Science question

Here is something I have been contemplating for a while now: how does sunblock work? I burn pretty easily and, sometimes, pretty badly. I have been very careful to lather myself in this cream every morning and I am not sunburned. But, I just don’t get how a creme that my skin absorbs blocks the sun.  Any explanations beyond ‘it is magic’?


Ethical issue #1

I have been contemplating several ethical issues in my first few weeks here. I have decided to slowly start posting several of them here. I would, however, like to add in a disclaimer that there are many wonderful things going on in these centers that I am not touching on here. Also, my understanding of the cultural and socio-economic context is still in its nascent stage and with time I may have more thoughts on the matter.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit seven centers. Each center had a shelter for children among other programs. Some centers were based around the children staying there, others were more focused on community programming and had a shelter as a secondary project. All the shelters had some traffic victims, but most had other types of children too (AIDS orphans; street kids; rape victims; children pulled from their homes because of domestic violence, alcoholism, or poverty; abandoned kids, etc.). There was huge variation in how good they were, how big there were, what resources they had, how the worked with kids, etc. One center in particular was based on the arts and helping children move through their emotions and possible gain employment later. Most of the shelters pushed for the children to either attend local school or a trade school (sometimes with literary classes).

The key similarity I noted was that none of the centers was disability (mobility issues) accessible. One of the smaller shelters could be with very small adjustments. Outside of not being accessible, I did not notice any children with noticeable disabilities. I found out, from one of the other foreign social workers, that all of the shelters have policy to refuse children with disabilities. In fact there are only 2 or 3 shelters in the entire country that accept children with disabilities. This is a huge statement when you think about the amount of landmines still active in this country and the number of children that are maimed by them**. Also, all the centers that are accessible and open to children with disabilities are in the
Phnom Penh. For traffic victims, most of whom come from rural areas, this means little chance of visiting their families or being reintegrated into their community. Furthermore, because they can get more money by begging, children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to traffickers.

Along the same line, I was consulted about the case of three orphaned children. The basic situation is that the youths, 2 girls (25 and 20) and one younger brother with cerebral palsy, are living in a rural area in extreme poverty. The girls leave their brother at home alone when they go to the rice fields to farm, the organization consulting me deemed this to be dangerous for the brother. However, the field is too far to take him and it provides the food they need to survive. It is too much work for one girl to do alone and because of daylight hours, they cannot work in shifts. The organization had helped them open a small store, but it didn’t make much money and when people came at night and knocked on the door to buy something, the girls were too frightened to open the door. Therefore, in the end, the store did not allow them to reduce their work load in the fields and, thus, spend more time with their brother. In the consultation I was asked if I thought the younger brother should be institutionalized. I said no. Institutionalization, especially in its current state here, could never be considered a good option for the boy. He would not be enabled to learn skills, nor would he get the care that he needs. The woman who was consulting me agreed that it was not a good option for him. But then, what of the sisters?

**According to Lonely Planet
Cambodia, there are still four to six million active landmines strewn throughout the countryside, in rice fields, and along the border. 25-35 people a month are killed by landmines and over 40,000 Cambodians have lost a limb. It is estimated that one out of every 275 Cambodians is an amputee; a rate which rivals few others to be among the worst in the world.

Money issues

MoneyI finally feel like I am getting a hang of the money here; although, it is a little complicated.  The Cambodian riel is about 4000r to the dollar.  However, the riel is not used exclusively.  In fact, Cambodians use USD and Cambodian riel interchangeably. They do not, however, accept US change. So, if something is $3.50 USD you can pay 3 dollars and 2000 riel, or 14,000 riel.  If you pay 4 USD you will get 2000 riel back. If you pay 5 USD you might get 1 dollar and 2000 riel back, or you might get 6000 riel back.  To make things more complicated, prices can be listed in either riel or USD (never both).  Regardless of what it is listed in, you can pay either.  Right now I am near the Thai border, where people through baht into the mix.  Many of the prices here are listed in baht (I have no idea how many baht to the dollar or to the riel). Here, you can use any of the three currencies interchangeably or together.

Sun set over Phnom Penh

Sun set over Phnom Penh, originally uploaded by coming2cambodia.

It is hard to believe that I have only been here for a week and, at the same time, it is hard to believe that it has been only just a week. Similarly, I have so much to say and nothing at all. I am really excited about my trip out to the province of Battambong. For one thing, I am excited to see what the provinces looks like. On another hand, I think it will give me a clear idea or picture of what my life will look like for the next 6 months.

As update on job progress. The center is Svay Rieng is scheduled to open the 19th of February. This leaves me several weeks to visit local NGOs and shelter in Battambong (this week), Phnom Penh, and hopefully Poipet. It also is a time for me to help give my input on a basic social work manual being created for shelters. Its an interesting position to be in. On the one hand, this is exactly what I have been studying and so I hope that my contribution can be worthwhile. On the other hand, I have only been here a week, and up until later today, never in the field. Therefore, I really have very little cultural context. Regardless, its a good activity and is trying to address some very important issues when working with, or sheltering, child victims of human trafficking.

