Disclaimer: These are my views and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Host Family 1.5 or Windows ME

In the awkward transitional period between training and permanent site, I went to meet the family I thought I would be living with. The trip started off with a disappointing trip to the provincial town (basically the biggest city in our province) where the other guy in my province, Bryan, and I learned that our third leg, Jacob ET’d (early terminated). Tough loss. We were with a chill K3 (the year before us K4s) who had never been to town, but came to hang out and an LCF (language coordinating facilitator, Peace Corps is somewhat like the army when it comes to acronyms) who helped us know what was going on. The next day we met the families we were going to be staying with and went alone with them back to site. I drove back in a tuk tuk (a cart attached to a motorcycle) on a bumpy road with the mom and the son who stared at me for the entire hour long trip. We got to the house which turned out to be nothing like the form said it would be i.e. “running water” = water in buckets with algae, “electricity” = yes, but nowhere to plug anything in, “desk” = not a desk, “chair” = no chair, “indoor bathroom” = 3’x3’ shack outside, and so on. I was a tad disappointed, but I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s all about flexibility, right? Sure. The external stuff I can deal with, although the lack of soap in the outhouse and not having a place to shower (more on that later) concerned me.

So, I’d mentioned the staring, which is relatively normal and doesn’t concern me all that much on a good day. Then there was “the proposition.” As soon as I got to the house, the mother showed me to my room upstairs. Her son, followed us into the room and stayed after asking me / telling me (I wasn’t sure at this point, my language wasn’t all that great) that he was going to sleep with me. It would have been cute if the kid wasn’t 14… I politely, but firmly, declined. “In America I sleep with me.” It was a bit of circumlocution, but he got the point. I had to ask him to leave so I could change to go shower. I walked downstairs and headed toward the bathroom, he followed me to the bathroom and stood directly outside while I did my business. Afterward, I walked out and asked for some soap, because we wipe with our hands here. The son walked into the house and brought out their laundry soap. I was appreciative of this gesture. He walked back inside, and standing there in a chroma (basically a colored cloth)*pic I started to pour buckets over my head. Much to my dismay, the son came back outside, sat a few feet from me, and watched me shower. I really wanted to say, “in America I shower alone” but I didn’t know the word for “alone”. I said something like, “I know how to shower. Please, don’t look at me.” He just sat there smiling and nodded his head, not moving. I stopped and stared into his eyes and said “please” rather firmly gesturing with my head toward the house. Luckily, he got the picture. In my sporadically analytic mind, I saw the exponential continuation of each action over the next few years. It was overwhelming. I didn’t believe that I would ever get a moment of peace.

The next day’s events seemed to confirm this. The son came to wake me up, followed me everywhere I went, asked again if he could sleep in my bed when I went to nap, biked after me when I went out to breakfast and stood outside the restaurant waiting for me to finish.

That was one family member. They had a daughter too. She didn’t say a word to me the entire time I was there and didn’t respond when I talked to her. I’ve come to learn that this behavior is somewhat understandable in the cultural context. It was a bit aberrational, but nothing to be concerned with.

Then there was the father, he didn’t speak much, and the mother who just loved to yell. She would yell commands at me as if I was deaf. I was really trying to look for a positive, and having little success. A few of the teachers came by to say hello, which was nice, but I felt like I was going crazy. I took off for an hour long run, just to escape for a bit, and the next day I biked 20 kilos to the market and back. Despite the exercise, I still felt really uncomfortable. I thought about how my family would treat a foreigner if we’d hosted them in the states. Then I reminded myself that this is a different culture. Then I thought about how my first host family treated me. Something was definitely off.

In the afternoon on the second day, I brought down my clothes to do laundry. I was totally out of clean clothes after the bike ride and stood in the backyard, shirtless in my chroma, trying to figure out how to do laundry at the new house. I asked the father if they had a bucket to put my clothes in. He said no. A bit later the mom came out with a bucket. I asked her if they had any laundry soap (like the stuff I used to wash my hands the day before) she said “go buy it” and pointed towards a store. I proceeded to walk half naked, across the street, in the middle of a rural Cambodian village, down the road to the place that sold soap. I bought a bag, walked back, and started soaking my clothes. Now the only thing missing was a stool. I had to ask again. This time the mother storms out with a stool, puts it down, grabs my arm, and points at my clothes. I had no idea what she was trying to gesture. Thank goodness I’d brought a brush. I don’t even want to know what would have happened if I’d asked for one.

I survived the two days (leaving really early on the third day and leaving the rest of the bag of laundry soap, as a sort of backhanded present,) and came back to the city to meet up with some other volunteers. As I talked with the other volunteers, I realized that my experience was not shared by most people. A lot of people felt welcomed, were happy, and had a good (if not slightly awkward) trip. I decided to talk with Peace Corps about my experience and they came through for me finding me a different family to live with. A family I am very happy with now.

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