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Photo by Jerry Downs

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Mistranslations

in the Kingdom of Wonder
 

MISTRANSLATIONS is a memoir of my recent

journey as a 65-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English and Art in a rural Cambodian village for two years (2015-17). It includes moments of tenderness and tragedy, along with delight and laughter, amid countless mistranslations of

language and cultural differences.

                         It's also often funny.

Photo by Jerry Downs

Here's an excerpt:

 

I am sent home three times for inappropriate attire.

Once for wearing an at-home sarong. (Sarongs are only

meant for going to the shower, I am told.) Once for not having a pointy collar on my shirt—which is not

Peace Corps Professional. And once for wearing a denim shirt, which is a sure sign of the devil. Our

collective luggage stays behind in Seattle for a couple of days, so the Peace Corps volunteer trainees’ wardrobe is limited. Tomorrow we will go to a local tailor for our sampots (culturally appropriate long skirts),

and shirts with pointy collars.

Cambodia, The Kingdom of Wonder, is where the temples of Angkor Wat are found. That much I knew. Cambodia is also infamous for landmines leftover from Maoist dictator Pol Pot’s brutal war, his Khmer Rouge responsible for the deaths of 2 million during its reign from 1975 to 1979. An atlas shows a tropical climate in

a mostly flat landscape, with the majority of the population rice farmers. The religion is 98% Buddhist, 1% Muslim, 1% Christian. The language of Cambodia is Khmer (which is pronounced Kam-mai). Despite how

little I know of this country, I join the Peace Corps to teach English at a rural high school in Cambodia. My alter

ego is Mighty Mouse—Here I come to save the day! Yet, eventually, Peace Corps volunteers, NGO workers, and eco-tourists come to realize how mouse-like our efforts really are, mighty or not. How impractical we must appear to the villagers we’ve come to save. We tell our family and friends back home we want “to make a difference” in the lives of those less fortunate. But how can a former college English professor make a difference in such immense poverty? It isn’t so much the lack of material goods as the lack of possibility.

Why join the Peace Corps at your age, you might ask? I'm a card-carrying senior citizen when I sign up.

This is not an early retirement plan—in fact, it isn’t much of a plan at all. My life in bucolic Ojai, California

is pleasant enough; I teach writing and literature at a private college in a community of artists, actors, and writers. Our town is known as California’s Shangri la. Truth is, I join out of grief. Perhaps the Peace Corps

will give me insight into the next chapter of my life.

Selected Publications & Awards

The Sun magazine. Readers Write on Privacy: "In Cambodia

You Are Never Alone" essay. Sept. 2023

Finalist: Nowhere magazine Nonfiction Travel Writing Contest.

"King Javavarman the VII & the Bell Ringer" essay. 2021 

The Last Tourist in Bali, stories, Baksun Books. 2020
If Bees Are Few, “A/B/C Scenarios” poem. U. 
Minnesota Press. 2016
"Postcards from Cambodia" Peace Corps blog. 2015-17
Contributing reporter for Ventana Monthly. 2014-16

Contributing reporter for The Ojai Quarterly. 2010-16
Low Down & Coming On,“Regarding Pigs” poem. Red Dragonfly. 2010
"Ask Ms. Metaphor: Poetic Advice for Everyday Use" advice column.

2010-15 (print) 2020 (online)

Jentel Artist Residency, Sheridan, WY. 2024

Jaipur Literature Festival Colorado. Author Series speaker. 2019
Writer in Residence at Hypatia-in-the-Woods, Shelton, WA. 2017


Finalist: Peace Corps worldwide Blog It Home competition. 2016
Finalist: Boulder Weekly’s 101-Word
s Fiction Contest. 2016; 21
First Prize: Blue ribbon—apricot jam! Ventura County Fair. 2014
Grants, Ventura CA, California Poets in the Schools (CPITS) for underserved area schools. 2013-15
Grant, Boulder Arts Commission (BAC) Arts & Humanities Assembly of Boulder (AHAB), for "A Poet's Alphabet" anthology. 2000
Grant, BAC and AHAB for publication of "Elements" anthology. 1999
Grant, Colorado Council of the Arts, "Sumo Haiku Heavyweight Championship"
 event. 1999

Prose Prize: Boulder Planet Fiction Contest, "Pictures." 1997

Upcoming Workshops & Teaching Experience 

Memoir of a Moment, a one-day writer's workshop at Jentel Artist Residency, Sheridan, WY. February 2024

It's All Memoir, a one-day writer's workshop at the Dairy

Arts Center, Boulder, CO. 2023 

I Have a Dream, a 4-week poetry workshop for elementary-school students, Longmont, CO. 2023

Story, 4-week writer's workshop Longmont, CO. 2023

Poetic Forms, 4-week writer's workshop, Longmont Senior

Center, CO. 2022-23

Peace Corps Volunteer Teacher of English & Art, Cambodia. 2015-17

Poetry Workshop Leader & Area Coordinator for California Poets

in the Schools (CPITS), Ventura County, CA. 2010-15

Poetry Coach, Poetry Out Loud. 2010-15

Adjunct English professor, Brooks Photography Institute,

Ventura, CA. 2004-15

Adjunct English professor, Ventura Community College,

Ventura, CA. 2004-15

Adjunct English Professor, Rocky Mountain College of Art

& Design, Denver, CO. 2000-02
 

Recent & Upcoming Art Exhibitions

The Big Draw, “Buckthorn Near & Far” & "Strawflower Stars" cyanotype-photo-drawing. Arvada Center, CO. 2023 

Lafayette Arts & Cultural Resources Dept. biennial Lost & Found: Found Objects exhibit. "Birdy" found glove w/poem. CO. 2023

Marshall Renews Art Exhibition, "What Remains; Reframed; Reclamation" cyanotype-photocollage triptych. Benefit for Marshall Fire victims. Louisville, CO. 2023

On Edge, "Moonlight Ride" cyanotype photocollage,

Edge Gallery, Denver, CO. 2022

Art of the State, “Once in a Blue Moon” cyanotype photocollage, Arvada Center for the Arts, Arvada, CO. 2022

Happiness, “Flower Photobombers” Exhibizone online. 2021

Green Show, “Green Gallery” metal photo, Core New Art Space, Denver, CO. 2021

Escape, “Look Homeward Angel” photocollage, Next Gallery, Denver, CO. 2021

Backroads: Art Less Traveled, “Acolytes Ascend into the Blue Mystery” collage at Vestige Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA. 2021

Blue “Goddess of the Dawn” photo collage at O’Hanlon Arts,

Mill Valley, CA online. 2021

Knickers in a Bunch. “Strange Dreams” collage online. 2021

Pink Progression, “Middle of the Story” original book forgeries; collaboration with painter Irene Delka McCray at Arvada Center for the Arts, Arvada, CO. 2020

RAW Artists National Arts Drive. Sidewalk chalk portrait,

“Harriet Tubman: Black Lives Matter” Longmont, CO. 2020

"Postcards from Cambodia" photos & poems exhibition at

Ojai Art Center, Ojai, CA. 2017

Education

​Cert TESOL, Trinity College London at Indonesia/Australian Language Foundation, Denpasar, Bali. 

MFA Writing & Poetics. Naropa University, Boulder, CO. 

BA English. University of Colorado at Boulder. 

All content copyright © 2024 Tree Bernstein

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