The actual, real beginning

Okay, so new site, new family, new demands, new projects to dream up and see through to their conclusion, oh the possibilities! Everything before this moment was merely a precursor to getting down and being a real volunteer.

So why am I taking so many naps all of sudden?

Okay, so the first few days since I arrived in Krakor were a little, uneventful, but I still got some things underway. School doesn’t really start for another few days so I’ve been trying to do some intentional relationship building, or IRB as they were so fond of calling it in training. This basically amounts to going out into the community and trying to either strike up conversations or just making yourself visible and prominent. The latter I can do just fine. The former, not so much. My Khmer skills, while pretty decent during our training lessons, are really just not up to snuff in the real world.

Case in point, I biked out to the floating village on my second day. I came upon two men who I believe were offering me a ride out to the village itself. However, I couldn’t really convey what I was doing, all I could say was “I am volunteer. I teach English at Krakor. I live here for two years.” They examined my bike and bike helmet and kept talking; all the while I could not understand a word. I eventually turned around and biked back to my house where I took a long nap in an ever expanding series of long naps.

My room is coming along nicely. I watched from my balcony as a couple of tractors carrying a load of wicker bookcases puttered along the road and off into the distance, and after a few minutes I convinced myself to go bike after them since I could not for the life of me find them in my local market. I’m glad I did because I think it really ties the room together.

On the 1st of October there was an opening ceremony for the school. The student body was assembled in front of one of the classroom buildings, and there were some provincial representatives from the Ministry of Education and a representative from the district of Krakor who was kind enough to come up to me after the proceedings and wish me luck. The ceremony itself felt fairly normal, with plenty of speeches and some prizes awarded for last years high achieving students. I may have been introduced at one point but I wasn’t made to stand or give a speech, and I’m unsure if that was a blessing or not.

The one thing that made events stand out for me was the dress of many of the staff. They looked to me to be wearing naval officer outfits, complete with what looked liked medals of commendation. I was later told by my co-teacher that these were staff members who had received bachelor’s degrees and I sorely wanted one after hearing this.

We then sat around for a good portion of the morning waiting to receive the class schedules. For hopefully at least the first two weeks of instruction I will only be observing my co-teachers in their classes, and this will be to better gauge what I can add to the mix.

The school would also like me to coach basketball.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the most sport-oriented person in the world. Sure, I like to dabble. I’ll throw down for a bit, but will surely get outclassed by friends who are either more athletic or more skilled or both. My knowledge of basketball being fairly limited, my steps onto the court are taken with a great deal of apprehension. My first pickup game was not so successful. However, with every game, I feel I am getting into a groove, and I may surprise even myself by finding a few things I can offer.

I also turned to my friends and the internet, and they showed me a great PDF on the fundamentals of basketball. Just simple things like what makes for good shooting, what are good drills to run, all of it eminently useful to a layman like myself.

At the moment I am taking it slow and steady. I was approached by a Japanese gal at the opening ceremony who was interested in having a foreigner teach English at an orphanage nearby. My school also a library which could serve as the staging ground for projects, but at the moment I am at a loss as to say what exactly that might be. For now, I just need to make it clear to everyone in my town that “I am volunteer. I teach English at Krakor. I live here for two years.”


Biggest Loser: Cambodia Edition

Here’s a pro-tip for all you folks out there struggling with that scale: buy yourself a plane ticket and hole up in a less developed nation for a couple months. From what I understand this is probably better advice for guys since for some odd reason women tend to gain more than lose on these sorts of excursions. Sorry ladies!

Well apparently I must have been really ginormous before, because all I keep hearing from the other volunteers is “Geez man, you’ve lost so much weight!”

On the left: July 22, 2010

On the right: Sept. 23, 2010

Not the most straightforward picture angles, I know, but I can only work with so much.

Well it is true for the most part. I believe current estimates put it at about 35 lbs. lost so far. The first month of weight loss (at least 20 lbs.) was exhilarating yet a little distressing at the same time. I didn’t think it was happening in an unhealthy manner per say, but it did lead me to try and exercise and eat more to keep the loss at a sustainable rate.

The weight issue also led to one of my more humiliating but ultimately hilarious experiences so far, which was being weighed by my host family on the rice scale. For those not familiar, the rice scale is used for bags of rice or other heavy sorts of things. It looks like a normal food scale except bigger: I think they typically go up to around 200 kilograms, or 440 lbs. The fact that they thought this the only scale capable of measuring me was both amusing and disheartening. Standing a good 6 or 8 inches above all in my family, the scale added another 12 inches to the equation. As I towered over them, I witnessed their eyes as the scales arm quickly shot up past 100, and I saw their hands cover their mouths as they stifled laughter and then gawked at me. Never before had I felt like such a piece of meat.

