Now that I’ve been at site for a good while and soaked up nearly all there is to observe in the community, I’ve started to notice some gaping differences between life here and life in the States. The really obvious ones, though, are no fun to discuss, so here are the subtler ones that one wouldn’t immediately suspect from life as an average Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia.
A new family dynamic: Back home in the States, I never saw my parents drunk. I don’t know if they’ve ever been drunk, because my dad always stops after a glass (or a mug, his preferred chalice) of wine and my mom after a sip. Here, my Pa is popping open cans of beer every other day and about once a week he’ll break out the serious guns with the rice wine, drinking with his pals until everyone’s retired from the dinner area already. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen and interacted with him drunk, and that’s not counting the times where he’s been drunk and I don’t know about it.
A new favorite dinner topic: Recently, my family has taken to discussing whether or not I can tell if my host father is drunk during dinner. For a Khmer man, he hides it extremely well sometimes, especially when he’s just a little bit tipsy, so I thought nothing of his coming late to dinner today and sitting down with a heaving sigh. That is, until my 9-year-old host sister leans in and asks, “Bong Stine, did you know that Pa is drunk?” The family erupts in laughter as I pointedly look over to Pa grinning sunbeams and say with wavering certainty that I didn’t know. Pa then lifts a finger and points to my sister, saying, “That dark child is att la-oh [bad].” Which follows with more laughter.
A new name: Practically no one here can say my name correctly, and I don’t blame them, because I can’t even remember anyone’s names, let alone pronounce them the right way. (It’s just so much harder, because their names all seem like random incongruent sounds here. In the States I am practically name master because I can usually remember everyone’s names. I learned all 50+ of my students’ names after the first lab session last spring.) My Ma calls me “Seen”, my younger siblings call me a variation between “Bong Stine” (bong means elder), “Bong Ko-seen”, “Bong Seen”, or, if they’re feeling lazy, just “Bong”. My health center supervisor actually comes the closest, with “Chreesteen” and a spectacular roll on the r.
A new feeling: If there’s anything to get used to in Cambodia (I mean besides the lack of toilet paper), it’s the feeling of utter stupidity. It’s normal, really—we’re in a new country with a fledgling grasp on the language and culture. It’s like learning how to live all over again. Unfortunately, with my Arian desire to constantly win even though there is no competition, feeling stupid is not something that jives well with me, and so saying that I’ve come to accept it is probably the biggest accomplishment I’ve had since passing my driver’s test (failed once because I ran over a curb, and was so traumatized I didn’t get back behind the wheel for 6 months). This “new feeling” I’m talking about is one that is so completely serendipitous that I felt like high-fiving whoever’s running the show and bowing thanks: my Ma, seeing me pore over my sister’s notebooks with the organic chemistry printed on the inside front cover, invited the high school chemistry teacher over for dinner, who then invited me to sit in on his private chemistry lessons. I went, and didn’t regret it: even though he was speaking Khmer the entire time, I understood everything perfectly. Atom is ah-tome? Acid is ah-seed? Totally picked up on it. First time I didn’t feel stupid in Cambodia.
A new puppy: I didn’t know that, prior to the acquisition of Kobe, that I would be capable of baby talk. I was always the one to snort when people would talk to their pets or babies or significant others in that warped high pitched tone and vow that if I were to ever get a pet or a kid I’d always speak to them like adults because they’d learn faster that way. I was so delusional. Just one look at Kobe’s wagging stub of a tail and her tongue flapping this way and that has me saying “Kobe! Heeeyyyy Kobes my wittle girl! Who wants a bewwy wub? Who wants a bewwy wub!” It’s disgusting. I disgust myself. And yet I can’t help it. So I keep doing it.
A new sense of freedom: I don’t remember the last time I had this much free time. For the past year, if I wasn’t studying, either for classes or the MCAT, I was teaching, grading lab reports, attending meetings, holding office hours, or working as a tutor. But here, I can do whatever I want whenever I want. A trip to Kampot town to use the internet for an afternoon? Why not, there’s nothing else I have to do. It’s not all sunshine and roses on this side, though: as I see the high school students bike by every morning and then every afternoon, I’m practically simmering with jealousy at their regimented schedule. The student life was so sweet, and I never thought I’d ever say that because classes were the absolute bane of my existence my last semester. But as usual, hindsight is 20/20 and everyone was right—the absolute freedom from responsibility that comes with the catchall of using “student” as your occupation is something I miss dearly.
