plastic stools, where people gather to chat and pass the morning. The scale of this outdoor lifestyle was intensified in cities like Hanoi, where a network of incredibly narrow streets resulted in a feeling of either sheer pandemonium or invigorating energy, depending on the person.

The differences were not limited to the city scenes, however. For example, in Vietnam, jungle-filled mountains lined the horizon to the west, while bright blue ocean waters provided a border on the east. Although Cambodia has both shoreline and mountains, it is primarily described as “a land of paddies:” flat and green, with the occasional palm tree adding some interest to the skyline. Again, the contrast was stark and immediate, but both countries provide a beautiful and exotic backdrop to any trip.

Katie





The Index: Cambodia through New Eyes

18 03 2012

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

 

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

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

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

Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda area in Phnom Penh

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

On the bamboo train

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

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

The tower at the killing fields

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

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

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

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

Katie





The Index: Wedding Season

8 02 2012

Last December, Tim and I wrote some quick reviews of our first Cambodian wedding, but now is your opportunity to learn more about this special ceremony. As regular readers know, every 4-8 weeks I contribute a brief article about my life in Cambodia to my hometown newspaper. In the latest installment, I provide a  look at the traditions and rituals included in wedding celebrations. Check it out below. Or, to read the other installments, click on the tag “index.”

Cambodia, like Michigan and most of the Northern Hemisphere, is in its cold season. However, while many Michiganders are fighting off the cold weather with warm sweaters and hot chocolate, Cambodians are taking advantage of the brief reprieve from the heat and scheduling their weddings.

Indeed, we are smack in the middle of wedding season here. All around the country, tents are being raised, elaborate, brightly colored dresses are being hemmed, and discordant wedding music is being blasted from wooden carts piled high with speakers.

Although weddings in the United States have become increasingly customized based on the personalities and beliefs of the couple, Cambodian weddings are steeped with traditions and rituals that can be recognized in virtually every ceremony.

Before a ceremony ever occurs, however, both families must agree to the marriage. In fact, it isn’t entirely rare for families to arrange the union on behalf of their children. Courtship, as it exists in the United States, is virtually nonexistent in rural Cambodia, and even couples who do choose to marry on their own have often never spent time with one another outside of a public setting. In fact, almost all rural Cambodian couples share their first kiss on their wedding day.

After the families agree to the marriage, they negotiate the bride price. In the town where my husband and I have been living and working, the groom and his family usually pay between $2,500 and $3,000 to the bride’s family. Once the bride price is settled, the invitations go out, hand delivered to each family who is invited to the joyous occasion.

On the first day of the wedding celebration, family and friends close to the couple gather at the groom’s house with offerings of fruit and meat. The small crowd then walks, in a gender-segregated single file line, to the bride’s house, where a small ceremony and a light meal of rice porridge take place.

This is generally one of the first opportunities for the couple to model their festive wedding outfits. Many brides have at least five different, glamorous outfits for the occasion. Similarly to many brides in the US, Cambodian women will spend hours pinning their hair into a perfect up-do and generously applying make-up. In Cambodia, a culture that idolizes creamy white skin, most brides also slather on several layers of whitening cream before applying their nearly-white foundation.

The bride will soon flaunt another equally stunning outfit for the haircutting ceremony, during which guests take turns symbolically cutting the hair of the bride and groom. As they pretend to snip the locks of the new couple, family and friends wish them happiness, prosperity and longevity.

In a similar ceremony, blessing strings are tied around the wrists of the bride and groom, as more well wishes are bestowed upon the young couple.

Throughout the various events, Buddhist monks generally chant prayers for the family, and musicians play traditional Cambodian instruments, including the tro, a two- or three-stringed vertical fiddle.

After several days of ritualistic, highly structured ceremonies, the wedding culminates in a large, joyful reception, not much different from many receptions in the United States. Very frequently, 500 people or more gather in a large tent or restaurant to partake in some of the most delicious food the country has to offer. For men, the beer flows freely, but it is not considered polite for women to drink, even at the most important parties, such as a wedding reception.

Shortly after the guests finish eating, contemporary Khmer music blares, loud enough for the entire village to hear, signaling the beginning of the dance party. And what started as a quiet negotiation between two families turns into a raucous party that lasts well into the night.

Katie