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.

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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.

Katie

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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.”

Katie





A Linguistic Shift

2 12 2012

Not too long ago, something changed for me, linguistically-speaking. Previously, when someone asked how long I had been in Cambodia, I’d say “more than a year.” Recently, however, my wording evolved. When people ask me now, I reply with the barely distinguishable, “a year and a half” (or, more often than not, the Khmer equivalent for that).

Although this tiny shift may seem insignificant to many, it got me thinking. You see, “a year and a half” is also my reply when people ask me how long I spent in Latin America, meaning that the time I’ve been nervously awaiting has finally arrived. In the upcoming weeks and months, the scale is going to tip and I will have been in Cambodia longer than I was in Latin America.

Whoa.

I loved Nicaragua's volcanos

I loved Nicaragua’s volcanoes…

...its cultural festivities...

…its cultural festivities…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…and the street food!

The tipping of the scale is something I’ve feared since arriving. I can remember riding my bike through the rice paddies in training, speaking to myself out loud in Spanish in a desperate attempt to reserve territory in my brain for the language, even as Khmer started to conquer more and more brain space. I remember clinging to mental images, smells, songs – anything to remind me of my time in Latin America. Spanish was the first language I studied. My first solo trip abroad was to Latin America. I did so much learning and growing in the region. Latin America had a special place in mi corazón. And when I arrived in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to it.

It played out in my head like a bad romantic comedy, where I had to choose between my high school sweetheart and the new guy who showed up, inevitably driving a motorcycle (or is it a moped in this case?). Would my love for Latin America grow as I realized that Cambodia’s novelty was enough to grab my attention – but not to hold it? Or would Cambodia win, leaving me to realize how silly I was to ever like Latin America in the first place? Was our history enough to keep us together? Would I even remember my Spanish at the end of all this? Quién sabía?

Well, it might be too early to say for sure, but I think I might have overreacted. (Shocking, isn’t it?) Yes, I love Latin America. It invigorates and inspires me in a way that no other region has. But I also love Cambodia now. It balances and grounds me. Yes, I speak Khmer every day, but I can also speak Spanish (although, admittedly, I do have to stop and think more than I’d like). There are things about each place that I find beautiful, amazing and unique. In my book, the two are equals.

The scenes from Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina have certainly faded with time. Living in this reality can make it hard to imagine any other – including my previous life in Latin America, but also the life I had in the States for 23 years. And, truth be told, my year and a half here has been spent consecutively and in a single country; whereas my time in Latin America was strewn between three countries and across four years. It makes sense that Cambodia is at the center of my thoughts. It makes sense that I have moments each and every day where I give thanks for being here above anywhere else in the world. It makes sense that Latin America has been put on the back burner for now.

Latin America will always be there waiting for me with los brazos abiertos, but until then my heart is here. ខ្ញុំស្រលាញ់កម្ពុជា!

Katie





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.

******

Katie





Holidays, Trainings and… Cheese!

23 05 2012

Woah, May is coming to a close. How do these things happen without me realizing? This month, like the last, has flown by! As I mentioned before, the first half of May was filled with holidays: Labor Day, Visaka Bochea, Royal Plowing Day and, of course, three full days for the King’s birthday.

I took advantage of this time off to travel to Siem Reap. I spent two long weekends there doing intensive language training with a bright, sweet young woman who tripled my health-related vocabulary in Khmer and helped me to understand the much-loved comedy of Prom Manh, a famous Khmer entertainer, among other things. While there, I attended a few NGO events and met up with some expat friends. Plus, best of all, I bought a couch! We had been completely furniture-less for several months so I finally gave in and purchased a comfortable, wicker couch with a deep purple cushion. Having a comfortable place to sit, instead of on a rice mat on the floor, has made all the difference in our daily relaxation levels. Money well spent.

At the Banteay Srey Butterfly Center

During my second trip to Siem Reap, we got to spend some quality time with Tim’s former co-worker Adam and his wife Jenna, who were visiting Southeast Asia on their honeymoon. We went out for countless meals, visited the Ceramics Center, wandered through the butterfly reserve, and even gave in to the people in the streets shouting “Fish massage! Fish massage! No piranhas!” (For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Siem Reap’s famous fish massage, you stick your feet in a tank and little feeder fish eat the dry skin off of your feet. It tickles like nothing I have ever felt but was sort of relaxing after a while.) All in all, whether in spite of the fish massage or because of it, we had a lovely time and a very unique opportunity to get to know some fellow ‘Burghers.

Then last week, we headed to training in Phnom Penh. It was a busy few days but, fortunately, it culminated in a wonderful group-wide boat ride on the Mekong. Not a bad way to wrap up several jam-packed days. We got back to site on Sunday and, for me, it’s been nonstop ever since. Between teaching health, Spanish and several English classes, I haven’t had much time to breathe, let alone work on some of my longer-term projects. Tim’s week started off a little slower, with a sick co-teacher and monthly exams, meaning he hasn’t done much teaching since we got back. Tonight, however, he taught a few of our friends an invaluable lesson: how to make and eat pizza. These simple cultural exchanges are always a highlight for me. But man oh man, how I feel for those poor souls who tonight, at the age of 27 or 28, tried cheese for the first time!

