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What Work Is

My host mother, Mum Dany has many jobs. Five mornings a week she teaches third grade and tutors two little girls most afternoons. But that’s only part of her work. She also prepares all the meals for the family—from scratch. And she cooks at her sister’s Homestay down the road when they need help. She repairs the family’s clothes, does laundry in a metal tub, sweeps the yard, and pays the bills. For this job she sits at the kitchen table, which is outside under a slanted tin roof. She brings out her ledger and pens and unfolds her glasses. She talks out loud to herself as she adds things up. Money is always a concern.

In this she shares similar responsibilities as her sisters in America. Although in America a teacher might also be concerned with opportunities at the workplace, getting an advanced degree, or online learning. Mum Dany doesn’t have time for that. She teaches the way she has taught from a curriculum that she wrote out by hand many years ago. Responsibility to family and community are an ongoing cycle. She doesn’t seem to be unhappy with this arrangement. She never complains, although she does sometimes harangue her daughters and students when they are slow. As far as I can see, she never has a day off. She works because there is work to do.

I’ve been thinking about "What Work Is", remembering Philip Levine’s great poem by that title. In the poem he says,

You know what work is—if you're old enough to read this you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting . . .

In America, most of us consider work the very definition of who we are. When we meet someone for the first time we ask, “What do you do?” As though telling someone that you are a teacher explains who you are. Just as saying you are a photographer, or worse yet, a poet, would clarify the matter. We might have a job at the auto factory, but our work is studying German opera, singing Wagner. We wait tables, but our passion is acting. We might not get paid for our real work, so we’ll take a job to get by. Our real work is our passion—it’s who we are in America.

In Cambodia what you do, your work, is pretty far down the list of what people want to know about you. First question is always, “Hob bai?” “Did you eat rice?” This is a nation that remembers what it means to be hungry. Next, they want to know about your family. Are you married? How many children? How many grandchildren? Where do they live? What you do, your work, is almost incidental. Yet, Khmer people are always working.

Last week PCVs in my province each brought half a dozen students to a new Peace Corps camp called Future Plans, which aimed to prepare students for career choices. On Friday my students fulfilled their promise to “pay it forward” and teach other students what they learned at camp. I was amused to see the Cambodian kids collaborating, as usual, on Skills Analysis. What do we like to do? What are we good at? If you ask students in a classroom what they want to be, most will reply either “Teacher!” or “Doctor!” These career ideas come from their families. So, when we asked students to consider what they want to do, I wondered if we were asking the right question.

There are rare individuals who know what they want to do despite what their families counsel. These are the artists. They already know where their passion lies, what their skills are. At the Future Plans Camp the first Cambodian professional to speak was an artist. Unlike the other speakers she sat on the floor to get close to the kids. She told them to follow their dreams and to do what makes them happy no matter what. The other presenters, the nurse and the tour guide, rolled their eyes and looked at her with distain. Maybe they thought she was selfish. Or impractical. Yet the artist’s message to do what makes you happy is crucial for a flourishing society.

When Pol Pot murdered the artists and intellectuals in Cambodia, along with two million other people, he stilled the heartbeat of the country. Cambodia is still recovering her pulse. Khmers know what work is and how to do it. But do they know what makes their heart happy? It’s a question I'm going to keep asking.

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