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An Ordinary Difference

Recently a friend sent me a message on Facebook: “So, Tree is every moment you are there as amazing as it seems? Do you feel that you are making a difference in these children’s lives?” An excellent question, one I consider every day.

Frankly, a lot of what I do quite ordinary, even mundane. I go for a walk early in the morning and say hello to everyone I meet. At the market I buy fruit. I teach at the provincial school 20 hours a week, and host an Art & English Club for kids at school, and starting a yoga class for girls at my home. I had a similar schedule back in the States. Ironically, part of my reason for joining the Peace Corps was to change up my routine. Turns out routine is part of a package deal with us humans. True, the particulars of are a bit different here than when I lived in California. Saying “Good morning!” might illicit a grin in Ojai, not outright prolonged laughter like I get here.

As for making a difference in the lives of the kids at my school, that’s hard to know. It is rather presumptuous to expect that anyone even wants you to make a difference. I mean, who asked you? Before I came to Cambodia, I told everyone it was time for me to give peace a chance. Secretly, I was looking forward to exotic experiences and harbored a romantic desire to do something extraordinary. Yet, even here in the tropics my ordinary life prevails.

One ordinary morning, I went to the market and bought an orange plastic ball for about 30 cents. I intended to use it in ESL class as part of a Q&A game. But after I paid for it I could see it wasn’t the right kind ball; too light and slippery for my purpose. Close to where I live is a shack on a platform that leans over the stream by the road. A very poor family with many small children cook their meals here and sit in the shade during the heat of the day. As I came up the road, I could hear one of the little boys hollering—a loud furious cry. His mother and brother sat implacable nearby. I could see a large scabby wound on his belly about the size of a banana. His shorts hung low, his tiny penis exposed. I went up to him, cooing, speaking broken Khmer. His mother indicated the wound with a shrug. Maybe his brother poked it, I don’t know. I said to the crying child, would you like this ball? Would this make you feel better? He seized the ball and stopped crying immediately. He held it close to his chest, silent. His mother thanked me. I walked on. A day or so later I saw that orange plastic ball, partly squashed and deflated in the stream by the hut. The boys waved to me and hallooed. I never did like that ball.

I mention this incident to illustrate the perils of aid. I gave a crying child a ball and he stopped crying for a little while. That is good. But the ball fell apart and was discarded, in fact it’s just another piece of trash in the stream. One of the tenants of Peace Corps projects is sustainability. At our school we have two beautifully tiled hand washing stations by the latrines that no longer have running water; a handsome library that lacks books and is closed most of the time; a computing lab without Internet access. Wonderful, useful projects that for whatever reasons were not sustainable.

With only four months into my Peace Corps service, I still have a notion that I can make a difference, but it’s tempered by ordinary reality. Much of my daily encounters are confounding, confusing or simply inexplicable. My hope at the moment is to become more ordinary, to become part of the village landscape. To accepted as Kru Tree, that barang woman who takes photos of water buffalo and teaches English at the high school.

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