Saturday, December 12, 2009

Things I should have posted a while ago...

These past two weeks have been a little harder than most. The range of emotions I experience from day to day (hour to hour, really) are kaleidoscopic at best- there are peaks of joy and pits of helplessness as I learn more and more about my role as a volunteer in my village. Its tiring, to say the least. Much of this is due to the fact that everyday I seem to discover some new area where I see that the problems my community is facing are structural in nature, and that I can’t really do all that much to motivate change because its just not possible at this time. However, the peaks of joy come often and in such completely unexpected ways that it makes my service completely worth it. I’d like to share some of those in this public forum, and if you want to know about the structural problems my community faces, feel free to email me. I just prefer to keep this particular forum full of the positive experiences I have because sometimes I need to remind myself that the positive interactions I have far outweigh the negative or frustrating ones.

About a month ago I got pretty ill. I had a fever and a sinus infection- the works. I called my co teachers to apologize and let them know I wouldn’t be in class and to please teach without me. I immediately received text messages encouraging me to rest and drink a lot of hot water. A few hours later, my little brother was knocking on my door telling me there was someone downstairs to see me. Confused, I walked downstairs to see one of my co teachers with a bag of oranges waiting for me. I sat down (in my pajamas no less…), and he handed over the oranges with instructions to eat them right away because they have vitamins in them that will make me well. He also caught me up on what I missed that day in class, and offered to translate for me if I wanted to go see a doctor. After he left, I went back upstairs with my oranges and felt so blessed to know in such a tangible way that people care about me. About an hour later, I heard a strange male voice yelling my name from downstairs so I walked out my door to see my School Director bounding up the stairs with a bag of fruit in his hands. Now, you have to understand that this is an intimidating man who until that day had only seen me in sampots and collared shirts, and had only made small talk with me (very small, actually, since he doesn’t speak English) and here he is chatting away with me about what I need to do to get better and handing over fruit while I am sitting across from him in my pajamas. I couldn’t believe it. Just the idea that these two men would take the time out of their extremely busy days to come to my house and check up on me to make sure I was alright and didn’t need anything was incredible. Later that evening while I was eating some rice porridge my grandma made for me, she asked me if I missed my mom when I was sick. I said yes, and she said, “You tell your mother when she calls that I am taking care of you and I love you like a child and nothing will happen to you while I am looking after you” (or something to that effect…). I think the amount of love and care I was shown on that one day will be something that will help me get through some of the most difficult days of my service.

Now for another story of Katie and her misadventures with Cambodian animals:
Last Saturday morning I came downstairs to hang out with my grandma and help cook lunch (a two hour affair). My grandma looks at me and says what sounds to me like “blahblahblah foot blahblahblah shoe blahblah dog”. I can hardly ever understand what my grandma says because she has a really thick accent and talks really fast. I think, “huh, that’s weird. Why is my grandma talking about feet and dogs?” Then she changes the subject. About twenty minutes later my grandpa comes out holding one of my Chacos (a sort of all-purpose sandal that you can hike in, and, coincidently one of three pairs of shoes I own here) and says slowly in Khmer, “A dog stole your shoe this morning!”. I try not to acknowledge this and immediately begin my hunt for the lost Chaco. The shoe could have been anywhere, there is no such thing as a fenced-in dog in my community. After about half an hour I give up my pursuit on foot and am about to continue on bike trying to find the dog that fit my grandma’s description of “a large fat black dog” when my grandma says, “don’t leave, we will send out Sal to go look for the shoe”. Sal is the oldest of my little brothers, he is 15 and I could think of a million better things that he could do with his morning than look for the foreigner’s shoe, but despite my protests my grandma sent him on a hunt. Then she proceeds to yell at any passing boy she knew from the neighborhood that my shoe was missing and that they should look for it too. I told her to call of the shoe-hunt, and that I would find it eventually. She wouldn’t hear any of it, and wouldn’t even allow me to go look for it for myself. About twenty minutes later, one of the neighbor boys saunters up to the cooking hut with my lost Chaco saying the dog had dumped it behind his house. I thanked him about thirty times, and then went out to find the rest of the neighborhood boys and call off the hunt holding my lost-now-found Chaco in triumph.

A quick story about Sal:
Sal and his brothers (Nutt- 12, and Pia-7) were pretty shy around me when I first showed up at the house. A few days after I arrived about three months ago, Sal asked me if I would teach him English. I said of course, and then he asked me if I had a whiteboard. I didn’t, and he nodded and then didn’t bring it up again. Then, about a month ago, Sal wanders into the house with a small whiteboard and hangs it in the common area in the upstairs of the house. He shyly asks again if I will start teaching him English now that he has a whiteboard. I agree immediately. Later that afternoon my grandma told me that he had saved up for the whiteboard, and that cost him almost $10. That is a LOT of money in Cambodia, especially for a 15 year old boy. I was blown away- I had no idea he was that committed to learning. Now, I teach him and his friend Pisey English about five days a week in the early evenings after dinner. No matter how tired I am, teaching them is the highlight of my day just because they are extremely bright and very clearly want to learn.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Advice from Cambodian Teenagers

This past week was exam week at the high school. My co-teachers and I wrote tests for each of our classes trying to figure out fair ways to assess the students. The following sentences are pearls of wisdom from my students in Grade 11A in response to the directions "Write five sentences using 'must' or 'must not'".