A new boyfriend: New country, new dude. Seize the day.
Today was like any other day. It was late afternoon, and I was outside playing with our new puppy, who I’ve named Kobe (yes, like Bryant), even though she is a girl. The family is none the wiser and everyone who comes by now calls her Kobe in their cute Khmer accents (meaning they stress the “be” instead of the “ko”), leaving me reveling in the fact that I got to name our puppy. I’ve never owned a puppy before and it’s probably a good thing because by “playing with her” I actually mean “fucking around with her”. For example, I’d put her up on a step knowing full well she doesn’t know how to get down and watching her whimper for awhile before kind of rolling/falling down the step. Another favorite pastime of mine is holding her mouth closed in my fist, and watching her writhe around trying to get out of my iron grip. Despite all this, though, I’m still probably her favorite because I shower her with attention and I’m the only one that can get a response when I call her.
Anyway, I was playing with Kobe outside when I noticed a snake slither by in my periphery and underneath the old car tire we have by the back door of our house. Not a big snake, maybe about a foot in length and three quarters of an inch in diameter, with a bright green and red head and a brown body. I call my 9-year-old sister over and say, “Snake!”
Actually, I said “dragon” first. When she looked at me quizzically I quickly rectified my mistake. They’re not even similar. Dragon is “niek” and snake is “puah”.
I showed her where the snake was coiled up. She took one look, screamed fucking bloody murder, and ran to get her big brother, who is actually my little brother, as he is 13, half my height, and about a quarter of my weight. My brother sees the snake, and determinedly marches into the house, his face arranged in a completely serious, Stone Cold Steve Austin manner. He comes out with a long metal rod, about 1.5 meters (yes, I know I’m mixing metric and non-metric measurements in this blog post. Get over it) with a sharpened point on one end, and tells my sister and I to “get in the house!” and “close the door!” because “it’s dangerous!”
Through the open window, I see him jab gently at the snake to coax it out of its hiding spot. Then another jab, to get it out in the open backyard. And then, looking much like Gerard Butler in the movie 300 when he hurls the harpoon directly at Xerxes’ face, my 60-pound brother raises the metal rod and jams it through the snake’s body and into the muddy earth, leaving it writhing in pain but pinned firmly to the ground. Then he pats his hands on his shorts and tells my sister and I that it’s safe to come out.
I was nothing short of amazed.
When my parents get home from work (Ma comes back from tending to the cows and Pa comes home from…whatever he does when he’s not driving the family taxi), the first thing my sister does is drag them over to marvel at my brother’s work in the backyard.
They, however, were far short of amazed.
“It’s nearly 6 o’clock. You have class right now (my brother takes private English classes with none other than my language tutor at 6 in the evening), and you’re wasting time playing around with snakes?” As if it were, you know, normal—no, even frivolous—for small boys to be spearing poisonous snakes straight through the jugular by pinning them solid to the Earth.
This is a true story.
I’ve come to believe that anything is possible in Cambodia. And I don’t mean the “reach for the stars and you’ll land in the clouds” kind of inspirational “anything”. I mean anything as in: dengue, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, scabies, mites, mold, rats, and the list can go on. I mean anything really terrible that probably wouldn’t be so terrible in the States but here you have to deal with a bunch of other things already so having any of the aforementioned would be nothing short of terrible. Even things like, say, lice.
Lice here is treated with an offhand “oh, she has lice”, sort of like how one would say, “Oh, she’s wearing a green shirt.” Occasionally kids would sit around and get de-loused by patient mothers and then go right back to running around and playing with more kids who have lice. I’ve seen my younger sister (9) sit around for hours getting de-loused, as my host mother combs neatly through her waist-length hair. In fact, there is usually a line of girl cousins, all patiently waiting their turn, as my host mother de-louses them all (she is the best de-louser on the block, apparently. My family is loaded with talent and connections).
