Time to Say Good-bye

IMG_5447I’m sitting in the Incheon Airport in Korea (which has free showers – be amazed!) about an hour away from travelling back in time to arrive in the States August 2nd, approximately 4 hours before I leave Asia. You have to love time zones. Before I set foot on US soil, I wanted to write what is my final post for this blog. I’ve left family and friends before, and I’m no stranger to good-byes, but saying good-bye to Cambodia was hard. Two years has definitely been long enough for me fall in love with a place, and it’s hard to go knowing that I will never return to the country I’m leaving. Even if I return to Cambodia someday, it won’t be the same. My hope is that for the most part that’s a good thing, and goodness knows it would be sad if I were to come back in 5 years and everything was the same. However, that knowledge hasn’t made saying good-bye any easier.

To everyone who has been with this blog from the beginning, supported me with your emails, your calls, your comments on the blog, on facebook, even financially in some cases, I can’t thank you enough! It has been wonderful sharing parts of this time with all of you, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it as I have. I look forward to seeing many of you within the month or so!

Before I close this out, I’m including an incomplete list of things I will miss about Cambodia and my life there. It’s a list I’m sure has no definitive end, but I’m starting it here so as to remember.

  1. My amazing co-teachers and colleagues: from Sreymom, to Leakhena, to Bunda and Phallin (who made me an all vegetarian dinner on my last night and came all the way to the airport with me), to the Epic Arts staff,  I have been so lucky to have met and worked with such kind and welcoming people.
  2. My yay and host-nephew: host family’s can be a mixed bag, but my dear grandma and her grandson were true friends to me and I wouldn’t have stuck out my host-family experience without them.
  3. Fruits! Durian, rambutan, bananas, pineapple, papaya, custard apples, mangos, dragonfruit, mangosteens…the list is as long as the flight many of these fruits would have to take to make it to the States. My yay made me eat an entire durian (no small feat) my last night because “you won’t get these in America!”
  4. The color of rice fields: I’ve never seen anything in nature so brilliantly green.
  5. The diversity of transportation on the road: car? Bus? Moto? Moto with cart? Moto with truckbed? Cart and pony? Bicycle? Elephant? If you’ve got it, you can ride it.
  6. Ankoilaing:  or “sit-play”, the time honored tradition of showing up and hanging out. Do it whenever, for however long you want, with almost anyone you want. I have the sneaking suspicion that if I sat down next to a group of Americans I’d never met before and tried to shoot the breeze for a few hours I’d get some awkward stares.IMG_5601
  7. The magical power of the moto: anything can be transported via moto if you try hard enough. Anything.
  8. Marketsourcing items: that moment when you ask the seller for an item she doesn’t have, but rather than telling you that, she tells you to wait, goes and finds it from someone else’s stall and then sells it to you.
  9. Public Singing: I wonder what students would do in the States if they were required to sing a song in front of their peers for being late to class. I’ve had students show up late on purpose.
  10. Awkward Dancing: I’ve never been noted for my dancing skills until Cambodia, where I’ve been given high praise for my minimal ability to walk around a table of fruit and vaguely mimicking the appropriate hand movements. Which brings me to…
  11. Getting massive affirmation for the ability to speak: this is a side effect of the unfortunate fact that so few foreigners bother to learn any Khmer, but I have to say I will miss being praised for saying things like “hello, I’d a like an iced coffee”
  12. Biking everywhere: I’ve been told I can keep biking in the States, but let’s face it, I’ve lived in Minnesota before. I’m not going to be biking year around.
  13. Going with the flow: Baby peed on you? People showed up late? It’s pouring rain? None of these things end the world, and it’s been nice being reminded of this pretty constantly over the past 2 years. Try setting your bag on the floor rather than a raised surface, on the other hand…
  14. Mostly knowing where my food comes from: I’ve recently re-delved into the various articles talking about the US system of providing and marketing food, and I’m already nostalgic for the food that came into the market in the morning and the fruit my family got from their fruit plantation.
  15. 1000 rieal (25 cent) iced coffees: who wouldn’t get a coffee addiction at those prices? Also, most of the time it comes with free tea.
  16. Vegetarian food lady: I ate at her stall 3-4 (sometimes more times a week). Without her I don’t know how I could have been a vegetarian in Cambodia.
  17.   …everything else of which I’m sure I will be reminded in the days to come!

Thank you Kampot Province, Cambodia, all my friends and colleagues, and everyone back in the States. It’s been an unforgettable experience.



I’ve spent a long time trying to write this post. I wanted to write something that reflected upon my time in Cambodia over these past two years. However, reflections like this are difficult for me in part because it’s a very long time and broad range of experiences to try and condense into one post, and also because I’m not terribly good at sharing emotional responses to things. So, I’ve attempted to draw up some general thoughts about things I feel as though I’ve learned during Peace Corps Cambodia.  I should preface all this with the disclaimer that these are my personal reflections, not conclusions for other people, or universal lessons of Peace Corps, Cambodia, or anything else.