On Love:
-You must die for me.
-I must not love you. [There were many variations of this sentence using different pronouns. So dramatic!]
-She mustn't betray me.

On School Etiquette:
-I must study English for my family and for myself. [This one warmed my heart a little]
-Whole teacher must not smoke in the classroom. [I agree?]
-Students mustn't drink wine at school.

On Social Etiquette:
-She mustn't kill the dog. [If you ever studied linguistics, this sentence should seem eerily familiar... and no, I didn't solicit it]
-You must not hit my kid.

The Best for Last:
-He mustn't destroy bush. [???? I don't even know how 'bush' was being used in the sentence, but it was both grammatically (almost) correct and hilarious]
-I must do PP next week. [hehehehehe... oh my sense of humor is that of a five year-old. Oh, and PP is short for Phnom Penh]

11A has 65 students in it, but they are my best and brightest. They are the only class so far that after 6 weeks of teaching don't still stare at me like I have snakes growing out of my head (oh that wide-eyed look of terror!).

Happy Thanksgiving yall!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Katie vs. The Chicken

Every so often I do something so incredibly embarassing that I think "oh man, the whole village is going to know about this by tomorrow":

My family has recently moved their chicken coop from the front of the house to the back. This has resulted in mass confusion on behalf of the chickens, and never-ending frustration for my older brother who has to round up said confused chickens every evening and hand-place them in the newer, rennovated chicken coop behind the house. I had just gotten home after a very long day at school to witness this chicken rodeo of sorts for the fourth day in a row. I headed towards the cooking hut to eat dinner, still wearing my long sampot, when all of a sudden, a terrified chicken in a last ditch effort to avoid being plucked up by my older brother who, to the chicken, could surely be up to no good, decided my sampot was a GREAT place hide.


I was not expecting this, to say the least. After all, hiding in the foreginer's sampot seems too savy of an idea for a chicken. Not so! I screamed, the chicken squaked as loud as possible, and then I jumped about three feet in the air. My entire family watched the whole thing unfold, and immediately after the chicken ran off, they burst into never-ending peals of laughter. Now, a week later, my little brother Nutt still references it whenever he sees me and then chuckles to himself. All I can say is that chicken better hide from me, because I am going to drop hints to my grandma as soon as I get back home that I'd really like a nice chicken dinner...

Friday, November 13, 2009

FAQs and rice. So much rice.

I meet new people in my village everyday, and they always ask me to sit with them and talk. I gladly comply because I want to make as many friends as possible in my village. I get asked the same questions over and over again. This is great for me, becuase it has made my Khmer so much better by hearing the same questions from different speakers, as well as being able to formulate answers more rapidly. I thought id list them off in order of frequency and importance to the asker, because a lot of them are questions that wouldn't get asked back home, at least not when you first meet someone.

1. Where are you from?
2. How old are you?
3. Are you married?/Do you have chlidren?
4. Why aren't you married?/Why don't you have children?
5. Do you have a boyfriend here in Cambodia/back at home?
*note* question number five is generally only asked by women, and only in the company of other women.
6. How many siblings do you have [back home in America]?
7. What do your parents do [back in America]?
8. Are you homesick/Do you miss your family?
9. What do you do?
10. How much money do you make per month [here in Cambodia]?
*note* this question is ALWAYS asked- without exception. when I respond that I dont make money because I am a volunteer, most people are completely shocked.
11. How much money do you/your family make [back in America]?
12. Do you eat rice back home in America? Do you eat Khmer food/do you like it?

If you will notice, questions about family come first- always. Family is hands down the most important thing in Khmer society, and it shows. Many women in my village almost look at me with pity when I tell them that I am not married and don't have children. Most women in my village are married by 18 or 19 and have children almost immediately after marriage, and having many relatives living together is preferable to any other living arrangement. Most of my Khmer friends all have at least five siblings- when they find out I only have one brother they ask me if it makes me sad. When I asked them why it would make me sad, they said because having many siblings is better because you always have someone around to spend time with. The communal nature of families here is so interesting. Most families in my village all sleep in the same room of the house even if there are multiple rooms in the house just because its considered happier to have the physical proximity of everyone together. Needless to say, my family had a difficult time adjusting to the idea of my need for 'alone time' and wanting to do individualistic activities like reading or painting or drawing, but after a few attempts at trying to explain that its just a different way of relaxing (trying to explain cultural subdlties in Khmer isn't quite my strong suit just yet...) my family got the idea.

