Friday, May 27, 2011


So, today I met with my school director to go over my summer classes and my plan to visit each 10th and 9th grade class to personally tell them about it. Really, this is the only way I can get info out in my school. I requested to see the schedule. Turns out, they lost it. It took about an hour for them to run to the copy center across the street and find it on the computer. How does a school function if the Director has lost the schedule?

I think waking up in the morning is always hard for people. The bed is a comfy cozy safe haven. A place of relaxation and no worries. And yet, every morning i'm forced to leave it. Mornings are hard. Especially here since I could potentially choose to never get out of bed and no one would think that its strange. Some people spend the entire day in a hammock. Every morning I make the choice to put myself through things I would rather not do. Like be ridiculed for my accent for the 5000000000000th time.

I was working on a grant proposal with some fellow volunteers this past month and it got approved! Now the real work begins. I'm trying to keep my girls' empowerment club going and will amp it up from once a month to 4 times a week. Only problem is that I am not fluent in khmer. Big surprise there. It has been so hard to find a counterpart, especially a woman counterpart. That's not even with the criteria that they should speak some english. I just am not sure how I'm gonna pull off 4 times a week if we can't understand each other. Anyway, hopefully this will work and then it'll lead to Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). It's a 4 day camp for girls from 3 villages, we got the grant for this project. It won't take place until September so we have some time for planning, but time certainly does fly here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"cambodia is not an experiment"

Something that has been bugging me more and more lately is the attitude of foriegners toward developing countries. So many people think developing countries are so messed up already that they can't possibly do any harm. As long as they come with an open mind and a desire to help everything will turn out hunky dory. WRONG. So totally wrong. Cambodia is not an experiment. It's not a place for people that have no idea what they're doing to come and play around. I think a lot of PCVs join up with this mentality that what they have to offer is better than nothing and I think some of us eventually realize that we can do better than just show up with a superiority complex thinking that we're better than anything the country itself can offer.

Yes, I am a native English speaker. Cambodians can't offer that. I can teach kids to speak English with a proper American accent, but what about the inferiority complex I may be indirectly causing. A lot of Cambodians believe that Cambodians are just not as smart as foriegners. They think this is a universal rule. A lot of Cambodians are so used to having foreigners come in to give them things that they never try to help themselves. And why should they? It seems so easy for the foriegners to part with a few bucks here and there. Foriegn aid is being spent willy nilly and completely wasted in some cases in countries like Cambodia all over the world. Why? Because there is a fundamental disconnect between the people of the country and those that are "just trying to help".

There are many levels at which this disconnect occurs. I think the most blatant occurs when some foreigners come in and just give things away. They have all this money and they build a school. Yes, people need schools. But, who's gonna use those buildings? Who's gonna teach? How are the students going to get there? Who's gonna figure out a way to feed families so children can leave the fields and go to school? In my opinion, People that just give things away are the people that want to make themselves feel better and think that they can fix it all with money. Sometimes its not money, sometimes its those pesky tourists that just pop in for a week or two, teach some english and then flit away back. You think you're not doing any harm? How about all the kids that became attached to you during those two weeks that you just leave behind? How about people like me that are trying to build relationships while you make it harder by demonstrating how temporary I really am? (Yea, I'm very personally biased in this respect). But really, I'm not angry at these individual volunteers. They are trying to help and for many this experience may be a stepping stone to a longer committment. My short time in New Mexico has definitely influenced my time here. The people I really hold responsible are the mid-level organizations and groups that perpetuate this structure, where responsibility sort of goes out the window. They throw people that have done no research, no training, no cultural climatization, and just blindly believe that no harm will be done. This is the exact opposite of the "Do no harm" philosophy. There's no initial training, no monitoring during service, and no real evaluation. Peace Corps is not exempt from this criticism either.

On another level, there are people and NGOs that start out really well. They do the research, take the time to understand the culture, work with Cambodians to make curriculums and programs for Cambodians. And not just Cambodians from Phnom Penh, but getting the input of Cambodians in the villages or whoever their target group is.  But then they never really figure out if what they're doing is effective. Essentially, the problem is that change isn't 'mainstreamed'. In any organization, there needs to be a certain amount of felixbility. A willingness to throw out the current model and put in something new because people change, communities change, problems change, and solutions NEED to change. So, you need to constantly have a way to figure out if your solution is still working or if it ever worked in the first place. You need feedback from the people and communities you are helping, constantly. Otherwise, what you are currently doing is probably useless. The people in the villages are tired of projects that don't work, they lose faith, stop being interested in helping. Add to this mix the 50 NGOs that are all trying out a slight variation of the same model that doesn't work in the same villages and you can imagine the magnitude of the indifference that is being created.

How can we fix this? I don't think we can. I try my best to not exacerbate these issues. I tear my hair out trying to find people in my village to work with, try method after method, discussion after discussion and I will keep trying even though doing things by myself is extremely tempting. But I know my two years are not nearly a long enough commitment.NGOs are also too big, too many, and too stubborn. I wish someone with a clear view of development work and Cambodia could just come in with a magic wand. They would magically make either ALL the NGOs better or get rid of all the crappy ones (though after this we might be only left with a handful of small ones). I wish we could start again so that, this time, we would do our jobs right and do it thoroughly.

