The Never Ending Summer

Happy first week of school!  Yup that’s right, we just started school in the middle of November!  Last year school started early October, but this year there were a few problems.  We have a new minister of education, who has decided to crack down to try to improve schools, which is great!  But of course these things don’t always run smoothly.  All 12th graders in Cambodia have to take a test at the end of the year to graduate.  If you fail, you don’t graduate.  Unfortunately cheating has been rampant in this test.  Cheating is a huge problem here, especially for this test.  Students would bribe teachers to give them answers, bring their phones in to google answers and blatantly copy off each other.  Well after a few years of empty threats, the ministry decided to crack down this year and not allow cheating.  They did a great job monitoring!  There were police officers, phones were confiscated, monitors walked around watching the proctors.  I had my doubts that they would actually stop cheating, but they did it!  I was so proud.  Everything seemed great, until the results came in.

Only 25% of all of the students in Cambodia passed.  That meant that 75% of the 12th graders wouldn’t graduate.  Obviously that wasn’t okay, so they decided they would give the students who failed another chance to take the exam in early October, and the school year would be pushed back to November. Unfortunately only another 20% passed.  55% of the students will either drop out, or have to retake 12th grade.  I’m so proud of the ministry for doing something about the corruption, and doing something to improve the educational system, but my heart is also breaking for these 12th graders.  It really sucks for them.  They had to crack down, but it always stinks for the group they had to crack down on.

With this extra break, I’ve had a ton of free time.  I started teaching more private classes.  I really enjoy teaching the private classes because I can teach whatever I want.  We do a lot of fun stuff like playing games, listening to American music and watching movies.  It is also awesome because the students are bright, and they actually want to be there.  I don’t have to beg them to participate.  They come because they want to learn!  I love it.  But one of the downsides is that it can be hard to teach by myself.  Especially with my 10th graders!  My Khmer isn’t good enough to explain everything, and their English often isn’t good enough to understand my explanations.

I’ve also been pretty busy getting ready for the school year, and working on big projects.  I am going to do a big environmental project at my school that involves new trash cans, a workshop for 70 kids and an environmental club.  And of course I’ve been spending lots of time with our new puppies and my adorable nephew!

I’s starting to get excited for this new school year.  It is nice knowing some of my students and feeling more confident.  I know what projects I want to accomplish this year and am ready to do them!  Its crazy to think that I only have 9 more months here.  I can’t believe it!

And lastly, I was going to put a ton of pictures of the last few months up, but naturally all of them except one are giving me error messages.  So here’s a selfie of Soohong and I!  I’ve never met a baby who likes to take as selfies as much as he does!IMG_0836

Cambodian Yays (Grandmas) are Feisty!

Can you believe it? 2 posts in 1 week! I’m actually remembering to blog! Aren’t you proud? So I’ve debated whether or not to post this, because it is a grumpy post, but I decided to because I want this blog to be an honest depiction of the Peace Corps, not just one that talks about the happy things. So here’s the story of my brawl* with a Yay (grandma) at the market.

So the other day as I was buying some breakfast and old lady came up to me and asked me for a thousand riel, which is equivalent to 25 cents. Now as a rule, I don’t give money to people who ask because as soon as I give it to one person, there will be ten more asking for money as well. And honestly, when your only making four bucks a day, a quarter is kinda a lot of money. Well I told her no, and she hits me. In Cambodia old ladies especially like to play hit, but this wasn’t a play hit. It wasn’t a painful punch either, but it definitely wasn’t a lighthearted hit.

Sometimes it can be so frustrating being here. This lady believed that she was entitled to this white, western woman’s money, and since I didn’t give her any money it was appropriate for her to hit me. Now I don’t want to sound dramatic, and have anyone worry about my safety. I could totally take a 70 year old Khmer grandma, and it wasn’t a painful punch or anything like that, but it was the principle of the whole thing that really upsetted me. I’m lucky that people in my community rarely ask for money, and I doubt that anything like this will ever happen again, but it still sucks.

Its just so frustrating feeling unappreciated sometimes. I wanted to scream at that old lady: “I’m giving up two years of my life for your country. Don’t get pissed that I won’t give you a quarter. I’m giving up two years of income, my health, two years with my family and friends, possibly my sanity and endless supply of cheese for you. I don’t owe you anything.” I know that the important thing the work that I’m doing, not the thanks that I get, but some days its just so infuriating.

The Peace Corps tells you that you will experience your highest of highs, and lowest of lows during your service, and they really weren’t kidding; I can go from happy as can be, to irate right back to happy in a day. I was seething all morning because of the yay (grandma) hitting me. Later that afternoon I was riding my bike and I could start to hear a moto slow down. Immediately I got annoyed because I thought it was some stranger who was going to go by me as slow as possible while staring at me (honestly its a miracle I haven’t caused multiple car accidents from people watching me instead of the road), but instead it was one of my brilliant students! We had an awesome conversation, and I went from being super grumpy to happy as can be. It’s exhausting feeling so many feelings in a day!