The questions about my job and salary are fine, but my favorite questions are the ones about rice and how often I eat it. Rice is yet something else that permeiates every inch of Cambodian life. It seems that every single person in my community has a rice field, or has a stake in a rice mill, or sells rice or a rice by-product of some kind. People eat rice at every meal, they feed uncooked rice to their chickens, and they feed the leftover cooked rice along with leftover food to their dogs and cats. I have to admit, my favorite chore at home is feeding the dog. I take a bowl of left-over rice, add some leftover meat or sauce from a meat dish, mix it all together and call the dog to dinner with a clicking noise that is the universal dog-call here. Anyway, people always ask me if I eat rice back home in America, and when I respond that I might eat rice once or twice a week in America, the looks of surpirse do me in everytime. They ask "Well, what do you eat instead? Bread?" and I say sometimes.... but its difficult to try to explain that American food is really just food from all over the world that gets adapted over and over again. Maybe I should print some pictures of western food and show them to people.

For now, I eat my three bowls of rice everyday (one at every meal) and try to not think about my cravings for western food. Speaking of food, Thanksgiving is coming up- and my next trip into the provincial town after this one. I can't wait to eat turkey and watch football!

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Im in town again- my school is on holiday for three days this week because of 'bon om duk' which means water festival in Khmer. So far over my three day vacation in the provincial town I have repeatedly stuffed myself full of western food, hung out with other PCVs, celebrated Halloween by watching scary movies on tv and eating snake from a road side stand (our plan was to eat spiders, but they were out), and gotten a manicure. When I was getting the manicure I asked the girl who was doing it to choose my color for me because I was curious what the outcome would be... Now I have what I have deemed 'Barbie Nails'. My finger nails are painted a bright pink covered in silver sparkles. Im pretty sure the glint can be seen from miles away.

I have gotten pretty good at getting reliable transportation to and from my site- Basically I stand at a crossroads in my town until a sturdy looking pickup truck rolls along. I ask if its going to my provincial town, hop in the back, and hope for the best. The ride in/back only costs the equivalent of a dollar, but at one point on one of my journies I was sandwiched in between a fruit seller's daily quota of pinapples, three Khmer women going to town, and four sacks of rice for about an hour of the journey. Cheap? Yes. Dangerous? Not really- unless the pinapples go air-borne. Beautiful? Of course: I get full 360 degree views of the jungle and rice fields surrounding my village. Dusty and hot? Very. However, it allows me ample opportunity to get to know people in my community on the two hour ride to or from my site. When I get to the taxi stand in my provincial town which no foriegners ever go to, all the men driving the taxis know exactly who I am and start shouting the name of my town and pointing to the pickup trucks headed back to my site. All of this, after only five weeks of living in my village.

Back in the village I have finally settled down into a good routine, which has made my adjustment to life there infinitely easier. My daily schedule generally looks something like this:

6am: Get up, boil water, drink coffee in bed
7am: grab some stall-food from my vendor lady friends for breakfast and bike to school
7-11am: teach class/ sit in the teacher's lounge and talk with the teachers
11am: eat lunch with my host grandma and grandpa
11:30-1/2pm: rest because its hot as hell outside, generally this is when I lesson plan for the next day's classes or read books
2 pm-5pm: more teaching/talking with teachers
5pm-6pm: teach English to some of my teachers who want to learn basic conversational English
6pm: dinner with the fam
6:30 pm: "shower"(bucket shower with rain water)
6:45 pm: under the mosquito net in bed to read books and/or listen to music till I fall asleep around 8 or 9.

Its pretty shockingly different from the schedule I was following before I left the United States, but so far Im pretty content with it. This schedule changes on the weekends and on Tuesdays when I work at the health center, but for the most part this is about it. Its feels really good to finally be teaching, and to be busy.

I am running out of ideas to write about, so if yall have any questions feel free to email me or post them in comments and Ill address them the next time I have internet access. Please let me know, and ill try my best to tell you!

As always, I hope everyone is doing well out there. Much love.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the saga of a seven year old at dinner time

My youngest host brother, Pia, is seven. He loves to ride his bike around town, play games with his friends, and reap havoc everywhere he goes. To prove that seven year olds are the same no matter where you are I will [roughly] translate a conversation that takes place at least three times a week under the cooking hut where we eat dinner between Pia and my host grandmother:

Grandma: [yelling across the street] Pia! Its time to eat!
Pia: I'm not hungry!
Grandma: Pia! Get over here! The rice is getting cold!
Pia: I want to play with my friends!!
Grandma: [sternly] Pia. Get over here.
Pia: [gives up and slowly drags himself across the street as if he is walking towards his death] Fine. But im still not hungry!
Grandma: [dishes out rice for Pia] Eat.
Pia: [silently fools around with his rice but doesn't eat] *hums to himself*
Grandma: Pia! EAT YOUR RICE.
Pia: [takes four huge mouthfuls, chews them slowly] ok im full now grandma.
Grandma: Ok Pia, time for a bath.
Pia: But my friends are still playing across the street!!
Grandma: I don't care Pia. Go take a bath.
Pia: [thinks very hard about how to get out of this predicament] But... im not dirty!
Grandma: [looks him up and down] Pia, you have mud all over you.
Pia: [smiles very largely] Oh! I didn't notice!
Grandma: Pia. Really. Go take a bath.
Pia: [resigned] Fine.

