មេផ្ទះ “mey p-teah” – colloquial: house-wife, literal: house-boss
“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything during the daytime, but at night it is another thing.” – The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway
From under my bug net on many a silent night, I have written and will write many polished accounts of the best parts of the Peace Corps experience, all thoughtfully cherry-picked and carefully worded. This is not one of those accounts. I am overall happy here, most of the time, for innumerable reasons, and those posts were meant to reflect that. What they lacked, however, was a hard look at rocky foundation on which all these experiences come to rest at the end of the day, the sometimes beast, sometimes blessing for all volunteers in Cambodia: home-stay with a Khmer host-family. I owe it to you and anyone else reading to be honest about this prickly reality from which I decompress every night behind the partitions of my precious, dark bedroom.
My family during pre-service training was a Godsend and their warm-reception and constant hospitality distracted from the fact that most of us would be assigned to communities in which, believe it or not, no one was actually on their knees crying out to the heavens, If ONLY there were an American here! Permanent site is not all happy hand-washing and feeding spirits. More often than not, it’s a deliberate evasion of eye-contact, a cloying sensation somewhere between intrusion and non-existence, and a longing to be anywhere else. I decided to come clean about life with my host-family one night after a long, spaced-out stare at this broken glass mug which brought to mind a Khmer adage described by Chanrithy Him in her Khmer Rouge memoir When Broken Glass Floats.
“…good and evil are thrown together into the river of life. Good is symbolized by klok, a type of gourd, and evil by shards of glass. Now, the klok sinks and the glass floats. But the glass will not float for long. Soon the klok will float instead.”
– When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him
I broke this mug in July. July. It is nearly October as I write. On that day almost nine weeks ago, I peered down through the dusty slats of my wooden floor to spy the table where my family eats most meals. I eat with my family but once every day, in the evening, for dinner. Midday as my family lunches, I am either deliberately out of the house or upstairs trying not to make a peep. To walk by them as they eat would trigger a series of events. Pa would invite me to eat, as is Khmer custom, I would politely refuse, and host-mom (mak) would mutter something to him under her breath and pa would try to mask it with a chuckle. It’s no longer any great injury to rush by them on my way out of the house. It’s only that I prefer to avoid it. I’d prefer not to force a reassuring smile, I’d prefer not to sidestep wondering what mak muttered, I’d prefer not to bother her at all. I would rather stay cloaked in the seclusion in my room, though I know I will consider for the thousandth time where the abundant privacy which I am afforded falls in the long list of things for which mak must begrudge me.
When I saw mak stacking up the dishes at the end of their lunch that day, I sprang up to grab my backpack I’d packed for a bike-ride. In my excitement I bumped into my water filter which sent the glass mug atop it tumbling. Immediately after the shatter of glass I heard mak swear loudly downstairs as I stood frozen, gaping at the mess. The mug was one of maybe six or seven of the same kind that pa sets out for his friends when they visit for tea or beer. I ferreted this one up to my room months ago without asking mak, unsure of what she would say, but certain that it would be harsh and audible to the neighbors. If I swept it up the shards and took them downstairs, I realized, I wouldn’t know where to throw it out. I would have to ask. I would have to admit to both breaking the mug and stealing it in the first place. Only moments ago I had been all keyed up about escaping for a few hours on my bike. I did not have the energy to invite an encounter which in all likelihood would hang over me like a rain cloud and spoil the rest of my day. I scraped the shards together and set it all back atop the filter. I considered it every day for two months whenever I went for a drink.
We received copious training about the importance of bonding with our host-families and of the unique love that can grow from the home-stay experience. A bond more intense than just copacetic coexistence seemed to be the norm and our fear of rejection on the part of the host-family was profound. Before arrival at permanent site, I knew only that my host-dad was the director of the primary school, a position, I hoped, possible only for someone of great patience and compassion. The Peace Corps staff who had met him on their many visits to the home for family selection said as much was true. Pa has been nothing but welcoming and gregarious this past year. We struggle to communicate sometimes, between his hearing and my soft-spoken Khmer, but he’s been a staunch ally through all mires both culture and work-related. As it turns out, though, pa is ill with a blood condition. He simply can’t work or provide for the family the way he once could.
