Even across cultural borders. Like brother-sister relationships, and how the older sibling ALWAYS has the upper hand (you hear, Patrick?).
After dinner today, my little sister asked if someone could go with her to our aunt’s house to get some medicine. My little sister has been battling a cold lately and my aunt is a nurse so she keeps a stash of supplies at her house in case of emergencies. My aunt lives a few houses away so it isn’t that far, but it’s dark with no surrounding lights at night and my little sister is 9.
My host ma commissioned my brother, who’s 14, to go with her, to heavy grumbling and complaining. He put on his shoes and sighed a louder-than-necessary sigh when my sister said to wait, she needed to put on outside clothes first (she was just in a sarong). He waited for about two seconds before walking out the door.
To which my mom calls, “Noch! Van just left without you!”
And my little sister responds: “That dog, I asked him to wait and go with me, not go first!”
A few seconds later she storms out the door with her flashlight.
A few more seconds pass, and I hear my brother jump out behind a bush: “AAARRRRRRR!”
And my sister’s resounding scream for bloody murder: “AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!”
Followed by sounds of hitting and screaming and crying.
Ah, sibling love.
(Did I mention I’m going to a wedding in Thailand in October? My best friend’s cousin is getting married and somehow I lucked into not only getting to go but getting to help with various preparations—like keeping track of vendor expenses and locking down exchange rate prices—and being the on-site coordinator and manning the guestbook/photo booth at the reception. I have a fiery LOVE for weddings and this baller destination wedding is making me have mini wedding-gasms.)
Anyway, back to The Diet.
I wrote a post a few months back about how I was less-than-pleased at my mid-service weight record, and vowed to go on a diet to end all diets.
Well, it’s working. I have lost 12 pounds and counting, and it’s all due to a few lifestyle adjustments I’ll share with everyone.
- Move to Cambodia. Or some other developing country where there isn’t an In-N-Out or Five Guys or Sonic or what-have-you at every turn. Because in Cambodia, when you’re hungry, you have nothing to munch on except fruit and the occasional bundle of grass.
- Harness ALL of your willpower (and I mean ALL because it is so miserable hot here sometimes) and work out at LEAST once every other day. Go running. Even though it feels like Satan’s asshole outside. On my workout days, I start with a 15-minute jog, then 20 minutes worth of sprints, and then a 15 minute jog back, followed by a few core exercises. On my off days, I bike. Not too leisurely, but not I-want-to-die either.
- Carb control. There is a French bread guy that drives around on his moto—I swear he’s following me, taunting me—and I don’t know what he does, but the bread he sells out of his moto is the most divine bread I’ve ever had in my life. My most secret fantasies involve me, naked, surrounded by piles of this bread as far as my eye can see…anyway. I avoid this man like the plague. He usually hangs out during the idle hours at the health center and all the staff gather around and have weekly bread parties and I just want to die because I want to stuff myself full of that bread. I avoid the bread parties. I’ve picked up reading murder mysteries that I can’t put down so I have something that will actually take my mind off things as I’m waiting for 10:30 to roll around and I can run for sweet life away from the bread man. I avoid the sweet bread my host dad brings home from Phnom Penh every once in awhile. I dump half the rice on my plate back into the rice pot during EVERY MEAL. Instead, I eat a shit-ton of the other m’hob (food) on the table. My host ma is really good about cooking at least one vegetable every meal and I devour that like it’s nobody’s business. I’m always full at the end of every meal…but not on rice. And that’s key.
- Snack. My meals are disastrously far apart, lunch at 10:30am and dinner at 7:30pm, and so I snack in the afternoon so I don’t end up eating a metric ton of rice at dinner because I’m so famished. My snacks usually consist of a half-papaya (those things are huge! I have yet to work my way up to a whole papaya without getting the feeling that I want to throw up from papaya overdose) or a few controlled bites of pretzel from my secret stash. The other thing I do is put flavored drink packets into my water. That way, I’m drinking water, but it’s flavored, so I fool myself into thinking I’m actually having a snack.
