My Other Mother


ImageWhen I moved to Cambodia a year ago, I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. I was told when I got here that I would be living with a Cambodian family. At first, this seemed really daunting, how was I going to communicate? What if I did something culturally inappropriate? Would they like me?

As it turned out, I could not have been placed with a better family. I have Peace Corps to thank for that. As fabulous as each member of my family is, none of the other members would be so without the influence of my host mother, Touch (pronounced Dtoo-ick) Chhiev. She is one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. She is strong, confident, caring, has more than a fair share of sass and I like to say she can have a “bad ass” attitude (in a good way!). She is loved by everyone in our community and it is common to find her sitting out on the crey (a big wooden table) chatting with neighbors and listening attentively to all their triumphs and woes, knowing the right moments to interject advice and opinions. Although, she has only three children of her own, she is “mother” to many more, including myself. You can see her hugging, feeding, and scolding children from all over the neighborhood, giving them just the right amount affection and discipline to teach them right from wrong. Out of all these strong characteristics, her most admirable and inspiring trait is the amount of love she has to offer those around her.

She has suffered grave loss. Three years ago she lost her husband and a son, leaving her with her with two daughters and adopted son (she adopted her brother and wife’s son when he was a baby due to his parents death, yet another remarkable thing she has done!). But, despite this she conquers each day with passion and a smile. She has raised her children to be hard working, loving, respectable people and you can tell how much they all truly love their mother. Even amidst tragedy in her life she managed to cultivate a bright future for her children and stand up in a time of despair as a role model for her them. Her life is a story of a woman who has every reason to give up; she lost a husband, a son, a source of income, ultimately everything but, never did. She possesses power and resilience that are inspirational to everyone. She is now a recently newlywed and is helping her daughters run a school under our house.

I am so fortunate that I have been able to become a part of this family and have Touch as my other mother. Mai, as I call her (Khmer for Mother), has shown me nothing but love. Now that I have been here for a year, I feel I am just another member of the Chhiev family- I have my chores, fit seamlessly into the daily routine, receive a stern talking to when I don’t wash my clothes often enough and get to experience the warmth of Mai’s huge heart.

When I was very ill one time, Mai was there by my side just as my mother in America would have been. She checked my temperature every hour, came into my room with wet wash cloths to soothe the fever I had,  ensured I took medicine and drank enough water to keep me hydrated, and coined me (Traditional Khmer Healing). She was so attentive and caring, and being sick in a third world country can be challenging but, her care was over the top. When I was better and thanked her what seemed like a thousand times both from myself and my worried family at home, she simply said, “you are my child and I love you, of course I am going to take care of you when you are sick”.

            Another time, a friend of mine became abruptly sick and it was really important for me to go to see her as soon as possible. Since it was around three o’clock in the afternoon, it was a really hard time to get a ride to the city. Nonetheless, Mai was determined to help me get there. As I rushed to pack, she began dialing every phone number she had. Nobody was available to drive me at this time. So, we rushed to the road. It began pouring as it so often does in the afternoon of the rainy season in Cambodia and she took of her coat, wearing nothing but a t-shirt underneath and gave it to me to keep me from getting to wet. As I tried to help her flag down a van, she yelled at me to “stay under the shelter, I am your mother and I will take care of you”. So against my own will, I stood under the overhang, while she stood at the edge of the street in the pouring rain, while cars whizzed by splashing her waiting to flag down a van. Of course, the determined and strong willed woman she is, she managed to get a van at an hour when it seemed to me, impossible. She put me on the van and through my many thanks and the downpour she wished me luck, to be safe and call her when I got there… typical mom.