Since getting here to Cambodia, I’ve been plagued with an unnaturally itchy scalp. I figured it was just my scalp adjusting to the humidity of this subtropical country, having lived in the desert atmosphere of California nearly my whole life. After a few months, though, I became slightly worried that the itching still hadn’t gone away, and this fear was escalated when I saw my mother with a trail of girls to de-louse. What if I have lice? How embarrassing. I like to think I keep clean, washing my hair every day and not rolling around in the dirt trenches of Cambodia. The other day, I even felt something moving around on my scalp. I reached up and started grabbing, and came out with handfuls of loose hairs. Amongst those hairs was a small creature, crawling about. I immediately squashed the shit out of it and looked at it closely.
Lice. Are you fucking kidding me, Cambodia? I fucking have lice? Unbelieving, I immediately went upstairs and googled what lice look like, paying dearly because my internet plan charges by data and loading all of those pictures was surely data-intensive. There you had it, though, plain as day blinking back at me from my monitor: a perfect match to the small creature still squished firmly between my left thumb and forefinger.
And yet, I still didn’t believe it, perhaps because I refused to acknowledge that I was plagued with such a disaster. Wikipedia said itself that the best diagnosis for lice is for someone to comb through your hair and look through your scalp to determine if you have little crawly creatures. And who better to go to than my host mother, the super de-louser?
I determinedly shelved my pride and went downstairs, politely asking my host mother to look through my scalp hairs for lice. She carefully combed through my hair in layers, and told me “att mien” (not have). I showed her the bug I had killed. She started laughing. “Jayee,” she said, in between breathless laughs, which translates to “flea”. We both looked over at our 3-week old puppy, sitting there biting its own leg and looking fuckin’ adorable.
A few hours later I go up to my room and see that there is a new bottle of dandruff shampoo sitting on my desk. Thanks, host mom.
Once a month, my health center will pack up its needles, vaccines, the whole shebang and head out to one of the neighboring villages to deliver service, whether it’s a polio vaccine or the next injection of Depo-Provera. Usually we gather at a central location within the community, like the wat or the village chief’s house. The idea is that people will bring their babies and problems to this central location to get them taken care of, but in every village, there are always the laggers who fail to show up (as checked against the record of number of babies born and the number of people who come). Instead of letting their babies fester and die of tuberculosis or polio or diphtheria, the nurse will usually saddle up at the end of the morning and go from house to house, visiting on those who either forgot to or were too lazy to show up.
Quite some service, huh? While I was still trying to wrap my mind around who wouldn’t take advantage of these “we come to you” days (and who wouldn’t want to get their babies vaccinated!), the nurse was ever-patient, asking parents where the fuck their babies are and why they weren’t at the wat to get vaccinated. Then he’d do whatever needed to be done, and say a cheerful “see you next month!” which I’m sure these people probably interpreted as “see you at my house because I didn’t go the central location and you’ll surely track me down again”.
I guess this is why Peace Corps sent me here. There’s evidently a lot of work to be done.
Yesterday, my counterpart and I visited on the Muslim community a few kilometers away from the health center. When we rode past the village sign labeled with Arabic, I immediately thought of Maya, and wanted to start breaking out with “salaam” and “khalas” and “inshallah” but I figured it was best to not look like an idiot so I kept quiet. Who’s to say these villagers even spoke Arabic anyway? (And who’s to say they’d even understand the completely random ass words I’d be throwing out? And finally, when did I start thinking I myself knew Arabic?) They certainly were conversing very fluently in Khmer. Amongst some of the people we paid house calls to was a family with a day and a half old baby girl. Tiny, tiny little thing. As I stepped closer to take a look at her, I noticed that she had a pile of yellow caked dirt sitting on top of her head. I thought it was odd but I didn’t ask until we were out of earshot. My counterpart laughed and said something in rapid-fire Khmer that I didn’t really catch, except for a few irrelevant words like “chicken” and “green”.
Today I tried to ask my language tutor what the dirt-looking stuff sitting atop a newborn’s head was. It was an ordeal to get my point across; and while doing so we covered a whole range of topics like that Muslims don’t eat pork (I knew that), how the males wear these hats to cover their head (which is what he thought I was referring to), and when the heavy rain comes, because our village is considered a “highland”, Kampot town will flood first so “don’t worry.”