Mental Health in Cambodia

So, there's this man in my Wat. (A Wat is a large complex that holds the local buddhist temple, monks' housing, maybe a small school, some places to put cremated people, and such stuff). This man has been there for months. He is tethered to a post. Yepp, tied by rope like a dog. He has maybe a 2 meter radius to walk around. Sometimes I see the monks take him out for a walk. I asked my khmer tutor why the man was tied to a post everyday and he replied that the man had a nervous issue. In other words, someone decided he was mentally ill. Apparently, he's tied to the post so he doesn't wander off and get lost somewhere. He's at the Wat because the monks to pray over him and bless him to treat his mental illness.

In Cambodia, mental health issues are everywhere. How can they not be with Cambodia's long history of genocide and oppression. Plus, its not like everything is all hunky dory now either. The problem is that no one really understands mental illness and there's really no one around to deal with it. The majority of medical professionals are midwives or nurses. There are very few doctors and most doctors work in expensive clinics or for NGOs.

I think this illustrates a fundamental issue in how the public views mental health in general. Clearly, if you have a physical ailment and die it doesn't matter what state your mind is in cause it no longer exists. There's enough need for professionals to treat physical illness in Cambodia to justify many more years of neglect in training mental health professionals. But that's precisely why it's so difficult to find treatment for mental health not only in Cambodia but around the world. People never think it's all that important. First, it's difficult to pin down, difficult to diagnose. Whereas a broken bone or a cold are fairly easy to diagnose. Second, it's difficult to treat properly.

But people forget that mental illness is illness of the brain. It is based on a physical organ. When people say "it's all in your head" that is, very literally, true! The chemicals and electrical impulses in your brain interact in an almost unfathomable way every millisecond of your life to create who you are. When shit goes wrong, its a physical ailment. The unique issue of mental health is that if chemicals make your thoughts then your thoughts also make chemicals. That's why going to a shrink works. When you talk things out, work out issues in a totally unphysical way all that talking results in a physical change in your brain (in my opinion your most important organ). That's why drugs work and talking works too. The physical is the mental and mental is the physical. Most people never grasp this relationship and dismiss psychiatry as a bunch of mumbo jumbo. However, neglecting mental health is neglecting your brain and without a brain you (at least how you currently view yourself) doesn't exist.

It's sort of insulting to your own brain to say that mental health isn't important enough to address.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


It's really odd that I haven't put up a post about food here in the 9 months that I've been writing. Food is such a big part of my life and I know you all know it. Let me start with saying that I am probably no longer the girl that can go to the bakery, then sushi, then applebees, and then white castle in a single afternoon though I would like to do that loop again with some of my fave girls from home. This morning I had delicious pumpkin spice pancakes for breakfast...and I couldn't finish them. There were only two! (No, my host  mom didn't make them. They were from a western restaurant in the city)

I think most of you know that I will eat pretty much anything and I have eaten pretty much anything. I'm always offended by tv shows about "gross food" because most of those foods come from China and are on my list of favorite foods. Stewed pigs feet, tripe, chicken feet at dim sum, chicken gizzard, fried frogs. All delicious. Don't judge. I think in my lifetime I've eaten at least three different kinds of brain. (Which, with the discovery of prions I would no longer recommend.) Here in Cambodia, everyone eats mashed fermented fish. Which sometimes I can't stand. It's in the same category as japanese fermented beans and stinky tofu (though I love stinky tofu). But, sometimes it's delicious. I really only like it hot. Sometimes people eat it cold and it's just too fishy for me.

I also eat a lot of fish. Sometimes I have 5 different kinds of fish during the course of the day. And sometimes I can't take it anymore. The bones. The bones. Especially when a small one just sticks straight up into your gums and you can't get it out. Most meals consist of a fish based soup and a shit ton of rice. LIKE A LOT. Not those wimpy chinese bowls of rice. I'm talking a dinner plate of white rice and then you HAVE to refill. One dish is never enough or my host mom will be offended. The soups are not bad. My fam knows I like veggies which they never stop telling people. Usually it's just a fishy veggie soup and that's pretty good. On days with pork or beef I make sure to clean my plate so she knows I like it. It's all about subtlety. Once in a while I get stirfried veggies too. Another staple, at least in my household, is salted dried fish. It is exactly what it sounds like. Hard dried fish, heated over a fire, and it is super salty. Eaten with rice, as always. Sometimes that's all people will eat. I can't do it.

Rice porridge. A staple of mine since childhood, but with a twist. Here, you can buy rice porridge with the works in the market. Usually cooked in fish or chicken soup. Chunks of meat, organs like liver, fried minced garlic, add some pepper. Pretty delicious. But, the plain white rice porridge you make at home...different story. In America, there was nothing I loved better on a Sunday morning than heating up some leftover rice, adding water and then eating it with some side dishes. Plenty of pickled veggies, fermented bean curd, stirfried edamame with pickled cabbage, homemade sour cabbage and turnip, kimchi. God, writing this is making me sooooo homesick. Here, you HAVE to make porridge from scratch. No using leftover rice. Which means it takes like an hour. Then all you eat with it is dried salted fish or sometimes just soy sauce. And not even good soy sauce. No kikkoman's here man. I was sick two days ago and my host mom is super nice and kept giving me sugary drinks and made me some plain porridge cause I just couldn't stomach anything else. I would have traded my computer for some of my dad's stirfried edamame with pickled cabbage. MY COMPUTERRRRR. Or some plain chinese noodles with salt in a light chicken broth. yea, the chicken broth is a stretch.

I will probably talk about food again now that I've opened the flood gates. Be prepared.