Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is cliche', but...

11-27-2009

What I am thankful for:

I am thankful for my laptop, without which I would have either lost my mind or said “screw this” and gone home months ago.

I am thankful that, except for the pinworms, a mild case of giardia, and the mysterious open sores that would not heal, the last time I got badly sick was in April.

I am thankful that in the few dozen times I’ve biked from Kandal to Phnom Pehn, and vice-versa, I’ve never gotten into a major traffic accident. Only minor ones.

I am thankful for karma, which ensures that the person who stole my bike will eventually get what’s coming to them.

I’m thankful I finally know exactly what I’m going to do when I get out of Peace Corps.

And of course for family, friends, all that sappy stuff.

Monday, November 16, 2009

So I Moved to Kandal

11-16-09

So, I finally moved away from Svay Rieng. Back in September, when I was getting ready to go to Bangkok to take the GRE, Peace Corps finally came to a decision on where my new site would be. I would go to the Regional Teacher Training Center in Kandal.

The Ministry of Education had apparently been putting pressure on Peace Corps to send a volunteer to the RTTC in Kandal since K1 was here. The director (who is a women, a rare instance of a Khmer woman in a position of power) had been asking both the Ministry and Peace Corps directly to place a volunteer there to help the teachers with their English pronunciation. Peace Corps resisted this for several reasons. First of all, Kandal is very close to the capital city, so whichever volunteer got placed there wouldn’t really get a good sense of the country or a real “Peace Corps experience.” Also they might be in Phnom Penh every other day and possibly get in trouble if they weren’t mature enough. Also the Prime Minister had his official residence in Kandal really close to the RTTC; so a volunteer placed here might conceivably be a target of police interest, which is never a good thing in a country like this.

But, luckily for me, my timing and my situation were perfect. Prime Minister Hun Sen just built a giant new monstrosity of a house across form the Independence Monument and moved out of Kandal. Also, since I had already been here for a year I already had the “Peace Corps experience,” and staff knew that I wasn’t the kind of person to get in trouble in Phnom Pehn (because I’m so very, very boring).

The RTTC’s are basically two-year community colleges that all lower and upper secondary school teachers are required to go to. Which means my job has changed from teaching English to helping train future English teachers. What this actually means remains to be seen, since I am still mostly observing in the classes. Eventually I’ll transition to actively participating in teaching, but for now I just watch and take notes on what could improve.

Kandal itself is located about 13 kilometers away from the capital of Phnom Penh. It’s seriously that close to the city. I can bike from my house to the Peace Corps office in 45 minutes. Of course I abuse this newfound proximity to the city profusely, biking in at least twice a week to buy groceries and eat lunch.

My housing is also quite an upgrade. I don’t really live with a host family; it’s more like a landlord/tenet situation. The house is about 100 yards away from the RTTC. I’ve got an upstairs room that is about twice as large as my cell in Svay Rieng. I’ve got a desk, at last! And room to walk around in my room! It’s great. Since I don’t really have a host family I cook all my meals, plus I am allowed to put stuff in their refrigerator (yes, they have a fridge). Since I am so close to Phnom Penh, I can buy stuff like butter and cheese there, things I could never have gotten in Svay Rieng. The number of meals I know how to and am able to prepare has tripled (from one to three)! I had grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner tonight. Life is good.

Oh, and I’ve decided that after I leave Peace Corps I’m going to join the Army. Seriously.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stuff is Happening

Or: “That’s right, I have a blog, don’t I?”
8-30-09

So a few weeks ago I was finally getting prepared to sit down and write out a blog about how I have been doing nothing for the last several months. Which was true; I haven’t set foot in a classroom since May, and the three students that came to my English club and Karate club on a regular basis stopped coming. Why did they stop coming? Because “it’s the rainy season.” So basically my life for a while now has pretty much followed the following schedule: wake up around 7, go to the market, eat breakfast, find some way to waste five hours, eat lunch, find some way to waste five hours, eat dinner, listen to the BBC, watch some episodes of Stargate, go to sleep. And that’s pretty much been my life.

K3 arrived at the end of July. I was involved in their first week of orientation; greeting them at the airport, keeping them awake in Phnom Penh the first day, and then participating in various sessions before they went out to their training sites. After that it was back to my usual schedule. Except for one small detail.

I have said before that my one ambition at this school was to start a library. The project has had various ups and downs before, but I felt like I was finally ready to get this thing off the ground. While I was away for the week with K3, I instructed my co-teacher to start gathering the necessary information I would need to start writing a proposal. Prices, availability of material, stuff like that. I assumed at this point that we had the school’s permission to actually do this thing, too. I returned to site and went to my co-teacher’s house. His first words to me?