Eventually, though, we got to the bottom of the yellow-dirt mystery. Apparently, it is a part of Khmer traditional medicinal belief to cover the fontanel of the baby’s skull with this yellow-dirt, which really isn’t dirt at all, but ground, dried young leaves of a certain indigenous tree mixed with salt. The fontanel is the soft cartilage part of a baby’s skull where the skull bones have not grown in all the way yet, and the belief is that this leaf-salt mixture will hasten the hardening of the skull (and the growing of skull bones), making the baby less prone to injury. This was such an odd and interesting discovery to me that I couldn’t help but ask a few more questions about it: “Does it work, Mr. Sophea?”
To which he promptly responded, “No.”
Today’s lesson started out with this exchange:
“Mr. Sophea, how do you say poop?”
“No, poop. Like if you go to the bathroom and you don’t pee…but you poop.”
“Oh. You mean shit?”
Yes, I meant shit. But, I told my tutor, Mr. Sophea, that in America, saying “shit” is very impolite. A more polite way to say it would be “defecate”. He seemed confused, and asked me to spell it. I did, and he wrote it on the board. “Dee-fee-cate,” he said. “Where does that word come from?”
“Feces,” was my immediate reply. “It’s another polite way to say shit, the noun. Defecate is when you’re removing feces from something…like shitting.”
He asked me to spell it, and subsequently put that on the board too. “Now what did you say before I said shit?”
“You mean poop? P-O-O-P.”
That went on the board too. Nearly 10 minutes had gone by, and all that was on the board were the words defecate, feces, and poop. In this, essentially, lay the beauty of self-directed language lessons.
One of my first priorities upon arriving at site was securing a language tutor. I knew that nothing really substantial in terms of my primary project was really going to take off during the first three months, especially given that our explicit instruction was to “observe”, and I needed language lessons in order to maintain a productive schedule (i.e. one that involves things other than laying in a hammock for a good chunk of my waking hours). Finding a tutor was really not a big deal; once my little sister gave me the official tour of the community, I scouted out some potential candidates and eventually settled on Mr. Sophea, the guy that teaches private English lessons to the neighborhood children, including my host sister and brother.
It wasn’t hard to get him to agree to teach me Khmer; he was pretty keen on having such close access to a native English speaker so that he himself could improve his English. I also took to showing up to his afternoon classes and speaking some English with the more advanced students there, and he appreciated it, so numbers were exchanged and Peace Corps was contacted (we were told to not do any of the wage-bargaining with any language tutors, and that everything would be handled by Peace Corps, including a proficiency interview). A few days later, Dara, the language coordinator, called me back and told me that he agreed to pay Mr. Sophea $3 an hour even though his day job is not actually a teacher but a policeman. “Don’t worry,” Dara said, “At least you’ll be safe.”
And so lessons started, following a curriculum I set up completely on my own. $3 an hour may seem like a petty fee in America, but in Cambodia, it goes a long way. Consider this: my family gets paid $100 a month to feed me two meals a day and put me up in their home. In addition, because they are such kind people, they give me all sorts of snacks and amenities (mattress—a real one, mosquito net, etc) and are always willing to help if I have trouble with anything. I pay around 50 cents to eat breakfast every day. Their outrage is understood, then, when I accidentally let slip that Peace Corps was paying Mr. Sophea, $3 an hour.
“$3 an hour? So if you go to Mr. Sophea for 30 days out of the month you would be paying him nearly as much as you pay Ma, who feeds you and takes care of you? And for what, for him to teach you the alphabet? Your little sister can teach you the alphabet.”
If you ever thought dealing with motherly guilt was difficult in the States, in English (or Chinese), your native language, you have no idea what it feels like to be barraged with that guilt in another country and another language. There was really nothing I could do, either, because it wasn’t I who decided to pay him the $3.
