How to Say Goodbye.

    I’m home now. I’ve actually been home for almost two months, but just haven’t gotten around to wrapping up this blog. So here it is, what will most likely be the last post before this blog gets retired. And yes, I actually learned a lot more than 14 things while I lived in Cambodia. I’d like to think that I learned a lifetime of valuable lessons from the time I spent there.

    My last week in Cambodia was filled with goodbye parties, farewell dinners, and lots of afternoon coffee shop chats with local friends. There was nothing extravagant about it, but I couldn’t have asked for it to end any other way. It was a week of goodbyes filled with many kind gestures from coworkers, friends, and neighbors in a little town that had been my home for two years. It all culminated with me driving away in a taxi van with my 2 backpacks at my feet, my co-teacher and several students waving to me from the side of the road. It was difficult to say goodbye. It was difficult because I know where I am going, back to America. My co-teacher often made remarks about how he would love to live in America, or at least visit. He has an idea of the differences between the lives we lead here and there. But he doesn’t really know. Now I know, and I think that’s what made the goodbye so difficult. In a way, driving away was very much like cutting off contact. My friends in Cambodia still don’t have email addresses or facebook profiles. They have a vague idea of those things, but they don’t have the means to have them. So I only have several phone numbers written in a notebook that I use to keep in touch. Every friday evening I receive a message from my “Uncle Hang”, who owned the coffee shop I frequented. An incredibly wise man, fluent in English, Vietnamese, French, and Khmer, he entertained me for hours every day. He helped me more than he will ever know in those first 6 months, even in the first year at site, when all I wanted to do was have a conversation in English with somebody that isn’t about what I had for lunch or how much money I get every month.

    As I drove away that morning, I received a final text message from Hang on my Cambodian phone –
    “Hi, dear RT! How are you? I think you are not yet wake up when my sms sent to your handphone. This morning, you leave from your home to Phnom Penh and continue to your state. I’ll be the God to wish you and care your trip to get safety and will meet your relations with happyful. At the end of my speech, may I can say Goodbye with you!!”

    I also received several more texts from my students who were unable to see me off, like this one, from one of my top students in my private class:
    “I’m sorry I cannot accompany you because I’m busy, I’m terribly sorry about you going back home. So I bless you a nice trip and your beautiful life. May you be full of health and happiness and success in your life.”

    Nearly four months has passed since I left my home in Cambodia, and it’s still hard to not miss something about it every day. And it turns out readjustment isn’t as rough as Peace Corps makes it out to be. (In a training session, an RPCV who had finished her service 10 years ago held up a photo that she took of her first time going grocery shopping in the US again. And she started crying, 10 years later.) Everybody handles it a little differently, I guess, but I think that in 10 years I’ll be more emotional about seeing pictures of the market I used to buy vegetables in in Neak Loeung than photos of the produce section at the local Pick n Save.

    And I’m sure I mentioned somewhere along the way, more or less, that one of the other things I learned in Cambodia was to be frugal. So I practiced that in the two months after finishing the Peace Corps, from mid-July to mid-September, traveling in Asia on the smallest budget I possibly could. If you’d like to see photos of the trip, here they all are (there are a lot of them):

    Enjoy, and thanks for reading!


The United States has 52 states.

At least, that’s what Cambodia is convinced of. The conversation usually starts like this:

– ‘What state are you from?’

– ‘I am from Wisconsin’

– ‘Oh… (tries to pronounce whes-kun-sun) Is it near Cal-ee-for-nee-a? (Long Beach, CA has a large Cambodian community, so many Cambodians know this state, but that’s about it.)

– ‘No, it is very far from California. It’s close to Chicago, do you know Chicago?’ (sometimes they have heard of it, usually they just say yes anyways.)

– ‘Oh, America has 52 states. I know California and Washington and Boston.’

– ‘No, there are only 50 states.’

– ‘Nooo, 52. I know.’

– ‘No, there are 50 states.’

– ‘well… (then the person, unable to comprehend how an American doesn’t even know about their own states, will try to change the subject, their state knowledge having been fully exhausted.)

So, somewhere along the way, somebody played a great trick on the Cambodians that makes them look like fools anytime they try to have discussions about American geography. And changing their minds is not easy. Even teaching them about Alaska and Hawaii, and how they are included in the 50 states, will not change the fact that they already know it is 52. I think it was in a textbook years ago. Which means that it’s still being used in schools, I’m sure. I think the easiest thing to do here will just be to add two new states, Barack. Maybe we can just split Texas into three? After all, it’s ‘like a whole other country…’

how to teach, how to learn.

Any person beginning a teaching position with no prior teaching experience can be assured that they will be learning just as much as they will be teaching. My teaching position in Cambodia has been no different. In some ways, being a teacher at a Cambodian High School has made me feel like an ultra-teacher — standing in front of an 80 student classroom, speaking two languages. And in some ways, often on the very same days, it made me feel like a non-teacher, tirelessly commanding the attention of 80 inattentive, disruptive students and finding every other sentence lost in translation.