1)      I shouldn’t  take how someone becomes who they are for granted

IMG_1767I think this is something I continue to learn. Those who know me know that I can be opinionated to the point of judgmental, and I’m not about to claim that I’ve shaken that tendency in two years. But I would like to think I’m learning to be less so. One of the reasons for this is I’ve come to appreciate just how much our circumstances, advantages and disadvantages shape who we are. For examples, it’s ridiculous to judge people for what knowledge they do or do not possess, or what they do or don’t believe. People learn what they have had the opportunity to learn, and what they do or do not know isn’t reflective of their intelligence or skills – it’s a reflection of our environment.   Things that I like to think of as basic traits of “Kaija,” I no longer consider inherent because if I were born somewhere else (say, Cambodia ;)) I would have a different set of values, beliefs, habits.  It sounds a bit inane, I know, to say “if I were born somewhere else I would have been someone else.” Of course. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I have critical thinking skills, if I like to read, if I believe in education, or personal responsibility, or anything else, I am that person because I grew up in a specific cultural setting with family, friends, teachers, etc that affirmed and promoted those traits and reinforced their value. And that is not necessarily a good or a bad thing—and this is the part that I feel like I still have to learn and really accept. IMG_1663Because I like myself and the people and life I knew in the US, I find I have to fight the urge to think that an absence of some of these values and standards merits some sort of judgment or evaluation. I’ve grown up hearing a multitude of variations on the idea that “the world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit” (Wade Davis). Yet it has been much more challenging to truly accept that idea. It requires letting go and accepting that you meet people where they are, as who they are, without thinking “well, it would be better if they were xyz.” One of the things I’ve been grateful for in Cambodia is the number of people I have met who have been willing to do this very thing for me.

2)      People have an infinite capacity to astound me

Some days, what I just discussed in point one can be discouraging. Working as a teacher and working at least somewhat in development, I have felt as though I’m supposed to encourage change and learning. But what learning “should” look like based on my experience/expectations, and what most of my students at the teacher training center have experienced up to this point tend to be very different. To do the activities I use in class, most of my students need me to explain every single step, then model it, then have students model it, then try it with lots of monitoring from me. Because most of them haven’t been taught study skills, a third to half of my students usually fail the quizzes and exams we give. As I said above, a huge part of my learning experience here has been accepting that, trying to figure out how to adjust to it, and work with my students and other people in ways that meet what they want and know how to do, rather than thinking they “should” do or want to do or learn in a different way. People are what their environment is, I have tried to remind myself when I get frustrated. Then I meet people who are not their circumstances, but rather are so much more than that. Granted, these people are exceptions, but that is part of what makes them remarkable. This is the school director who puts every penny s/he is given into the school, the students, and the school’s resources, when all his peers are skimming (or scooping) off the top. IMG_3632It’s people who despite going through the same public school system everyone else goes through, develops critical thinking skills and ingenuity, who despite never having the chance to travel or use any of the many educational resources I took for granted growing up, seek out ways to learn more about the world, to try to new things, and who aren’t afraid to change. I know a woman whose aunt sold her to sex traffickers when she was a child, but who escaped when she lost her foot in an accident in transit and now runs, with her husband, an orphanage, a small restaurant, and is raising two children, one of whom she adopted. I know another woman who was born with withered foot that forces her to walk with a crutch, and had a child out of wedlock with a foreigner who since left (several social taboos broken there), who now is a progamme manager for an NGO and, after working longer hours than most people I know, comes home to speak to her daughter in a mixture of English and Khmer to raise her bilingually.  And that doesn’t begin to cover the thousands of people like my host-grandmother, who lost several children to the Khmer Rouge, survived starvation and brutality, and yet who gets up every morning with a smile, who sits and talks to me for hours, who spent hours attempting to spoon feed a baby bird milk and rice after it fell from the nest, and who welcomes all guests and visitors into our house with a blessing and overwhelming kindness (and homemade soymilk).