“I don’t know who will work with you now. I got a new job in Svay Rieng town, and will not teach here anymore. And the school director will never approve your library project. He does not want you to get involved in the school at all, because he is very corrupt and takes the money the province gives the school.”

So…that was that. And I had finally had enough of this school. It was time to call Peace Corps.

Fully expecting to have to fight admin and fully prepared to have to threaten to leave, I called up our program manager. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and had my co-teacher standing by to confirm what I was saying about my situation at school. And Peace Corps was…surprisingly helpful about it. They basically said that if it sounded like I had honestly tried to do stuff at the school but because of the school itself nothing had worked out and they agreed that it would probably never work. So they said they would look into letting me switch sites.

Peace Corps has been understandably busy with the Pre-Service Training, so getting me moved hasn’t really been that high of a priority. Plus they still haven’t figured out exactly where they wanted to put me. My first conversation with them was at the start of August, and I still don’t know exactly where I will be going. At first it seemed like I was going to be put in a Provincial Teacher Training Center, basically the vocational college that all Cambodian teachers attend. However, then it seemed like I might go either the Prey Veng RTTC, or a High School in Battambang or Kampong Thom (find a map for yourselves if you are confused). But NOW, when I talked to Admin on Friday, it looks like they are going to place me in the lovely-named province of Kampong Speu.

Peace Corps has wanted to expand to Kampong Speu (it’s seriously pronounced “spoo”) for some time now. I think they were trying to get K3’s there, and I know that the Ministry of Education has been pushing them to place some volunteers there (also they have been pushing Kandal province, which again probably means nothing to the vast majority of people reading this). But for whatever reason they have been running into road blocks. But since I have suddenly become available, and because they know I won’t freak out if left in a province by myself, they figure I can be the test case for the province.

It will certainly be an interesting opportunity. I don’t know anything about Kampong Speu, except its location. I can’t really ask anyone because nobody has ever lived there. But at the very least I will be in a provincial town only about an hour away from Phnom Penh. And once again I will be the first Peace Corps volunteer at this site…and this time, the first one in the province. If nothing else, it will look pretty good on those grad school applications.

And speaking of which, I’m going to try and take the GRE next month. I will have to go to Thailand to take it, so I’ve got a weekend in Bangkok to look forward to. I’ve been studying for a little over a month now, and while I probably won’t be getting any perfect scores, I’m confident I can make a decent showing. I should get at least over 50% correct in the math section…I think.

Anyway, that’s been what’s happening to me here in Cambodia. Big changes are on the way. If I stick to my blog schedule, I should be posting another one…sometime in December.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stuff

6/25/09

It’s been a while since I’ve written up anything, so I figured I would take this opportunity to update the world on what’s going on at my house.

As you may remember, I have two host sisters; one who teaches at the primary school, and one who just does housework. Well, a few months ago my family suddenly started stockpiling building supplies. I didn’t really know why and when I tried to ask what it was for I didn’t understand the response. And then month or so ago they suddenly began cutting down trees and clearing brush along the road in front of the house. As it turned out, they built a little shed to run a store out of. Now my host sister (the eldest one) stays out there all day selling little snacks and rope and various dry goods, as well as selling gas out of old glass Coke bottles. I guess they decided to open up yet another source of income?

I like it because she sells a lot of things that I would otherwise buy in the market, which cuts down the amount of time I have to spend outside of the house from maybe 20 minutes a day to 0 minutes…wait, why is that a good thing?

Other than that, school has been nonexistent. I’m trying to get my library project off the ground, but there have been…complications. As I mentioned before, my school is building a new library, and I wanted to raise some funds and make it really nice. My school director was on board, but then he went and talked to the donors. The donors basically said “absolutely not, don’t let the foreigner anywhere near that building.” So that is obviously out. But my school director, being cool, said that I could take one of the classrooms and turn it into an English library, and reading room. So that is basically what I am going to work on now. And the basketball court, if possible.

What else…oh, there are new puppies at our house. Our dog gave birth to three more puppies on the 5th or May. But two have already been given away, and I don’t know if they intend to keep the third one. I hope they do because I could start training him and have that be a little personal side project of my own. I’m in Phnom Penh now and will be away from site for a whole week, so I guess I’ll find out when I get home if he’s been given away or not.