I took a few days to mull this over and eventually decided that I wouldn’t make going to Mr. Sophea’s house a regular thing, maybe only once or twice week, for grammar and vocabulary help. Nobody can deny that Mr. Sophea’s English is far better than any of the other teachers at the school, and I was able to explain to them that if I had questions about anything slightly complicated, Mr. Sophea would be best able to answer them. Simple stuff like the alphabet I could learn from anyone else. They seemed to understand, and appreciated my efforts in dealing with the issue, so today I headed out for my fourth lesson.
It was, as per usual, time well spent. After going over various ways to say “disturb” and using them in sentences, Mr. Sophea pauses. “That last one, ‘gaw-goh’,” he says, “is also the name of a popular Cambodian soup. So maybe you should not use it as much as the other ones. People will think you are talking about soup.”
In honor of Pchum Ben festival this weekend, my host family decided to go on a trip. I’ve always been a fan of family trips because it meant that my parents would let my brother and I do whatever we wanted just so they could relax (e.g. the two cruises we went on where my brother and I ran free on the ship chucking pineapples off the top deck and driving golf balls into the ocean…my parents’ rationale was that we were confined on a cruise ship; how much trouble could we get into?), so I felt ripples of excitement tingling in my extremities when my family announced to me to keep Saturday open, we were going to “daa laing” in Kampong Saom (or Sihanoukville, the preferred name amongst westerners), a well known beach town and a popular getaway spot amongst PCVs because of its western beaches. In Khmer, “to take a trip” or “to go on a visit” is expressed by “daa laing”, which I’ve always found rather amusing, because literally translated it means “walk play”. For Cambodian English speakers, they’ve taken to translating that into “take a walk”. I recently met a guy at the wat where I like to read who told me he wants to take a walk through the waterfalls of Teuk Chhu, and then take a walk through Kampot town, and that I should take a walk with him, and eventually take a walk in his house. This was before I realized what exactly he was referring to so I hastily declined his offer, somewhat appalled at the amount of walking I was asked to do (this girl likes to stay stationary when possible).
The morning of the trip started with an especially promising air: at 5:30am, the whole family was awoken by sounds of retching on the front porch, followed by the sound of projectile vomit hitting the pavement. It was my father, not-so-smoothly recovering from a night of heavy drinking with his friends (it is Pchum Ben, after all, one of the biggest holidays of the Cambodian culture. And by holiday I also mean “reason to drink with reckless abandon”). Kampong Saom is about a two and a half hour drive from my site, and my father was going to be the driver of the day. I sincerely doubted his ability to recover by the time it came time to go, but when I went downstairs at around 7am, he was sitting on the floor eating breakfast and looking absolutely peachy. Everyone else was in a frenzied haste, getting ready. My host mother and sister were cooking enough to survive a nuclear meltdown, my brother was loading the cooler onto the car and stuffing it with drinks and ice, and my youngest sister was making sure everyone had their bags packed and loading them into the car as well. Before I could step in and help, my mother pushed a plateful of noodles into my hands and told me to eat, it would be a long drive and she doesn’t want me getting hungry. Looking around, I thought quietly to myself that it was a LOT of food they were getting ready. They even had a separate cooler, filled completely to the brim with rice. Just rice! Who was going to eat all of it?
Before the question had even fully formed in my mind, though, it was answered by a horde of cousins storming through the front door. Of course. You can’t just go on a family trip without inviting the whole clan. They, too, loaded their bags into the car (my host father drives a van that can, in America, legally seat 13 people including the driver). At this point I’m starting to doubt whether or not there will be enough to space to seat everyone comfortably. I should have just quit while I was ahead, though, because this is Cambodia. There is no such thing as “comfortable” and “too many people”. By the time the van pulled out of the driveway, we had 16 people in it, along with coolers, pots, mats, towels, and various eating utensils. I was reasonably comfortable, though, because truthfully, 1.5 Khmer people equal an American person in size, and thought to myself, “This isn’t too bad”, as we headed down national highway 3 towards Kampong Saom. Passing through Kampot town, however, the van slows. And then it stops, in front of someone’s house. Inside the house contain more cousins, who are laughing and yelling and come running towards the van. There is a mad shuffle for space as four more people and a 5 month old baby get into the van. I end up squished in the second row against a window with my youngest sister sitting on my lap and the head of the 5 month old baby resting on my shoulder. At this point there are twenty people and a baby in the van. I look at my phone. Only two hours and fifteen minutes to go.