3)      I am not my job

I realize that borrowing a line from Fight Club of all things may seem odd for a Peace Corps volunteer. Particularly this line, given you are a Peace Corps volunteer 24/7 and expected to act that way. In that sense, I very much am my job, and there have definitely been days (weeks) in which that is exhausting. However, the traditional “job” parts of that role – teaching lessons, leading workshops, doing the things you would write up in a formal job description – have mattered much less to the people I know here, and to me personally, than the relationships and the attitude that characterize my day to day life. Showing up, caring about people, making friends, and spending time with them has mattered much more in my time here than any “development” work, and I’m relatively sure that for the most part that is what will be remembered after I leave. I’ve yet to hear of anyone here reminisce about a volunteer because s/he led a lot of workshops, or distributed a lot of books, or taught a lot of classes. IMG_1462That isn’t to say these things don’t matter, but that what the people I know remember is who showed up to the weddings, who sat and shot the breeze with people (in Khmer it’s called “sit-play,” which frankly sounds a lot more pleasant to me than the idiom I just used), who seemed like they wanted to be in their lives and be friends with them. It’s my hope that people remember me for things like this. At the very least, it is how I will remember people here, and ironically it’s part of why I’m leaving. Because I agree with the idea that people and our relationships with one another are the most important things in our lives. I’ve loved being in Cambodia, and I am going to miss people and life here terribly, but I’m also glad that I’m going home to a place where I can be closer to my parents, my sister, my grandparents and extended family, and some of my dearest friends. When I arrived in Cambodia, many people here looked at me like I was crazy for leaving those people behind. Family is especially important to many people I know in Cambodia, and the idea that you would leave yours willingly to go half-way around the world for two years was literally foreign. I’m not saying I won’t be travelling away from friends and family again in my life, but I am glad that my next move includes them.


None of this begins to cover all the thoughts and experiences I’ve had over the past two years. I’ll spend the (very long) plane ride back to the US attempting to draft some sort of 30 second response for the inevitable question of “how was Cambodia?” with the preemptive acknowledgement that my answer will always fall short. Expect to hear from me one last time before I start that journey on August first! After all, it’s not over quite yet 🙂

Go Glow Grow

It never rains but it pours, and I mean that both literally and figuratively – after many long, scorching months, rainy season has finally come.  But before the weather shift, May had its own metaphorical flood of events. Despite the fact that the month boasts four separate national holidays and as a result only one full week of school, May turned out to be a busy time.

The whole K5 group gathered together one last time

The whole K5 group gathered together one last time – as with all pictures in the blog, double click to see a larger version

First, Peace Corps held its Close of Service (COS – gotta love those PC acronyms) conference, marking the last time my group of volunteers would gather together. Volunteers will be leaving the country in staggered waves over the next few months, with the first batch headed home July 3, my own departure August 1, and then a final group in September. It was somewhat surreal to realize how close we are to finishing our service and to wrap my head around the idea that it’s almost time for me to head back to the US, but I’ll save the big-picture reflection for a different post. For those anxiously awaiting my return (I know you number in the thousands 😉 ) just know that I’ll be in the United States at the beginning of August and eventually moving back to the Twin Cities. Plans from there are to be decided.

I didn’t have much time to wallow in pre-departure anxiety/excitement/nerves though because immediately after COS, my co-teachers and I had to lead our final 3-day PEC workshop with the Grade 4 teachers in our district. To read about what the workshops are like, refer back to this post. It was nice to conclude this project, and I appreciated the way in which the teachers finally seemed to have some confidence with the book. I’m not sure how the rest of the Ministry’s plan to role out the new curriculum nation-wide will go – it’s going to take a lot more training – but I do think that the teachers we worked with will be able to get through the book, and so I’m putting it down as a small success.


Collaging at the guesthouse

Most excitingly of all, however, was the final May event – Camp GLOW! As I mentioned in the last post as well as an email I sent out (sorry for repeats to those who read both). GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, and it’s a world-wide Peace Corps project to empower young women. Nevertheless, every project is unique to the group of volunteers who do it, and the country in which they serve. Organized by myself and other PCVs in my province, as well as our Khmer counter-parts, the camp hosted sixty girls from villages with PCVs and lasted for three days.

Sokny - programme manager for Epic Arts sharing on the leadership panel

Sokny – programme manager for Epic Arts sharing on the leadership panel

There were three broad educational focuses to the days: leadership/confidence building, basic health and nutrition, and job skills. We also partnered with a couple local NGOs—RHAC, which led a session on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and Krama Yoga, which lead the girls in a yoga session with an emphasis on the connection between physical and mental health.  The girls did a wide range of leadership and teambuilding exercises, reflected on women they considered role-models, listened to a panel of women who are leaders in the community, took career surveys, and played a bunch of games. We even handed out glow sticks to light up the evening craft activities, although the wordplay connection was probably only exciting to PCVs.

balloonsGLOW was an incredibly rewarding event on a number of different levels. The girls who attended were some of the brightest and most engaged young people I’ve met over the past two years – full of questions, and willing to do everything from pretend to walk like a monkey to brainstorm ideas for community volunteerism.

Bunda, schlepping our rice mats between the meeting room and the guesthouse

Bunda, schlepping our rice mats between the meeting room and the guesthouse

Additionally, it was another great opportunity for me to work with some of the people I respect most in my own community. My indomitable co-teacher Bunda helped us the full three days, co-leading activities, translating, coordinating catering, going on runs to get water, and everything else you can imagine. Two of the speakers on the panel of leaders in the community were women I know from Epic Arts, and a local restaurant I frequent. A session on health relationships was jointly led by a married PCV couple and the leader of the Special Education Project (SEP) at Epic and her husband.

