“Where is that life that late I led?” – George Orwell, Burmese Days
Cousin Ellen informed me that you keep hard copies of my blog posts. It was the sweetest thing I’d heard in a long, long time. She explained that aunt Teresa – angel and saint that she is – prints them out and delivers them as an endorsement of your abstinence from the many expensive rectangles from which most of us now extract new information in lieu of talking to each other’s faces. All future blog posts will be addressed especially to you beginning now, this week which marks both your 87th trip around the sun and one whole month since I arrived in my village. There is so much to share so I hope you’re sitting somewhere comfortable. But first and foremost: Happy birthday, grampa!
My village – formerly known as THE village or A village, but referred to now with confidence and affection as MY village – is a tableaux of life in the countryside, populated by many a fisherman and farmer. If you follow a certain minor state road away from the Provincial Town of Takeo Province, that road will eventually meet an abrupt end at a lake made of low farmland filled with fresh rain. The village built itself up from the natural bustle surrounding the boat landing where fishermen come to market at dawn. My family’s home is two glorious stories tall and the balcony affords me a dazzling view over the colorful rooftops of the village and rice-fields beyond. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, a elephant strolls through town and his rider lets him groom the trees in front of the pagoda.I write from the very best seat in town, tucked far in the back in my usual breakfast joint on a precious free morning. Khmer people are the hardest-working I have ever met, most of them possessing endless skills and trades which they practice in an overlapping, seamless manner all day long. But today, Sunday, is the only thing which vaguely resembles what we would consider a “weekend” kind of day. Many village women arrive at market to sell their wares at the leisurely hour of 6:30 or 7 AM instead of the usual 6:00. And late in the morning, most of the men are gathered in a garrulous but amicable sea here at the cafe to watch – and covertly bet upon – Thai boxing.
Two examples of the aforementioned hard-working individuals would be my host mom and dad. My host-dad, pak, is is a gentle and kind. He reminds me a great deal of you and that other great guy we have in common, your one and only begotten son, my dear (real) dad. I often catch pak playing with the house-kittens, though he would never admit that he truly adores them. “They just live here.” He is the director of the primary school for all youngest kids in the village. This is likely how he’s perfected his practice of being so patient and enthusiastic with me. Some time after he overheard me telling an aunty in the market that I wanted to buy a clothing rack, I arrived home to find him sitting and admiring a freshly-welded iron wrack that he built for me that morning. He laughed at my desire to snap a few photos and even indulged me so far as to suggest that he don his favorite sunglasses and make some sparks fly. The entire forefront of the house is littered with his machines and tinkerings. Can you spot the small Buddhist spirit-house amid the chaos?
Host-mom, mak, is never sitting still. She reminds me of gramma Char in that way. When the entire family is asleep midday, she is chopping up swamp-grass to feed the pigs. When all the other fish-sellers have packed up shop for the night, she persists under her umbrella, camp lantern shining, selling the highest-praised cured fish in the village. When the family tenant and farm-hand comes home with a nasty headache, mak sets into him with traditional Khmer medicine (“cupping,” more on this later) without a moments hesitation.
I am endlessly fascinated by the both of them. Bordering on fully obsessed. I don’t yet have the language skills to say, “Put me in, coach,” thus I spend a lot of time hovering around, trying to figure out how to be useful. The rare nights when mak lets me chop veggies with her or pak lets me pour over his student registration lists with him, I am the happiest woman on this planet. But at the end of the day, I am still their feeble American daughter, largely pitiful in the ways of Khmer daily-living, for whom it takes a team of two to prepare her first fetal duck egg (note: it was delicious). To feel like a child again has had an unprecedented comfort for someone who has spent much of her life striving to be thought of an entirely independent adult entity. There are a lot of things I am re-learning about being a daughter – a good one. And grand-daughter. You should know I’m in good hands.
The first week I spent in the village was the beginning of an important Khmer holiday – Bon Pchum Ben. Lasting two weeks, families pay frequent visits to the local pagoda to offer tribute – both edible and monetary – to the monks before sunrise. Much time was spent bleary-eyed at the pagoda sitting precariously on my sleeping lower-limbs, hands pressed together in respect of the monks chanting at the front of the hall filled with multitudes of other families, my host-sister constantly checking the time to ensure she would leave on time for work at the garment factory. In the moments right before the sun breeched the horizon, an enormous gang was rung which prompted everyone in the hall to turn out, plates of offering in hand, and walk thrice around the temple to toss handfuls of food in each cardinal direction in hopes of appeasing the hungry spirits of their ancestors. On the final day, I got spiffed up and stood with mak to offer food and money to the monks during their procession down from the temple and through the grounds of the pagoda. As per tradition, much of that money will be put toward projects in the community. Maybe some hand-washing stations for the school if I have any small voice in it… Ahem. The festival was jubilance incarnate. In some breaths, the chanting caused a humming in my chest which I might have sensed emanate from a place many hundreds of years old. The Buddhist scripture projected from the nearby pagoda via loudspeaker at 4 AM was a different experience. That always felt very immediate and somehow less enchanting. The holiday was a great way to get out and start becoming a regular face in the community. The first three months of my stay in the village are intended for integrating, a hot Peace Corps buzzword for “encouraging your community to get used to you as a human instead of the token foreigner in the village.” I spend a lot of time walking around the village and “lenging.” “Leng” is a Khmer word which kind of means “play” and can be used as a suffix with nearly any verb to make it playful. Khmer people use this wonderful word very often. I walk-play (go for pleasurable walks), sit-play (hang out), and speak-play (chit-chat), with new villagers when I have free time. Every single person is so inviting and generous, often waving me over to see their homes and eat their snacks. That being said, I have a few favorites, I won’t lie. Some aunties go so far as to scale their backyard fruit trees to offer me fresh guavas. And then there is my aunty Sinsemunthea who serves me coffee while we chat about our