I am leaving you will a picture of the sun setting over Phnom Penh. It was taken this weekend when I went on a boat trip with a GWB alumna and her friends. It was a beautiful way to see the city; however, it made the city and its people seem so far away. It leads to the question that I have asked myself in countless countries: how can such extreme poverty and such extreme wealth co-exist side by side?


Transportation, originally uploaded by coming2cambodia.

While home over break, my parents, my sister (who is now a parent of two herself), and I were talking about how no matter what parents do, children find a way to blame them for something. The consensus seemed to be: do your best and they will blame you for something so take it with stride.

So, here is my complaint: my parents did not prepare me to either ride a motorcycle or sit on the back of one.

Up until now in my life, this has never really presented a huge problem. In Taiwan, although squealing and scared, I did allow Sylvia to drive me around (above photo). After the first part of the trip, I even started to enjoy it too. However, I don’t have the same feeling about the motos here. I trusted Sylvia, she made sure to go slowly and let me squeeze her as much as I needed.

In Taiwan, the drivers were crazy. There were no apparent laws and people were driving everywhere. In Cambodia, the drivers are so much worse. There are no real laws; in fact, to drive a moto, you don’t need a driver’s license. People drive against traffic, on side walks, though red lights, etc. Everyone rides; kids from school (sometimes 5 to a moto), the elderly, families with small children, people with puppies, those in suits, monks, foreigners, everyone.

The motos, also, are the main way to get around town. Well, to be truthful, there are several choices: moto-taxi (bring your own helmet), tuk-tuk (covered carriage sometimes pulled by moto, sometimes by bike), or bike-taxi. Of these, the moto-taxi is by far the most prevalent. Everyday as I walk to work (6 minutes from my hotel), I am assailed by moto drivers every ½ block asking if I need a ride. So far, I have not had to take one. However, this is not going to last.

Furthermore, once I am in Svay Rieng, I need to learn to drive one. The organization is providing our team with 2 motos and 1 car to drive around the province. Sadly, I do not drive stick shift (I really really need to learn), so moto or with a driver are my only options.

Currently, the motos continue to cause a problem because no one walks. I think the head project officer gave me the best advice: slow and steady to cross roads. Although the motos look out for each other and other cars, they seem to be blind to people walking. This is probably due to the fact that 99.9% of the time, I am the only person walking. Not to mention, the lack of rules and the lack of stop signs make crossing roads a little worrying.

Living abroad in South America, I got used to men yelling out to me in the street. The general rule was do no react or they will hassle you more. Moreover, if I could manage not to listen to what they were saying, I was less likely to get angered by the misogyny of it. Here, however, the men calling out are just asking if I want to hire their moto. If I don’t respond, they have a habit of driving up next to me and beeping. It really freaks me out, and is totally unnecessary. I need to re-program myself to constantly shake me head no when people yell out to me.

P.S. Sorry that the photo is from Taiwan, I haven’t taken many pictures yet here in Cambodia. In fact, only three. They are up, but not very good. They are from the road in back of my place.

Jumping right into things

I have never been one to sit back and relax on a new job. In fact, overzealousness may be a key flaw.  That said, I don’t have to worry about not having anything at my practicum. I have been at work for 3 full days and already have helped submit one document for donors. Also, next week I am scheduled to go to Battambong (see map below) to meet with ten NGOs (mostly shelters for child victims of trafficking) and several massive counter-trafficking projects. I also get to sit in on some of my co-workers community education seminars.  I will be there from Monday until Friday, so if I don’t post as much, I’m sorry. I will, however, come home with photos of the provinces to upload.

So lost!

Khmer writing, originally uploaded by coming2cambodia.

Well, I have been here for 3 days and I can say two words. For someone who is a linguist, this is more than pathetic. But I have several problems. First, I cannot find a book that explains anything. Second, I cannot read anything (as evidenced by the photo above, which is a Khmer poem taken from the internet). Third, it is not vaguely like any language I know. Fourth, everyone at the organization and in the restaurants has been able to speak to me in English, thus lowering the necessity. Finally, my brain seems to have melted.

Oh well, when I get out to Svay Rieng, being the only foreigner on the team, I am sure I will learn more quickly. Let’s hope!


There have been several requests for a post on food (several others for culture). I have to say that I do not yet feel equipped to really post on either of these issues. I have only been here for 2.5 days! However, to appease, I will tell you what I have eaten so far. Overall, it has all been quite good. I have not yet ventured to the outdoor stalls; although I am sure I will soon. When I do, I am sure occasional illness will follow. For now, I have no idea what is good, what is typical, or what to expect. Therefore, I just point and cross my fingers. So far, my luck has not run out. And, of all the places I have lived abroad, this is the one that I have enjoyed the food most from the beginning. Best of all, I have yet to pay more than 5 dollars for a meal.