One last story involves yet another time when someone I know and love was very ill. I had told my family I was feeling sad because of this and mentioned I was going to go to the Wat and pray later on and at first I seemed to think they didn’t care or just nodded their heads and let it pass them by. But, that afternoon Mai suggested we go on a bike ride, something out of the ordinary so, I immediately agreed. She led the way to the Wat and told me she wanted to stay while I prayed for my friend. After I emerged from the Wat, she said she had one more thing to show me. We road through some rice paddies to some of graves near the Wat and she brought me to the grave sites of her deceased husband and son. We walked up to them together and she told me where we were. First, we kneeled and bowed and prayed for her deceased family. Then she turned to me and said if we pray for my friend to our deceased ancestors, it will bring this person great luck and fortune. So together we prayed again but, for my friend. Although this may just seem like a nice story to you reading this, this was a really personal and loving gesture. In Cambodian culture, expressing emotions and feelings is not common, due to the country’s history. Also, in Cambodian culture ancestors and the deceased are worshiped in the deepest regards. Although in action this seems like a small gesture, it in actuality was grand. She opened up to me and gave me her deceased family and ancestors as my own to pray to and ask for help and I couldn’t have been more thankful.

So no matter how many times she fixes me up before weddings, or calls to check up on me or tells me to go change before I go somewhere; I know it’s out of love and she does to me what she would do to any of her other children. I am so fortunate for this. She is a role model and inspiration to me and I have learned so much from her in one year. She is an exemplar to all women, especially those who have struggles in their lives, to be brave and strong for those around you and expressed by my Mai’s actions but in the words of the Beatles “all you need is love”.


Camp G.L.O.W.


This past weekend my province, Kampong Cham, put on a girls’ empowerment camp called Camp G.L.O.W. (Girls Leading Our World).  This is a three day long camp focusing on educating high school females about opportunities for their futures.

                Historically, the culture of Cambodia has been very male dominant but, more recently there has been a shift in this type of mindset in some of the more developed areas. Today, there are many strong empowered females in a variety of powerful positions in the workforce, community, and family. These women serve as great examples for the young women of Cambodia.

                At our Camp G.L.OW. we had a variety of strong females give presentations on a number of topics such as, the education process they went through, the struggles of climbing the ladder in the workforce, their current career, their family life, and their relationships. These women serve as great role models for the females of the next generation. We also had workshops on health topics, self- defense, personal expression, and exercise. And of course since it was a camp, we had many traditional camp activities like bracelet making, t-shirt designing, songs and games! Plus, all the students got to have a big sleepover in a guesthouse. (Only a few students tried to sneak out at night!)

                Overall, this event was spectacular. Students were inspired by powerful women, motivated to continue to work hard in their studies and continue their education, reminded of how awesome they are and how much they have achieved so far and how much more they are capable of achieving, made new friends, and made a lot of fabulous memories!

                Although a camp like this is important for girls everywhere, it is really important for girls in Cambodia. It promotes strength, confidence, and giving females a voice. It gives students real examples of successful, happy women who lead fulfilling lives. And hopefully it inspires these girls to become the best they can be and gives them the knowledge that they can be and do whatever they set their mind to. As Beyonce says- Who runs the world? GIRLS! Today, this is a realistic possibility for these girls who did not necessarily have this opportunity before.

                                                      Girls Leading Our World 2013         

Life at Site

Here is a letter another volunteer from Peace Corps Cambodia wrote. I did not write the following and could not find the name to give this person credit. But, I think she really describes some of the situations I experience in Cambodia perfectly.
Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,
“I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.
But should you? Is it right for you?
Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.
I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.*
‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.
Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.
The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.
You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.
You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.
You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.
You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.
Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.
You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.
Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.
You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you”.
Like I said, I agree with all these statements and have experienced them all so far in my 10 months of service. Although I teach sanitation and try to enforce it at my home, we still eat on the table we sit on with dirty feet and all use our hands to pick through the food we all share from a communal bowl while chickens, dogs, cats, cows, and pigs walk around. I am sick more often than not and have to deal with it in unusual and uncomfortable ways. I now commonly forget words in English when at my site for too long. Paying more than a dollar for something needs serious contemplation. I binge until I am sick when I visit places that have Western food. I am the only person accountable for me, I have to set my own standards for work and keep in mind the harder I work, the more my patients and students will get out of it. Nothing of mine is private, everything is shared; all my space, all my stuff, even my presence. If someone wants me somewhere they will come and get me, no matter what time of place or where I am. I have learned how to be okay with being alone for extended periods of time. I can sit and do nothing and be perfectly content. I could not survive without my Peace Corps friends. They understand more than anyone can, as much as family and friends at home want to, it’s hard to understand something you don’t know. Life here is completely different and you truly learn your real needs in life.