different cultures, paint each others’ nails, and prep some of the snacks she sells. It’s a hard deal to beat.Given that the wives and daughters are often the ones home during most of the day while the men work, much of my networking (read: idle chit-chat) is done with the mings (younger aunties), om sreys (older aunties), bang sreys (older sisters), and kmeng kmeng (little children) of the village while they cross-stitch or cook. I have answers ready for the same 20 questions I am asked time and time again. Do you have a husband? How long are you going to wait until you have a husband? Do you want a Khmer husband? Aren’t you afraid you won’t be able to have children when you’re a crusty [implied] 30-year old? Why don’t you wear long sleeves to prevent your nice white skin from darkening? How much money do you make in a month? How much money do your parents make in America? Do you miss your family? Why are your parents divorced? Are you ashamed? Why are you only teaching English 4 days per week? Why not 5 days? Six or seven? Why aren’t you giving private lessons to my grandchildren? Why don’t you know how to cure every ailment that I present to you and make you physically touch or closely examine even though you supposedly work at the health center? Little do the villagers know that I still spend most of my time at the health center hiding out in various offices with my beloved coworkers, lounging and casually trading translations so that I can somehow provide effective health care in a foreign language and they can flirt with sweethearts/joke around with friends online, in English (very posh). I really lucked out with this health center staff. They have been incredibly welcoming since day 1 and consistently encourage me to weigh babies, measure, blood pressure, and provide nutrition education to the appropriate patients. Given that our health center largely acts like a pharmacy with patients leaving with a handful of routine meds just as soon as they arrived, my occasional health education does fill a niche. But the past month has been spent largely bonding with the staff, attending ceremonies at the pagoda, restlessly observing at health outreach, and taking a lot of selfies.
Though it does wear on me, I cannot blame the community members for their countless questions and expectations. I may be the first Peace Corps volunteer in my commune, but Cambodia foreign aid is not so foreign. Since the conclusion of the civil war in the 1990s, the country has experienced what some have described as “NGO overload,” having the second highest number of NGOs per capita after Rwanda. Many of these organizations (the half that are active) share a few common issues with their model for development, largely involving a lack of knowledge about the dynamics within the community they seek to improve due to their brief stay. This can result in brand-new latrines that are rarely utilized or maintained. Or canvas-copies of nutrition education materials being used as awnings to cast shade over someone’s favorite hammock spot. If you build it, they will not necessarily come. They will likely want you to give them cash instead, not unlike me around Christmas time during college. The Peace Corps framework attempts to draw things out in a way that fosters relationship and capacity building, training of trainers, and sustainability; the preliminary stages of model manifest as a lot of sitting and chit-chatting long before and real projects come to fruition. Until then I am staying busy teaching English to some of the village children at my tutor’s home, relishing in their blood-lust when I orchestrate vocabulary games. A lesson in prepositions came to blows the other day.
On other days, I give private lessons to a few of the monks from out local pagoda. I nearly fell over dead when one of them asked me one day for lessons, given the social norms which dictate that women shouldn’t associate with monks. I babbled – all the while very aware of every inch of my exposed, sinful elbows and ankles – and said I should think about it first and look at my schedule, ask the village chief, make sure pak is cool with it… He was cool with it. He laughed and handed me the keys to the school when I asked, clearly a nervous wreck. We do lessons two and three per week. Monks often join the temple because they come from impoverished families who do not have the resources to send them off for education. I might be one of his only opportunities to study English. He wants to be a teacher. I promise he’s enthused… Khmer people do not generally have a habit of smiling for photos. Really!The rest of my free time is spent in the companionship of various children. The mothers have all gradually introduced me to their kiddos who now take the liberty of showing up in my room at all hours to relieve me from the pains of trying to study, read, or finishing dressing. Although most of my friends are younger than 10, I still catch myself during our adventures and games wondering, “Who is really babysitting who, here?” And then sometimes one of them produces a treat to share. So I do not think too long or hard about it.
Finally, how can I possibly explain the scenery here? It still takes my breathe away every day. It is now the height rainy season and we can all see the storms crawling towards us on their dark bellies from the next village over before they open their wide maws. I find Khmer people oddly tractable in the face of rain, especially for a region which must persevere through so much of it. Most Khmer people will abandon all notions of venturing out for work or other obligations if there is a mere drizzle. Mak once found me watching an approaching storm from the balcony and asked if I was afraid. I showed her pictures of Oklahoman tornadoes and she smiled in understanding. Everyday since arriving in country, I have worn the silver amulet necklace that you once gave to gramma, engraved with the both of your names on the front and back. I hope this site helps translate for you the many spectacles that I and the gleaming eye of the amulet have witnessed together. And when my words fail, I hope the pictures and videos speak for themselves. Hopefully dad will show you the footage below of my ride through my commune’s countryside to do health outreach. I talk of you often and brag of your impressive age and health, both of which would make you terribly venerable in this neck of the woods. I regularly recommend that everyone here eat an orange per day, just as you have for – how many decades now? I always manage to forget to mention the accompanying saltines, American cheese, and copious candy. Those will remain your special staple.
Yours always, Eating plenty of candy, Again, Happy Birthday,
A Disclaimer and Reminder: PC Volunteers are generally prohibited from riding on motorbikes. Traffic accidents represent the single highest cause of death for volunteers around the world. However, CHE volunteers in Cambodia are given training and permitted to ride as a motorbike passenger to visit other villages with their coworkers for the purpose of health outreach and other work-related activities. I happen to be lucky enough to have a stellar uncle/coworker who is both brilliant moto-driver and no longer laughs at me when I would prefer to bike instead. #exercise