Saturday, January 29, 2011


I've always been a believer in fate. Throughout my relatively short life, I've experienced my fair share of unusual coincidences. That has not changed in Cambodia. Here are a few:

1. Alex Zenoff, a fellow PCV and graduate of John's Hopkins university, and I are mutual friends with Becca Cholas-Wood. A wonderful woman who I had the pleasure of meeting at Baylor College of Medicine during a summer internship. A person who I also spent some of my last weeks with in NY before I went to Cambodia.

2. The Harpswell Foundation. A group that gives scholarships to Cambodian women so that they can attend University. In addition to the scholarship, they provide room and board, transportation, and a leadership seminar series. They are partnered with Bowdoin College along with a few other northeastern schools. Their summer office is in Brunswick, Maine.

3. Taylor Noyes, another fellow PCV, went to Exeter. Therefore, she must know Bowdoin peeps that I also must know.

I'm sure there are a lot more, but the Harpswell Foundation one just blows my mind and I had to put it down.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Happy six months?

I've been here for half a year now and still everything is new. Always, there's the feeling of standing on the edge. That any minute I could be pushed over or back. One day I could lose my temper and destroy a much needed relationship or another day I could feel so defeated that I choose to speak to no one. Feeling constantly like I'm in a valley of confusion and simultaneously on the precipice of decision. I always have to do something, but I have no idea what I'm doing all the while everyone is watching. But that's just me being dramatic. In Cambodia, this is how I feel, but I know that I can always escape.

I'm young and stupid. I make mistakes and this is the perfect time to make them, in a twisted way. So many of my fellow PCVs are constantly wrestling with the question of "how do we do this job?", but more importantly "how do we do this job right?" But since no one really knows how to do this job right I have the opportunity to experiment.  Coming from a science background I already know that about 80 to 100% of early experiments fail. I know I will fail and I will walk down the wrong path, but I have the freedom to do that, no matter how much I hate making mistakes. Through my mistakes I will learn and I will keep working. No matter what I have to keep working. And I hope and hope and hope that when I finally get things right that I will have done no harm to those around me. Though that seems like an impossible wish. Even if you just choose not to smile one day you may have done harm. There's no way to account for all your actions and the impact of any action or inaction is incalculable. So should we be extra careful or should we not care at all?

I think there should be a scale. A scale that measures how philosophical my posts get with how crappy I feel at site. It's a direct relationship. These past two weeks were hard. The longer I'm here the clearer it is that doing my job is the hard part. People think of Cambodia and think life must be hard. The bathrooms, the food, the lack of soap. But that's the easy part. That is survival. The hard part is pushing yourself past the basics. I could be happy just living here. Just going from village to village socializing. Teaching a little here and there. Smiling. These days I'm mostly unhappy because a project is going wrong or someone that I force myself to work with is being extremely disrespectful (though I've only really met one of these people out of the hundreds). It makes me upset when I put everything behind a proposal and no one steps up to the plate to take it on. But everyday there are people and events that remind why I need to do my job. That I'm not just here to chill out and say that I lived in Cambodia. Sometimes I'm scared though. I'm scared that I'm forgetting about those things.

Last week I went out to a village to give out vaccinations. It was a routine visit. Usually you show up in the village and people bring their children and babies to you. But this time I went with a particularly dedicated midwife who went house to house to people that didn't show up. The last house we went to was clearly poor, but no poorer on the outside than those around it. The grandmother brought the baby up the road to us and with them came the aunt. Immediately, I knew this baby was in danger. He was a year and a half old. Naked, as is common here. Arms and legs skinny sticks. Not much hair for a year and half. His stomach a rotund semisphere. Jutting out when every other aspect was shrinking in. Clear signs of malnutrition. He was feeding from a baby bottle, something that is typically discouraged here because no one can afford formula. If they are fed from a bottle it is usually only water or sometimes rice water from porridge. Practically no nutrients at all. The mother? In thailand, which happens with frequency. The midwife gives the vaccine. We talk. They've taken the baby to the doctor in siem reap already, but clearly no changes have occurred. The midwife tells them they need to give the baby milk, but at this age milk is no longer enough. I try to tell them about enriched porridge, but like with most people they either already do it or they need to be shown. Then I forget about him. I really do. And so does the midwife. I think that haunts me more than the baby does. The fact that I could forget so easily. A baby that I know will die without help. A week later I finally remember to ask. I want to go see the baby, but the midwife is reluctant. She tells me to wait until next month, a ridiculous request. I ask her why? And she says because she doesn't have free time. I say I want to go by myself. I've biked to that village more than once already. I just don't remember the family's name. She looks it up for me, but she's insistent. She wants me to wait until she's free. I want to go and I could, but I haven't yet. Why haven't I?