Also, starting this month, I’m going to pay my family less money in rent, and start cooking one meal for myself every day. I’m doing this because quite frankly the food at my house is not very good. It’s edible, and that’s about all I can say for it. So, I will prepare lunch for myself, in addition to breakfast. There’s a very good chance that I will starve to death before the month is out.

Beyond that, it’s still the same old stuff in Romduel.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Distant Future

5/26/09

Many people have told me over the years that I have problems “living in the moment,” or that I spend too much time thinking about things that are years away. And there is some validity to this. But in this case I think I am a bit justified as an exercise in stress relief. Living out here can often times seem a bit like purgatory. Focusing on my future and planning ahead is something that helps to remind me that at some point I will actually get out of here and get on with my life.

As some people may already know, my plan has been to eventually pass the Foreign Service Exam (officially known these days as the Foreign Service Offices Test) and get a job working for the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer. And this is still something that I would like to pursue. However...it's a bit too undefined of a goal for my tastes. Getting this job is contingent on passing the Test, which I can only take once a year. What am I going to do in the meantime? Working odd jobs and taking a test every year ( a test there is no guarantee I would ever even pass; I've heard stories of people taking it five, six, seven times and never hitting on what the testers are looking for) is not my idea of a good life. In fact, it sounds like a life that would slowly drive me insane.

I need a different goal, something that I can work towards that is much more definable, with step-by-step ways that I can go about getting to that goal. I don't understand how people can not have a plan, not know what they will be doing next year, or the year after. If I don't know those things, I start to freak out.

Anyway, this definable goal. I think I have found it. It won't necessarily be an easily obtainable goal, but with some hard work and the newfound mental maturity Peace Corps service has finally brought out in me, I think I can pull it off: law school.

Apparently, my mind works in a way that makes me suitable to be a lawyer. Various measurements over the years of personality and career aptitude and the like have indicated that law should be something I should consider pursuing. But it was never really something I considered, until I took an international law class in Japan. It was fascinating. I spent hours reading the textbook, seriously studying for a class for the first time ever in my academic career (more on that lovely fact later). When we did a mock trial, I had great fun pouring over old cases, looking for loopholes and relevant bits in past rulings to help argue my side's case. Of course, this sudden burst of scholastic achievement might be due to the fact that at the time I was attending a school that I hated any burying myself in study was the only means of escape. But I think it's possible that I, cliché as it sounds, may have found my calling in the practice of international law. But it was still a very undefined calling...until I came here.

I've seen the aftermath of human evil here in this country, and I've seen the efforts to bring the people who perpetrated that evil to justice. Sometime last month I had an epiphany. I want to travel the world and help bring war criminals to justice. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Of course, I'm not ruling anything out. Joining the State Department still is something that I want to pursue. And if at some point along the way I do pass the various hurdles and get offered a job in the diplomatic corps, I will consider it at that time. But in the meantime, I am going to pursue this new course; becoming a lawyer and helping to prosecute war criminals. Figuring out how to get involved in that field wasn't very difficult. Already I have found a law school in the United States that specializes in this field. They even offer internships for students to work on various tribunals around the world. So from now on my goal is to get into this school or one like it.

But that is much easier said than done. My motivation and drive that I have awakened lately was sadly lacking during my undergrad years. I won't go into details, but let's just say that my performance in undergrad (with some exceptions) was less than stellar. Chalk it up to immaturity, personal circumstances at the time, whatever. I won't make excuses. What I'm trying to say is that my undergrad GPA sucks, and not only does it a sucky GPA but it's a sucky GPA (it's 2.8, OK? I told you it sucked) from a small state college in Minnesota. Not exactly something that will get me into a well-known and prestigious law school. But I know I can do better. When I was taking classes in Japan I nearly got a 4.0 semester GPA. And that was in 400 level classes taught be teachers who were experts in their field. I know I have the mind to get the grades, my problem is applying myself. And now that I've been out in the real world, out on my own enduring hardships in a developing country, I think I can finally pull that off.

Unfortunately, lacking the ability to send myself back in time and re-apply to a better school and actually study and go to class this time, I'm still saddled with that low GPA. For a while I considered going back and getting another bachelor's degree after leaving the Peace Corps. Peace Corps service alone should be enough to get me into a decent school, where I could transfer in the classes where I got good grades and re-take the ones in which I didn't. I'm still kicking this possibility around.