- Indulge. Every two weeks or so, I find myself in my provincial town (home of the ridiculously stupid good Rusty’s Ribs) or Phnom Penh. And I indulge the crap out of myself. Just last weekend I had, for brunch, macaroni and cheese and something called Barb’s potatoes (potatoes, onions, garlic, bacon, cheese in a skillet-type serving). For dinner I had fried chicken. In between, I drank copious amounts of alcohol and had a few bites of donut topped with bacon. Today, I had a heaping plate of beef enchiladas fried in butter and bathed in cheese. I simply accept that my food cravings are too strong to ever ignore and eat what I want. The key is to just eat until I’m full. As a poor ass Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s natural to have the “I paid $7 for this breakfast and so help me God I will eat all of it” mentality. Fight it. I eat until I’m full (which is usually about halfway through) and pass the rest to equally hungry and deprived PCVs, so that none of it goes to waste.
- Apply to medical school. I am not kidding. That shit will send a few metric tons of stress your way, and you’ll be too occupied looking at student doctor network or writing essays or filling out secondaries or worrying about the state of your life to eat anything.
So, there you have it. My No-Fail, Slightly Miserable, Look-Sexy-for-Thailand-Wedding Diet. I remember when I first asked Joanne, our medical officer, what I could do to slim down. She looked at me as if it were obvious and said, “Just eat less!” I remember glowering at her with my most fiery glower. Turns out, what she meant was “just eat fewer carbs”.
Proceed with caution, dears.
A few days ago, we had some guests over at our house.
First impression: as they pulled up to the front of our house in their gigantic SUV, they ran over my dog’s food bowl. Now she eats off the floor.
Second impression: my host ma comes running out helping them open the door while simultaneously mouthing to me, “Christine! They’re from A-MER-I-CA.”
Third impression: other people get out of the vehicle, but I only notice this colossal white guy with a bald head and a biker ‘stache wearing a wifebeater and shower shoes with tattoos up and down his arms.
For the fourth impression, I don’t so much have a scene to describe, as I do a conversation:
Wifebeater: Where you from?
Wifebeater: We’re from Vegas.
Me: What brings you to this part of Cambodia?
Wifebeater: Well my buddy was making the trip down and asked if I wanted to come along, and I thought, ‘When’s the next time I’ll get to go to Cambodia?’ and got my passport done and here I am. What brings you here?
Me: I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Wifebeater: What do you do here?
Me: I work at the health center.
Wifebeater: No, but what do you do here?
Me (slightly baffled): I help. At the health center.
Wifebeater: But what is your actual goal?
Me (IQ decreasing): Health education.
Wifebeater: What did you get your degree in?
Wifebeater: What are your plans after this?
Me: I’m applying to medical school.
Wifebeater: Why did you choose to do this instead of just going to medical school?
Me: I wanted to see the world and learn a new language, and also take a break between undergrad and—
Wifebeater: And like the 8, 12 years of school it involves to be a doctor. Ha!
At this point I’m wondering why I’m even having this conversation with this oversized sack of retardation, but before I could politely excuse myself, this happens:
Wifebeater: What’s your nationality?
Me: American. (Duh.)
Wifebeater: Well, yeah, I’m American too, but we’re clearly different. What’s your bloodline?
This just in: people like this actually exist.
Me (and I just couldn’t bring myself to be even remotely polite anymore): You mean my ethnicity? I’m Chinese.
As you can see, this visit was getting off to a great start. The other people in the vehicle included my dad’s older cousin, his wife, his daughter, his grandkid, his son-in-law, and his son-in-law’s brother. From talking to my grandma and my host ma, I was able to piece together just exactly who these people were and why they’re here.