Full day 1:
Breakfast (at the hotel):
Fried egg, french baguette, fruit place (plantains, pineapples, and mango), orange tang and coffee

Lunch (restaurant near by):
Fried tomatoes (not green) with seafood (shrimp and squid). Ground pepper (a lot) added for taste.
Mango shake.
*** This was the best meal yet and a whooping 3.80)

Dinner (at Thai/Khmer restaurant near work w/ boss):
Seaweed salad (with fresh basil and lemongrass)
Traditional dish of rice and seafood cooked in coconut served on banana leaves (very spicy!)
Fresh coconut milk (which, I have to admit, I thought would be more refreshing and tasty).

Full day 2:
Breakfast (at shop on the way to work):
Papaya shake.

Lunch (at restaurant across from hotel):
Fried rice with chicken and egg (also carrot, spring onion, and yellow onion). (A little bland).
Mango shake. (I am NEVER going to tire of these).

Dinner (at a restaurant owned by a Taiwanese man with Svea’s friend):
Salad with lettuce, pomelo, citrus and cashews. (Tasty and unique)
Melon drink with watermelon juice, lime juice, and fresh mint (no sugar).


So I have finished my first two days of work and all is well. Everyone is extremely friendly and helpful.  Not to mention, the office has offered to help me open up a bank account, figure out how to extend my visa, find a place to live out in the province, set up meetings with NGOs, and get me a cell phone. Really, I can’t complain about anything.  Although, for having finished classes, I sure have a lot of reading to do.

 They did ask me one question today and I was unsure how to respond, so I thought I would throw the question out there for opinions: Should I live in a wood house or a concrete house?

 PS Two days down and no sun burn!!!

Western cultural imperialism: How Christmas is celebrated

Xmas tree

Originally uploaded by coming2cambodia.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I have always thought the concept of a white Christmas as natural. Moreover, I have seen a plethora of other religion’s holidays being celebrated. When I was young, I bought the idea that Chanukah was the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Sure, there was no tree, but there were presents, family, large meals, and giving thanks. Later, I came to see that the extent to which Chanukah is celebrated is more a reflection on western-Christian imperialism and less a reflection on faith.

When I moved to Chile in high school, I experienced my first Christmas away from home. The shocking part of this experience was the continuity of it. Chile, being in the southern hemisphere, has Christmas in the middle of summer. It was completely surreal to me to be in 102 degree heat, sweating, wearing a tank top, and decorating a small, silver, tree. Even more bizarre was seeing the Christmas displays in the malls filled with fake snow, snowmen, and heavy winter jackets worn by manikins of white children. Although parts of the states never have snow on Christmas, the realm of possibility for a white Christmas is even further away in the southern hemisphere. Clearly, American commercialism had won another battle—it had convinced South America that Christmas means snow—even if its over 100 degrees out.

I can’t say that I expected to write about Christmas in conjunction with Taiwan (or any part of this blog). For one thing, I came a week after the New Year. More importantly, I don’t think of Taiwan as a particularly Christian country. Although some Taiwanese are Christian, they are the minority. Yet, everywhere we went, I was surrounded by reminders of Christmas. Stores hung signs that read “Merry Christmas”, hotels decorated Christmas trees, and garland hung from many doorways. As I looked at these trees, often multi-colored and flashing, I could not help but wonder how seeing blatant, constant, and lavish symbols of a minority faith is internalized and what else America is exporting.

In the United States we are becoming ever more a Christian country. Not in that the number of Christians is growing, but in that the lack of acceptance of religious minorities, especially Muslims, is growing. Some even criticized a Muslim elect for congress for putting his hand on the Koran instead of a Bible in a private ceremony! Do we really need to give politicians a history lesson on why America was founded? Does religious freedom ring a bell? Could it?!

But, I digress. Back to the Taiwanese Christmas trees. What else are we exporting? I guess, for me, at least in this short trip, a conceptualization of beauty was the other poignant point. So many of the women I saw in Taiwan were stunning; they were also extremely stylish. Yet, the beauty magazines taught Taiwanese girls how to look more western; numerous methods were used to create larger, more western-looking eyes with double eyelids. Billboards, which I could make out without speaking any Chinese, advertised surgeries to create double eyelids. When searching for sun block—I had foolishly left mine in Taichung with Sylvia’s parents—I found more creams that promised to whiten my skin than those to protect me from the sun. These creams helped bleach the skin and give the person (woman) a whiter appearance.

Beauty is not static as some like to believe. With time and place, it has morphed. Yet, right now, the American led skinny (often anorexic), big eyed, big lipped, light skinned female is considered the ultimate beauty; and people, especially women, go to great lengths to achieve, or at least more towards, these standards. The saddest part of this is that many of the beautiful women I saw in Taiwan cannot see their own natural beauty.

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