I really am trying to remember that not being grateful or expressing it is a universal trait. Back at home, there are plenty of people (myself included) who have trouble seeing the sacrifices that those around us make for us, or even if we do see them we don’t articulate our thanks. Anyways, I’m just going to keep on reminding myself that I am making a small difference to at least a couple of my kids, and remember that while receiving gratitude is nice, that’s not the reason why I’m here. The reason why I’m here it to inspire at least a couple of my kids to do great things to change their country for the better. And I’ll remember to watch out for Yays at the market.

*Just kidding! It was not a brawl, it was a slightly more aggressive than a play hit, hit

Back from America

So I’m back from an awesome trip back home! It was amazing! I got to run around Seoul for a few hours, ride on 306 airplanes (okay so maybe that part wasn’t the best), see my family and friends, love on my puppies, kitties and the newest addition: a bunny rabbit, and even visit Mickey Mouse!  I was able to spend 3 weeks doing crazy things like ride in cars with only 2 people in them, bask in the glory of air conditioning everywhere, wash clothes in a washing machine and go to Target as much as I wanted.  No one cared when I walked down the street, and I wasn’t called fat when I went shopping!  So weird!

A royal palace in Seoul

A royal palace in Seoul

Cool sites in Seoul

Cool sites in Seoul

IMG_0049

Mcdonalds!  In Seoul

Mcdonalds! In Seoul

IMG_0078

Spending time with the Madre

IMG_0074

We rode on lots of roller coasters

Hanging out with goofy!

Hanging out with goofy!

Hanging with Chip and Dale

Hanging with Chip and Dale

The happiest place on earth!

The happiest place on earth!

 

Our newest addition: the bunny Nikko

Our newest addition: the bunny Nikko

I got to hang out with my fur babiess

I got to hang out with my fur babiess

So excited for cheese!

So excited for cheese!

The Korean Airport has the cutest Dunkin Donuts donuts!  I had only 50 minutes coming back to catch my next flight, but I ran like a crazy person to get some breakfast for the next day!

The Korean Airport has the cutest Dunkin Donuts donuts! I had only 50 minutes coming back to catch my next flight, but I ran like a crazy person to get some breakfast for the next day!

 

It was so nice to see everyone! One year is by far the longest I’ve been without seeing my family, and I can’t imagine having had to wait another year to see them. I was able to just relax and enjoy all of the luxuries living in a first world country has.

 

I was a little concerned about how I would feel coming back to Cambodia. Would coming home make me even more homesick? Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. I was happy to come back and see everyone, and everyone seemed to be happy to see me. Apparently the gossip around the village was that I was going home to find a husband. My market ladies were very upset to hear that I had in fact not found myself a husband or even a boyfriend in America. At the ripe old age of 22 I’m becoming an old maid, and obviously need to find someone quickly. One of my market ladies told me that she had a 57 year old family member who was a dentist and still single, and she would be happy to set me up with him. Haha! Uhh thanks but no thanks.

 

By some miracle the temperature has actually been tolerable lately! It is funny to see how much the weather seems to affect my mood here. I was happy to see my again, and especially my little nephew who learned how to walk while I was gone. The only things I wasn’t too happy to see were the mice that seemed to have moved into my room while I was gone. Not cool mice.

Sadly these were not the mice that moved into my room

 

School will be out until October, so I have a lot of free time right now. I’m hoping to start teaching more English Clubs, and get my environmental project off the ground. Hope everyone is doing well! I will try to write again soon!

1,000 Bowls of Rice and Other Thoughts at 7 Months

I can’t believe I’ve been in Cambodia for 7 months.  It is unreal.  I think another fellow Volunteer put it best when she said it feels like we’ve been in Cambodia for such a short time, but it feels like it has been so long since we were in America.  I’ve done things I would have never imagined doing before Peace Corps.  I’ve eaten a bowl of rice with every single meal I’ve eaten, seen an elephant walk down the street, watched monkeys play in trees and explored thousands of years old temples.  I’ve gotten used to squat toilets (actually I’m a convert now!  I think we replace all public bathrooms with them) and made peace with my little mouse friend who lives in my room.  Its surreal that were more than 1/4 of the way done.  The K6s are starting to get ready to leave, and the K8s are getting their invitations.

