Stateside

23 09 2013

I’m not writing this post from underneath my mosquito net in Siem Reap. I’m not writing from a bed in a simple room in a guesthouse in Takeo. I’m not writing from an Internet cafe or an expat restaurant in Phnom Penh. At long last, I am writing this post from my apartment in Philadelphia!

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Two weeks ago today, I landed in the States after a 24-hour journey that started in Phnom Penh. When I got off the plane in Detroit, I bypassed the luggage claim area (the joys of bringing home a single, carry-on bag!) and headed to customs, where I was the only person going through. As I passed each station, I had a moment to chat with the staff, all of whom had opinions on the fact that I was coming from Cambodia. “Where’s that again,” one asked. “Weren’t you scared,” asked a couple of others. “You mean you haven’t been back in two years,” one lady exclaimed as she checked my passport. I was only on US soil for a few minutes before the commentary began.

Luckily, I didn’t have to answer too many questions before I saw my parents waiting for me. Smiling, familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in far too long. After a hug, I put my stuff in the car and we headed back to my childhood home, taking the highway through recognizable corn fields and small Michigan towns.

I’ve spent most of the time since I’ve been back relaxing with my family. It took several days for me to get over the jet lag, so the first few days had me heading to bed around 7 or 8 o’clock. While I was home, I got to spend some time with my sister, who served as my shopping assistant as I tried to remember what clothes were considered cool, and I made my first trip down to the house my brother bought. It was great to get together with old friends who still live in the Mitten. Then, from Michigan, it was off to Pittsburgh for more heart-warming reunions. Finally, on Friday, I arrived in Philly, where Tim was waiting for me with big plans for the weekend, including dinner with my much-missed aunt and uncle at a highly-rated restaurant called Stateside, which I thought was fitting considering the circumstances.

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It’s been amazing to be back in the States and to get a taste of what the next few years will look like. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring my new neighborhood. Despite having heard Tim’s stories, I was in disbelief when I saw that three short blocks from our house is Little Cambodia! Much to my surprise, they were selling sao mao, prahok, ansom jayk, and most every other Cambodian dish I could think of. There were shops selling Khmer wedding gear and women walking around in traditional skirts. My mind was, and still is, completely blown by the way my new life and old life have collided.

I am happy to spend the upcoming days and weeks getting settled in a new city, remembering the excitement and energy that comes from new beginnings. I’m also looking forward to cooking some of my favorite dishes, cuddling up with Tim, and – to a lesser degree- job hunting. It will be interesting to see where the next chapter leads.

I don’t anticipate keeping up the blog now that I’m back, but that, too, is unclear. Maybe the time or mood will strike again, but in case it doesn’t, lee-a sen howie, or goodbye!

Katie





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





Transitions

15 08 2013

I have always had a deep appreciation for transitions. There’s something gratifying to me about the way that our literal actions, like packing up boxes or hitting the open road, mirror the deeper emotional changes they accompany. When making the decision to stay in Cambodia after my close of service date, I thought often of the fact that I would not be able to make my transition back to the States, and later to Philly, with Tim. The symbolism of taking this next step alone, and months after my husband, didn’t sit well with me. For two years, we had imagined our flight home together, our first day back in the States together, exploring our new neighborhood together. Although I do not have even an ounce of regret about my decision to stay, I am still a little disappointed that Tim and I will have these experiences separately.

Last night, while I was fast asleep, Tim began his journey from Michigan to Philly. He loaded up the moving truck, said goodbye to his parents, and headed east. He drove 300 miles from suburban Detroit to Pittsburgh, where he was lucky enough to meet up with the warmest, most caring friends we’ve ever been blessed to have. They had a small dinner party complete with treats like blackberry basil tea, eggplant sourdough pizza, and peach shortcake — things I can only dream of! Tomorrow, he’ll be making the rest of the trip and moving all of our things into our new, adorable one bedroom apartment in South Philly.

To commemorate this important transition, here are a few pictures from his trip.

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The moving truck loaded and ready to go

Eating a cookie while driving?

Eating a cookie while driving?

The best of friends

The best of friends

Her too!

Her too!

Katie





Change or No Change: Cambodia’s Fifth General Election

27 07 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for the results.

Katie





Steering Clear of Politics

2 06 2012

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are supposed to steer clear of Cambodian politics completely but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there has been a flare-up in political demonstrations and violence recently, but this weekend also marks two important political events.

10,001 days and counting

First, Friday was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 10,000th day in power. That’s more than 27 years, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math. Wikipedia has Hun Sen listed as number seven on a list of longest-ruling leaders currently in office. The New York Times took notice of this landmark date and published a condemning opinion piece.

This weekend local elections are also taking place. The campaign season here is, thankfully, much shorter than that in the United States. For about three weeks, the major political parties have been campaigning tirelessly by attaching loudspeakers to trucks, motos and centrally-located buildings. Although we’ve been told there’s no reason to expect any violence, the government has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol this weekend, just in case. Because, after all, alcohol, and not injustice, fuels political unrest.

Katie





Protests in Cambodia

9 05 2012

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

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

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

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

The late environmental activist, Chut Wutty

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

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

Katie





“Settling Down” in Cambodia?

26 09 2011

In just one week, Tim and I will officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers and (finally!) begin our two years of service. At this stage, all of us trainees are plagued by questions and doubt:

Will I get to work on projects that interest me?
How will I make friends in my new community?
Will I ever get used to eating rice three times a day?
How will I know if I’ve made a positive impact on my community?
What will it be like to leave the company of other volunteers/trainees?
Do I really have enough skills to do this?

Although these questions are probably common ones, the question that rings in my head is this: How will I react to being in one place for two whole years? Most of you reading this are probably well aware that I have been on the move constantly in recent years. In fact, I recently sat down to figure out the stats:

In the past 7 years, I have lived in seven different cities across four different countries (not including Cambodia). And, to top it off, I have moved residences at least six times more than that! The last time I have lived in any given place for two full years, was from 2002-2004! High School.

I guess you could say I am a nomad. I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to do this, and I have learned more in the past few years than I could have ever anticipated… but am I ready to sit in one place for two years??

Moving so often has allowed me to meet some truly exceptional people. It has given me insight into how people live their lives. And I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process because moving so much has made me step out of my comfort zone so frequently that I’m no longer sure where my comfort zone ends.

Moving so often has also forced me to constantly evaluate– and appreciate– my circumstances. Every time I pack up boxes (or backpacks) full of my things and say goodbye to a place that has become home, I am forced to take stock of the wonderful memories that place has given me.

Furthermore, moving keeps things interesting. It scratches that itch we all get at times, that need to try something new, to get out. There has been a steady stream of curiosity and hope, as I try to predict (to no avail) what my next life will hold.

Of course, being on the move presents a number of challenges as well. The most difficult for me has always been the fact that I haven’t had time to form deep friendships with people before taking off again. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have left just as I was beginning to form a meaningful relationship with someone. Leaving before these relationships are solidified has, at times, left me feeling isolated. Not to mention that having friends all over the world means that you’re friends (and family) are rarely at your side.

However, the positive aspects have always unquestionably outweighed the negative ones… Until now. Now I am ready to “settle down” for two years in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’m ready to trade in my wanderlust for the great opportunities I will have as a health worker with the Peace Corps.

I’m sure there will be times I will go a little stir crazy over the course of the next two years, but this experience is one that is absolutely worth it. The friendly people, the beautiful landscape, the work opportunities, the sense of community… Settling down in Siem Reap is hardly a sacrifice! If any opportunity is worth staying put for, this is it!

Katie