Some information on the son-in-law:
The son-in-law was the Einstein who brought along his delicately aware species of friend. Born in Cambodia but raised in America, he decided that he wanted a Cambodian wife. And so he came to Cambodia with some money, and through some friends of friends, stumbled upon my host dad’s niece, paid a dowry, married her, impregnated her, and went back to America. About a year or so later, he’s back, and ready to take his mail-order bride back to Vegas, the land of hopes and dreams.
Some more information on why Wifebeater is here:
Who doesn’t like the idea of a completely subservient Cambodian wife? He came to scout out my oldest host sister in the hopes that she’ll also be a lean, mean, subservient baby-making machine. My host ma expressed her doubts to me and I vehemently agreed with her. That troll can’t even dream about being good enough for my host sister.
After my enlightening conversation with Wifebeater, I hid myself in the kitchen, helping my mother cook out dish after dish to serve these men who were sitting down to a long night of drinking. My evening class was cancelled because the entire house was a in a ruckus, and that night I ate dinner in the back with the rest of the women (and my host brother, who’s not old enough to drink).
I excused myself to bed after dinner, and was delighted when I discovered my bedroom rests exactly above the dining area of the increasingly drunker men, separated by a few sturdy planks of Cambodian wood. Well into the wee hours in the morning, I was privy to the drunken slurs of Wifebeater, and I mourned the loss of yet another couple dozen IQ points.
A note on my host dad, the frequent drunk:
My host dad is the kind of drunk I would prefer my loved ones to be if they ever had to be drunks. Even while completely sloshed, he remains relatively quiet and considerate, and after all the drinking is done he passes out in sleep and is only occasionally revisited the next morning by bouts of vomiting.
A note on Wifebeater, the belligerent drunk:
Wifebeater is exactly the kind of drunk I actively spend my time avoiding. I felt ashamed when he, white as the underbelly of a killer whale, started actively using the n-word, and this shame quickly turned into anger when I realized he was using this word to refer to my host dad, in the midst of calling him weak and not being able to drink as much as the noteworthy 13 cans Wifebeater himself had guzzled.
What Wifebeater didn’t know:
My dad had been drinking all day. He drinks whenever he has to work the fields, and he was working the fields all day in between shots of rice wine.
This anger—both out of defense for my 50+ host father (who pressures a 50+ man into drinking like that?! This isn’t community college!) and out of unadulterated hatred for this intruder—nearly bubbled over but for once my self-restraint did not fail me and I did not voice my opinions. Nevermind that my host dad cleared his house and made everyone sleep in the living room so Wifebeater could have the bedroom. Nevermind that the women of the family spent all night cooking for him and making sure all his gastronomical needs were met. Nevermind that, after all the men had passed out in their drunken stupors, my host mother stayed up until 2 in the morning cleaning up after them.
It’s the sense of self-entitlement—“yes, I deserve this kind of treatment”—without the slightest sign of humility that makes my blood boil.
Needless to say, I was glad to see them leave the next morning.
Afterward, I spoke to my host mother.
Host mother: “Are all people in America like that?”
Me: “No. Just like Cambodia has crazy people, America has crazy people too.”
Right now I’m sitting in the Kuala Lumpur international airport (using their free wifi. Get on that, SFO. Get on that, LAX.) on a 6 hour layover before I fly to Chengdu.
Some observations about the Kuala Lumpur airport:
1. At the McDonald’s (where else did you think I would eat, silly? I haven’t seen those beautiful arches in 11 months!) the hamburger is called a beefburger. Gotta keep it halal.
2. Most of the women wear hijabis here, and with their cute shoes and matching outfits I get reminded of my favorite Muslimahs from back home at every turn (you know who you are).
3. I don’t know if this is an southeast Asian thing or whatever, but the concept of lines in the bathroom is apparently foreign. My bladder was about to burst the fuck open–TWICE–and some ho cut me in line. I was about to beat a bitch down before I remembered that I’m a lady, and ladies keep their composure in public.