Khmer New Year

10, 9, 8….3, 2, 1, the glistening ball drops in Times Square, horns are sounding, confetti is spraying, the first kiss of the new year- the anticipated excitement unfolds at 12:00am January 1st.

Not so in the Kingdom of Wonder. Khmer New Year (Jol Che-num Ta Mai, Khmer phonetics) is a three day long celebration full of visits to the Wat (Buddhist Temple), delicious Khmer food (my host mom’s famous chicken curry), parties, dancing, and more. Technically the holiday is from April 14th until April 16th (or so I think) but, it usually spans for far longer and school and work are postponed for a few weeks to continue the celebrations.

Traditionally, this is the celebration of the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the rainy season. It is also a time to pay homage to ancestors and the Buddha with hopes that you will have happiness and good fortune in the upcoming year.

One interesting comparison I found throughout this holiday was that all the families in my village set up small shrines in the windows of their homes, visible to those outside. They consist of offerings such as fruit, food items, beverages, cigarettes, flowers and decorations. Most in my village were accompanied by flashing Christmas lights (as I would describe them). For me, it was like decorating the exterior the house for the Christmas holiday! In the evening I enjoyed walking around looking at the displays people had in their windows!

On the first day of the celebration my host mother, whom I call Mai, came into my room at 6:30am rather frantically asking why I wasn’t dressed and ready yet! I rushed to dress in my Wat attire of a sampot (traditional Khmer skirt) and white dress shirt, brushed my teeth and ran out the door. Once you take off your shoes and enter the Wat it is custom to walk to the front where there are numerous Buddha statues. Each person lights a few incents, bows three times and says their thanks and prayers. Following these personal prayers you bring the incents out to shrines outside and place them in front of your shrine of choice, of course adding in another prayer. Soon after, the ceremony begins. It involves a lot of chanting, bowing, offering food and beverage, bringing the monks food and beverages. It also causes me a lot of pain. To be honest sitting on my feet in a culturally appropriate position hurts. Even despite my greatest attempts, I can only make it about five minutes before I need to adjust my feet. By being American I already draw enough attention to myself and I just make it worse by fidgeting during prayer.

Each morning of the New Year, we went to the Wat and repeated these practices. But, the Wat in the afternoon transformed into a dance party/fair! My Mai knows I enjoy dancing and so she led me to three Wats near our house and pushed me into the crowd and told me to dance. She watched from the sidelines and when it was time to move to the next dancing location, she pushed into the crowd grabbed my arm and off we went. This happened every day. Of course the dancing did not end after afternoon Wat dances. Once the sun set the neighborhood parties began and yes you guessed it, more dancing! It is safe to say I got in a fair workout dancing during these few days to offset all the delicious food I ate.