Look at how eager they all look…

Katie





Your Third Khmer Lesson: Reading and Writing

4 03 2012

Throughout training, we studied Khmer with our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) several hours a day, reviewed at home for an hour, and constantly practiced our language in the community when buying the ever necessary Coke or cuttlefish snack. Throughout all of this, we never learned how to read and write, short of a quick review of the alphabet. There are many good reasons for this: first and foremost the lack of time during training, followed closely by the obvious need to focus on speaking and listening. This inevitably led to some problems, however. As students adopted their own phonetics, copying other volunteers’ notes became impossible. In our five person language group, it was a rarity for us to ever write a word the same way. We heard, memorized, and recited sounds differently, leading to many of us to be completely unable to understand each other. Due to the shortfalls of only learning to speak and listen, Katie and I decided reading and writing in Khmer was the next logical step for us.

"Each room has a door and windows so that the breeze and light can come and go."

Within a couple months at site, we found a great language tutor (Bunnat), who immediately set out to explain this both enigmatic and logical writing system to us. We quickly blew through the 33 consonants and moved on to the vowels. Officially, there are 23 vowels, most of which have two sounds depending on the consonant that the vowel follows. So that brings us to more than 40 unique vowel sounds in the Khmer language. Many are pretty similar to English sounds and are easy enough to replicate; other sounds include more than one syllable or a consonant sound. For instance, there are vowel sounds like “awm,” “ohm,” and “a-ya.” All of this contributes to the simple fact that when our teacher recited the vowel sounds, I couldn’t help but think he was burping his way through the alphabet like that one “talented” 6th grader we all knew.

A lot of hard work by Bunnat (and a little by us) has gotten us to the point of reading short paragraphs. We’re starting to read a 1st grade story book, but it continues to be a slow slog. One of the contributing factors to our pokiness is that there are not spaces between words in Khmer. This makes it difficult for beginners like us to read quickly. Thankfully, Khmer is written left to right, which eliminates some of the initial awkwardness that I first experienced with Arabic.

More fun stuff about the school. Did you know it's made of bricks and roof tiles?

The great thing about learning the basics of reading and writing is that it has made us much more self sufficient Khmer studiers. We can now (drum roll please) use a dictionary all by ourselves and meticulously study signs while waiting for our bus. These simple changes have really improved the amount of words we’re learning and the rate at which we retain them. We’ve both already found it useful at work, and it’s clear our pronunciation has greatly improved now that we actually know how words are spelled.

-Tim





Water Festival and PC Training in Battambong

19 11 2011

Although it feels like Tim and I don’t have much to report about what we’ve been up to the past few weeks, the reality is that plenty has been happening. We’ve both been moving forward with our work, deepening our relationships with the staff and further exploring the roles we will have within our host organizations for the next two years. Tim’s been working more hours per week than I have, but I’ve been trying to use my free time to meet people in the community, particularly the staff members at the NGOs in town.

Last week was a long holiday for us though, so we both got some time off of work. We had a five-day weekend for Water Festival. Water Festival is a holiday that celebrates the reversal of a major river in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap. Generally, the Tonle Sap flows into the Mekong River, but throughout the rainy season (June-November), the Mekong River rises, causing the Tonle Sap to switch directions and instead empty into the lake. Water Festival occurs at the end of rainy season, when the Mekong River drops once again, allowing the Tonle Sap to return to its normal flow. What that generally means for Cambodians is a lot of parties and boat races throughout the country. This year the festivities were cancelled by the government so the designated funding could instead be used for assistance for the thousands of flood victims.

We did not do anything special for Water Festival. Our town seemed to be deserted, as community members rushed off to see family and friends in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. So we spent a couple of relaxing days at home together and made a quick run to Siem Reap to do some errands and eat some ice cream. One night during Water Festival, we also had date night, which consisted of a $7 bottle of wine, some make-shift bruschetta and a pirated DVD. Exciting, huh? We both enjoyed the break but were eager to return to work on the following Monday.

However, I wasn’t at the health center long. I spent Monday there, but on Tuesday I took off with an NGO in my town to do health check-ups for children in the organization’s sponsorship program. In a village around 18 kilometers away, I conducted extremely basic consultations for around 50 kids between the ages of 5 and 12. And then, on Wednesday, Tim and I left for Peace Corps training in a lively town called Battambong, about five hours away from Kampong Kdey.

We spent the first day of training with our counterparts from the health center and school, talking more in-depth about our role in the community and how we can help support them. I very much appreciated having a translator to help facilitate a level of conversation that I have previously been unable to have with my counterparts due to the language barrier. I was able to learn a lot about the health center and what health-related challenges my director prioritizes. Then, the counterparts returned home and we volunteers focused on language for the next two days.

Tim and I are still in Battambong, but plan to return home today. Seeing other volunteers at this training brought up a lot of feelings and a lot of questions, but in the end served as inspiration and motivation to continue to move forward at site. We will both be leaving Battambong with new project ideas and more concrete goals and action plans for the upcoming weeks and months.

As a side note, we’ve really enjoyed Battambong as a city too. Tim says that Battambong is to Siem Reap what Jujuy is to Salta. (If you don’t understand that reference, and I’m sure most of you won’t, check here.) It’s an artsy town with a more vibrant personality than many other cities we’ve been to here. The river front has a beautiful park, where expats and Cambodians both go jogging or do aerobics in the morning. There are plenty of sandwich shops and bakeries, but it isn’t overrun by tourists. There are art galleries and a circus, language schools and museums. It’s been a great place to explore this week, and I’m sure we will be back.

So that’s a quick recap of what we’ve been up to. We’ll definitely keep everyone posted on how things shape up when we return to work.

Katie