Thus for many house-related issues pa must defer to the house-boss. Mak raises the livestock, produces and sells dried fish, manages the household finances, cooks all three family meals each day, cleans fastidiously, and does so almost entirely solo. Mak and pa’s oldest son has been abroad in China for graduate school for years, their middle daughter is away from dawn to dusk at her factory job, and their youngest son has failed his college entrance exams for the second year in a row and is laid up with a moto-accident injury. This woman is tired. I know this because she says so, loudly and often, always in my vicinity but never directly to me. She is the house-boss in both a logistical and management sense, but her general disposition towards me (hesitation mingled with irritation) has also influenced the already shy demeanors of my host-siblings to the point that they recede in my presence and we hardly speak. All my efforts to help around the house have been rebuffed with claims that she prefers that I rest and not tire myself out, often with an aside to anyone nearby that I don’t know how to chop up the pigs’ feed, wash dishes, sweep etc. anyhow. Our routine has been one of conscious avoidance and in any instance that I have deviated from that norm and intruded even so slightly into her space or time – i.e. attempting to cook for myself or using a different receptacle for clothes-washing – one eye is kept on me but nothing is said, no guidance is offered until I do something intolerable which is then met with shouting too rapid and nerve-wracking to translate in a timely manner. She is tired, yes, but this only fuels her exacting severity. Sometimes I think that the glass from her Khmer Rouge childhood never sank.
You can’t have it both ways, I want to say. Either accept my help or stop claiming that no one around her wants to support you. Then I remember I have no right to say anything at all. It has become more than clear that Peace Corps conducted most of their family-selection interviews with my host-dad and that mak was not terribly included in the conversation about inviting a foreigner to live in her home for 24 entire months – to misuse her best knives, share her laundry soap and mosquito-repelling incense, and insist on filling up with pricey vegetables in lieu of rice. I am not ignorant to the intense dramas which play out in my family – namely forbidden romances, drunken moto mishaps, life-threatening illness, etc. – which should serve as reminders that the sometimes crushing tension at home has absolutely nothing to do with me. These issues don’t stop me from wondering, though, at every silent and joyless dinner if things were better before I showed up and assumed I had a place here.
Peace Corps countries in which the volunteer stays with a host-family are actually in the minority. Volunteers at many posts live either in their own apartments or homes, sometimes with other volunteers dorm/roommate-style or more immersed in a larger community with families nearby. Home-stay is one reason in a million why each volunteer’s service is completely unique and incomparable to that of another volunteer. Positive host-family situations are not unheard, but they are precious. The sensation of guilt I feel when surrounded my family, like that of a greedy, non-contributing house-guest, may be shared by other volunteers to some degree but more than likely their overarching issue is something completely different, perhaps a lack of a dedicated counterpart, friend or ally at site, lack of privacy, or lack of health and sanitation, all of which I am lucky to have at site. To compound the diversity amongst our experiences are the various victories we each accumulate, the successes and people who ultimately keep us keeping-on in the village. Living with a host-country national family makes the PC Cambodia experience challenging and true to the grassroots Peace Corps voyage we all romanticized before joining, but it plays out differently for each of us.
“I have had to set boundaries with my family… ‘No, host-father, I will not watch the toddler while you are gone to drink/watch wrestling…’ It’s made it easier for me to patient with everyone else.”
“My family has introduced me to cross-stitching, Khmer boxing, and farming… but at times living with a host family is just like living with a family in the states, but with added frustrations of never eating rice correctly, never sitting correctly, watching animals be abused 3 feet away from you, no consideration of private space, and sometimes feeling so alone in a place full of people. There are the good and not so goods of living with a Khmer host family, but it’s something I think I will always cherish about my Peace Corps experience.”
“I guess the hardest part… is not being able to totally ‘turn off’. Even when I’m in my room, I’m conscious of [it] because I don’t want to send the signal that I’m avoiding them. A lot of the time I’m a little out of my element, but the last week or so my youngest [host] sister and I started filling in her coloring book and eating Nutella every night, which has been awesome.”
“I definitely feel like more of a tenant than a family member… I used to be the shiny new foreigner they paraded around the block, but… they stopped seeing me as exotic and started seeing me as normal, and that in and of itself is a great form of cultural exchange.”
“They enjoyed the monthly paycheck… and the status they received from having me in the house, but otherwise wouldn’t talk to or interact with me and didn’t even seem to notice on the days I spent throwing up… or would randomly start crying during meals which I ate by myself because they never invited me to eat with them.”
