Friday, July 30, 2010

a thief is a thief is a thief

A few weeks ago, I was on a bus coming back from Siem Reap where I helped out on field day for the kids who are attending the summer program at the JPA school ( When the bus stopped at the first drop off point in Phnom Penh, at the French Embassy, a man got off. This particular man was holding a particular bag that did not belong to him. How do I know this, you may ask? Because it was my bag. I was distracting myself with memories of a photo exhibit last fall where the French Embassy had blown up beautiful pictures of trees and hung them on the white walls of the gate surround the embassy's compound... oh I do love a good picture of a tree. When I got a sinking feeling, I stood up and my instinct was right... my bag was gone.

Peace Corps was great at helping me. Markara, our Safety and Security Officer, had a very calming effect. I was upset for about 2 minutes... just long enough for everyone to get off the bus, including an old great-grandma lady who told me in khmer that I should keep my bags on my lap, not above my head... I grabbed her hand and wouldn't let go and kept saying, 'awkun' or 'thank you.' I needed a friend and wasn't in a place to be picky so if that friend wanted to state the obvious and make me feel even worse, who was I to judge? She didn't stay long however. Then I was alone. With my other bag. Or as I referred to it after this incident, 'the Bag with No Value.' So, I lost my money, credit card, debit card, ipod, lots of postcards and my Canon Rebel XT EOS that my mom and sister had given me as a going away gift... and an extremely lovely letter that I had written for a friend to take on the plane which I thought was particularly thoughtful and funny. Agg.

Funny thing though was that I wasn't mad at the thief... People asked me if I was angry and I just told them that I was angry at myself... The Cambodians around my house thought it was really funny when I suggested that maybe the thief had a very sick child who needed medicine and so he had to steal my bag to get it for her... but even I don't really believe it, but really it doesn't matter why he stole it. I wonder if he just wanted money, thinking I had some, what did he do with my camera? I'm not mad at the thief cause that is what thieves do... I'm a teacher so I teach, you're a reader so you read, he is a thief so he does as a thief does... he steals. Makes sense to me.

The Buddha once told his followers... one day a distraught farmer came to the group asking if they had seen his cows that he had lost, to which the Buddha replied that they had not seen the cows, and the farmer said, 'I am very sad because I have lost my cows, I don't know what to do,'... after the farmer left, the Buddha then turned to the group stating, 'We should give thanks for our luck because we do not have any cows to lose' (or something close to that, I wasn't there so I can't vouch for complete accuracy of the quote). People are always repeating this important lesson when they encouragingly say, 'Why not? You have nothing to lose.'

Visiting with my friend at his family's cafe in my small town, he told me about some troubles he was having. Somehow the subject of smiling came up and he said that he likes to smile at everyone when he sees them, he can't help it. He goes to the market and smiles at all the people there. Recently he was told that a lady who works in the market tells people that he is the same as a 'crazy person' or 'neak chagu-it.' In English, people call people 'crazy' all the time, but in Khmer it has a much stronger meaning. It is more literal... if you say someone is 'chagu-it' you are literally calling them mentally insane, and this isn't good. He is upset because he feels like she misunderstands him, or 'yuul jra-lum.' I told him to forget about her 'bad words.' He should not be sad or angry with her but instead he should pity her because she must be sad to say these things. People don't like feeling lonely, this includes being lonely in how they feel. I told him that if she is sad, then she says these things so she can have company in her sadness. I taught him the old axiom, 'Kill her with kindness.' I think he understood. It reminds me of what my dad once told me, 'Usually, the only people who try to make you feel bad about yourself are people who feel bad about themselves. So make them feel better and you'll feel better.'

People want company. I'm going to try and live by this thought... I'm going to try my best to be a thoughtful, joyful person. I do have to admit that for me sometimes it is easier said than done. With strangers it seems easier to do than with the people you love and care for, why is this? We need to practice being caring with even those people who know us best, our family and closest friends, the people who have seen us at our worst... to perfect this would be a wonderful thing.

Spread joy and kind words so that people will join you. I, for one, would much rather go to to a happy party than a sad one... so get out there and invite people to join you in your happy party... then you will have a lot of support and people around to lift you up when you have the occasional sad day... after all, nobody is perfect.

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Year Baby

This afternoon I watched a documentary about a Khmer American woman who comes back to Cambodia with her parents. She came to get answers, they came to face the past and to visit the land of their birth. They had survived through the Khmer Rouge and had a story that is both sad and sadly, common. I had watched a screening of the movie in English in Phnom Penh at Flicks and had asked about it and was able to get a hold of a few copies of it in Khmer... I asked my grandma if she wanted to watch it, I told her it would be sad and wasn't sure if bringing up all these memories again would be very beneficial for a 74 year old woman... but she was interested, as she is with all the information I bring home about the Khmer Rouge.

