Just as all good things must end, all terribly stressful and utterly maddening things must also end. With PST drawing to a close, it was time for site-placement – that most anticipated day thus far of of the Peace Corps Cambodia experience in which our friendly and lovable PC staff would dole out magical folders detailing where and near whom (i.e. which other volunteers) we would be living and working in Cambodia for the next two years. The next 730 days.
As most of us discussed amongst ourselves, we had never experienced a day of equivalent anticipation and mystery in our lives. When receiving college acceptance letters, we ultimately had a say in which school we would choose. For weeks we had all been observed by staff during practicums and had extensive personal interviews program managers and the country director about specifics pertaining to site placement. However, we would all have to accept our placement and head where our folders directed us at the end of the day. Such sombre resignation would fulfill Peace Corp’s 3rd Core Expectation:
“Serve where Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”
Needless to say, there were many butterflies in our many bellies.
And in a flash, it was over. I will be serving in Takeo Province.
I will be honest, I found myself disappointed when I read my inconspicuos little folder. “Takeo.” I knew nothing of the province, only that it wasn’t renowned – in my myopic sphere of Cambodian knowledge – for anything. It did not contain Angkor Wat or any of my most beloved Khmer teachers and would appear to have no coast. I joined in the group excitement but went home and found myself crying. I cried all night.
In retrospect, the only way I can explain the sadness actually had nothing to do with Takeo, specifically. It had more to do with the realization that for the past 8 weeks, despite being in a foreign place speaking a foreign language and running constantly on fumes, I had felt more like myself than any other time in my life. The self who I always wanted to be surrounded by the people who I always hoped to meet by serving for the Peace Corps. Leaving for permanent site would mean stepping back outside of this realm of unexpected comfort, a place that took a lot of vulnerability to reach. Moving away from Kandal and the other volunteers would require that I reacquaint myself with solitude – my usual norm which I thought I so preferred until I tasted the ease of commaraderie. I’ve done this so many times before, moved to a new place and built home, but without digging my heels in so deep that it would be difficult to leave whenever need be. Truthfully, permanent site will be the longest I have lived in one home since I moved away for school. That fact felt massive and insurmountably intimidating. What if my family doesn’t like me? What if my village is spooky or remote and frightening? What if, what if, what if.
Ultimately, I got a grip of myself and quit whimpering, because I have done this before. I know I have the strength. It is an aged and living muscle I have trained. And anyhow, none of these fears could be asauged until I arrived at site, thus no need to waste energy in the mean time. Besides, we had final practicums to complete!
We had both individual and group final practicums. On our own, we would each head to the health center and do the following, solo, without intervention from a staff member: 1) measure a patient’s blood pressure and provide education, 2) perform a dietary recall and make recommendations/commendations, and 3) weigh a child and explain their growth trajectory to the parents. I was lucky enough to go first thing in the morning when things were sleepy and I could really focus with the patients. Was is frightening? Of course. Did I know what I was doing 100% of the time? Absolutely not. But it worked. I actually provided health care… in Khmer.
For our group project, we would meet with a village health volunteer and get to know her, how she liked to do outreach in her community and about what health topics she wanted to learn more. Our lovely lady, Bie (henceforth known as “Ming,” meaning “younger aunty”), had a thirst for knowledge. She has worked as a VHV for over twenty years and often makes home visits in her village to check on pregnant women and ensure that they know when to visit the hospital. At the beginning, she told us she did not think of herself as a teacher. In line with Peace Corp’s goal of building capacity, we resolved to provide her with a comprehensive lesson in the three food groups, nutrition during pregnancy, common sources of crucial vitamins/minerals, and danger signs during pregnancy with the intent that she would then provide education to her community later in the week. We did our best to incorporate her learning needs (flipcharts) with new methodologies (GAMES) that she could apply to education in the future.For her education, she led us around her village to invite various families. She chose to teach at the community center about the three food groups and nutrition during pregnancy. She gathered a group of mothers, yaays (grannies), a throng of children, and a handful of younger men. Ming began so quietly and then swelled, quickly, into a smooth operator. The information rolled off her tongue and she even engaged the audience for retention questions. We found ourselves standing there remarking about the evident capacity we felt we had helped build, given that we barely had to say a word or lift a finger during her sessions. “Look ma, no hands!”These practicums always seemed impossible. I would wake up in the morning with zero idea of how the next 16 hours were going to play out in any kind of orderly fashion. To our amazement, it always worked out. We always learned and grew, always made unexpected and beautiful connections. The best part? Thinking, “If this is anything like what actual service is going to be, I can completely do this.” If I can help just one child become as well-nourished as the one depicted below, my service will not have been in vain.
Someone’s been eating all three food groups.