4. Apparently AirAsia is a sponsor of the Oakland Raiders?! I woke up from a groggy nap and for a second thought I was back in Berkeley because of the gigantic Raiders logo on the tail of the plane that had just pulled up. Turns out, I’m still in SE Asia. What a disappointment.
5. The AirAsia flight attendants are really pretty. They all look so exotic–some have the smooth, deep skin I’m used to seeing on Indians, some have fair Eastern Asian features but eyes I’m more used to seeing on Middle Easterners. And they look so cute in their red suits. Also, if anyone cares, not a single one was fat. Or even slightly overweight.
I keep thinking about how in 10 short hours I’ll be in the motherland and I’ll be with my family and most of all I will have a washing machine and I break into the most giddy giggles causing everyone around me to either laugh with me or laugh at me.
About two weeks ago, we had our mid-service training. With this training included a mid-service physical, and in this physical included a step on the ole friendly scale.
Now, I have been really good during service, much better than in the States. Even when it’s so hot I’ve considered bathing in the murky green feces-filled pond to cool down, I’ve somehow worked up the willpower to go on runs, bike rides, and hikes on my allotted once-every-other-day workout regime. At mealtimes, I try my best to sneak a good portion of the rice my ma serves me back into the rice pot so I wouldn’t have to eat a heaping bowlful of empty carbs twice a day. Snacks I do enjoy, but they are in extreme moderation and tightly controlled portions.
So during the physical, I confidently stepped on the scale, thinking my result would be like all the other 50 or so K4 volunteers, having lost weight of some sort. Joanne, the ever helpful Peace Corps Medical Officer, records my weight and asks if I want to know what my pre-service weight was. I grin broadly and say yes, thinking I’d definitely be in the red on this one.
The good news: I’ve gained 0 pounds during service so far.
The bad news: I’ve lost 0 pounds during service so far.
What. The. Fuck?! You can’t be serious, right?! What happened to the “third-world effect”? Who joins the Peace Corps and works their ass off just to stay exactly the same as in the States? More importantly, why has EVERY SINGLE VOLUNTEER lost weight but me?!
It’s the carbs, they say, the carbs. Men lose weight if they eat too many carbs and not enough protein, and women gain weight if that happens. Fuck that. If that’s the case, why aren’t there more fat Cambodian females? If that’s the case, why are other female PCVs LOSING WEIGHT?!
Commence new endeavor: Project Un-Fat. Details highly classified (and Peace Corps probably doesn’t want me blogging about my slightly less-than-drastic measures). Here we go.
As mango season has officially come to a close, so has my mango observation project. The verdict on the best-tasting mango Cambodia has to offer?
Hands down, Chinese Glass. It turns out there’s a reason people pay nearly thrice the normal amount of money for a kilo of these mangos. They are not only deliciously, delicately sweet, they’re also softly fragrant in a way the other mangos lack. Peel back the rind to reveal soft yellow flesh, and the fresh aroma of this amazing mango is instantly detectable. I must have eaten about my body’s weight in them.
The scent of the Chinese Glass mango is definitely what puts it above the rest of the pack. As the sense of taste is intricately woven with the sense of smell, having such a scent (floral, almost) coupled with its silky sweetness elevates this mango consumption experience to a whole different level, engaging twice the number of senses other mangos do.
But this post isn’t just about the indescribable delectability of the Chinese Glass mango. Oh, no. It’s about all the other sub-par mangos leftover from the season and what my host family does with them.
I have two words for you. Fruit. Leather.
Peel the near-overripe mangos (poor guys—no one wanted to eat them because ole Chinese Glass was stealing all the thunder), pit them, and cut them into small pieces before putting them in the blender. Blend until relatively smooth. Slowly cook this blended mango mixture with just the tiniest bit of salt at a low simmer until the mixture loses at least a third of its original water content. Stir constantly (I have blisters on my hands from helping with the stirring process) to prevent burning. Spread this condensed mango puree onto a table top lined with plastic.