Basically she hates them. 'Saup, saup, saup.' We watched the film, which is powerful enough watching with a bunch of foreigners in Phnom Penh, but had special meaning for me to share it with my gma... who lived through it and lost 6 family members, including her husband and 2 or more children. She cried at parts and got up to do something in the kitchen during some parts but overall I was surprised that she actually watched at all... I don't think I could have. My little friend Jayp watched too, but he just sat silently in the back of the room.

Sometimes during the movie they would play clips, and my gma was like, 'yes, yes, that's the khmer rouge' (khmai krohom)... that's what we did (cartoon of planting rice), that's what they did (when they showed a cartoon of a cadre hitting and killing a village person)'... she was basically like, 'they'd bash and toss away' (why jaol)...

In the movie, the parents of the woman had been forced into an arranged marriage, this was very common and I know some older couples in this same situation... I asked my gma why she didn't get married again after her husband died... she smiled and said that when they came to get her married again she lied (yee-ay ko'haught) and said that they had just been separated and that he was just not there but she still had a husband...

She has told me a few stories, always with an emphasis on how little they had to eat. Just a little rice for her huge family... she'll hold her fingers together to give me a visual... but even if she was able to show me the actual amount of rice in a bowl and the amount of people it had to sustain, I still don't think I could understand what it was like...

But I couldn't get her to talk too long about it... she had things to do, rice to dry (ha srow), wood to chop... basically she had to get on with her life... she doesn't have time to dwell. If I was exhausted after watching it, I can't imagine how she felt.

This evening at dinner, she played the video of when her children gave her a bon, or ceremony, last feb (2009)... in reverence and veneration. She cried in the video, but happy tears, because all her surviving children were home... and her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren.

I watched the video with her like I have many times before but watching today, I understood those happy tears so much more...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Zen in Floating

Last week, a three year old girl fell into a man-made pond that was about four feet deep. Since the rainy season hasn't been very rainy this year the pond wasn't full and there was about 2 feet from the water to the top of where the water should normally reach... luckily a neighbor was there to jump in and pull her out. She was lucky. This got the kids around me asking me if I can swim and asking if I can teach them... I decided to plan a trip to the sea about 50km south of me and teach some of the kids the basics... mainly I was going to focus on floating and not panicking.

Today we were able to get my gma's son-in-law's tour van which was great because we were able to make a party of it! Some parents didn't allow their kids to go because they were afraid they would drown... logical and ironic. But the kids who were the most excited were allowed to come and their mother also came. Srey Mai, Vuthy, Srey Leah and Chuhn were my students for the day. They are around 7-10 years old...

Srey Mai is probably the most dedicated outgoing young girl I know in Cambodia when it comes to wanting knowledge... she always wants to learn, I love it! She is now the first person I can say that I have taught how to float... and it was amazing. At first she couldn't do it, she just sank, she would panic... I told her to not be afraid when your head goes under and your chin goes up because it has to... it should cover the ears, I told her... and raise your chest, curve your back, and relax... when she finally got it and I was just holding her up with one or two fingers it was amazing... I could see her just becoming calm... and it came.... and I let go and she just went on floating... ears under the water, chin held up, chest raised high, in yoga it's called the fish pose, or comes close to what fish pose is...

I floated with them. It was quiet, it feels like you are alone but a part of something because you never stop moving, something is taking you somewhere, or nowhere, but it doesn't matter... Floating... Life is like floating... the more you struggle and fight against it the less success you will have and only when you let go of the fear, or face it, is when you get the best that it has to offer. The key is to hold your chin up, keep your chest raised high and hope that the next wave won't be too big... but with practice you can learn to go through those big waves, over or under, it doesn't matter... what matters is that it too will pass... and the calm will always return again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Clear your clutter, Clear your mind

I was having a pretty bad couple days... A lot of emotions that I was able to bury and forget about came up to the surface. It had to do with a situation I was in when I first got out to site and it was a really hard time. But I took control of my situation then and got out. Everything was all better until I went back there to where all this had been taking place and it just stirred everything all up again and I didn't even realize how bad at the time. Something about Peace Corps, or Cambodia, or Peace Corps in Cambodia... you never know how you will feel from one moment to the next... literally, it can be a change in mood from complete euphoria to utter dispair in the matter of seconds... and you might not really even realize the reason for the shift.