I took it in stride. It was funny. It was a clearly preposterous moment in my life, and I could do nothing but shrug my shoulders and laugh along.

From what I hear from older volunteers, people here will still call some of us fat, regardless of the state of our actual bodies. By our standards, I would call many of those who had been called fat definitely skinny, or even just muscular. So it’s still up in the air I guess. I know I still feel like a big ol’ shambling mess, and am constantly reminded of it whenever I go anywhere in public and hear the Khmer word to’wat. But hopefully one day I might get to the point where I too am called fat, and feel that the observation is not quite right.

The story so far

So, there haven’t been any updates to speak of for the simple logistical fact that internet access has been only an occasional thing. I do have a few things written down from the last two months so I’ll just condense a few of those thoughts into this mega post.

July 22The Honeymoon Period

Stepping off the plane in Phnom Penh, I had already expected to sweat more than I could imagine. I was certainly not disappointed. Within the first 30 minutes of our arrival, I had easily drenched my shirt and was dismayed to find the sweat was making progress on my pants.

This picture (featuring my good South Dakota friends Billy and Aaron) wasn’t from the same day, but illustrates my perpetual state quite well.

Of course, we were all expected to wear dress shirts and pants when we arrived, so this didn’t help the situation. Supposedly we landed near the start of the cool/rainy season, so any thoughts of being comfortable for the next two years are merely mad daydreams. On the plus side, I’m looking forward to losing weight from living in a perpetual sauna!

We spent our first day in Phnom Penh, filling out paperwork, being shown the main office, and being taken around to see some of the sights by the previous volunteers in tuk-tuks (a kind of taxi similar to a rickshaw except pulled by a motorcycle). Transportation in Phnom Penh (as well as Cambodia at large) can be a rather precarious undertaking most of the time. People are squeezed past seating capacity to get just that extra bit of money, and the traffic laws many times seem non-existent. Drivers pass even when it is not particularly convenient. This is, quite often, scary as hell. When coming back from a restaurant at night, our tuk-tuk and another one that had fellow trainees in it got into a race of sorts, and the others narrowly avoided being t-boned by a SUV. Thankfully, everyone came away unscathed, but it was a definite reminder that we weren’t in the US anymore.

Like any big city, Phnom Penh can be difficult to wrap your head around. Excesses from developed nations are juxtaposed and clash with the extreme poverty of less developed nations. The city itself has about 4 to 6 main streets which the volunteers use to orient themselves. The more I visit, the less crazy and jumbled it seems. Still, my first impression sticks with me. I could not remember how far away our hotel was or which direction we had traveled to get to the river or where Wat Phnom was. I did see monkeys, and an elephant, and a few beggars, and I thanked my stars we had someone with us who knew what the hell they were doing.

I call this post the honeymoon period because during training they described our relationship with this country and our experiences in it as a sort of wave sine, with our initial experiences being at the top of the wave, slowly making its way downwards before hopefully making its way back up again. At the top of the wave, we have “The Honeymoon Period”, which is the period where you feel ecstatic at your new surroundings and are willing to overlook a few, shall we say, blemishes. They are niggling little things that if more closely scrutinized would probably sour you on ever coming back. This is why people go on vacation to Hawaii and say, “I could live here,” only to neglect the reality of what that would mean, such as cost of living or being away from every single person who ever knew you or missing the changing of seasons and so on and so forth. For many of us it was the same, and for a select few it might still be. At first, things like using a squat toilet or having rice with every meal were a novelty, something that seemed like merely part of the cultural flavor. Now they are just everyday occurrences, sometimes acknowledged as annoyance but most of the time just a part of life. What you start experiencing near the end of the honeymoon period is what moves you towards “rejection”.

August – Rejection

Rejection may begin with subtle things. You may have a slight cold or one meal that just did not sit right with you. Then you begin to become annoyed by larger things: the dogs howling at 4 in the morning or the monks chanting at 4:30. Suddenly you find yourself on that downward plunge towards rejection. From what I can tell, everyone experiences this feeling and each person experiences and exhibits it in different ways. Usually you start to notice it after the first few weeks. I know I certainly had my share.

After our few first days in Phnom Penh, we were moved to our training province of Kampong Cham. We spent a few more days in the provincial town preparing to live amongst host families, and then our group of 50+ volunteers was split into three training villages. Ours was Bosknaus in the district of Chamkar Leu. Chamkar Leu roughly means “Upper Farm” in Khmer, and there certainly were farms abounding.