And here is where we make use of the (now glorious, but at all other times demonic) Cambodian sun. The sun removes all the remaining excess moisture and turns the mango puree into a delicious, chewy, naturally sweet, 100% made from mangos fruit leather. My host ma said that because my family won’t be in Cambodia in time to enjoy the mangos in its natural form, but at least they can enjoy them in their reincarnated, non-perishable form of fruit leather.
With that, she bundled up about a kilo of fruit leather and insisted I take it to China with me so that all of my family could enjoy one of Cambodia’s proudest fruits. How could I say no? Why would I say no?
My youngest host sister and I have a pretty close relationship. For starters, she’s the most patient family member when explaining things to me and engaging me in conversation (probably because, as the youngest, she doesn’t have to rein in the cows every afternoon or feed the pigs or do the laundry or wash the dishes like my younger brother does), and is always willing to repeat something or explain it in a new way or draw me a picture to show exactly what she’s talking about.
Her personality is also strikingly similar to mine—it’s almost as if I’m glimpsing into a much skinnier, darker version of myself some 13 odd years ago. She loves winning, she has a great sense of humor and is always laughing and getting laughed at, and she’s never afraid to tell it like it is or share her opinion on anything. Whenever my brother would give a vague reason for why my host pa is sleeping in until 11AM (“He has a headache”), my youngest sister will chime in from the other side of the room: “…because he drank too much beer last night!”
I think the best indicator of how she just takes everything in stride is when people start teasing her for her dark skin. In Cambodia, the whiter one’s skin is, the more “beautiful” one is perceived by society. My youngest sister has the most beautiful (by American standards) chocolate skin and looks great in bright yellows and oranges, but to fellow Khmer, she’s far too dark. In fact, my pa (the person whose dark genes she inherited) likes to joke around and call her “black shoe”. Aunts and uncles will call her “master black” and even my host brother will chime in with “blackie” in attempts to agitate her. She never responds, though, and just lets it roll off her shoulders.
Early on in my homestay experience, I commented to everyone at the dinner table about how I want my skin to be as dark as my sister’s because it’s so pretty. Everyone laughed uproariously like I had just told a joke but afterward I made sure to periodically drop “black is beautiful” around her because a) it’s honestly what I think and b) girl could use a little positive body image. Since then, whenever someone makes a black comment at her and I’m within earshot, she’ll ask, “But black is beautiful, right?” and I’ll smile and agree with her.
I didn’t really think much of these little exchanges until a few weeks ago when my aunt was sitting around shooting the breeze over mangos with me and a bunch of other staff at the health center. One of the staff asked my aunt how my youngest sister was doing and she said,
“Oh, she’s so funny. The other day she was complaining to everyone about how no one says she’s pretty and that everyone calls her ‘master black’ and that bong seen [what she calls me] is the only one that says she’s pretty.”
My first reaction was one of surprise. I didn’t know she minded. Then I was incredulous that I was actually surprised. What little girl doesn’t like to be told she’s pretty? What little girl doesn’t mind being called something that’s the societal equivalent of ugly?!
From then on, I’ve made a conscious effort to compliment her; for example, when she dresses up to go on trips, I’ll make sure to say she looks pretty. The other day, she shyly showed me the new shoes host ma bought her: bright pink replicas of the beat up vans I wore (I vaguely recalled my ma telling me how she had wanted shoes like mine one day when I wore them). When I put on sneakers and a skirt to go to a wedding, she put her hot pink sneakers on under her dress until ma told her to stop being ridiculous and change into jeans instead. While we were standing around waiting for our ride, she sidled up to me and said, “Look, bong seen, we have the same shoes. Yours are purple and mine are pink.”
I guess you can say this is kind of like youth empowerment. (As I do everything I can to show Peace Corps admin that I’m “doing something” even though all I want to do is chill out.)