After what seems like an eternity, we finally get there. My back is aching and my legs have long lost their feeling underneath my 40-pound sister. As we hobble out of the van, I first thing I notice is that the ocean is 5 meters in front of me. The ocean! What up, Gulf of Thailand! The second thing I notice is that the people in the ocean are all fully clothed. Odd. There is not a swimsuit for miles. Where are the western beaches I had heard so much about? I consciously think about the Nike one-piece competition suit that I brought. Probably not appropriate in this crowd. The third thing I notice is that amongst the people swimming are other people riding obnoxiously on their jetskis. They’re going mind-numbingly fast and doing all sorts of sudden turns and skips, mere meters away from where the common folk are swimming. And what’s more, no one swimming seemed to have minded—everyone would stop what they were doing and look up whenever a jetski skidded by, its rider grinning cockily and sporting 50-cent knockoff Ray Bans.
After lunch (where lo and behold, the entire cooler of rice gets eaten. It was a LOT of rice, and that is coming from a Chinese person), my sisters tell me to put on my clothes and go swimming. Clothes to go swimming with? What? I’m already wearing clothes. I did plan for this, however, and had brought a pair of shorts and a tshirt to wear with my swimsuit, so I reluctantly put everything on over my Nike suit. It felt weird. I step into the water, aware that everyone in my family is looking at me. The water is warm. Really, really warm—for someone who grew up with the Pacific, this, too, felt weird. It also seemed saltier than the Pacific, but that could just be me. It felt amazing to be in the water again, and I knew that I didn’t want to have these clothes restricting my freedom of movement anymore, so I swam out far enough so that my non-swimmer siblings could not follow and stripped down, tucking the shirt and shorts into the back of my suit. It was so liberating, and I spent enough time out there floating and swimming to get my fill, eventually swimming back to play with the siblings and cousins.
I was greeted with, “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt, sister?”
Oh, shit. I forgot to put everything back on. There goes my modesty (not that I ever had any delusions about being able to keep it intact for long anyway).
We spent about a total of four hours at the beach, and then everyone piled back into the van to go home. For some reason, space seemed to have decreased, but maybe that was because everyone was wet and tired. It could also be because the adults bought souvenir noisemakers for the kids, so it was two and a half hours of being cramped accompanied by lovely ambient noise the entire way home. My family has a heart of gold and was so kind to take me on this trip, but I think the next time I travel will be with some fellow PCVs instead. I don’t think I have the chutzpah enough in order to handle this kind of big fat Cambodian family outing again.
This morning I went to the wat to read. I’ve been reading River Town by Peter Hessler, which is about his experiences as a PCV in China, Sichuan specifically. The Peace Corps China headquarters is in Chengdu, Sichuan, where my parents grew up, and reading about his life in my parents’ home province really makes me miss it, and miss home. But that’s neither here nor there—the reason I bring it up is because Hessler mentions many times that one of his favorite activities to do as a PCV is to sit in a tea house, open up a book or a newspaper, and read. Locals stopped by from time to time to talk to him, and sometimes he’d have very meaningful conversations with them. Here, I’d feel really awkward sitting in a coffee shop all by myself because it’s usually where a lot of grown men hang out, and I’d more likely than not be the only female in there. So that’s why I ended up at the wat, a religious place of worship where one can go for some peace and quiet.
As predicted, people looked at me with curiosity and many of them stopped to talk to me. They were mostly religious old men who spend a lot of time at the wat, and one of them told me about his experience in the Khmer Rouge under the Pol Pot regime (just some light conversation). While we were talking more old men gathered around, and then some monks, and I ended up introducing myself and giving the usual spiel about how I’m going to be here for two years, I “work” in the health center, and that I come from America even though I look Korean and Japanese (their guesses. Everyone always guesses Korean or Japanese, never once have I gotten Chinese). During this conversation, two brand new looking Land Rovers with shiny Phnom Penh license plates pull into the wat, and out of one of the Land Rovers gets the fattest boy I’ve seen in Cambodia thus far. He would be fat even by American standards. Out of the other one gets a girl and her sister. Not as fat as the boy, but clearly not tiny and underweight like the village children I’m used to. The crowd that has gathered around me to talk now starts to surround the Land Rovers. Shiny displays of clear wealth will trump the token foreigner in a town any day. I’m probably not even a “real” foreigner to them anyway.