I had a long talk with my dad about everything that I was feeling and going through and that's when I realized where my sudden anger and unhappiness was coming from. So what do you do? You take control. I can't change what happened and what I went through, I can only move forward and continue to do what I was doing before last week.

For me, since I only have two months left until I COS, I decided that it was time to completely overhaul my house. Junk be gone! All those random handouts from training... get out of my life and my head. Feng Shui... I needed to get some good Chi flowing through.

Since the rainy season has finally started and the dust is bearable, I'm able to open my front door. What a difference!!! People can come and go and I don't feel so cut off. Open a window, open a door, create a breeze that will re-new the energy and get rid of all the stagnant air! I'm getting pretty hippie with all this stuff, but hell, isn't that what peace corps is? Haha, I've always been a little hippie I guess. And I touched into my Native American roots and did a mock sage burning... I don't have any sage, but I have some incense that they use when they give sacrifices to their ancestors and on Buddhist holy days, so I used that... I went into the corners of my house and I kinda prayed slash thought about what I want to bring into my house and what I want to get rid of...

I cleaned every inch of my house that wasn't in the piles of things to give away or take back to Phnom Penh. My little neighbor friend helped wash my floors and I rewarded him with some chocolate soy milk that I got the last time I was in the city. All in all a great day. Fresh sheets, clean mosquito net, dusted bookcase.

Moral of the story, don't let yourself get into a rut. Take control of your situation. If it's bad, try to fix it. If you can't fix it, do everything you can to make every other part of your life easier... not that from now on everything will be all sunshine and rainbows... but tonight I'll sleep knowing waking up tomorrow will be a joy, it's always nice waking up to a clean house.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tomato or Spider, you pick.

The other day I was thinking about languages. People always have some funny story about how when they were speaking another language and accidentally say, oh let's say... vagina instead of chair.... like, 'oh, come here and sit on my vagina.' or some other story of equal embarrassment. I was trying to remember if I had made any type of cute mistake that I could turn into a fantastically charming anecdote to show the people back home how fantastically charming I must have been to the people in Cambodia. I couldn't really think of anything so I got kinda worried... I must make all sorts of mistakes so the fact that nobody tells me is probably just that they are so used to it it isn't even worth it to tell me... maybe I'm making too big of a deal than it is... but I would like to know if I've ever said anything like, 'I like to eat my soup with a condom' to my poor Buddhist grandmother. And of course I would have said it with a certain amount of enthusiasm that makes it seem like I really mean what I say. Like with a big emphasis on 'CONDOM! Do you understand, grandma? I don't eat my soup with a spoon, I prefer a nice clean condom, it is more 'sanitary'... agg.

Last month, I went to Mondolkiri with my friend, Lauren. It is in the Eastern part of Cambodia up in the 'mountains.' It was really beautiful and a lot cooler than down here in the lowlands. Lots of waterfalls, trees, hills, hilltribe people, and... they grow avocados!!! I was pretty excited when I found out that 'pli buh,' or butter fruit, was actually avocado! Oh, how I miss guacamole and my mom's seven layer bean dip. We bought a bunch of avocados to take back to our sites and Lauren bought some more for a mexican dinner party we were having at another volunteers house the week after. I bought some to show the kids around my house. I had once had a picture dictionary out and they asked what it was... so I was honored to be able to educate them on the joys of avocados. Turns out they weren't as impressed as I was.

I decided to make some guacamole for my family. I was telling my gma everything that I would need to make it, 'ktuem barang, ktuem saw, bing bee-ing, matay, jee, tuk crowit ch'ma' or in English, 'onion, garlic, spider, chilli, herbs, lime juice.' She looked a little confused so I repeated the list again... and then again... and then again... I got the same response every time, her just looking at me like she doesn't recognize me... or like I'm asking her to go buy me some spiders and then I'll prepare them into a great american dish that I will then force her to eat. About the 6th time that I repeat my list I catch my mistake. 'Ah!!! Awt bing bee-ing, bing boh!' We laughed over my mistake. I had got confused and said bee-ing instead of boh... turning the word from tomato to spider. Not as funny as a vagina or condom mistake over the breakfast table but still it was my little moment. We laughed, together I hope.

Tonight at dinner, I asked the boarder, Bo, if he has ever eaten a spider since he comes from a part of Cambodia that is known for their fried tarantula. 'Bong dile hope bing bee-ing, awt?' or 'Have you ever eaten a spider?' He looks at me and says with a smile, 'dile' or 'I have.' The whole time I see my gma leaning over to him with a look of determination to save me, trying to get his attention and whispering, 'Bing boh! bing boh!'... 'Tomato! Tomato!'