Always professional

Always professional

Finally, it was a testament to the work and relationships of my fellow PCVs, who brought all the wonderful students as well as their own counterparts. I don’t often get to see other volunteers in action – we usually only gather when we’re on break away from site – and it was so much fun to see the people I knew from training when we were all in over our heads, working with their students and counterparts.

Of course, none of this would have been possible were it not for the support from people back home as well, who so generously donated to make GLOW happen. Thank you to all of you.



Click HERE to see a short video made by PCV Evan Cobb to commemorate our Camp GLOW!

Travels in Thailand

While people back in the United States usher in spring snow storms, here in Cambodia April is the hottest month of the year. Given the sweltering temperatures, it’s fortunate that April also marks the biggest and longest Cambodian holiday (and I say that for a country that knows how to celebrate its holidays). Khmer New Year, although technically only three days, actually dominates most of the month of April, with schools and government ministries closed for two to three (sometimes longer) weeks. In Cambodia, despite the duration of the holiday, it tends to be a quiet affair. Most people leave the towns and cities to go back to their relatives in the countryside. The days are spent drinking and playing cards for men, and cooking (women) and spending time with family and close friends.



For me, it’s a good time to flee the heat and travel a little. If you’ve been reading this blog for almost two years (hats off to you, and thanks!) then you know last year at this time I travelled the length of Vietnam. This year I headed off to Thailand! I’d been to Thailand back when I was in…7th grade, I think, travelling with my family and some family friends, however, my memories of the country are largely dominated by the palaces and many pagodas that we visited. Buddhism and the temple architecture to go with it are pretty similar in Thailand and Cambodia (though not exactly the same), so I was interested in broadening my experience in Thailand beyond the pagoda scene.

Thailand also marked, unbelievable though this seems, the first time I was really travelling alone. Upon reflection, it turns out that despite having travelled a great deal I’ve always travelled with or to someone. I was excited to see how I felt about travelling solo, and so on April 9th I set off to Thailand.

Getting from my site to Bangkok is an arduous journey unless you fly. It can be (and was for me) over twelve hours on a bus just to get to the border. Once across, travel becomes easier – Thailand is well set-up to handle the ever-increasing flow of tourism to the country. However, I didn’t stay in Bangkok, instead starting my trip by flying (in country flight can cost as little as $35) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

It's pretty there

It’s pretty there

Chiang Mai is a rather laid back city. The center is a square delineated by the vestiges of the old city wall, and inside that square everything is basically within walking distance. There are over twenty pagodas within the old city walls, so I did see some of them (you’d have to be blind not to). In addition, Chiang Mai is the ideal place for backpackers keen to spend the day with elephants or flying gibbons, or go out trekking in the hills. I signed up for a day-long bike tour around the outer parts of the city, which was a fun way to get outside the tourist bubble of the inner city. Some of it was very familiar to me—rice fields, sticky-rice and mango snacks, etc.—but we also visited a candy-making factory (they make the candy with rice flour and palm sugar), and saw more of the old ruins of the northern empire. Somewhere between the Angkor Empire of present-day Cambodia and the Siam Empire of present-day Thailand there was also a northern population called the Khon Mueang people of Lannathai, and even today many people in northern Thailand speak Lanna in addition to Thai. It even has a different script, and my guide spoke of how he wished that they were separate from Thailand. Interestingly, that desire for freedom from Thailand didn’t conflict with his own distaste for Cambodia. When he found out that I lived there, he made a face. “People in Cambodia don’t want to work with us. They’re not friendly.” He told me. I refrained from telling him that people in Cambodia say the same thing about Thailand.

Water-fight parties everywhere

Water-fight parties everywhere

From Chiang Mai I took the night train (loads of fun – we should have more trains in the US) back down to Bangkok in time to meet up with my fellow PCV and friend Christine for a day. It was good to have company because I arrived just in time for Thai New Year (which, surprise, coincides with Khmer New Year). Called Songkran, the holiday is also a very big deal in Thailand, where people turn out in the streets armed with buckets and water guns to drench one another in water, and cover anyone foolish enough to be on the streets with baby powder. Spoiler: baby powder turns into a pretty nasty paste when combined with all that water. Together, Christine and I managed to survive the celebrations, but it’s not a tradition I’m planning on taking home with me. 😉

Bangkok is an amazing city, particularly coming from my perspective of having been in small-town Cambodia. The most exciting part for me was the public transportation. There are two different subways, an underground, a city-wide bus system, taxis, tuktuks, and an express ferry. The last one is the best deal – for fifty cents you can ride the entire length of the Chao Phraya river that cuts through Bangkok. It’s like a river cruise, only people actually use it as a means of transportation. Bangkok also is the place to go for shopping. In addition to have the Chatuchak weekend market – said to be the largest market in Southeast Asia – it also has tons of giant shopping malls, the crowning glory of which is filled from top to bottom with designer stores. Want to hit up Gucci, Chanel, Valentino, and Hermès all in one go? No problem.