It is true when they say they save the best for last. The final day of the New Year did not begin with a visit to the Wat. Confused, I made my way to my neighbor’s house where there seemed to be a lot of commotion. They set up ten plastic chairs and had buckets full of water and flowers lined up behind the chairs. Next, a line of the neighborhood grandmothers and grandfathers came marching into the yard in their shower clothes. Children and grandchildren lined up behind their respected elder and then dumped buckets of water on their heads and washed them! This is a Khmer New Year practice. You wash away the bad from the previous year, while wishing good luck and health in the year to come! But, it did not end here. We all made our way to the Wat in a big parade procession. This is the scene I saw when I got to the Wat- the Wat tile floor covered in ankle deep water, pcv pipes attached to the ceiling dumping water out, people pushing and shoving to fill their bucket with water, people dumping/ throwing/ splashing water on each other, people pouring water over the Buddha statues, monks throwing water, kids trying to swim in the water on the floor, and adults dragging each other by the feet.  I was not prepared. The moment I stepped into the Wat or pond, I was in this water fight. Being American, I was a key target for getting water dumped on me. It was awesome. I participated in the traditional practice of washing the Buddha statues and having a monk pour water on me while saying a prayer but, then I was a serious competitor in the water fight. Monks, kids, grandparents, adults are all fair game! Pouring water on another is a way of wishing good luck and health in the New Year, so of course I wanted to wish as many people happiness in the New Year as I could. It was also necessary for me to body slide across the wet tile floor like a seal, this was a crowd pleaser. Best slip and slide ever. Bet you can’t say you were in a water fight with a monk. They better be ready, I’m bringing a water gun next year.

 Happy Khmer New Year!


Caitie In Cambodia

So my New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to keep a blog about my daily trials and tribulations while living in Cambodia, for those interested in hearing about what it is like living and working in a third world country.

The summer prior to my senior year of college, I applied to the Peace Corps. Many people dubiously asked, why? And truthfully, in my head, the only answer I had was, why not? But, after applying it kind of slipped my mind as my final year of college began with the whirl wind that college always brings; lectures, exams, papers, office hours, lacrosse practice, lift, tailgates, parties, volunteering, club meetings, lunch dates, team dinners, games, tournaments and sometimes sleep. You just get swept up in your daily life and especially at my college you tend to get caught up in the bubble of “school” and everything else just kind of fades away. So by the time spring rolled around, other seniors started accepting job offers and professors started inquiring about what students would be doing the following year. I always answered that I was doing the Peace Corps, but as a Psychology/ Pre-Medical major, I tended to again, get those dubious looks.

After so many heartfelt goodbyes and an overload of love and support from family and friends in the weeks prior to my departure, I made my way to the airport, eating my last Long Island bagel for a while. After a stressful weighing process, carrying an extremely oversized carry on and my pillow pet, Josh, I hugged my parents’ goodbye. First my mom who already was struggling to keep from making a scene with her tears, then my dad. I walked through the security gates into one of the weirdest, scariest, exciting few hours of my life. I was alone. I had just left everything I knew; my house, my lifestyle, my friends, my family and was in a limbo before I met my new Peace Corps friends, and my new way of life. I was very alone. As I sat by myself, just sitting, I thought that question that most had asked me before I left, why? Why am I doing this? And still I couldn’t fully answer to myself why or why not? It just felt right, as scary as it was.

I now have been in Cambodia for six months. The first few months were very interesting, while also amusing. It was like I was going back to being an infant all over again. I was thrown into a Cambodian home without knowing anything. I had to learn how to speak, how to eat properly, how to use the bathroom, how to bathe, how to dress, basically I had to learn all basic functions of living all over again. Now, I live in Kampong Cham province with my host family, which consists of my mother (Mai), two sisters, one brother, one fake brother that we have recently acquired, and two teachers. One thing I learned fairly quickly is there is no limit to who family members are here and our house has a continual flux of people sleeping, eating, hanging out, at all hours of the day, everyday. And just like all the others who come around, whether they are family or not, I too was taken in as another member of the family. I am just as much a daughter as my mother’s two birth daughters are. My Mai worries about me like my own mother; she calls me when I’m sleeping out for the night, she cares for me when I am sick, and she frets about if I’m eating enough. After just a week of living in my new home, I knew the answer to that question that so many asked, and that I even asked myself, why? Why not was no longer a sufficient answer.

After being here six months, there are so many answers to such a simple question, with the easiest being my family. As much as I had hoped to give to them, they have given me far more. I have gained so much from them alone, in such a short amount of time. They are helping me grow as a person.

More stories to come!

Peace, Love, & Why not?