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Great Day (and a few revelations)

So today was just a normal day but everything just went well... or better than well, everything was just a little bit better than it would normally be expected to be. I don't know what it was exactly so I will just write about my day and maybe someday in the future, I can look back and remember this feeling. It is a good feeling, like... sometimes things just work... work without struggle.

Alright. Well this morning I woke up at around 6:30am from a call of nature. I decided that since I didn't have anything important to do that I could let myself go back to bed... last night I had been so exhausted that I couldn't remember if I had anything to do or not so I think I deserved a little sleep in. I got back into bed and then had really fun dreams where I was just hanging out with friends and went to interesting places. The kind of dreams where when you wake up you want to go back to sleep but then remember how fun the dream is and want to have fun like that in real life so it gives you inspiration for the day... so the start of a good day.

I'm not going to make this day seem like it is the greatest day ever, nothing special happened, nothing really worth a blog post about at all... but it's more the way everything came together... the day just flowed. I can't explain it. Nothing came too soon or too late. Nothing happened more or less than it should. I didn't do anything that I haven't done before. It was pretty normal. But everything that did happen, happened with a certain joy. Maybe it was me, I don't know, but... well read on...

So after I got up, I made some coffee and went to my gma's hammock to study a little GRE. A little vocab, a little math review. Then lunch. My gma went to the Wat today because it was a Teng-ai Saul, or Holy Day, so she didn't have time to make it to the market to buy food... so fried rice with egg and water greens was lunch... basic but it filled me up. After lunch, I told my gma that I was going to the market. She asked, 'Why, to get more food?' I think she was nervous that the fried rice wasn't enough. I told her I was just going to get my nails done since they had started to chip. I got a french manicure and the lady did a great job, like always.

In Cambodia, I have learned that the simple things, like getting my nails done, bring so much pleasure and joy to my life... I think it is because when I used to think Peace Corps, I thought it was going to be two years of looking like ____ and avoiding mirrors. Then I got to Cambodia and realized looks are important. Owning a comb is important. Washing your face is important. I will never forget how people will just come up to you and say, 'Hi, good morning, oh! You have a really large, red pimple... (points to your nose)... right there.' Who knows why they do it, some say because they care about you and want you to know they notice things that are different, like if you have gained or lost weight. In the beginning, it was pretty hard dealing with this type of culture that doesn't shrink away from commenting about your physical appearance... since it is a 180 from American culture where a little white lie here and there to make your friends feel better is not only appreciated but expected. I remember one time, my neighbor, across the street who is a little outspoken, or just loud actually... she was in front of my house talking with the sugar cane juice seller when I came up to say good morning. She points at my chin and says, 'Pimple. Pimple.' And trying to respect her culture and show my love and admiration for her, I responded, 'Yes, I have a pimple, and you are fat.' and just in case she didn't get my point, I added, 'You should excercise.' 'Yes, I am fat... but I'm too lazy to excercise.' Well, that settles that.

Back from the 'salon', I hung out with the gmas that live around my house and let them admire my new polish and my lovely, long, white fingers... I'll never really understand why they find my fingers so beautiful but I really think my gma thinks they are my best feature.

Then off to school. I am pretty much done teaching. We go to school and just end up sitting there since my co-teacher doesn't think it is worth it only teaching the 5 students who have shown up today... so I guess this means school is out for the summer!!! And I am done at Touk Meas High School forever. Can't say I am going to miss the English for Cambodia books, not gonna lie. My students that are working on my world map project are busy studying pretty much all the time... they have about 3 hours free a week so this map thing has been coming along pretty slowly. My school director came up to me a few days ago, 'Come twu ka jahp ah howee, k'laht dau mun jahp' or in English, GET IT DONE! and I got a few, 'Brang-nyap' or HURRY! So since the kids were busy, I spent this afternoon working fixing their screwups. They did a pretty good job so I didn't have a lot to do, but I also wanted to make sure all the countries were accounted for... I hope they are... here's to hoping Peace Corps doesn't replace me with a geography major...

The afternoon rains came just in time. I was like, 'Oh no! The rains are here, I have to stop working now'... biked home, saved gma's clothes from the rain (I'm a hero), got my book (the mill on the floss, by George Eliot) and relaxed. Rain makes relaxing so much more guilt free. I love it. Gma came home once the rains stopped because she had been stuck under cover at the market. She made a really big deal about the clothes, 'OH! who saved the clothes!'... 'I did grandma!' Thinking I was pretty hot stuff. 'Thank you, thank you... but you forgot the clothes behind the house.' Haha. A little deflated but still at least saved half of them. I shrugged it off to culture shock... can I still claim that 2 years in? Might as well...