As strange as it may seem, I never really thought of myself as a teacher here. I am a teacher, of course, on paper. My contract states that I am an ‘English Teacher and Teacher Trainer’. But it still surprises me just a bit when students see me buying vegetables at the market and yell ‘Hello, Teacher!!’ Maybe it’s just because I felt so far outside of my element for the first year, a 22 year old college graduate being dropped amongst the Cambodian rice fields, given the command ‘now start teaching!’

Fortunately, being a teacher in Cambodia is a highly respected profession, so I sweatily (albeit sometimes not so happily) took on the challenge. And I began to learn to teach and, simultaneously, my students learned from my teaching. (It didn’t take long, however, to realize that the high school students aren’t nearly as cute and innocent as the little kids that run next to me on my bike as I ride to school, screaming ‘HELLLOOOO!!!’ and reaching for high-fives.)

So, although the majority of my students saw me as the white guy in front of class that they couldn’t understand, the select students that really applied themselves and utilized me as the learning resource that I was sent here to be will certainly look back on these two years and be grateful for these unique opportunities.

And thankfully, I feel like I was able to teach my co-teachers just as much as my students during these two years, answering all their questions, teaching them new words, teaching methods, and the importance of actually showing up to school.

So I came here to teach. And I did that. But sometimes I feel like Cambodia has taught me more than I ever could have expected. About life. About friends. About myself. About the importance of family. Some of us volunteers have jokingly said that Peace Corps is a ”shortcut to maturity.” It may not be so far from the truth, though. The pounding, tropical sun may have taken a bit of my youthfulness away, and Cambodia’s ubiquitous red and blue plastic chairs may have given my posture a turn for the worse, but these two years have surely done more good than harm.

Thanks, Cambodia.

How to take the afternoon off.

The rainy season, one of Cambodia’s two seasons, started about a week ago. After just a few scattered rainstorms since last November, and after marking the end of a two month hot season, this country gladly welcomes the rain that turns the streets (as well as the produce section of the local market) into a flooded mess every afternoon. The rain usually begins so suddenly and forcefully that, if caught in it, you have no choice but to be overtaken by it. And it feels just like it should, being hit by a cold bucket of water on a sweltering hot day. There’s not much of a drainage system in Cambodian streets, so the standing water in the streets just becomes another aspect of life here until the next rains come. Fresh rain cleanses things, but when water has nowhere to go, it does nothing but get dirtier. But those hours while it’s raining are just wonderful.

The kids run out into the streets, screaming, stomping in puddles, getting dirty and having fun just like kids are supposed to do. Teenagers push their bikes or their family’s moto in front of their house and scrub off yesterday’s dirt. Housewives throw their dirtiest clothes out on the railing, hoping to get a head start on the day’s laundry. Factory workers near my home strip down to their shorts and sit under drainage pipes, catching as much of nature’s rainshower as they can. Old men stand at their front doors, reach out their hands, and give their faces a refreshing rinse. At restaurants and coffee shops, people sit silently, watching rain puddles form and connect with each other as the rain continues. It’s too loud for conversation, especially near tin-roofed homes. The rain pelts them relentlessly, you’d think it was a hailstorm if you didn’t look out the window.

And even if it looks like rain, if the sky is dark and ominous, the students stay home. During rainy season, if it looks like rain, it most likely will be, and a lot of it, so it’s better not to chance it. So that leaves me at home, free to relax the afternoon away in my windowside hammock, taking it all in. I’ll miss that.

How to be a terrible pen pal.

Just this morning I read an article about how the United States Postal Service has been finding itself in a pretty big hole as of a year or two ago. And I’m the problem. And you probably are, too. More and more people these days are using email for both business and personal use that the USPS is having a hard time keeping their trucks full and their employees busy.

Don’t get me wrong — getting letters in the mail is NICE. It’s a great feeling. But it’s getting outdated fast. I tried to reply to those who so graciously sent me updates and well-wishes and holiday greetings over the years. But so often I would write a response, only to find the addressed letter, sealed and ready to go, on my bookshelf two months later. Or, I would actually remember to bring it to phnom penh (my nearest post office is 2 hours away), only to find that the post office closed early for the day. Or it never even opened that day. And so… yes, these are excuses… but they also just go to show how impractical snail mail has become (not to mention international snail mail). Because our world has become so much more connected now. It took me a year in Cambodia until I was able to acquire reliable, daily internet, but once I had it, it was amazing to think that I went a year without it. And, of all things, it’s on my cellphone. This is a luxury that I never knew in the United States, but now it’s sweeping Cambodia. Almost every wireless carrier in the country offers a 3G plan, and as the networks grow, they’re getting faster and more dependable. On more than one occasion, when somebody in town asks me where my house is, they pull out their phone, open Google Maps, and have me zoom into my house. Cellphones are still a very new aspect of Cambodian culture, but the people who can afford to definitely keep up with technology here. Many of my students (how they afford them, I don’t know) have nicer phones than their teachers. And it’s not uncommon to see a well-dressed Cambodian with an iPhone 4. (which were about $900 in Cambodia when Apple first released them.) I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before the iPad hits Cambodia and the rich kids will be playing Angry Birds in the back of class instead of just not paying attention to the English lesson like they used to.

