July 28th marks both my first year anniversary in the Peace Corps and my 64th birthday. “How old are you?” is the question I get asked most often in my village. Kids shout it out as they ride by, three on a bike. I shout back, “102!” Cambodia is a nation of youth, the average age is 24, while the median age of a Peace Corps Volunteer is 28. Until I moved to Cambodia, I did not know I was older than rain. To my delight the Khmer word for women my age, for grandmothers, is yay. Yay!
One year in Cambodia and what have I done? That’s a sentence that could be read by an actor with a range of dramatic voices: Inquiry. Doubt. Regret. Awe. It all depends on which word is emphasized. I understand now why the Peace Corps commitment is just over two years. It simply takes that long to get projects going. One year in and I’m in the thick of it with pending grants, building projects to oversee, art events to produce. Yet even though I teach English with my counterparts five mornings a week, run two art clubs and a reading club, I’ve still got plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of this life. My early Ms. Mighty Mouse attitude—here I come to save the day!— morphed into the role of a headwaiter reciting the daily special: “Might I suggest the Happy Latrine Project, where guests may also wash their hands?”
Back in the USA, I belong to a tribe who ritually choose a word for the New Year. This word represents an intention, a lesson-plan you might say, or an outlook. The word is something one wishes to ponder over the coming year. I started 2015 with the word Intrepid, which implied adventure with a wink as I rode off into my sunrise future as a Peace Corps Volunteer. At the beginning of 2016 my word was Adapt as I moved to a new province and school. Since here in Cambodia we have three New Years—the calendar, Chinese, and Khmer—I’ve decided to change the launch date for my New Year’s word to my birthday, my personal new year. This year my word is Progress. Both a noun and a verb, progress can be measured by going forward. Progress can be slow and still progress. It’s just part of the process. Everything I do in the Peace Corps is a work in progress.
Now, instead of saving the day, I’m doing my best not to get in the way. The Sewing Room is a good example. At my school there is a classroom with 18 ancient pedal-driven Butterfly sewing machines. Occasionally someone will open the locked door and sweep out the dust. I asked why don’t we have a sewing class? There are a couple of teachers and lots of students interested, but no money in the school budget to repair the machines or fix up the room. My seamstress friend helped me figure out how much it would cost to repair the machines and paint the room: less than $200.
First thought: I’ll just pay for it. (There she is again, Ms. Mighty Mouse!) Second thought: Crowd-fund the renovation! But what I have learned this past year is to wait for more than two thoughts before jumping in. Fixing up the room is only the beginning. Maintaining the machines, developing curriculum, and showing students alternative careers to working in garment factories is the bigger part of a development plan. I asked students what they would like to do to help get the Sewing Room running? I’m still waiting for an answer.
One year in and I’m learning how to answer my own questions. First step is to listen carefully. I’ve got a feeling the answer is close at hand.
P.S. Here are a dozen favorite photos from this past year.