This is going on forever! Okay, I'll hurry up. So a lady came over and said I should ask for another two years in Cambodia... not going to happen but it's a nice thought. She made me promise to bring my husband when I get him to visit Cambodia. Sure, why not. Then she said if I stayed two more years I would speak 'clear'... oh, so you don't think I speak clear??? 'No, you speak clear, you would just speak soooo clear after two more years.' I get this a lot... and it makes me wonder, if I did stay two more years, would they still say the same thing, 'oh, stay two more years, then you really will be able to speak clear... 100%.' No thanks, I'll settle for my 80% that most people give me.

I went on a short run about 2km, came back, showered, did a face mask, read some more, boiled my drinking water, made some jasmine tea, talked with my gma's other boarder who works at kampot cement and waited for the electricity to come back on, and then had the best dinner ever: fried fish with garlic, cabbage soup, and bell pepper, pineapple and pork stir fry. I uploaded my pics from my camera to my computer and ended the day with this lovely blog thing.

Goodnight, friend, thanks for reading. Live like everyday is a pleasure, cause the simple things and simple days are often what bring the most joy... I think that is the truth... decomplicate your life.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Request

One of the sports teachers at my school, Long Serum, invited my co-teacher, Sun Sereyvuth, and me to his house during a certain Bon, or festival. There was going to be a party with all types of games and activities at his local wat. His commune, Tram SorSor, is the next big town about 7km north of my commune, Touk Meas. Both are still in Banteay Meas District.

My Co-teacher told me that we would meet at my house at 6am since I would be riding my bike... peace corps doesn't let us ride motos. So naturally, I think he arrived at around 7am. I knew that I would not get through the day without some coffee so we stopped in a local cafe and I was able to get some liquid energy in preparation for the ride and having to speak a lot once I got there. One thing I have learned is that my speaking skills really go up after the 3rd cup of coffee...

We were on our way. I don't get to ride too much north in the early morning so I stopped a lot and took pictures. Sereyvuth got a little annoyed, I think... he said something about me making us late and I ride so slow... so I said something back, I can't remember now but I'm sure it was very witty and smart. But anyway, we arrived at Mr. Long Serum's house... just in time to wait another hour before going to the festival. So yes, my co-teacher was afraid we would be late to our 'sitting and waiting and doing nothing' time.

We had some Nom Man Jok with curry sauce and I met another sports teacher from Dong Tung District. We opened a few coconuts and had a pretty good time. Long Serum's son was pretty good at English and I enjoyed speaking with him a little bit... it always eases me up when there is another language learner in the crowd because they tend to be more understanding of my language abilities or lack there of. After visiting with his family, the four of us teachers and the children headed to the Wat. The party was really fun and there were all types of games for everyone to play... but I forgot my money so I couldn't play... my favorite game at these types of events is the Throw the Dart at the Balloon game, my least favorite is the Pay Us Money and We Will Give You a Number, and IF the Number is on the Board You Win (DISCLAIMER: IN MY EXPERIENCE THE NUMBER IS NEVER ON THE BOARD)! game. I walked around and then decided to leave before the sun got too hot to bike. I said goodbye and left.

Biking through a new town is always... an experience. People love the new strange person and the kids love screaming the few English words they know... "HELLO BARANG (white person)!!! WHERE YOU GO???" My reply is usually, "WHERE ARE YOU GOING!!!" Slow and steady. On the way out of Tram SorSor, a kid biked up along side of me and started biking at the same speed. He said hi, I said hi. He said my name is, I said my name is. Then he asked if I could help him. I kinda smiled to myself with satisfaction... yet another young student who wants my expert help in learning English... assuming he meant he wanted me to teach him English... "No," I replied, "I can't help you, I am very busy and I live far away." He looked a little confused. "Can you help me?" he asked again. "Please 5 Dollars?" I was embarrassed. Not only did he not want me to teach him English but he called my bluff, here I was being a 'barang' and I only had 35 cents in my pocket... what a failure, haha. My volleyball coach in high school taught me to never assume after I made a bad call on where I thought the ball was going... because "you know what they say about assuming" she said "it makes an ass out of you and ___." Maybe I should have passed that lesson on... but instead I just popped it up a few gears and left the kid behind... I didn't want to burst his bubble that not all barangs have money, maybe he'll have more luck with the other people. Plus I was a little hurt that he didn't want me to teach him, a minor blow to the ego on an otherwise lovely day.