The drivers of the Land Rover get out, and I’m assuming they’re the fathers of the children who got out earlier. They are flanked by well-dressed, classy women whom I’m assuming to be the mothers of the children. They start unloading the Land Rovers, and take out basket after elaborate basket of edible treats all gift wrapped in the flamboyant Cambodian fashion. These baskets are loaded into the wat, there’s some praying, and at last everyone exits and the food baskets are passed off to the monks as offerings.
I cannot take my eyes off of these children as they prance around the wat in their new clothing and shoes to match. They look about 13 or 14, and are pale skinned and plump, a stark contrast to the children, dark-skinned and stick-thin, I’ve been surrounded with every day. Their movements are clumsy, as if they haven’t done much running around. I couldn’t help but think of my 13-year old host brother while I watched these children. That boy is so self sufficient: he hand washes his own clothing, runs errands for the family by simply hopping on the family moto, tends to the gigantic and somewhat intimidating cows our family owns, helps my host dad in the rice field, and does his fair share of cleaning—all while studying as a 8th grade student in the morning and going to extra English classes at night. I doubt that these Land-Rover children had ever washed an article of clothing in their lives. They don’t tend to cows or work in rice fields since there isn’t room for any of it in Phnom Penh. They have their Land Rovers to chauffeur them around so there’s no need for any dangerous moto-riding in order to get errands done, if there even are errands that they need to do. These kids probably live in a completely different world than the one my host siblings have lived in their entire lives.
I start to wonder why their father has brought them here. Perhaps he grew up in this small town and has come back to do his offerings for his ancestors that have also passed away here. It is Pchum Ben, after all, a festival where the dead are remembered. Perhaps he’s here because he wants to show his children that they really do have everything, in this place that has almost nothing (my own father was a big fan of this exercise whenever we went back to China). Or, more simply, perhaps he is here because he is now successful, wealthy, and just giving back to the community. For whatever the reason, their visit was brief. It started raining, and the wealthy families with their amply-fed children piled back into their Land Rovers and drove off, leaving only clouds of dust in their wake.
There is a dish that my mother (in America. Hi Mom) makes that I’m extremely fond of back home, bittermelon stuffed with ground beef (pork maybe?). I don’t normally like bittermelon because it’s bitter as balls but the way Mom makes it renders the bittermelon a little bit less bitter and a lotta bit more delicious. With the bouts of homesickness spreading through the K4s as we spend more time at permanent site, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that my host mother here in Cambodia also makes the same dish! The first night she made it I had to exercise extreme self control to not dump the entire dish onto my own plate, and instead waited until everyone else was finished eating before clearing it off. This was also the night where my host mother chose to ask me what of her dishes I like best and I foolishly gave a concrete answer and pointed to the stuffed bittermelon dish.
Since that night I’ve had the stuffed bittermelon dish with every single meal. In addition to that, my host mother also makes a lot of different stir fried vegetables because I had said on my very first day during site visit that I really like to eat vegetables (I was hoping to prevent the training family situation where every meal was nearly almost all meat because I was treated as a guest and in most Asian countries you serve guests your best meat). I don’t really have a problem with this because I am eating exactly what I like to eat (but since I am also pretty finicky I might start to get sick of the stuffed bittermelon if I have it with every single meal…oh well, I’ll climb that mountain when I get to it) but I started noticing today that some of the other members of the family might have a slight aversion to my taste and my host mother catering to that taste. Namely, my younger brother and sister.
My younger brother (13) and sister (9) are typical children in that they like eating things that are delicious and unfortunately vegetables do not fall into that category, especially not vegetables with an offensive bitter taste like bittermelon (I myself did not have mature enough taste buds to handle it until at least high school). Today during lunch all my sister ate was rice with soy sauce until my host mother decided to make her a couple of fried duck eggs. Today during dinner there were no duck eggs, so all my sister had to eat was rice with soy sauce. My brother didn’t even eat lunch at the house today—he hid away at grandma’s house where the quantity of meat undoubtedly outnumbered the quantity of greens. Today at dinner, he walked in from his English class, sniffed at the dishes present (stuffed bittermelon and stir fried green beans with beef), and announced to my mother that he didn’t want to eat dinner because he wasn’t hungry.
