People who have experience with Peace Corps often fondly tell me that the service will bear witness to some of your highest highs and lowest lows. Last night was one of the latter when, after somehow avoiding essentially all stomach ache maladies for the past year and a half, I found myself dying the painful death that is food poisoning. As a vegetarian, you get to forgo a lot of the fun intestinal trauma that can come from living in a country with very different hygiene standards then what you probably grew up with in the States. My sympathy to all volunteers who have experienced this on multiple occasions has increased ten-fold.
Yet, ironically, this moment follows on the coat tails of several magnificent highs. First, my former co-teacher at the lower secondary school, thanks to his own talents and the dedicated coaching of his current co-teacher and my site mate PCV Maria, was recently hired to be permanent Peace Corps staff. It’s a job that means a huge leap in his social standing and, given how very infrequently PCVs see tangible change as a result of their service, really validating to see someone’s life being directly improved by the organization. Obviously we can’t hire all the teachers of Cambodia to be PC staff, but I like to think that his years of working with the PCV before me, myself, and Maria helped him become the kind of person Peace Corps would hire.
And on a completely different but equally exciting note, yesterday I also had the privilege of meeting the Acting Director of Peace Corps, her counselor, and the Regional Director for Southeast Asia. Basically the bosses of my boss, and her boss’s boss. We’re talking the woman who runs the entire organization from Ecuador to Cambodia. In and of itself, this was amazing – they were personable, “down-to-earth”, and straight from Obama’s inauguration (the ceremony and balls of which they’d attended). They were also all women, from the Acting-Director, to the Regional Director, to our Country Director. Talk about a validating experience.
Funnily enough, the only moment I felt like I fumbled the conversation was when the Acting Director asked me about my biggest challenge in Peace Corps (a question I’m going to have to get better at answering). I replied with something about the adjustments you make going from the relative freedom of college to the constrains of a host family with an 8:30pm curfew, and family members who enjoy detailing your weight loss or gain to the entire neighborhood, hoping it didn’t sound like I was a party-girl lamenting the loss of her night-time gallivantings. If only she’d asked me this morning – is there any more high pressure challenge than the split-second choice between sitting upon and kneeling before the toilet? (apologies if that was too much for any readers!)
I could have talked to her about the way I had just spent my morning in the Provincial Office of Education (POE), attempting to get permission for my co-teachers to do observations of the Grade 4 teachers who we just finished giving a second training on their new curriculum (read about the first one here). We spent the three days almost completely re-teaching what we’d taught before because lines had gotten crossed on when they were supposed to start and almost all of them had only taught one or two lessons since we’d last seen them in September. Then yesterday, it took me all morning, plus several impromptu meetings with various POE officials just to get the (pre-written) letter, printed and signed. But it would have been hard to encapsulate that challenge in a brief response.
Even here, I’m not really capturing the essence of what makes all these little steps challenging – the way things don’t go like you think they will, even though you know better than to think that they will go a certain way to begin with. Peace Corps for me is in many ways not individual big challenges but lots of little, wearing challenges that chip away at your desire to be the person who gets up and goes every morning to throw around your status as an outsider as a way to catalyze change. I recently listened to an interview with a top ranking member of the Foreign Service who talked about why people rotate posts so often. I’d always wondered, and her response in the interview was that it was partly because they’d found their staff couldn’t continue to generate new and create ideas after three or four years in one place. You start to become the system in which you’re trying to work.
Obviously it’s different for the individual person, and this isn’t a post detailing my burn-out. I’m actually really excited by the next six months and the plans I have for it. Maria and I recently completed our hands-on science club, which was a ton of fun (I never tire of the mentos and coke experiment). Despite the headache at the POE, we did get the letter permitting observations and my co-teachers –who continue to be absolute inspirations –Maria, and I will be getting to see how the new Grade 4 book is actually doing in schools (wish us and it luck). I guess ultimately, the challenge I should have expressed was the way in which what can feel like a very predictable job – get up, go teach English, go have 4 hour lunch, teach some more English, come home, eat with host family – nevertheless still manages after all this time to make me feel like a fish out of water. However, in keeping with the yin-yang theme of this post, the flip side of that is that means I still have plenty to learn.
Most excitingly of all right now though is that this up-coming week features neither classes nor workshops, but rather a visit from the one and only Katie Wilingham and her mother. After spending this past week touring around the temples of Angkor, they’re coming down to Phnom Penh where we will be reunited after far too long for some travels to the province of Ratanikiri – home to what I here is a gorgeous crater lake. Stay tuned for the picture-fest of a lifetime!