Another possibility might be open to me, also because I have Peace Corps on my resume. I keep hearing that Peace Corps service looks absolutely great on grad school applications. While I doubt I would be able to get into the Kennedy School or something like it, I think I could manage to get into a grad school and get my master's degree. If I get good grades in grad school, which I know I can do, and write a good thesis, law school shouldn't be unobtainable, right? A masters degree, even from an grad school that might not necessarily be a “big name,” and a good LSAT score (which is something I'm actually working on now) should supersede a bachelor's and a terrible GPA. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

Now that I have laid out my goals and plans, I am on the lookout for advice. I have numerous questions; the foremost being if any of this is even feasible. So I am turning to whoever happens to be reading this blog. Do you have any advice about this? If so, you know how to get in contact with me. Or at least how to get in contact with someone who can get in contact with me. And I want to hear the harsh truth, should it come to that. Because hearing the harsh truth isn't something that happens very often in this country. At the very least it will give me something to look forward to.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An Angkor Obsession

5/24/09

It is pretty common knowledge in my village that I travel around Cambodia a fair amount. Weekends in Phnom Penh, visits to volunteers in other provinces, the trip to Ratinakiri, etc. When students ask me what I like to do, I tell them I like to travel. They usually reply, “But when are you going to Siem Riep?” In fact, this is one of the most common questions I get asked.

For those of you that don’t know, Siem Riep is the province in which Angkor Wat is located. And Angkor Wat is huge here. Its image is everywhere; on the flag, on official documents, on a brand of beer, on shirts, in paintings, everywhere. And the Cambodians are incredibly proud of the place. I would say proud to the point of obsession.

In some ways, I can understand it. It was a remarkable feat for a 10th century society. It remains to this day the largest religious complex on Earth. And it is a huge draw for tourist, which (in theory) will provide more money for development (in practice all the money is siphoned away from Cambodia, either to government officials who simply pocket it or to foreign companies). And it is a very important part of Khmer culture, one that most Khmer don’t get to see (too expensive to take a vacation, much less travel to the other side of the country). But the obsession with me seeing it is a bit much.

“When will you go Siem Riep? I think maybe you should visit Siem Riep. Do you know Angkor Wat? It is very famous temple, you should visit.” All the time. I tell them I want to see other places in Cambodia, but sometimes I think they really can’t comprehend why someone would come to Cambodia and not spend the majority of their time planning a trip to Angkor Wat.

Because of the way I am, I’m half-tempted to never go.

...

But of course I will! Come on, how could I come to Cambodia and not do the touristy Angkor Wat trip? Maybe as soon as next month, even. But I’m pretty sure that after I get back and show the pictures to my class, the first question I am going to get is, “when will you go again?”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Awk-waaaaard

5-15-09

The other day I went shopping. I was looking for some crackers or cookies or something, anything to help me stop losing weight. I’ve dropped roughly 12-13 pounds since coming here, and that is weight I really don’t have to spare. So I dropped by one of the largest stores in the village, which coincidently is run by the family of one of my 12th grade students.

This student is one of the best students in that class; she can almost carry on a conversation, after only six years of study. When I first arrived in Rumduel, my co-teacher had her come along with us on our shopping trip to Svay Rieng town, to help get the best prices on the stuff I needed to buy. And I sent her to a career day for female students organized by the K1s. In the course of all of this, my co-teacher and I had stopped by her family’s store/house. This was probably when I first appeared on their radar.

The Cambodian educational system has a rich history of students marrying teachers. Some teachers will openly admit that they are searching for a wife amongst the students. Other volunteers have stories about counterparts and coworkers who are engaged to 16-year-old students in their class. And, of course, every family would love to see their daughter marry a foreigner. Cambodian marriages are business arrangements first, designed for the support of the parents involved. The money that the foreigner would send to the family every month would make them the richest in town. So a foreign teacher is…something of a target.

Knowing this, I still went to my student’s store. I was hungry, damn it. And I figured they would be least likely to try and rip me off. It went…a little beyond that. They actually refused to take my money. I tried to pay them several times for the rather large package of crackers I got, but they kept telling me to take it. Then the mother invited me to sit down and sent the daughter to get me something to drink. Also free.

I’ve been in some awkward situations in my life, many of my own doing. This will probably be at least in the top ten. I sat and drank my water and tried to steer the conversation towards things like my work here in Rumduel, but the parents mostly wanted to talk about things like what my parents did for work, and how white my skin was. They were very interested in where I wanted to live after I left Cambodia, too.

I got out of there as quickly as possible. They told me to come by any time. So now I am conflicted. On one hand, I really like getting free stuff. On the other hand, if I drop by another few times the parents are going to start making reservations for a band and a caterer for the wedding.

Somehow, this is one situation I never really imagined would ever be a problem for me.