In the last few weeks I feel like my language has finally gotten to a good level.  I can have basic conversations with people, and actually understand them!  I had an awesome moment at a cafe in Phnom Pehn.  This cafe is right across from the market with the torries to Takeo, so I will sometimes hang out and grab a coffee before I leave.  I’ve probably only been there 4 or 5 times, but there aren’t too many white people around who speak Khmer, so the lady always recognizes me.  Well I was talking to her in Khmer, and another man says “oh the foreigner speaks a little Khmer”, and she responded “no she speaks a lot of Khmer”.  Learning Khmer has been so frustrating for me, so it was awesome to hear someone who I barely know tell someone that.  Now I can ask more silly questions, and can joke around with my host family, whereas 3 months ago I was struggling to hold a basic conversation.  I also feel like my village is becoming more like home.  When I walk down to the market I always have a few Mings who want me to sit and angoy leng (hang out) with them.  I’m getting less stares and more “hello Sam”s, and I don’t think I’m getting the foreigner discount any more🙂.

School is still frustrating, but I’m starting to get used to it.  Its just a frustrating system.  The teachers don’t make enough money to support themselves and their families, so they have to get second jobs.  Well the second jobs often interfere with teaching, so they miss class.  My students have the same problems too.  They need to help on the farms so they miss school  too.  Its nobody’s fault, but it gets really frustrating.  Before I came to Cambodia, I thought the hardest part would be the lack of creature comforts, but really its the frustration and feeling like I’m not doing anything useful that’s the worst (though if someone opened up an air conditioned pizza/bakery/ice cream shop with hot water showers and bath tubs in my village I totally wouldn’t complain🙂 ).  When I get frustrated I try to remember one of my first weeks in Cambodia.  I remember our country director was talking about how Peace Corps is probably one of the hardest things you will ever do, but almost everything in life that is worthwhile, is also really hard.

Overall, despite my frustrations, I am so happy to have the opportunity to be here.  I never expected that I would end up in Cambodia, but I got lucky!

Here’s some more pictures from the last few months

The Elephant who sells medicine walking down the street

The Elephant who sells medicine walking down the street

A Tah and his temple

A Tah and his temple

Some boats in Takeo

Some boats in Takeo

Sunset in beautiful Kampot

Sunset in beautiful Kampot

Our boat driver in Kampot

Our boat driver in Kampot

 

A Very Peace Corps Thanksgiving

So I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t looking forward to Thanksgiving at all.  This was my first Thanksgiving ever away from home, and I was not looking forward to teaching all day, and then attempting to scrounge up a Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, but it actually turned out wonderfully!

Two other PCVs and I headed over to the provincial town Saturday and decided to be super fancy and splurge at a nice guesthouse (little hotel).  We basked in the air conditioning, and enjoyed cable TV with English channels!  The guesthouse was beautiful and had an amazing view of the lake and hammocks for us to lounge in.  It was an awesome break, and I felt like I was able to get away.

On Sunday we had our Cambodian-American Thanksgiving dinner.  I am amazed at how well it turned out!  We somehow found amazing fried chicken from a street vendor, so that became our “turkey”.  The market had everything we needed for mashed potatoes, green beans and modified banana cream pie.  My awesome co-teacher won a scholarship to go to the US and observe American teachers, and she brought me back some Souffer’s Stuffing.  One of the volunteer’s host sister made an awesome Khmer salad and noodles.  Even Mom’s candy corn recipe made an appearance.  It turned out amazing!

Yum!

Yum!

The table

The table

Making dinner

Making dinner

It was also a good time to reflect on everything I am thankful for.  Being in Cambodia these last 5 months has shown me just how blessed I am.  I am so thankful for my family and friends in America, but I am also thankful for my Khmer family and friends.  Before I left I was talking with a man who had visited Cambodia, and he said that everywhere he went, he felt as though everyone he met was family.  I didn’t exactly understand what he meant by that, but now I do.  Khmer people are amazing.  It isn’t uncommon for me to be walking down the street, and be invited to sit down and drink a coconut.  My host family is so sweet as well.  I went to Phnom Pehn for a day, and when I returned my host mom gave me a big hug and told me how much she missed me.  I am so thankful for my Peace Corps friends as well.  I am so lucky to be so close to other awesome volunteers!

Being here also has shown me how lucky I am to have all of the things I take for granted back home.  I can turn on the faucet and there will be clean water in an almost endless supply, despite living in a desert.  As a woman, I have pretty much the same rights as men, and I am able to choose for myself who to marry and what my profession will be.  I am grateful for the American educational system, because despite it’s flaws, it could be so much worse.  I am thankful that I was able to receive a great free education from grades 1-12, and a highly subsidized university education.  I am thankful that I live in a country that values international development, and gives me the opportunity to be here.  I am grateful to know that even if I ever were to fall into poverty, I would most likely still have an apartment with electricity and clean water, and some type of food on my table.  Its amazing how many things I took for granted at home.  Every once in a while I will be talking to someone, and they will mention me taking their child home with me when I go back to the US.  I try to laugh it off, and act as though they are joking, but I think that the truth is that they are serious.  They know that there are so many opportunities in America, they would be willing to send their child off with me, so they could have a better life.  I am so lucky.