The first meeting with our training host families was predictably awkward. We could maybe say five words of Khmer, so many of us just nodded our heads when spoken to gestured towards. I was relieved that my host dad was only joking when he said they preferred to eat with their hands (at least that’s what was translated to me).

My first night in a wood shack had its share of challenges: mosquitoes buzzing, geckos chirping, ants swarming, and an occasional rat noise to name a few. Thankfully the family did have electricity and I was able to use a fan they had supplied. The aforementioned ants were oddly one of the things later in training that while throwing me into rejection mode also brought me closer to some of the other trainees. We would briefly vent our frustrations at them swarming our rooms as well as our water filters (“What the hell are they doing in there? I thought they hated water!”)

So language and technical training continued through the end of July and August. Some members of the group had contracted Dengue Fever, while others like myself had merely gotten giardia. It’s during those times of illness when your mind is most at risk of rejection. When one of my good friends here had something that wasn’t quite serious but was still crappy enough to make him feel awful for half a week, a terrible but thankfully brief thought had entered his head. It was, “I’m a volunteer: I can simply go home. At any time during this thing, I can make the choice to not stay.” He knew the impulse was fleeting and knew he was much stronger than that, but in the back of my mind I know we are all tempted by such thoughts. That’s why I’m thankful the downward plunge usually tapers back up towards Sociology.

September – Sociology

By the end of August, I was feeling pretty good. We had completed a number of tasks such as the practice LPI, aka the Language Proficiency Indicator, aka the test that decides if our language is good enough to stay or not, and most everyone was on track. We had what is called Practicum, which is a week of teaching practice with Khmer students. I and two others were assigned 9th grade. I’ll write more about this experience later but I can probably say it was very reassuring for me at the least. We also had a site visit to places where current volunteers are serving in Cambodia. I and two others had visited Dillon in Svay Rieng, close to the border of Vietnam. Our visit got me fairly excited for the long haul. We had expressed many of our doubts and frustrations during training, and he seemed to confirm what we had hoped: real service is not like training. Seminar days are a thing of the past, and you actually get to structure your day how you want it. However, there still remains a possibility of this being a case of “be careful what you wish for”. Most volunteers I’ve spoken to remember a few good things about training but for the most part wouldn’t want to be back at that stage.

So to the Sociological stage. This is where you are on the upswing but find you are still having difficulties. Instead of just retreating into yourself or blaming the country out of spite, you try to pick yourself up and understand why the things that upset you are the way they are. Instead of being instantly annoyed when your family keeps you up at night by watching television loudly or by waking you up again at 4 in the morning, you try and reason that this is their time to be together, since the day is reserved either for working or for napping during the hottest part of the day. The Sociological perspective does not mean you aren’t pissed off, only that you are doing something more constructive with that pissed-off-ness.

I would say I didn’t experience as dramatic a plunge or upswing as many of my fellow trainees. If things bothered me I tried not to let it show, but for the most part I felt like things were as they should be. If I got upset, it felt natural and would probably pass. If I was happy, I tried to hold onto that feeling for as long as I could. Being with other trainees in the village helped. If I or they wanted to vent, we could do so easily. Being at my permanent site by myself, I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it as well as I previously did.

Late September – Acceptance and understanding

So that brings us to now. As of September 23, 2010, I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer. Before we were merely trainees: scared, weak, unsure of our place in this country. Now, the 49 of us who have sworn in are scattered to our respective provinces, hopefully fit to make our way in our communities. We have left the security of our training host families, of whom many had grown attached, and the immediacy of our fellow volunteers, of which many came to rely on.

I now find myself in the district town of Krakor in Pursat province, where I will be staying for the next two years. In my province, I will have Bill, another Seattleite from our newly inducted group, and two other current volunteers. My house is on National Highway 5, right across from the school where I will be co-teaching. Already I know that noise will be something that could potentially pull me down again. After two days at site, I know that boredom is something I will have to fight viciously against. I have a small library of books at my disposal and the numbers of all the friends I made during training. After spending a week in Phnom Penh eating western food, I found I was craving just a simple meal of bai saik jrook (rice with pork). It’ll be good to settle in I think.

Acceptance comes close to where the honeymoon period had started at the top of the wave. It doesn’t ever really get to that point again, because you have the knowledge that situations change and what set you off before could very well do so again. But because you are armed with that knowledge, it makes the next plunge easier to handle. Or so we hope. I hope that what sustained me through training will sustain and develop throughout the next two years in Cambodia. We give ourselves things to look forward to. For me, it’s the thought of maybe singing the national anthem for the US embassy in July. Earlier than that, its maybe taking my first bit of annual leave in April and doing some traveling. Even earlier than that, it’s Thanksgiving in Battambang. And this week, it’s buying a pair of pants that actually fit. You gotta start somewhere, folks.

