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Poor Folk—Part 1: Growing Up Poor

My parents were poor folk who grew up during the Great Depression. My father was the youngest of 12, my grandfather an Oklahoma farmer who moved the family out to California during the Dust Bowl and returned a couple of years later because Okies weren’t welcome. My mother was born in London, the eldest of 10, grew up in a row house abandoned by their father. The kids in her family slept in one bed under a pile of coats. My parents met at the end of WWII confident that with their love and the GI Bill they could build a better life. With my Dad’s older brother they bought 88 acres in upstate Washington to farm. They grew sugar beets and wheat, and raised a few pigs and chickens.

As a child I did not know we were poor. We lived in town early on, in a one room-shack with an outhouse in the back, while my Daddy and uncle built our farmhouse. My mother was pregnant with my younger brother. She sewed dolls for me and my dresses for school. When I was in sixth grade they gave up on the farm and we moved back to California where my Daddy tried on various professional hats, eventually settling into his military training as machinist at a time when you calibrated macines with a slide rule.

My family went from poor to middle class. They owned a series of houses and paid-up-front cars. I went to college and managed to pay off $45,000 in school loans before my own son went to college. I taught college English. By most measures I belong to the middle class in America.

I bring up this origin story as a comparison with the folks I live with now. My hosts are a grade school teacher and a career soldier, whose have two grown children, a nurse and taxi driver. They are in their late 40s and live in a simple two-story cement house on the highway, furnished in Cambodian style with heavy lacquered furniture, and clean tiled floors. Both the kitchen and latrine are outside and are shared with at least three other families. They each have a motorcycle, but no car. They belong to the middle class in Cambodia.

A little further down the dirt road where I take early morning walks is a young family of farmers. They have two little boys who play naked in the yard. The house is made of brick, wood, and corrugated tin. In the morning they seem to prefer hanging out on cooking platform, which is covered in roofing fabric with blankets hung to block the sun. They have chickens and ducks, and rice fields. From the road it’s hard to tell if they there is a latrine, but they do have a cistern. Looks like they cook with wood fire. It appears they grow or gather much of what they eat. Subsistence farmers.

Many shelters along the road are both businesses and residences. A tiny one-room house constructed out of bamboo with a dirt floor, dried palm-leaf walls and roof is one such. The woman who lives there roasts meat out front. A beauty shop with hotplate and a bed in back is another home. Many of these dwellings are little more than sleeping rooms that share latrines and kitchens like my host family does. Some don’t have latrines or a cistern, and get water from a nearby stream. These are the poor families. Peace Corps Volunteers work with the poor. Our mandate is sustainability. Therein lies the challenge: finding a way to initiate change that can be carried on. To be continued. . .

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