Friday, March 11, 2011

New Blog

The Cambodian government has asked many internet providers to block blogspot to stifle dissent. So, check out my new blog on a different site:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Emily's Visit

Brother and sister in Cambodia:

My sister, Emily, visited my village for three days. She met my host-family, students and other villagers and it was an interesting cross-cultural exchange.

Emily saw firsthand how Cambodians talk about what they see. People who knew me well knew that she was coming and would simply observe that she was pretty and her face was similar to my mother’s. They also said she looked younger than me.

When people who don’t know me well saw us together, they would ask if she was my girlfriend, then when I said she was my older sister, they would say that they think she is my younger sister. So, a common theme was people thinking she looked younger than me.

One group of people who saw us walking observed that there are two now, one fat and one skinny. Apparently, I was the fat one.

My host family liked her a lot, but Emily was not initially aware of this. Some members of my family were not so talkative with her (mainly because she doesn’t speak Khmer). However, they stood over her while she was eating and kept asking if the food was delicious and trying to give her more rice. This is a sign of affection.

They were also quite envious of her hair and said that her hair is what all Cambodians want. Two of my host sisters spent a solid five minutes playing with it.

My host-family also shared their sense of humor and interest in light skin with my sister. A member of my host-family was born around the time I arrived. Because of this, they told my sister that he has light skin like me (He doesn’t have light skin like me).

Another joke they made is that my sister could stay and I could go back to America because she liked the smelly fish paste (prohok) that I despise. At least, I hope they were kidding. Then again, if they weren’t kidding, I could go back to America and she could stay in the countryside eating fish paste…

Cambodian people also appreciated her sense of humor. She was asked countless times if she had a boyfriend, was married yet, or had a family yet. Sometimes the follow-up question would be if she wanted a Cambodian boyfriend/husband. When my students asked her this, she responded that the phone bill was too expensive. My Cambodian co-teacher thought it was so funny, that he repeated her joke countless times to other teachers. I also intend to steal her excuse and use it when people at the market pressure me to marry a Cambodian.

In addition to providing me with excuses to avoid getting married, my sister has helped me reflect on my experience here and questioned things I have taken for granted. I also think my host-community understands me better now that they know more about where I come from. Thus, for reasons beyond simply seeing my sister, the visit has been great so far. Now that visiting my village is done, Emily and I are off to the beach! (More pictures later)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Everything is Broken

Everything is broken in Cambodia

It is something volunteers say a lot. We use it in the broadest sense when speaking about an education system in which teachers don’t come to school if they don’t feel like it. Or a health system in which healthcare providers don’t wash their hands. Or the corruption that is rife throughout this impoverished country.

However, we also mean everything is broken in the literal sense. Consumer products are always breaking here. There are no pictures in my blog right now because the new battery for my camera was defective.

The packing list for Peace Corps Cambodia explicitly advised us against bringing clothes we wanted to bring back. I see why now. Washing clothes by hand destroys clothing -- if the dust doesn’t first.

Clothing from here doesn’t fare much better. But, a $90 shirt costs $2 here, so I’m not complaining.

Granted, low-quality consumer goods shouldn’t be much of a surprise in a developing Asian country. There is low human capital and a lack of consumer protection and accountability.

But sometimes the quantity of broken things borders on absurdity. In the course of a single day, I’ve ripped a pair of pants, had a flat tire on a new bike, broken a fan and found a gaping hole in the spigot of my water filter which leaked water all over my floor. This is a heavy day, but not a surprising one.

Sometimes broken things do astonish me, though. Our kitten was nibbling on my computer wire, so I picked him up and gently tossed him on the ground (about a foot) and he landed flat on his face. Who said cats always land on their feet?

These little annoyances can add up to making me quite frustrated, especially when combined with a stomach bug, watching a Cambodian teacher give a monthly test about something he’s never taught, and my being asked a dozen times about my salary.

However, Cambodians seem used to everything being broken. They don’t seem visibly bothered when their radio breaks.

They’re also expert at fixing broken things, although they’ll still break eventually. When another fan broke a year ago, my host-brother wired it back together. I was ready to buy a new spigot for my water filter, but my host-brother offered to glue it back together for me and it hasn’t leaked again (yet).

This speaks to me in many ways. Among Americans, I’d say I buy new things less frequently. But, I’m much more eager than Cambodians to throw things away. They fixed the antenna on my radio twice. They fixed my water filter and fan after I asked them about buying a new one.

It’s not only that it wouldn’t occur to me to fix it, but the way to fix it doesn’t come to me immediately. I think I could figure it out, but my mind is programmed to do other things. It seems Cambodians possess a kind of fix-it intelligence we don’t bother with much in the Western world. As a poorer people, they are probably more mindful of fixing something before replacing it.

There’s also less specialization in their skill set, while we’ve become more specialized, so they dabble in repairing. When something is broken, we instantly go to the mechanic or just throw it away. It seems more time and cost-efficient to focus on our day jobs. Conversely, the host-brother who fixes all of my things is also a pharmacist and a math teacher.