In Cambodia, mangos are only in season for about three months: March, April, and May. I’ve been anticipating mango season since the day I got here, both because previous Peace Corps Volunteers have spoken extensively on the sheer volume and deliciousness of mangos in-season, and also because mangos are in my top 6 favorite fruits. The following represents some of the findings I’ve recorded during this ongoing personal research project on Cambodian Mangos.
The Khmer eat mangos in all—and I mean all—their stages of ripeness. It doesn’t matter how pale green the mangos are, there is a use for it and the Khmer have found it.
Pale Green: These mangos are as unripe as they can get. Hard as a rock, and sour enough to make you scream for mama. Some Khmer love the sour flavor, so they eat these mangos cut up and dipped in some chili salt. (A quick note on chili salt: it is salt, mixed with chili peppers, and sometimes a little bit of sugar. The sugar is key. Less successful mixtures only have salt and chili peppers.) Sometimes the pale green mango will get grated and stir-fried, which makes it taste kind of like a radish. Sometimes it’ll get grated and paired with various other leaves and herbs, raw, in your morning noodles.
Pale Yellow: the majority of Khmer love the pale yellow mango. While it is still hard, it’s a little less extreme in its sourness and actually tastes quite good paired with the chili salt. In my desperation I have sampled more than my fair share of the pale yellow variety and have enjoyed the sour-sweet (pale yellow begins to show signs of subtle sweetness)-salty-spicy combo. The pale yellow mangos are also grated and soaked in fish sauce to make a dressing for grilled fish. While I still prefer to eat my grilled fish with soy sauce, some enjoy the sour flavor in their entrée dishes and the pale yellow mango plus fish pairing is a good option.
Golden Yellow: This is hands down my favorite level of mango ripeness. While still not completely ripe, some mangos (apple mangos especially) will have already developed such an intense sweet flavor. The best part about this golden yellow variety is that they also retain some of that hard texture, but not so much apple-hard (think ripe nectarine). I know I don’t really like it when precious mango juices run down my chin or my hands instead of ending up in my stomach, and with the golden yellow variety there is none of that messiness.
Orange: These mangos are overripe, at least by Khmer standards. Most Khmer think that this is too ripe to consume, so they let the cows or pigs eat them. I think this is an incredible waste so I scavenge all of the orange-ripe mangos from everyone I know and eat them myself. These mangos have lost some of their texture and are a little too mushy by my standards, but the flavor makes up for it and I just deal with the juices that are wasted via dripping. Sometimes they are truly overripe and are kind of fermented (a tinny aftertaste), but mangos are such a delicacy that I eat them anyway.
In my backyard, there are about 8 mango trees. I’m not sure what all these different kinds of mangos are called in English, but directly translated from Khmer, we have Apple Mangos, Papaya Mangos, and Hmong Glass Mangos (yum, Hmong glass).
Apple Mangos: These are small mangos that, at their biggest, are no bigger than a large apricot. These are also the sweetest and most delicious, in my opinion. At their optimal ripeness, they still boast a vividly green peel, so you can only tell if they are ripe or not by the way they feel (and if you are looking at them on a tree, by the amount of sap that has dripped down their sides; lots of sap means lots of sweet, which also means ready to eat), which is still hard, but gives a little (kind of like an optimally ripe cantaloupe). The kind of sweetness they boast is unadulterated sweet—even in their between pale-yellow and golden yellow stages, they are fully sweet without hints of sour.
Papaya Mangos: These have about as much delicious mango meat as the apple mango, but their shape is more like that of a traditional mango (kind of teardrop-shaped)—so, small, is what I’m getting at. These, at their optimal ripeness, have a yellow peel and are soft to the touch (think ripe peach). However, even at their optimal ripeness, they still kind of have a sour bite at the end. When you first bite into them, they are sweet, and delicious, but after the bite travels to the back of your mouth you start to feel the sour and it’s not intense, but a little startling. The mango meat at the tip is usually the sourest, with the sweetest parts at the stem.
