Friday, December 30, 2011

oh life...

Some interesting things happened to me today...
  1. Apparently today and tomorrow are very good days to get married. Weddings in Cambodia are typically 2-3 day affairs where they blast music ALL day to let everyone know what’s up. So, this morning, and by morning I mean 4am when the stars are still fully visible in the sky, 3 weddings started up. They were each in a different direction from my house so in effect I had weddings in surround sound.
  2. Puppies do not like Khmer wedding music. At about the same time the music started the 3 puppies at my house started howling like mad. They made their sad puppy cries all morning starting at 4am. My mom thought it was because they were too infested with lice. Which leads to the next interesting thing...
  3. Spraying puppies with RAID. I was standing outside my house and I saw my mom poking at a puppy. I squat down for a better view and she begins to explain to me how the puppies have too much lice and she decided to deal with it by spraying the puppy with Raid. In this country, dogs are not really pets. You may have one that you feed the leftover rice to and these are the puppies of that dog. So, there are pretty much no vet services, no flea control, no doggy baths, etc. The puppy that was sprayed with Raid had handfuls of dead dog lice falling out of its fur. Before the pesticide spray the dog was white and black. Now it was white, black, with brown spots. Unfortunately, I think the Raid had some negative neurological side effects which should be expected when you spray a 5kg puppy and if you know how to read the label. But, my host parents do not because the label is written in Thai. By this afternoon the puppy had stopped having the shakes and seemed to be lice free.
  4. Lately my Health Center keeps being invaded by chickens. I always thought that they were the neighbors chickens. One thing I learned in Cambodia is that chickens are not smart. For example, chickens will wander into rooms in the health center, forget how they got there, and get stuck in the room unable to find the door. This poses a problem when you are constantly trying to herd them out. This morning I asked the pharmacist where these chickens were coming from. Turns out they are the Health Center Director’s chickens and he’s raising them at the Health Center.
  5. One of the three weddings is the wedding of the Health Center’s receptionist. I’m pretty friendly with the receptionist since she’s one most available to answer my general questions, she understands when I speak, we spend a lot of time waiting for patients together, and we’re about the same age. This wedding is also the reason I am not taking any vacation days for New Years. This morning I was chatting with the pharmacist again. Turns out the receptionist is getting remarried. As in, she got married 2 years ago, divorced, found a new guy, and is getting married again. When I heard this two thoughts popped into my head. The first was, “Oh, that’s what my host mom was trying to tell me this morning.” The second was, “Wow, that’s fast.” According to my host mom, her first wedding was arranged and they did not love each other. Also, the groom had to pay 3000 bucks as the bride price. This second wedding, the groom is not as handsome and he only paid 2000 bucks. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Getting used to each other

Recently, I was talking to someone and they asked me "Who got used to the other first? You or your host family?" (not exact wording). I replied, " I think we're still getting used to each other." It was weird because part of me was hesitant to admit that. I've been here for almost a year and a half and I should be use to it by now, right? I should just understand how everything works and be one with the culture. Part of our bi-annual report to Peace Corps includes a question that asks us to self-rate ourselves on how integrated we are. I think the options are: Not integrated, Somewhat integrated, Integrated, and very integrated. I think most people are not really sure what that means. I think maybe you can tell the difference between someone that is NOT integrated at all and someone that is VERY integrated, but other than that it's a totally subjective measurement. And yet, I feel guilty admitting that, after 1.5 years, I am not an expert on Khmer language and culture.

I still do strange American things that make my host family raise their eyebrows at me and they still do weird Cambodian things that I then blog about. For example, today I was sitting in my room on the comp and I smelled/heard someone spray painting something. It was really close to my window, which I thought was strange because it wouldn't be somewhere you could put a bike or car or something. So, I looked out my window and my host brother was spray painting his jeans black. I guess that's the secret to keeping your black jeans from fading in the Cambodian sun. A few hours later I went to a Health Center meeting that was supposed to start at 1:30pm. At around 3 pm one of the commune chiefs shows up. At about 3:30 pm, 3 village health volunteers stroll in yelling really loudly about why they were late in the middle of the meeting. They saw nothing wrong with it and the only person that did anything about it was my midwife. She 'shushed' them really loudly from the other side of the room.

I've learned a lot in the last 1.5 years, but certainly not an entire culture.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are you a feminist?

So, my official COS date is August 3rd!!! That means that August 3rd is the first day that I am ‘allowed’ to go back home to America and the last date of my service here in Cambodia. My exact plans for what follows August 3rd is up in the air, but I hope to end up in India or Nepal somewhere around there. A lot of this is dependent on other factors like med school interviews, potential jobs (if that’s at all possible), and friends/family. But, it’s good to finally know a date.