My mother delivered a swift reprimand, her voice cutting through the air, causing my brother to sit down obediently, and help himself to a spoonful of rice with two green beans. After he finished he announced he was full and wandered into the living room to watch TV with his sister, who had long finished her satisfying and nutritious meal of rice and soy sauce.
I’m not really sure how to handle this situation; do I tell my host mother that I like to eat more meat and feel around to try to find the middle ground, or do I just hope that she’ll come around and realize her own children are actually starving because none of what she’s making is delicious to them? The thing is, there is meat at meals; it’s just stir fried into the vegetables. I don’t even think I would be able to handle eating any more meat than I already am; at my training family I often felt greasy and sick because of the lack of vegetables. I think I’m going to bank on the latter, and that host mom will start making more child-friendly food tomorrow because her already underweight kids are complaining of starvation.
The worst part, though, is what my younger siblings might be thinking of me behind their cheerful smiles. “Damn foreigner, why couldn’t we get a real one who actually likes to eat meat? Instead they stick us with the American who looks Asian, eats vegetables, and parks herself in our hammock every day from 12-2. Just our luck.”
The K4s had an option, when we were going through our site placement interviews, to state whether we wanted to be at a replacement site or not. Meaning, we could either replace a K2 that had left, or we could start afresh at a new site. Since the K4 Health Volunteers are the first of our batch, we didn’t actually have a choice of being at a replacement site or not; we were dumped in brand new sites, all 18 of us. It didn’t really actually matter, because I had said I wanted a new site anyway. No one wants to follow in the shoes of another volunteer, right? Everyone wants to make their own impression and do their own thing, right?
Wrong. As Murphy’s Law: Cambodia has dictated many times already, what I had thought would be best for me is actually turning out to be me wishing I was at a replacement site.
Let me elaborate. As I am regaled with stories about how other volunteers at replacement sites are being shown around town and treated with an air of familiarity like “Oh, hey, this is just another foreigner, we know what to do with him”, I’m kind of overwhelmed by the fact that pretty much have to do everything myself. I need to meet all the important people in the village (find them first, which is kind of hard: if you think you’re at the right police station that’s right by the Health Center where you work it’s actually the wrong one because you live on the border between two communes and your house is in the other commune. All you want to do is to give the police officer the copy of your passport as you have been instructed to do but all he wants to do is wave you off because once again, this is not your police station and he does not care), find all the important landmarks (like schools; the set of buildings with a large satellite dish and bulletin boards outside which I thought was a school of some sort actually is a cement factory. Easy mistake to make), come up with brand new ideas on what sorts of secondary projects to take on, and find enough things to do so that I’m not being an utter waste of American tax payer money. I’ve tried to do all of this and it is proving to be unbelievably yet unsuspectingly difficult.
It would be so much easier if I were ushered around by a school director who already knows what’s up with the Peace Corps and shown to several non-governmental organizations a previous PCV has already worked with while being told that I would spend my free time there working with troubled children and teaching computer skills. It would also help if the Health Volunteers had actual jobs instead of being told to just “observe” the Health Centers for the first three months. I understand that observation is an essential part to figuring out what sorts of health projects we want to tackle (e.g. if there are a lot of malaria cases then maybe a project involving mosquito annihilation would be prudent), but it really does nothing to quell the growing insecurity of uselessness inside of me that is basically reaffirmed everyday as I sit with the patients in the Health Center and yet again tell them I cannot do anything because I am not a nurse or a doctor.
But then no one ever said the Peace Corps is easy. Down the line I’m sure I’ll find my niche somewhere, sometime, and come up with a completely radical and mind-blowing project, to the point where everyone’s minds will be blown completely to smithereens. And I’m sure it will be infinitely more satisfying one day near the end of service when I realize that everything I did for the community here was of my own effort and without the framework set upon by someone else.