January 20, 2011

Well, I'm frustrated. That is the perfect word to describe this past week. I'm not necessarily frustrated by a specific event or a lack of results. I'm not frustrated by boredom or by language. I'm frustrated with people. Sometimes I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them. Shake them and shake them until they do something different. Until they realize that if they want the world to be better they have to start by changing themselves. I'm not talking about things like learn a new language or go to a new school. I'm talking about finally being comfortable without a routine. To not be prisoners in your habits. Sometimes people are so set in their ways that they never even see how rigid they have become. Maybe it's unfair of me to say this, it's not like I have a choice in my routine. My days are ruled by others and when I choose my schedule I usually end up isolated and alone, so I've learned to grudingly give up routine. And so far I've survived, happily. But the walls of other people's routines are blocking my ability to evolve and change. I would like to do new projects, teach health, teach teaching, build wells, eradicate diarrhea, but none of those are possible without someone else willing to break their routine. Someone else needs to be able to see beyond the importance of what they are already doing to a bigger picture or just feel enough pity to work on a project with me. Someone else needs to give up an hour here and there to change themselves. That is the wall. I've come and I've changed, but I need to be met halfway.

I have a theory. My theory is that people think I'm learning k'mai so fast that sometime in the near future I'll suddenly be fluent. Once I'm fluent I'll do great things. I can tell everyone right now that that is a complete myth. I will not be fluent, at least not soon enough to leave enough time in my service to complete miracles by myself. And if I could complete miracles I would have been a saint in America where I was already fluent.

That is sort of a tangent. Anyway, back to me being frustrated with people. This is no new concept. I remember this feeling well in America. I'm sure everyone knows someone that is constantly too busy to do anything else, even though they probably spend at least an hour a day on facebook or something similar. The person that never says no, but never says yes either. Yeah, there are busy people. Yes, some people are struggling to feed families or have some other pressing obligation, but I can probably list at least 20 people that know they should do something with their lives, but are unwilling to give up the time or change their routines. It's like going to the gym. Plenty of people have time and some even have the memberships already, but it's fundamentally a matter of discipline and true desire. Going to the gym, volunteering for your community, starting your next paper on time. These are things that people never get around to and may never get around to because they think there is always time in the future.But there isn't. You just keep pushing it off and pushing it off, sometimes pushing it onto other people.

This is actually a huge issue in Cambodia. Cambodia is so filled with NGOs that I think there needs to be an NGO governing the NGOs. Actually, I think there is one, but that NGO needs another NGO to help it out a little. But the fact that there are so many NGOs creates a dependency. Everyone's waiting for the next NGO grant before they take the initiative to do anything. There's a bit of irony in this. When we look at America, our equivalent of an NGO is a nonprofit organization, though many nonprofits actually get money from the American government, but the general purpose is the same. Generally, when I say NGO I think of an organization that is in a country to help the people of that country in some way. When I mention NGO workers, most people think of someone working tirelessly in some African savannah with little to no resources. Sometimes that's true. But here in Cambodia, NGOs have the money and sometimes have the power. The problem is that here the NGOs give the government money whereas in America the government gives nonprofits money. In both situations the organization gives help to the country. But in Cambodia, if the NGOs run out of money the government loses its budget. In America, if the government runs out of money the nonprofits close. In Cambodia, one of the best jobs you can get is to work for an NGO. That's where you can make 'big money' as long as you have one skill, the ability to speak english. This will get you a job in an NGO, hotel, or KFC. All coveted jobs. Here the tables have definitely turned. In America, nonprofits are just that, they are not profitable. Meaning that most people make no money doing work that is essential to the betterment of out society.