Recently, I was on facebook and one of my friends had posted on her status “I’m not a feminist, but...” What followed was an article about women in the work world and how in some cases they are making more money than men. This is a very general summary of the article and should not be taken as evidence of anything. What struck me was not the article, but the fact that my friend  felt that she needed to preface posting it with “I’m not a feminist”. My response to her was “‘You’re not a feminist? What does that mean?”
Until maybe my Junior year of college I had no idea that the term “feminist” had negative connotations. To me, feminism is defined by each person. I think that if you generally believe in the ability of women to make choices for themselves then you are a feminist. You don’t have to believe that all women need to work or that women shouldn’t wear bras. You just need to believe in women. You just need to believe that a woman can make the choice to raise kids or run for president and that they have the ability to do either or both. It really does not seem like a radical idea to me. When I first heard that people were scared to be associated with the word feminist my first reaction was “Why?”

Why are people afraid to be a feminist? Coming to a Cambodia has brought feminism to another level for me. The wall between male and female gender roles here is so solid that it might as well be made of steel. Every day I see women come into the health center with their children. They finally found time outside of harvesting rice, cooking, cleaning, and any other work that needs to be done to bring their child to the health center. Very rarely do men come with their children or wives to the health center. In my host family, the boys get to go play soccer, school, see Siem Reap, but the girls stay at home. They go to school and they study, but they need to make the rice first. Every morning all the women in my host family pick up a broom to sweep and every night they do all the dishes. I don’t think I have ever seen one of the boys do their dishes and I’m not sure they know how. I’ve seen families where the eldest son got to go to school and becomes a nurse, the youngest son gets to go to Siem Reap for high school, but the middle daughter stopped going to school after grade 8 and stays at home to cook. These gender roles don’t just force people into certain jobs or livelihoods, but they affect behavior. Generalizing about girls in Cambodia, I would say that a lot of them are scared. They never get permission to leave the house or stay out past dark so they rationalize it into a fear. This fear self-perpetuates and keeps them at home and in turn creates parents afraid to let their daughters out of the house.  If you lived in Cambodia, would you be a feminist?

Maybe the term feminism is too limiting. Maybe part of the reason why people don’t want to associate with it is because it neglects men and some people picture “man haters” when they hear the term. Maybe I should call it anti-gender rolism to appeal to the masses. I guess sometimes people use "gender eqaulity" or anti "gender disparity", but what does that really mean? Mutual understanding between men and women, good communication, is crucial to subverting gender roles. Women alone may be able to start change, but to have worldwide sustainable change the other 50% of the population also needs to buy in. Men are also trapped by gender roles,  “oppressing is oppressive to those who oppress as well as those they oppress” , trapped in the cycle perpetuated by those in power (Frye 1983). If everyone feels oppressed by oppression then why don’t we stop? Because those oppressing still have an advantage they don’t want to give up. Over the course of a number of months I did a big project involving a girls club. As a large part of my work I ended up having many formal and casual conversations with people in my community about the girls club, gender, and related topics. Eventually I realized that many Cambodians, especially men, either don’t consciously see the gender roles in their society or they don’t see it as a problem.

I had a number of people ask me why I only had a girls club and not also a boys club. To me it was obvious and it was also obvious to the two male PCVs I worked with. With limited time and funds why would I choose to create a boys club when all of Cambodia is pretty much a boys club? However, to Cambodians it wasn’t so obvious. The purpose of the club was to teach girls the skills they would not learn at school: self-confidence, team work, leadership, career seeking, project planning, advocacy, anatomy, sexual health, etc. Many of these skills are taught to boys. 

“Women and disabled individuals are encouraged to apply” was a statement printed at the bottom of a job advertisement. Someone reading that in America might not think much about it. It’s a pretty standard statement that we see a lot. Someone in Cambodia once told me that he had no hope of getting the job because they would hire women first. Interestingly, he did not include disabled people in his lament. I asked him how many women and how many disabled people he saw working at this company. His answer was 2 and 0. Out of the 6 staff members 2 were women.  He ended up making it to the final round of hiring and they chose another man over him. One day I asked someone why are there no female english teachers at our school. His answer was because the female teachers all get chosen to work at NGOs or school in Siem Reap (which are larger and pay more). He felt there was unfair selection because they mostly got to work there. I don’t think he realized that of all the men that graduate every year only a handful of women do and that handful  probably had to be first in their class for their entire lives in order to work in Siem Reap.

Hearing people that think that these gender roles are a way of life and that nothing needs to be changed is almost more frustrating than seeing the gender roles themselves. Women are too scared to change, men don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and nobody communicates with each other. So when someone says “I’m not a feminist” I ask “Why not?” What are you scared of?