Hmong Glass Mangos: These puppies are huge, more like the ones you’d see at American supermarkets. Their pits are also surprisingly small for such a big fruit. I ate one after lunch and I was full to bursting. These can only really be eaten when they are at the orange stage because anything before that is too overwhelmingly sour (in my desperation one afternoon, I picked a green one that was kind of soft to the touch—like the optimal apple mango—but I laid down and cried after I bit into it because it was so sour). At their optimal ripeness, the peel is yellow-orange, and they are soft to the touch, much like the papaya mango. It sneaks a hint of sour even at the orange stage, and, like the papaya mango, is sourest at the tip and sweetest at the stem.
There is another tree in the backyard that bears the Chinese Glass Mango. They are not yet ripe, but according to my host pa, they go for 12000 riel (about $3) for 10 fruits as opposed to 4000 riel ($1) for the Hmong glass mangos (market, not wholesale, price. At wholesale prices my ma sold 150 kilos of them for $10—granted they were unripe, but still!). Mango season isn’t over yet, and it won’t be over until I try these of the Chinese Glass variety. Stay tuned.
A lot of people think that Peace Corps is filled with world-changing activities like saving HIV+ babies or building schools every day, but my days are more or less the same, and, when it comes down to it, pretty boring. My friend Elaina in Benin (who is my 2012 application twin) wrote about a day in her life and so I thought I’d let everyone know what I do on a day to day basis.
6:30AM: My alarm goes off. I hit snooze.
7:00AM: Unwillingly get out of bed. I was never quite the morning person.
(Note: this is a non-school-day schedule. On days where I go to school to teach English, I’m out of bed by 6:30 at the latest and at school by 7:00. I’ve decided recently, though, that since my work at the health center is picking up and I’ve already made enough student contacts at the school, I’m just going to stop going to the school to teach and instead concentrate all of my mornings at the health center.)
7:30AM: By now I have washed, dressed, and put on mosquito spray. I hop on my bike and ride the 500 meters to the market to have breakfast. Breakfast in the village, 99% of the time, consists of bon chaiu, the omelet-but-not-an-omelet dish I described in one of the previous posts. After breakfast, I scavenge around the fried treats section of the market and usually end up buying some fried bananas or fried sweet potatoes to take to the health center with me.
7:50AM: I get to the health center, sweating through my shirt. I spend a few minutes standing outside in the shade trying to cool down and staring back at the people who are staring at me. Usually this is early enough that I have a few minutes to cool down before any of the nurses show up, but lately they’ve been earlier than usual so at this time someone is already there writing prescriptions.
7:53AM: “Stine, open medicine!” A direct translation, it means to fill prescriptions. My supervisor waves me into the (hot, windowless) medicine room and I begin to deal with the countless people waving their prescriptions in my face. Sometimes there are enough nurses there to fill this role without my help, but as of late there haven’t been since the prescription lady just had a baby. Before she had her baby, I sat in the ante-natal care room and helped with checkups.
9:30AM: Things usually start to slow down (unless it’s Monday, and there are prescriptions waving in my face until about 10:30). Sometimes there will be a cool event like a birth or two (I recently watched one where the woman’s vagina was too small for the baby’s head to pass through so they cut the perineum and then sewed her back up. Rough) or a minor surgery but most days it’s easy. A few patients trickle in from now until closing.
11:00AM: Bike home. Sweat. Sweat. Sweat. Sweat.
11:10AM: Cold bucket shower. Sweat.
11:30AM: Lunch. Sweat.
12:00N: English class with my little sister and cousins! They are all around 10 years old and god bless their hearts for trying, but they don’t really know much. I usually spend a week going over the same 5 vocabulary words. This week it’s been to be verbs and which ones are used with which pronouns. On Sunday we play games, like Red Light Green Light, or Simon Says.
1:00PM: Hunger. Eat a mango off our tree. Cry because I picked the wrong one and it’s so sour. Check email. Browse blogs. Hang out and help with my grandma’s sugar-cane water stand out front. Sometimes do laundry. Chill in our hammock. Read magazines and books and contemplate ripping pages out and showing them to my tailor to make replicas for me.
