It had been approximately 10 minutes since a Language and Cultural Facilitator from the Peace Corps had dropped me off at my new host family’s house in Takeo province, Cambodia, helping me to pull my dusty luggage that was, unbeknownst to me, filled with sra-mouch (ants) already enjoying feasts of American goodies that were intended to be given as gifts. My travel had been long and included a two-day training in San Francisco and another three-day training in the provincial town of Takeo (during which time, in fact, the ants had moved in, sans invitation). It felt good to know that I had finally reached a location where I would be static for at least a few months. I was standing on the wooden bed frame that held my new mattress pad, attempting to tie up the infamous moh (mosquito net), an addition essential to sleeping in Cambodia. I wasn’t having the best of luck as the ceiling was very high, leaving me no place to secure the net in a way that it would cover my whole bed safely. I finally came to the conclusion and felt a pit in my stomach: I would have to ask my host family for help.
At this point, I had only said a very meek “Hello!” to my host family and their friends upon arrival, followed by an unnecessarily formal phrase that apparently Khmer people don’t actually say to each other which, I’m assuming, is similar to the awkward English adage, “I am very pleased to meet you” and generally incites laughter or confusion from locals when I attempt to say it. After which, my family had given me my space to get settled, and I had shuffled off to my new room. Now see, moving into a stranger’s house in another country is nerve-wracking enough, and I was experiencing the normal apprehensions and nervousness that comes with that. But the reason I was particularly apprehensive to confront my family is because I would have to say, “Can you please help me?” in Khmer, the main language spoken in Cambodia. I had learned just hours before, to my (own luck and detriment), that the Khmer word for help sounds very similar to another Khmer word which is apparently comparable to our F word. The worst part is, to the untrained tongue, (for example, I don’t know, maybe of someone who might be a non-native speaker of Khmer, namely, me) these two words are difficult to differentiate. So this means that I was about to walk into a room full of people I would be living with for the next two months and either have pretty much the first thing I say to them be, “Please help me,” or unintentionally say something else entirely… something I would like to avoid saying to anyone, just as a general rule (I don’t know, call me old-fashioned). The good news is, this story ends very anticlimactically. Judging by the lack of laughter or disgust when I approached the family with my proposition, I think I pronounced the word help correctly. Cool, small victory. They found some bamboo stalks and assisted me to tie them up as posts around my bed to secure the net. This is how my life in Cambodia started and how most of my days have been filled since then: A mixture of awkward nervousness and mundane seemingly unimportant moments of trial and error (did I mention error?).
What Is Pre-Service Training, You Ask?
I lived in a village in Takeo Province for 9 weeks, training Monday through Saturday 8 AM to 5 PM at a local sala (school). Peace Corps training consists of 4 major foci: cultural, linguistic, technical, and common core (which is things like safety and security, health, development…believe it or not we even had a two-hour session titled “The Diarrhea Dialogues” which included a mock stool sample taken from some unnervingly realistic chocolate-oatmeal mush which I heard through the grapevine was actually quite appetizing).
Peace Corps’ PST (pre-service training) was a very hectic time for me. It was as if I was having to relearn everything that I assumed I already knew, at least in some semi-competent capacity, how to do: eat, speak, shower, use the bathroom, etc. After having gone through relearning all of these basic human functions during PST, one thing I want to mention is how impressed I was (and continue to be) with the Peace Corps Cambodia staff, both individually and as a whole, who guided us through this transition. During my application process, I had a few interactions with general Peace Corps employees (particularly medical staff) that rubbed me the wrong way. However, Peace Corps Cambodia staff, which consists of mostly host country nationals, has been nothing but supportive, encouraging, and available for me and the other trainees since we walked out of that plane into the Phnom Penh International Airport with grey circles under our eyes in a daze. I believe I can speak for all of my cohort when I say I am grateful to each and every one of them and there is no way I would make it through Peace Corps without them. One of the reasons I chose Peace Corps over many other organizations is because of Peace Corps’ approach to sustainable development. However, I was still apprehensive going into this work, as I acknowledge my privilege and power, and what it means to come into a community as an outsider and attempt to “help” it. Similarly, what it means to come into a foreign language classroom as a native speaker of English with little experience. Although I would not say there isn’t room for error or growth, I was equally impressed by Peace Corps’s training process when it comes to these issues. Our technical trainers and other members of the Peace Corps Cambodia staff were very adamant in pushing emphasis on sustainability in all realms of service. It is reassuring to know that the framework that I am encouraged to work within, and the way Peace Corps Cambodia approaches that framework, seems to be mainly focused on development and is quite different than what the general public tends to assume that Peace Corps does (insert image of idealistic, western martyr taking selfie in front of an orphanage they single-handedly built with American flag raised high in the background and birds chirping as children smile in gratitude).