The ferry express!

The ferry express!

Another fun element of Bangkok is all the different people. People from all over the world are there, and the city is full of young people rocking a variety of styles. Bangkok also seems like a pretty friendly city for gender bending and people of all different gender and sexual identities. Setting aside the famous trans-cabaret shows, people just going about their day-to-day lives appeared very comfortable interacting with and expressing their own homosexuality, heterosexuality, transexuality, pansexuality, you name it. It was a nice change from an environment where every week I get asked if I’m married yet and why not. Obviously, I’m giving the rose-tinted perspective on Bangkok, given I was only there for a week, but the immediate visible range of different people was fun.

A shrine in the middle of the malls

A shrine in the middle of the malls

Ultimately, travelling alone was less dramatic than I’d expected. I think in part it’s because I was travelling in Southeast Asia – a region known for being a good place for single women traveling, and very much in my comfort zone despite the differences between Thailand and Cambodia. I also think that, though I haven’t been literally travelling alone before, much of Peace Corps prepares you for many of the things that might mark travelling alone. I was already used to taking the initiative on almost all my decisions, figuring out how to get around, operating in an unfamiliar environment etc. I enjoyed Thailand immensely, but I’m probably not going to explicitly seek out chances to travel solo. There’s something motivating for me about sharing the experience with someone else in the moment.

Coming back to site truly marks the beginning of the rush towards the end. Come May there is another teacher training workshop to plan, and a Camp GLOW organized by the volunteers in my province. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a global Peace Corps initiative in which volunteers work with young women and girls to help build self-esteem, educate on health issues, and give them tools/resources for future careers etc. We’re hosting ours at the end of May and if anyone feels inclined to donate I’m sharing the link below. Donations would help pay for the cost of lodging for the girls, food, resources like pens, markers, paper, etc. and transportation and venue costs.

Come June, my parents will arrive in Cambodia and I’m excited for the chance to show them my life here. July will be my final full month in Cambodia. Although initially we were told to plan on being in country until October, timing for incoming groups, as well as staff resources, and the Cambodian teaching schedule means that I will be leaving Cambodia in at the beginning of August. It’s hard to believe that the end is only three short months away.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful and insightful comments to my previous blog. I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to read about my experiences here, but I especially appreciated the responses to my last post, all of which help my ongoing attempt to process my life here.

Read more about Camp GLOW/donate here!

Check out more Thailand pictures (including me with a manikin dressed entirely in condoms) here.

Knowing My Place

Special thanks to Katie Willingham for her edits, reflections, and feedback on this post.

It’s 6:45am and I’m sitting outside a small elementary school with the grade 4 teacher whose English class I’ve come to observe. After the usual opening pleasantries (“have you eaten rice yet?”) she asks my age.


Children playing outside an elementary school

Children playing outside an elementary school

“Oh, you’re young.”

Age is one of the most common ‘get-to-know-you’ questions in Cambodia because it determines how you address someone. Rather than using names, you generally call someone ‘older,’ or ‘younger’ sister, brother, aunt, uncle, etc. (whether that person is actually a relative or not). So the teacher’s question isn’t rude. Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering what people think about my response. I’m almost inevitably younger than anyone expects me to be. So what does this teacher think about the fact that I’m here, young enough to be her daughter, yet telling her how to teach, calling her and her colleagues in for workshops, even evaluating her?

How would she feel if she knew I’ve never even studied to be a teacher?

Honestly, it’s relatively easy for me to do (no one ever questions my qualifications or my ‘right’ to do anything) because I am a white foreigner from a Western (English-speaking) country. I do things all the time here that I would never do in the States –things like teaching at a teacher training college, waltzing into government offices and asking to haul all of the grade 4 teachers in the district into a workshop. It’s the kind of thing teachers twice my age are reluctant to do because it violates the hierarchies of power that structure so much of Khmer society.


Students at this year’s river clean-up

To me, this feels like an unwarranted privilege, and it’s one from which people with “qualifications” similar to mine benefit all the time. A couple weeks ago the expats here organized the second annual river clean-up on a Thursday (read about last year’s here). Hundreds of students came on their school’s orders to help clean the river at the request of the expats rather than study. To the credit of said expats, they went through the government offices (Department of Education, etc) to get the appropriate permissions and letters, but I can’t help imagining whether those permissions would have been granted if a Khmer person with no connections to those offices had walked in with a similar request.