I hope that everyone had a happy and safe Thanksgiving.  I will try to write again soon.

A Tour! And the Last Couple Months

Sorry I haven’t written in so long.  Its been a busy last couple of months here.  School finally started!  After a few weeks of being told that school would be starting “soon”, it actually did start.  I’ve settled down into a routine, which was nice to finally have.  The Cambodian school culture is definitely different than the school culture in the US, and it has been a little hard to adjust to.  There are a ton of holidays in Cambodia.  I had my first full week of school only 3 weeks ago, despite the fact that school was supposed to start October 2nd.  It is also very common for the teachers or the students to not show up to school.  My students think its hilarious that at home students or their parents can get in legal trouble if the student is absent too many times.

Luckily, I have a lot of awesome students who are hard working and really want to learn English.  I started teaching a few after school English classes, and hope to start a girl’s basketball team soon.  We also made it past lock down (we had to stay in our provinces for the first two months), so I’ve been able to go to Phnom Pehn for the weekend a couple times and eat cheese and bask in the glory of air conditioning!  Its a really nice mini-vacation.

Well that’s all that is new.  I took a video of my village and school so you all can see.  Hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

Full Moon Festival

Peace Corps probably should have included in the welcome book we got before coming to Cambodia that you will be confused 95% of the time.  I seem to never know what is going on.  I figured that once I understood the language a little better, I would know what was going on… nope, not true!  We celebrated the full moon festival this week.  Peace Corps had done a good job with teaching us about Khmer holidays, but my family is part Chinese, so we celebrate both Khmer and Chinese holidays.  So basically I had no idea what was going on the whole time.

It all started on Wednesday.  My host mom had told me that she was going to Phnom Pehn because her niece was engaged.  She comes back at around 7:00 pm and everyone runs outside.  I follow them and see my host mom shoved inside this van with 5 boxes and bags of flowers.  It looked like she had gone to Sam’s Club.  Now in Cambodia gas is super expensive, so even though my host family has a car, they rarely use it and my host mom took a big van to Phnom Pehn.  So she crawls out of this 10 passenger van with at least 8 other people, a moto, and a ton of boxes inside.  It was crazy!  We helped unload everything and bring things inside.  Now at this point, I’m so confused.  She said she was going to Phnom Pehn because her niece was engaged.  Was she getting married at our house?  It wasn’t wedding season yet!  My host mom opens her boxes and out comes a ridiculous amount of fruit and cakes.  In my broken Khmer I try to ask what is all of this food for.  They say something about the moon and something will happen tomorrow.  Alright, I’ll just have to be patient.

The next day I come back from the market to see my host mom filling plates with beautifully arranged fruit and cake on plates.  She divides them up, and places them on the many altars around our house.  I think I ask if they are offerings for their ancestors, and she says that no they are for the gods, which of course confuses me even more.  Do Buddhists  believe in gods?  Why didn’t I pay more attention in world religion class?

One of the altars with the offerings

One of the altars with the offerings

My host mom lighting candles

My host mom lighting candles

Getting the offerings up to another altar

Getting the offerings up to another altar

After the altars are all pretty, I run upstairs and read for about an hour.  I come back down, and all of the food has disappeared!  What?  Now my family had told me that the cakes were very expensive for Khmer standards, so why would this food be gone?  There was no sign of it anywhere!  I tried to ask where it went, but my host family just laughed at me and said something about tomorrow night and the moon.  Did the gods eat them?  Did the dogs jump up and grab the food?  Did my family stealthily eat the 4 boxes of food in an hour without me noticing?  Aut dung te!  (I don’t know!)

1761814870_03bae27b04

The full moon

The next night everything is normal, until after dinner.  My host sisters move our dining room table outside, and my host mom brings out another box filled with more unopened cakes, and starts putting them on plates.  They bring the food outside, and set up the table with candles.  They explain that because its the full moon, they offer the food to the gods.  My host family prays and lights some incense, and then the table and the food go back to the house.  We got to eat some of the fancy cakes and fruit.  It was a fun, albeit very confusing first holiday in Cambodia.  I still have no idea where all of the original food went, but maybe next year I’ll find out🙂.

The fancy offerings

The fancy offerings

Lighting incense

Lighting incense

My host mom and I

My host mom and I

My host sister praying

My host sister praying

My host sister and I

My host sister and I

My younger host sister and I

My younger host sister and I