More to come.

The beginning: a personal introduction and thoughts on things to come.

“I will try and know whatever I try / I will be gone but not forever”

My name is Bryan Peterson, and I come from a small town in the Pacific Northwest. As I write this, today is the twenty third of June, 2010. In just seven days I will be twenty six years old. Twenty eight days from now, I will board a plane which will take me toCambodia, where I will serve in the Peace Corps by taking part in the English Teaching and Teacher Training (EEET) program. Ostensibly I will do this for twenty seven months, although I suppose I cannot overlook the possibility that something may happen to derail those plans.

There will be a lot to discuss in the days ahead, so I will do my best to keep my writing relevant. With that in mind, I’d like to briefly cover what brought me to making the decision to do this.

I graduated in early 2007 with a Bachelors degree in English from the University ofWashington in Seattle. Like many English majors, I found I hadn’t really decided on any set line of work, but was still very interested in trying to do something that would be connected somehow to the skills I had developed in college. I worked odd jobs, saved money for trips both near and abroad, and applied to dozens of places where I thought I’d be a good fit. I wasn’t making much progress professionally speaking. During this time, I’d say around early 2009, I’d attended some seminars at a career fair hosted by UW. One of the panels was focused on working abroad. This was a dream I’d had for some time; in high school I had been a Rotary Youth Exchange Student to Australia, and I once more clamored for the feeling of getting out there and seeing what the world had to offer outside of my small town. By now it’s not too hard to guess that one of the panel members was a representative from the Peace Corps. I listened with some interest but put the idea of joining on the backburner. If I joined, it was likely that I’d be doing something in the educational sphere of things, and at that time I just didn’t think I was cut out for it.

To be honest, I’m still not sure if I’m capable or if it’ll even be a good fit. I’d mostly enjoyed school, but I suppose I had thought (quite foolishly) that teaching was something you fell back on, something that, while admirable, was still something to be viewed as personal failing, a sign that one couldn’t make it in the “real world”. I may personally have known some people who justified this view to me, people who I didn’t really view as earnest teachers but more as short-sighted and lazy individuals. I realize now that this was a completely abhorrent view to take. Education is perhaps one of the best things we as humans engage in, and to disparage it is perhaps one of the ultimate moral failings a person can have in my opinion. Its successes are often difficult to gauge but are meaningful and plentiful nonetheless.

As the year went on, the thought of pursuing education professionally became more and more appealing to me. A friendly email from the Peace Corps reminding me that I had previously started working on an application spurred me to finish one before the September deadline. After months of waiting for medical tests to be cleared, finding a job as a tutor English at a local community college, and volunteering to help the ESL classes there, I finally received an invitation to serve in May of 2010. I had no real preference for where to be sent, only that it be a place where I could be of use and where I could grow both on a personal and professional level. I must say I had rarely given much thought to Cambodia. After much research (I am indebted to previous volunteers for their thoughtful blogs), I accepted the invitation. And that leaves me with the challenge of setting some goals for the years to come.

My main aspiration is to decide once and for all whether to become a teacher or not. I know that realistically this will not be an easy task to do overseas. The teacher retention rates for programs like Teach for America are abysmally low, due in part to the fact that many become overwhelmed by the process of being simply dumped into a situation without much formal training. That said, I think that this approach in combination with the Peace Corps will be useful in determining if this is merely a passing phase for me or if it is indeed what I should be doing for the long term. I don’t have any formal training in a classroom save from what I observed during my time being a tutor. I haven’t the foggiest as to what goes into lesson planning, nor do I know anything about classroom management. However, I now make it my goal to be a good teacher, to not set unreasonable standards but also not give up entirely. I believe it is within my grasp to find the means to be successful.

To master another language, even one that is not widespread such as Khmer, will be perhaps one of the greater challenges I face. From reading the blogs and advice of previous volunteers, immersion in the culture seems to do the trick, but I remain as of yet apprehensive. Pre-service jitters, I suppose.

I really have no other major goals besides those two. I’m going to try and faithfully write. I will try to take up guitar once more, read a lot, make new friends and explore what I can only imagine is a breathtaking country. I look forward to becoming a sweaty, shambling mess of man, the very image of the lumbering American to be pointed and gawked at. Maybe I’ll lose some weight, become more humbled by my experience, or become more cynical as the heat rattles my brain. I look forward to it all, and I wish those of you joining me the best of luck. Here’s to our best efforts!