That’s not an isolated example. Every time I get permission for a workshop or start a club that breaks the curriculum norms, I feel like I’m cashing in on privileges I haven’t earned. I’m not kidding myself- I know that I’m allowed to exist outside the social hierarchies of Khmer culture because of the legacy and on-going exertion of Western power (imperialism?). I like to temper my self-condemnation for this with justifications: “No one at my school is doing x because they haven’t been exposed to the idea before.” “Part of my job is to bring new ideas and teaching styles to the school.” “If I don’t help lead this workshop it isn’t going to happen, and we’re not going to be able to start teaching English in 4th grade as the Ministry of Education wants.” (let’s leave the politics behind teaching English at all for a different post). Sometimes I feel like I’m feeding myself Dumbledore-esque consolations. That these things are “for the greater good.” If you’ve read the seventh Harry Potter book (and probably even if you haven’t) you know how hollow a justification that is.

My co-teachers are aware of this power difference, and seemingly unresentful. A lot of the time when I’m talking to a school director or even the director of the Provincial Office of Education, it’s because Bunda, Phallin, or Leakhena (most often Bunda) has told me to go do it. “It’s better if you ask,” I’m often told. At their instruction I’ve gotten keys to classrooms, access to the school’s projector, letters of permission for them to go to workshops, and more. I like to think that because I learned the language, wear the clothes, go through the appropriate channels, work with co-teachers, and ask for their opinions that it mitigates (at least partially?) the fact that if I were Khmer I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do most of the things I do here. But just because they asked me, does that make it ok?

I’m not expressing a new dilemma. It’s a problem that’s been at the heart of aid and development work for years. To Peace Corps’ credit, I think the program’s emphasis on community integration, working closely with counter-parts and respect for cultural norms means PCVs often use their Western privileges less demonstrably. I hope we do. But the idea of change as good is central to development work. It’s the idea that, whatever you have now isn’t good enough, and the impudent belief that a 23-year-old with a BA in English and International studies can help you “improve.”

Class at the PTTC

Class at the PTTC

Overall, in the instances where I can achieve something my co-teachers or counterparts want, I feel less conflicted. I think using avenues of privilege reinforce them, no matter your intentions, but I guess I feel mostly okay about it if it supports the people with whom I’m working. Where I really start to doubt myself is when I’m selling an idea that no one has requested. When I try to get each student to do something unique, something different from the rest of the class. Or ask the women in Bunda and my Women’s Club  to self-reflect and individually express themselves. Am I just imposing a value for individualism and ‘creativity’ from my own cultural background? When I convince teachers not to let students talk to each other during exams, or copy each other’s answers, am I forcing my beliefs onto them? (I may have mentioned before, but I’ve yet to encounter the Khmer word for “cheat” as in “You cheated on the exam.”)

Last year I had a woman come down to do a one-day workshop with the PTTC students. She is a certified ELL instructor, whose job it is to travel the world doing workshops like these. At the end of her first lesson, she tried to get the students to line up in order of their birth months. The activity was a disaster. Not only was the concept of doing a line-up like that completely baffling to the students (they’d never done anything like it before), but many of my students are from villages where birthdays are unimportant. Some didn’t know the month they were born. The teacher was dismayed by the activity’s failure, convinced it revealed the paucity of the students’ education that they didn’t understand the basic line-up idea. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the problems in the Khmer education system or if the problem was simply that the line-up was designed for kids who were used to doing a certain type of activity. What right do I have to determine what these students ‘should’ know how to do?

For the most part I’ve tried to steer clear of projects where I have to work hard to convince someone they want to do something, and since leaving the lower secondary school where I taught the first year, I fell less like I am doing this. This isn’t because I’ve discovered how to avoid imposing my cultural framework on my classes or students. Rather, now I only work with young, flexible co-teachers who want to discuss new ideas with me and who have had experiences with different approaches to education as a result of growing up in Phnom Penh. But that’s part of the catch – they’re open to these things because Phnom Penh is full of NGOs (often foreigner initiated/run), changing the culture of the city.

Furthermore, it  never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to think outside of your cultural framework. I can’t, for instance, understand the point of having an exam if the students can copy from one another. When I ask Women’s Club to choose women they admire and everyone tells me their mother, all citing the exact same reasons I catch myself judging the uniformity of the response. Beliefs such as cheating=bad, and expressing individual, unique thoughts=good are so deeply ingrained in me that I can’t seem to think around them. And I wonder how much that inability influences my actions and judgments every day.

Culture is like air- most of the time you don’t even realize it’s there. And I think that the reality of this protects my privilege, because I am living in a culture where, as a Western foreigner, I get to play by different rules. Honestly, I don’t think the teacher (or anyone else for that matter) means anything by observing my youth. Nine times out of ten, my foreign status trumps my age, my gender, and my inexperience.

