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.


Saying Goodbye

20 06 2013

This week is our last one at site, meaning it has been filled with countless goodbyes. I’ve been on my bike every day, riding out to the villages to say farewell to my project volunteers, my students, and the friends I’ve made during this wonderful two-year journey. There have also been several special events that have helped us say goodbye to our community, moments that I’m sure will stick with us long after we step foot on US soil again.

Our farewell tour kicked off at the school. The local high school had a ceremony to celebrate Tim and all the hard work he’s put in as an English teacher and teacher trainer.

Tim and his coteacher

Tim and his co-teacher

Then, we rented a van and took a big group of friends to a nearby national park, where we spent the day hiking, picnicking, and swimming near an impressive 50-foot waterfall.

Me and Vary at the base of the waterfall

Next, the staff at the health center organized a party where I ate countless bowls of curry and grilled chicken.


This weekend, I’ll be saying goodbye to some friends in Siem Reap before heading back to site for a special dinner with our host family. Then, on Tuesday, we’ll pack up a taxi and say goodbye to Kampong Kdey.


Invisible and Unrestricted in Bangkok

22 05 2013

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

The busy streets of Bangkok

The busy streets of Bangkok

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

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

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

Showing off my shoulders in Bangkok

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

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


Naps: Cambodia’s favorite leisure time activity

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

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


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.




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!


A Note on Cambodian Language and Culture

11 03 2013

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

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

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

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

Emphasis on personal relationships

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

"How is grandmother?"

“How is grandmother?”

Personal identity defined by relationship to group

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

Respect for hierarchy and authority

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

Indirect communication and saving face

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

"Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow..."

“Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow…”

Relaxed sense of time

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

Predetermined destinies

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


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.


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!