Although Peace Corps is not an NGO it is and organization, which is how i describe it. Most people here don't differentiate it from an NGO. Its been interesting to find out that first they think I'm rich because I'm from America, which is expected. But, they also think I'm rich because I work for Peace Corps. I always get asked about money, my salary, my rent, everything! It doesn't even faze me because I always thought it was normal. No one ever does anything to make me think those questions are rude here. But, six months in now and I'm starting to wonder. Everyone I meet operates with a set of assumptions. In America, its what you get when you meet a quiet asian girl with glasses that majored in neuroscience. Here I'm a rich foriegner that works for an NGO.

This year alone, I've seen at least three new NGO programs start in my village. I'm not sure if there are more that I haven't seen, but it just adds on to the long list we already have. It makes me wonder how much could be done if we added up all the administrative waste. That alone could probably pave some roads that desperately need it and build a few wells that don't run dry in the dry season.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New Year

I just got back today from a Health Education Volunteer meeting in Phnom Penh. Volunteer organized and volunteer run. Every time we all get together to share I leave more motivated to work on new projects. This post will be a bit disjointed. I want to get some stuff down that I wrote on my list but never managed to get around to typing about. First up, pajama sets.

Pajama sets are popular here. I'm not talking about a set from Victoria's secret. They are plain old pajama sets. A top that buttons up and some loose pants. Both must have the same pattern. Pajama sets are worn everywhere. For my birthday, my host family gave me a pink floral pajama set. Unfortunately, they are ridiculously warm and sweat extraordinary amounts when I wear them.

Second, eating carbs with carbs. Cambodia is not a country where the Atkins diet would ever work. Everyday, people eat rice 3 times a day. And it's not a little serving of rice. It's a huge full plate. Then on some days we get fried eat with the rice. I love fried noodles. I don't like rice as much, but I eat them together anyway. There's really no other choice in my house. It seems absurd, but it's just another part of my life.

Third, being Asian in an Asian country. You'd think it's easier and sometimes it is. I know some volunteers whose faces just automatically make children cry because they've never seen a caucasian before. On the other hand I have the same conversation with everyone. "Are you japanese? Are you Korean? Where are you from?". "You're American? Why don't you look American? I think your parents are from somewhere else." Sometimes its enough to make me want to scream or at least shake someone. The really hilarious part is when Cambodians pull their eyelids and say "This is what a korean looks like" or when a kid trying to sell me bracelets tells me my eyes are our eyes are the same size.

Fourth, NGOs. There are so many NGOs here that there needs to be an NGO to keep track of them all, no lie. Some are good and, factually, Cambodia would not be able to run without NGOs. A chunk of the Cambodian budget is from NGOs. Unfortunately, this causes a countrywide dependency on foreign aid with no sign of diminishing. In addition to this, there are numerous NGOs that are not legit at all. Most of the time Cambodians don't know better and foreign donors don't know any better. On the Cambodia side, it stinks. People are trusting these foreigners and working with them, but getting very little or nothing out of it. Sometimes, they'll build a road or give a water filter, but where does this leave them 2 years from now when the road has huge potholes or the filter cracks? The Cambodians wait around for the next irresponsible NGO to come around and give them new roads and filters because no one ever told them where the filters come from or how to organize and fix their roads. Some NGOs are bad because they give a bad name to volunteers in country. When you say you're a foreigner most people immediately jump to thinking you're a tourist. If you tell them you're a volunteer then you are some temporary being that has come to give them something. There's very little trust at times because you can't trust people that will disappear in a month. People can come and help and feel good about themselves, but in a month they are gone. They don't know the language, the culture, or the people. They think they help, but in reality they are really harming the work others are doing and creating a culture of distrust and dependency in Cambodia.

Fifth, maturity. I am finally very very tired of talking to people that giggle every other sentence. I would really really like to have a real conversation where I am not being interrogated and where I am not being ignored and where the person speaks in full sentences without hiding. It's like there's permission to speak or act disrespectfully to me because I am a foreigner. In part this is caused by the lack of investment by past volunteers. If I'm temporary then of course you can act however you want towards me. If I'm just some rich voluntourist then it doesn't matter all that much. I'm not your equal. But, I will say. For every person that ignores me or asks me rude questions there are many many more that have intelligent conversations with me.I have seen great improvement in every student that started out speaking to me in a mixture of giggles, kmai, and silence. Things change everyday and sometimes, most times, I'm just along for the ride.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Before the spoons and hearts...