I should disclaim that Peace Corps would help me and any other volunteer move in with a new family as soon as I made the call. My program manager (PM) who makes periodic trips to my village to check up on me – and who is an all-around angel – is well aware of the tense dynamic between mak and I. My PM always asks if there have been any new developments and most importantly, she says, ensures that I am alright. Between being elated at the health center, comfortable yet remote in the community, and glum at home, yes, I tell her, it all averages out as “alright.” As a follow-up my PM always asks, Wouldn’t you like to be much happier for more of the time, though? This is the dilemma faced by all volunteers living in an a less-than-ideal homestay situation. No, it isn’t perfect with this family, but there’s no knowing what exactly life would be like with another family, anyhow. Another volunteer advised me to make a few lists of things that are and aren’t working about the current situation and then consider 1) how many of the cons would be feasibly solved by changing families and 2) how many of the pros might be transferable. This volunteer moved to a new home mid-service. For him, however, this also meant moving to an entirely new province elsewhere in the country, far from his original community. In this lies my quandary. I feel there’s no way I would be able to move in with another family within our village for all the social uproar it would cause for my current family, no matter what kind of face-saving excuse I schemed up. Vuth and Leakhana, my only Khmer friends in whom I’ve confided my home-difficulties, have confirmed as much: the gossip would be too intense and it would be a shame for that to overshadow my work and other relationships here. But you wouldn’t leave our village, would you? they both asked carefully. No, I wouldn’t. Not for anything. That the loss of my monthly rent would be an intense financial blow to the family never comes up, though I know it to be true. And so in the end, it proves that the beast you know and have been able to handle for more than a year already has to somehow be made better than the beast you don’t know and cannot predict.
I recently stumbled across an old self-assessment PC had us write in which I declared, “If I am sure of one thing about myself it is my deep skepticism toward comfort.” It still holds up. Whenever I relax or rough-house with any of the numerous other families and friends who have taken me in here, I reflect that if I had been more comfortable at home I might have been tempted to rest on my laurels and never would have ventured out into the community to the extent to which my discomfort compelled me. Mak is not without her golden moments, either. She always ensures I have a num or two for the road whenever I travel and her rare smiles full of pewter crowns sustain me for days. She melts around little kids. She even recently asked me to help her sweep upstairs every evening. Any onlooker might have gauged from my shock and elation that she had just floated the idea of pizza for dinner. No, we’re not going to be braiding each other’s hair any time soon. Yes, I’ll still chuckle when the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” conjures up her face. With twelve months behind us, though, we’re both relieved that I’ve given up the fight to find some kind of elusive new normal, as if there’s anything remotely normal about this job or life.
Grampa, during my visit last summer before I set-sail, I was leaving your house to walk home after we finished watching Funny Girl when I overheard you pick up the phone. I eavesdropped and heard you describe my Peace Corps prospect to the friend who had phoned. That granddaughter of mine, she’s not afraid of anything, you said. I’ve done my best all this time to believe you. I thought for a while that what I feared was staying in one place, staying anywhere long enough to make connections that would hurt when they eventually end, or even worse become bored. Regarding the decision to change families or terminate service early before the full two years, a popular argument made by staff and other volunteers is that If your life wasn’t going quite right in the States, you wouldn’t just pack up your things and leave, would you? In truth, though, I have done exactly that more than a handful of times now and each time I found it wildly successful – until the air felt thin and it was time to leave again. I thought that making this 26-month commitment would by some standard – in which two years is considered a “long” time – qualify my resolve and constancy. I thought this despite the built-in expiration date and inherent isolation. It took me the first year to own my folly. With that behind me, I’ve acknowledged that maybe what I fear is not actually growing too close to people but actually to be stuck somewhere were I didn’t feel well-liked. In a lot of ways, having to confront a less-than-warm relationship with mak every day has freed me from that original fear. Whenever I am asked to justify my persistence here in the face of imperfection, I am sure to keep a deep album of shots from surprise-toddler-visits and pop-up picnics with Vuth to try and articulate the inexplicable redemption that the village serves up every day without fail. “Evil” is too strong a word, to be sure, but it’s true that all broken glass eventually sinks.
Love you all the time,