So, long story short, I have the internet in my pocket. Because of that, responding to emails has been the easiest and most instantaneous way for me to keep in touch throughout the past year. Hopefully you won’t hold a grudge because I never got around to getting that reply letter out to you. I still appreciate all the mail, I really do.

definitely wash hands right after cutting chili peppers.

how to read.


OK, so maybe I already knew how to read when I came to Cambodia, but I did achieve a new reading goal during my service: I read 100 books! It was a goal that merely existed in the back of my mind throughout the two years – a ‘that would be neat to do’ kind of goal. It meant roughly one book per week, for 2 years. Of course, I didn’t follow it that strictly. There were stretches of time when I didn’t read a single book for over 2 months, and there were other times when I would read up to 5 books a week. So, in the end, it all balanced out and I actually hit book number 100 about 4 weeks ago, well before the 2 year mark. Some books were single-sitting, 200 page reads while others were 700-1000 paged more challenging books. I’m grateful that I had an opportunity like this, with plenty of free time, to read so many books so early in my life. And I’m not finished, of course! In fact, I’m a proud owner of a Kindle now, and I’m quite surprised to say that it actually makes reading ‘easier’, in a way. (you’re welcome, Amazon! Feel free to send free stuff my way!) I’ll update my book list when I get the chance. – Happy Memorial Day! (right? I need to brush up on my US holidays, although they definitely can’t be as fun as one day Cambodian holidays that turn into a full week off of school…


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how to lie about my favorite singer.


I am often asked by my students: “Cher, In America, who is your favorite singer?” (Cambodian students often refer to the teacher as ‘cher). This is a question that I can hardly even answer to another American. I like a lot of music, and the small percentage of my music collection that Cambodians would be familiar with is definitely not my favorite. So I mentally run through the artists I think they may know: Britney Spears, Beyonce, Justin Bieber. Nope, not my favorites. Michael Jackson, however. Now that’s a white lie I can deal with. After this, a student will usually pull out their cellphone and play “We Are The World” to me, confirming that they know Michael Jackson. And then we have a conversation that goes like this: “Yes, I know Michael Jackson, he is a very good singer. But he is dead now.” “Yes, he died about 2 years ago.” “Yes, from skin cancer, I know.” So I don’t know where these people are getting their information, but people over here seem quite certain that skin cancer was the end of MJ. Must be from all that walking on the moon?


how to deal with it.

Sometimes the Peace Corps feels like a vacation. Sometimes it feels like a job. Sometimes it feels like playtime. Sometimes it feels like a sauna. Sometimes it feels like I’m surrounded by friends. Sometimes it feels like I’m on the other side of the world and haven’t had a real English conversation in weeks or months. Sometimes it feels like everybody is watching me. So I’ve had to learn how to deal with it all. With the stares, with the language barrier, with the heat, with the overloaded taxis, with the loud wedding music, with the inconsistent schedules, with the sunburn, with the mosquitos, with the ants, with the bat infestations, with the 4-shower-a-day days, and with those empty days where time just doesn’t seem to move. Take any of those things out of the equation, and it would make it that much less of an experience. Learn to deal with it and it will no longer outweigh the good. It will simply exist alongside the good.

how to eat less bread, more rice.

One of the most asked questions in Cambodia is probably “Have you eaten rice yet?” It can be a conversation starter, it can be used to fill a lull in a conversation, or it can be a complete conversation on its own. Basically, it means “Have you eaten yet?”, but since it is generally assumed that everybody in Cambodia eats rice for every meal, it is usually safe to specify ‘rice’ in the question. As simple as this question is, I often I find myself either not knowing how to answer it. Sometimes I will be walking around during the afternoon, and I will be asked this question at about 4 o’clock. Now, should I assume they are asking me if I ate lunch four hours ago? Or if I had an early dinner? Or, possibly, if I had an afternoon rice snack? And then there are the times when people ask me if I’ve eaten rice yet, and it happens to follow meal that didn’t actually include rice. Now I find myself in a quandary. Should I lie, to keep the conversation simple and avoid confusing the other person? Or should I say ‘No’? Sometimes, I do say ‘No’. And this is usually followed by more questions: “Why not?!?!” and “What did you eat, bread?” Cambodians have this image of their heads that all white people just eat bread all the time. I am often asked to compare how often I eat bread in Cambodia to how often I eat bread in America. Bread is sold in the town I live in, but it sits in the sun all day, it’s hard, crusty, and would be laughed at in America, then fed to animals. And this is the only type of bread that many Cambodians will ever know. And it’s hard to explain to them the wide variety of bread and grain products that there are in other countries. And it’s true, in America I do eat bread and bread products very often. But Cambodians produce much better rice than bread, so I have learned to put bread consumption on hold for two years and eat more rice. And it is because of this that I can confidently answer: “Yes, Cambodia, I have eaten rice already.”