The cohort of volunteer English teachers (which, contrary to a typical 70-80 member Peace Corps Cambodia cohort size, started out at only 29 members in the beginning) was thrust into a tight schedule of seemingly unending sessions. As someone who experiences anxiety in groups, it was often difficult for me to pull my head above water. I found myself having to steal moments of solitude to regroup and ground myself when it felt like everything around me was uncontrollable and shifting. In those 9 weeks, we all had to completely reorder our lives for what felt like a marathon mapped onto a mystery terrain with unprecedented grade climb. Some members of the cohort made the difficult decision to return home to the states while others, unfortunately were sent home for medical reasons, for example. Although I believe, as is normal, our small group had its share of social road bumps and drama, I was always amazed at how quickly we were there to rally for each other in times of stress, vulnerability, or the difficult times when one of us had to leave Peace Corps Cambodia. On more than one occasion, I witnessed our entire cohort encircle a trainee who had just received news that they would be heading home, and each individual would wait their turn for one of the only things we knew how to give each other, a good ole’ American style bear hug. When I began this journey, my fears and anxieties made it feel easier to be in a constant state of defensiveness against this group of people, keeping most of them at arm’s length. But, as training progressed, and I saw that we all were facing similar struggles both physically and emotionally (trust me, culture shock and diarrhea are not exclusive to a select few), I began to realize that the other trainees were an essential part to my own personal interpretation of success in the Peace Corps.
Kruesa Toa (Host Family) Living
My host family in Takeo consists of Mak (Mom), Yay (Grandma), and Puh-on Proh (younger Brother). I also have a Puh-on Srey (younger Sister) who is studying and living in the capital city, Phnom Penh, about a 2 hour drive away. I would hear from previous or current volunteers about how close they became to their training host family, but I have to admit, I was skeptical. I couldn’t imagine myself becoming so close to this family who I could barely say 3 words to. That skepticism soon dissolved into the almost palpable acceptance that I felt from my patient kruesa toa (host family). As I so often realize the more time I spend on this blue dot, it was in the little things that I found a connection that first seemed inconceivable: On my first day, my yay placing her hand on my shoulder, even if only for a brief moment, smile wide and tinted red from sluk meluh (Betel Nut Leaf chew), a bitter leaf that gives similar effects to caffeine and tobacco, a soft laugh draped with eyes that can only be described as kind, she could sense how nervous and lost I was and this small gesture was the best welcome I could have asked for. The early morning smell of dry wood burning under a blackened kettle, bubbling with the day’s batch of tik sot (clean water) when I would make my way outside to take a shower, the flashlight on my phone leading the way through the dark shed and Mak would greet me with a soft smile. The evenings when my brother or nephew would sit with me and practice Khmer, speaking slowly and repeating themselves an ungodly amount of times without ever losing their patience (It was during these evenings that I realized flipping a water bottle and dabbing is a universal and intergenerational joy—Here’s a video for the confused of you out there). Or the nights I would angkuy leng (sit and hang out) with my Mak at our dinner table, making clumsy sketches with slender neon markers in my daily journal while she laid on her cot, neither of us saying a word, but still enjoying the simple existence of each other with the same sense of grateful appreciation we felt for the life-changing muh(mosquito)-deterring tanghal (fan) above us. It doesn’t always take consistent small-talk or conversations about the meaning of life in order to reach a meaningful level of companionship with someone. It’s this cliché about the simple requirements needed for human connection that becomes a blanket on our couch we’ve reached for a thousand times, but somehow still manages to drape us warmly and comfortably eases our transition to sleep.
My training host family owns a hangleukbaj (restaurant or small shop that sells food) which is located directly in front of the house. My mom spent most of her time selling out of it and in fact, we ate all of our meals there too. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, neighbors, randos, would come and go, buying un-regulated energy drinks, Anchor and ABC beer, soy milk in small rectangle cartons, bags of shrimp-flavored puffed-rice goodness, single-use sized packets of shampoo or toothpaste. Sometimes they would just come over to see the barang (foreigner) and I would smile and say, “I speak a little bit of Khmer” (I’m really good at saying that), while they giggle at me as I struggle to find the most efficient and logical way to suck the vinegar-soaked insides out of the smallest crab I’ve ever eaten. This was my life during pre-service training, outside of long days packed with training sessions, and this was how I began to make roots in Cambodia.
Swearing-In: Everything But Signing My Name in Blood
At the end of this training, 25 of us were able to officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers. This meant that at our swearing in ceremony, we got to wear a cool pin on our left breast with the Peace Corps logo and Cambodian flag (stepping up in the world). We got to hold our right hand up and go into a private room in the back to say some government oath that honestly gave me a little bit of the heebie geebies. We got to sing the Cambodian national anthem in front of all of our new permanent host families, which is one of the most catchy tunes I have ever heard in my life, and then sing the American national anthem, which is one of the most god-awful tunes I’ve ever heard in my life (sorry, patriots, it’s just real darn bad, nothing personal). We then repeated the Peace Corps Pledge, while I, predictably, ugly cried through recitation in the first row in perfect view of many cameras:
I (first, last name) promise to serve alongside the people of Cambodia. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Cambodia with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps’ family past, present, and future—I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.
We all recited the pledge, and swallowed in disbelief thinking:
Well, I guess we’re wearing mosquito spray on the daily for the next 24 months…also, damn, this pin is fanccyyy.