Specialization is known to contribute to economic growth, hence America’s wealth. It’s also clear that the average rural Cambodian is not able to do a lot of things we consider rudimentary. While most people I see on a daily basis don’t know where the Middle East is and can’t use the Internet, they can figure out a way to rig a door on one hinge with no doorknob to function for two years. However, I wonder if we’ve lost a way of problem-solving, and become more wasteful, by being slow to find a creative solution to simple problems.

I don’t wish the “everything is broken” experience on anyone, except as a brief cross-cultural foray. But, like most cross-cultural experiences, it gives us a chance to look critically at our own behaviors and practices, and to grow from it.


Ok. There's no snow. And I still don't need a blanket at night or a jacket. But, a lot of Cambodians are wearing jackets. And my students were shivering all morning.

Last year, I wore my sweatshirt once. Still, I think we can hope this year will be colder.

Cold Season/winter in Cambodia usually lasts from December to January. It basically means it's still hot during the day, but cools off in the afternoon and the morning. If I'm lucky, like today, I can go an entire day without sweating, but days like that are rare.

Sometimes, I think we take for granted how heat affects our disposition. I'm generally cheerful, but today's cold left me jubilant. I would say most Cambodians are not hoping for colder days ahead, but I certainly am.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A few thoughts on the stampede

I’m sure you’ve heard about the deadly stampede in Phnom Penh a week ago that killed at least 350 festival-goers, mostly women and young people, and left hundreds more injured. Although I’ve been to Phnom Penh many times, I was in my rural village at the time and did not know any of the victims,

But I saw the striking way Cambodians deal with grief on a national scale. I also saw the way news travels in a developing country, where BlackBerrys are unheard of and most people have never used the internet.

The stampede occurred on a bridge during the annual Water Festival. During Water Festival, about two million people from the countryside flock to Phnom Penh, doubling the population. There are so many crowds it’s difficult to go anywhere or see the boats, the main attraction of the festival. The Cambodian heat (where temperatures typically reach 95-100 degrees), while being surrounded by slow-moving people, along with tons of traffic to get into Phnom Penh, did not appeal to me.

Therefore, I was in my rural village the day of the tragedy. The day we heard about the tragedy was typical. Cambodians watched the news a little more, but basically carried on with their day. Peace Corps sent out text messages to ensure we were all OK and I texted a few of my friends in Phnom Penh to make sure they were OK.

The way Cambodians deal with their grief is a little strange for me. Cambodians smile and laugh when they are embarrassed. So, when I was eating breakfast and people were watching the news and another death from my district was announced, the people almost sounded like they were cheering as if watching a sporting event or election returns.

What I perceive as odd behavior has continued over the past two weeks. People in the countryside joke around a lot about the tragedy. A common theme in the jokes is someone wishing someone close to them died so they could get all the money being given out. Families who have a death in the family allegedly receive $12,000 per death, about six times the average yearly income. These donations come from the government, opposition parties, charities and companies. As my friend like to joke, “One woman lost three of her four children on the bridge. When asked about it, she said ‘I only lost three children.’”

When I told people that I was going to Phnom Penh the following weekend, many people asked me if I was going to go “play” at Diamond Island, the site of the stampede. Then they would giggle to each other.

I still do not completely understand why they find it OK to joke like this, but some people said they joke because they are afraid. Perhaps, joking is a way for them to express themselves, as feelings are not openly discussed here (including PTSD and other ramifications from the Khmer Rouge times). I think this short article about a hotline for stampede victims illustrates the lack of awareness about mental health issues:

The stampede also sparked many rumors. One was that the day after the stampede, a bus flipped over on another bridge. My host family had all the details down. And my friend in another province heard the exact same story, but it was completely unfounded. I don’t know how untrue things travel so fast around this country.

Due to an undeveloped legal system and lack of transparency (hence the cash payouts for victims), it will be difficult to determine what really happened and who was at fault. From what I’ve read and heard it seemed that this bridge has thousands of people on it. There are reports of some sort of commotion, perhaps from the bridge swaying or someone yelling about danger.

Many people were jammed together, perhaps for many hours. Some people jumped off the bridge while others were trying to climb away and may have been electrocuted.

It is also unclear what the authorities were doing. One report said they fired some sort of water hose at the people on the bridge.

Survivor stories are quite stirring. One blogger spoke with many of the victims and used the accounts to produce a fictional story about a family trapped on the bridge. The parts in bold are allegedly true:

For more information about the stampede, I also recommend Google News and Wikipedia.

Since the stampede was the biggest tragedy since the genocide, I imagine Cambodians will talk about it for a long time. If anything interesting occurs, I will be sure to post it here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I'm going to start talking about traffic in Cambodia more because it is vastly different from traffic in America.

Here's an interesting article about the high frequency of traffic fatalities in Cambodia:

It's definitely true speeding and drunk driving are problems, but I don't think 80% of people wear helmets during the day, at least in the countryside.

Tomorrow, I'll show you what a Cambodia highway looks like, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Newborn baby

Isn't he cute? This is a teacher at my school's new baby. He is three days old in this picture.

Notice the pile of money to the left of his head. When people come to see the baby, they give some money and wish the baby good health and happiness.

Usually, the men will also have a drinking party with the father while the mother rests and female relatives take care of everything. The mother does not get to rest at the hospital and has to come back with the baby on the same day as the birth. So, she relies on relatives to take care of her.