Culture, of course, is not stagnant and so in that sense it’s silly for me to condemn development or promoting change. However, change in Cambodia often seems to be coming from outsides forces. The factors that determine what it means to be “developed” are not equal, and “globalization” is often synonymous with “Westernization.” Somewhat childishly, I wish I felt that the value of my presence and work here, as well as that of other development projects, was more black and white—that I could draw a line that clearly delineated what is cultural imperialism and what is working with a community for positive change. Instead I feel as though there are no ‘good’ answers, and that in the end all I can say is “but at least I had questions about it!”

I’m not sure that is enough.


With some coincidentally good timing, one of the PC staff shared an article a few days after I wrote this post that poses some of the same questions I struggle with here. I think it contains extremely relevant research on how culture influences who people are and how we think. I highly recommend reading: “We Aren’t the World”

So Happy Together

In belated honor of International Women’s Day this past Friday, I’d like to take the time to share the story of another woman for whom I have great admiration. Several months ago, I wrote about my former co-teacher Yorn Sreymom, with whom I taught at the lower secondary school. Kong Titbunda – or Bunda – is another co-teacher, this time at the PTTC where we teach future elementary school teachers English. This past weekend, Bunda and my other co-teacher and friend Phallin were married and I had the joy of attending their wedding. Normally, I’d decline the three-plus hour bus ride from site up to the capital, but this was the wedding of two of my closest Khmer friends, and my most supportive co-workers. They’ve co-led two teacher training workshops with me, we’ve taught several hundred students, gone on school trips together, and Bunda is the glue behind the Women’s Club we did together at the PTTC.

IMG_7011Bunda and Phallin met each other while studying psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. After graduating, they both secured jobs down at my PTTC where in addition to co-teaching English with me, they’ve taught psychology, math, ethics, and the occasional home ec class to the trainees.  We arrived at the school together –fortunate timing for me because it meant that we were all finding our way and open to new ideas and activities.

Bunda and Phallin are from a different place and a different era than the majority of teachers with whom I work in Cambodia. Raised in Phnom Penh and born well after the Khmer Rouge, they’ve been exposed to a variety of ideas, ways of learning, and critical thinking skills. They’ve had opportunities that people growing up in the chaos post-Pol Pot didn’t have, and the urban setting of Phnom Penh exposed them to more diversity as well. Working with them is part of what gives me hope for development in Cambodia, because to me they demonstrate the way people in a deeply traumatized country can move forward.

Bunda in particular impresses me – she’s smart, and driven, and not afraid to take control. More than once she’s told me exactly what she wants me to do or not do. While that may not sound like much, as a foreigner in a very deferential culture, it’s something people rarely do to me in a professional setting and something I very much appreciate. She’s always game, whether it’s singing an English song to our class that I taught her literally minutes before the lesson, explaining how to put a condom on a banana, or figuring out how to make vegetarian food for me.

IMG_0825On Saturday, at 6:30 am music blasted from multiple speakers set up in a yellow and pink tent on a narrow neighborhood street in Phnom Penh. Outside, around the corner, Phallin waited in traditional Khmer wedding garb to lead the processional to Bunda’s house. Behind him, the wedding guests formed a disorganized queue of friends and family bearing gold-painted platters of fruit. Traditionally, this procession would start at the groom’s house and go to the bride’s, but since Phallin’s house is over five kilometers from Bunda’s we just picked up the fruit from where it was laid out in front of her house, walked around the corner, started some music and processed back.

Saying the vows

Saying the vows

In the tent, Bunda was resplendent. Normally she doesn’t bother with make-up, but a Khmer wedding demands not only a range of outfit changes but make-up that would put a theatre company to shame. Bunda and Phallin’s wedding was a blend of modern and tradition, with the added twist that Bunda is Christian. After the guests were seated, Bunda, Phallin, and their immediate family sat on the stage at the end of the tent, where through the blasting microphone I made out vows I actually recognized: “Do you, Kong Titbunda, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?” “I do.”

After the morning ceremony, which included other traditions such as pretending to cut the newly married couple’s hair, and collecting some of the fruit we’d brought in to give to the bride and groom, we ate breakfast at round tables of six to eight people before leaving. There are more ceremonies that take place throughout the day for family, but for regular guests the celebration recommences in the evening.

Those wild young folk

Those wild young folk

Although all the weddings I’d attended before this had been outside, in Phnom Penh, you rent a room for the evening party. Waiting at the balloon archway in new clothes, Bunda and Phallin greeted every guest who arrived, standing outside the entrance for about two and half hours. Inside, we ate a traditional Khmer wedding feast (largely meat dishes – starts with a big fried fish, then a chicken, then beef stew/soup, etc).  Finally, Bunda and Phallin entered, now dressed in white, to walk down an aisle of guests throwing jasmine and rose petals. They walked three times around a center table ladened with fruit, while their friends impeded their progress by demanding they kiss –  a rather bold, and modern request that they fulfilled by chastely kissing on the check. Then they climbed onto the stage to feed one another fruit (another tradition), before throwing the bouquet (a new addition to the wedding ceremony). Young people of both sexes crowded to catch the flowers, and it was caught by a tall young man who then dutifully handed the bouquet back to Bunda.