Not too much has happened in the last week and a half. Mostly just going to the health center and studying kmai. I think by the end of last week I started getting really worried about not having enough people to talk to me regularly. The family I live with is awesome, but the girls are really shy around me and my host parents are not the most talkative. Talking to students and kids is good and fun, but eventually I really felt the need to seek out adults to speak to. Adults that won't giggle after every sentence, cover their mouths when they speak, spend 5 minutes debating about what to ask. So, I took a long bike ride to some villages and I stopped anytime anyone showed any interest in me. Anyone that was standing by the side of the road got to have a conversation with me too whether they wanted to or not. I felt desperate for someone to talk to. I think I met some good friends. I also had a horde of kids around me. Usually hordes of children are insane, but for some reason I have a calming effect on kids here. They don't run away and scream. They also don't run around me in circles yelling like kids tend to do. I pushed some kids on a pair of tire swings (awesome!) and then I sat on a bench. I even read a page in "Mountains Beyond Mountains" to them and they listened, quietly. They had no idea what I was saying but they listened. I asked questions and they answered. They asked and I answered. It was perfectly adult of them. Then we walked home together, or rather I walked them home. Two of the boys did stop to pee before we got to their houses though.

One of the boys had a bookbag on with Disney princesses on the back. Sometimes the rules are different and it's a good thing. I see commune chiefs, tough old grandpas, with notebooks and folders that have baby Winnie the Pooh on them. Men wear pink here all the time and they look good in it. But maybe this lack of commercial gender lines ends here. In most other aspects of society, gender roles in Cambodia are as strict as any other society if not stricter. Clothes for example, are fairly regulated. The school uniform for girls is a long traditional K'mai skirt. The skirt is fairly restricting, though girls still manage to play badminton in them, and extremely hot. Female teachers also have to wear these skirts. For formal occasions, like ceremonies or weddings, women also have to wear a long skirt. During the day to day, women typically can't wear anything that shows their shoulders and most shorts are past the knee. No one in my village, outside of my host family, has seen my shoulders. The casual wear for men can be pretty much anything, except maybe a traditional skirt. Men can walk around in their underwear or typically they tie a scarf, called a kroma, and essentially make a short skirt. Their formal wear is the same for any event or job, a collar shirt and long pants. It's not that wearing skirts is intrinsically bad or good. Pants can be sweaty and hot too. It's just the lack of choice in the matter. So now I'm going to go on a tangent about Feminism and you can skip it if that's a word that offends you for some reason, or if it offends you maybe you really should read this next part.

For me feminism was always about choice. It was about letting people have the ability to make decisions for themselves. It's not about having all women work in offices or having all women wear pants. Either of those ultimatums is decidely unfeminist according to my opinion. To me 'the fight' is to let women decide if they want to be stay at home moms or high powered CEOs or both if they can do it. It's also about giving that choice to men. That's really what equality is in my mind. It's that everyone gets the ability to make the same number of choices. I think Feminism, in this generation, is molded by the individual. You can make your own version of feminism. What does that word mean to you? I think a big reason for why so many people recoil from the term is because it was such a powerful movement in the past and it created a lot of change. As a consequence, it became defined by the changes that were made in Feminism's name. But really, the original intention was to give women the choice. Telling stay at home moms to become CEOs was a necessary part of that change, at the time, because all women were stay at home moms. I haven't studied the history of feminism in depth and I couldn't give you any references, but I do know women that are veritably scared of the word "Feminism" and I really wish that they weren't. I really wish that everyone that jumps at the word would just take a minute and ask themselves why. Why do they label certain people as Feminists and think it's a negative label? For me a Feminist is someone that believes in women.A Feminist doesn't have a mold they want to push women into. They trust women to make their own decisions. When I look at women in Cambodia I see strong women. Women who are the pillars of their families. All I want to let them know is that they have a choice in what they wear, what they do, what they hope and dream. I also see strong men, who are under a lot of other pressures that I won't go into. But I want them to know that they have those same choices too. It takes everyone to make these changes work. I know there's a lot left unsaid on this topic, you could write pages and pages arguing. I know that, in a way, this is an idealist's point of view, but I believe in it anyway.