Then Pia generally slinks off to the bathroom area where he plays with some toys or runs around until my grandma or grandpa finally ushers him into the bathroom with very loud orders to bathe properly and get all the mud off himself.

This saga has become a regular part of my routine when I get home from school every afternoon, and I have to say I always enjoy it. Pia has decided that he likes me, so he smiles a huge gap-toothed smile every time he sees me come home. Sometimes he will follow me around, pretending to hide behind corners when I turn around. This kid has totally won his way into my heart, and it will be so interesting to watch how he grows over the next two years of my service.

A post in which I recount how I arrived in my Provincial Capitol today:

This morning I was sitting at the breakfast stall near where the busses come and go from my town awaiting the departure of the bus that was to take me to my provincial town that was already running an hour late. I didn't mind this though, because I was enjoying talking to the woman who ran the stall and playing with her three year old daughter who insisted on strutting around in her sparkily pink dress and pigtails and posing every so often so that everyone could see just how beautiful she was. Right about as I was finishing my noodle soup, a man from the bus company came up to me and said it was time to go and ushered me towards a small, dusty Toyota pickup truck. I asked if the roads were flooded again (as this happens from time to time with the dirt road leading to my site). The man said yes and that the bus could not make it through but this Toyota was going to my provincial capitol and I could get a ride with them. I trusted this man, because he had gotten to me to my provincial capitol two weeks earlier safe and sound, and taking share-taxis is something that is very common here, so I hopped in.

Imagine a small, early 90's model Toyota pickup truck. Now imagine nine people inside the cab of the truck (myself included), fifteen people sitting in the bed of the truck with lots of luggage, and about five more people sitting on the roof of the cab. As I sat making what little small talk I could with the woman practically sitting in my lap, I couldn't help but smile at the situation I had found myself in... one that has become familiar to me in my three short months here (I have taken a few share-taxis before this, but this one takes the cake for # of people in/on one vehicle). As we barreled down the dirt road, we came to the first flooded section which we passed through with relative ease. The second flooded section we came to had an odd looking make-shift bridge over the deepest part which some local entrepeneurs had set up seeminlgly overnight. They were standing at the entrance trying to charge cars and taxis that needed to pass over it to get where they were going, but they did not seem to be having much success at this scheme. The third section was nothing but a muddy quagmire that was probably two feet straight down in mud, but we made it through (this was nothing short of a miracle considereing how much weight we had in that tiny truck). From there it was pretty smooth sailing to the paved highway, and then on to the provincial capitol.

After arriving in the city, and after I had walked off the terrible cramps in my back and legs from sitting in such an awkward position for two hours, I came upon a brightly colored tent set up in the middle of the road. Inside the tent was a band of about ten musicians playing many different traditional Khmer instruments at a deafening volume. I didn't care- I loved every second of it. I wandered by, and casually asked some of the men standing outside the tent what was going on. They were so shocked that I spoke a little bit of Khmer and asked what I did to which I replied that I was teaching English and working as a health volunteer in the village I live in. Their eyes got very large, and they exclaimed, "The man who is paying for this party is from that village! You must meet him immediately!". I walked inside the tent, and I bowed and greeted the old man as the men told him my story. He invited me to sit down, and we listened to the music while he shouted questions at me over it. I replied politely and smiled, and spent about half an hour in the company of his family listening to the music. I eventually realized that I had come into town to run errands that I had to get done today, so I made my exit and told them to find me the next time they were in the village.

Khmer hospitality is absolutely incredible. Really.

In other news, I started teaching this past week at my high school. I teach six classes, four 11th grade classes and two 10th grade classes. My classes are really large, the smallest is about 35 students and the largest is somewhere around 65. I have also started teaching about eight teachers at my high school who don't speak English but want to learn. The main goal for my trip into town this weekend was to find curriculum for the teachers to learn from, which I eventually had to order from Phnom Penh with the assistance of one of my co-teachers who was, amazingly, right down the street from me when I texted him asking him what I should do when I couldn't find the right books.

Sorry to end this abruptly, but I am tired. Ill try to update again tomorrow before I go back to site. As always, love to everyone and have a happy halloween!