The evening ended with dancing, a mix of traditional songs and new hits (including the ever-popular Gangnam Style), the dance floor dominated by young people with cameras, smart phones, and iPads excitedly recording the event. “Make sure you put the pictures on facebook,” Bunda told me, as we posed together at the end of the evening.

IMG_0848The best part of the ceremonies for me was watching Bunda and Phallin next to each other as they weathered the long series of events that comprise a wedding in Cambodia. Every so often, Bunda would lead in to whisper in Phallin’s ear, causing mutual smiles to spread over their faces. They’re a team, the kind of couple who supports and appreciates each other—a rare pair no matter where you are in the world.   I’ve been fortunate to be a small part of that team for the past year and a half, but perhaps the best part is that I know they won’t need me. They’re strong and motivated together, and I know that they’re going to go places and change things long after I’ve returned to the United States. I can only wish them all the best.

Want to see the rest of the pictures? Check them out on facebook here.

Real Friends



In the end of January, my college roomie and best friend Katie Willingham and her mother came to Cambodia. While I was finishing up some work at site, they toured the ruins of Angkor and the northern province of Siem Reap before we were reunited in Phnom Penh! From there we traveled up to the far north eastern province of Ratanakiri – renowned for precious gems and (illegal) logging –, before coming down to Kampot for the end of their trip. Needless to say it was an amazing experience being able to share my life here with Katie and her mom. I asked Katie to do a guest post about her time here.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I can add to Kaija’s blog having spent only three weeks in Cambodia, but there is one thing I’ve done so far that Kaija has not: I’ve come back to America. It sounds like the easy part–getting back in your own warm bed, boiling water and making your own tea, the kind you love–not to mention getting reunited with your friends, your family, your coworkers. And they all want to know “what it was like,” what my “favorite” part about Cambodia was. This is never an easy question but it’s even harder when it comes to Cambodia, a place that’s still pretty new to tourism.
Being scholarly.

Being scholarly.

When I studied abroad in Oxford and Kaija came to visit me, we took pictures under the Bridge of Sighs, drank beer in the Eagle & Child (Tolkien’s old Oxford haunt), and wandered the courtyard of the world-famous Bodleian Library. In Kampot, Kaija took me and my mom to a cafe where we drank coconut water straight from the source. Well, sort of a cafe, but really the second I say cafe I’ve already misrepresented this experience. The coconuts were on a cart, actually, not inside a glass case like where they keep the muffins in Starbucks. And where we sat wasn’t even inside, more like the whole place was a patio, with a roof but otherwise totally open to the outside. And that’s just one thing. One tiny piece of experience, one word that felt like the most appropriate choice and yet somehow, still fell painfully short of the truth.



I don’t and didn’t really concern myself with having some kind of “authentic” experience of Cambodia, because I think that whole project is inherently fraught with superficiality, as if there could be some kind of distinction drawn between an experience I had that was “inauthentic” and one that was somehow an “authentic” cultural experience. But here I am still struggling with a whole different kind of authenticity. I believe my experience was real in every sense, that each place we visited was different and affected me differently whether it was from one stall to the next in the market or from one province to the next all the way out to tribal villages in the far corner of Rattanakiri, but how do I explain that or express it in a way that feels accurate? Mostly I issue various disclaimers–fumble, adjust, and modify everything until I notice my audience has lost interest. I can’t blame them. When someone asks you your favorite part of the trip it’s because they don’t want all the details, they want me to get to the point, skip to the good stuff, but I don’t know how.

Scale that temple

Scale that temple

The most honest thing I have found myself saying often about Cambodia is that I have never felt safer traveling anywhere in my life. I grew up in affluent New York suburb, but my parents still insisted someone walk or drive me home after dark in the neighborhood. Once someone left the spilled contents of a wallet on our lawn, presumably taking any cash or credit cards and wishing to ditch the evidence. In Cambodia, when my mom and I looked lost in Siem Reap, multiple people tried to help with directions, pointing and gesturing when they didn’t know much English. Maybe it’s because foreigners stick out like crazy there and because people really want the tourism business to succeed. They want people to have a great experience and come back and tell their friends, bringing more money into Cambodia. It’s always different to live somewhere rather than just visiting, but as a traveler and a guest, it felt really welcoming and I didn’t really care what the reasoning was. It was still real.

Thank you so much to Katie and Susanna for coming to visit! (and thank you, Katie, for writing a post!)