4:00PM: Some days I go to the high school and meet with my after-school kids. Recently, we met to do the world map. Now that we finished, it’s back to our average English speaking practice sessions. On the days I don’t go to the high school, I work out: 15 minute jog, 20 minutes of sprints, 15 minute jog back, then strength exercises.
5:30PM: Shower. SWEAT. Hop back online to find things to teach my evening kids.
6:30PM: English/Health/Culture class with my evening kids. They’re between 12-14 years old, and their abilities range from really good English to not so good English. I rely on the really good kids to help with the not so good kids. So far we’ve covered a variety of fairy tales and Taylor Swift songs, and this week I’m retelling a jazzed up version of the ghost story Bloody Mary.
7:30PM: Dinner. Sweat.
8:00PM: Email. Facebook. Blogs. Gchat.
9:00PM: Electricity is out so I’m in bed under my mosquito net, listening to music or talking on the phone or watching an episode or two of The Big Bang Theory.
9:45PM: Asleep, sweating.
Repeat x 27 months. Peace Corps in a nutshell.
This week, something dawned on me, something that I should have known for a long time: my family is not exactly middle class.
A fellow PCV, who has been editing my essays, has repeatedly pointed out instances where I talk about things in my past that don’t make me seem quite so middle class at all. For example, my parents being able to foot my tuition bill during all four years of college. Yes, I went to public school in my home state, and it was just tuition and not living expenses, but even being able to pay that all the way through is quite an accomplishment. Not all families have $9000 just lying around per year to be able to contribute to their offspring’s education.
And of course, there are other things, like my parents owning their house, and that I can’t remember the last time we had to make a “car payment”; they’ve always fronted the entire cost of the car or else we weren’t driving away with it.
My entire life, I thought I was squarely middle class, because we lived in such a modest home and drove modest cars in a modest neighborhood. My friends all seemed to have more than me in terms of material possessions, and I remember being extremely angry when these friends would get all kinds of need based aid for college and I’d get shafted with nothing but loans. I was even convinced that some of them were cheating on their taxes, but now I realize that it’s probably cause they’re spenders, not savers.
The reason I bring this up is because as the days go by, I am more and more convinced that Peace Corps could not have possibly picked a better fitting host family for me. Like my family back in the States, my family here appears quite modest from the outside. Peace Corps has certain standards when they choose homestays for us, and within the homestays they’ve picked for fellow PCVs, my home is very, very middle-of-the-line. Yes, I do have enough electricity to power my laptop, but it’s only for 3 hours a night (and I don’t have a fan). I don’t have running water, but I do have a Western toilet. My house is tiled, but only the bottom floor, and it’s very small. We do own a car, but that’s because my dad is a taxi driver, and he uses it to work every day.
But I’ve also had lobster two nights in a row for dinner. Lobster? Is this America? Clearly not, because not even in America do I eat like this. And fresh, free-range lobster! (My ma even said that the lobsters that live in the farms and get fed aren’t delicious, because they don’t “dau laing”–walk around–enough.)
This, and that I’m never hungry here. In fact, there are days where there are so many delicious things on the table I have to ration my stomach space in order to sample some of everything and not shaft anything. I know I’m extremely lucky; most PCVs are happy if their meals are even edible.
Also, my parents have enough money to support my host sister who’s studying midwifery in Phnom Penh. We might look like your average family, but I have to concede that we do have money.
It’s not a bad thing, though. Like my family in the States, I’d say that my host family is just smart with their money. Why spend money on an overly extravagant house when the one we’re living in now is perfectly comfortable? What’s wrong with using that money for more valuable, applicable things, like education and a nice dinner once in awhile?
Nothing’s wrong with it. I’m just extremely blessed to be in the presence and influence of such people who know what to value and what not to.