I reply that, yes, I believe they do know how to eat rice, and if they don’t they will learn. She nods her head, smiles, and continues chopping pork. I know she has more questions about these new Peace Corps volunteers who have recently been sworn in and scattered around the Cambodian countryside. As she questions me about them it has me looking back over the time I’ve been here.
By the time I have sent this halfway across the world, through 12 time zones and over the International Date Line to The Times-Independent, I will have been in Cambodia for 17 months. The new volunteers I mentioned will have been at their sites for three months.
The Peace Corps is a wild ride of a job; some days are easy and some are a struggle, but that can be said about any occupation. What makes Peace Corps different is trying to learn about a culture’s strengths and weaknesses while trying not to compare one’s own culture to that. I’ve sampled good and disgusting new foods and met people that I hope I can make positive lasting impressions on. I’ve met people that I’ll never forget.
My Mak has enjoyed meeting a good handful of Peace Corps volunteers during my time living with her. She still finds our habits foreign and weird. She has accepted that I don’t eat dried fish, or tiny fish caught in the rice paddies behind our house, because I’m “afraid” of choking on the bones and dying, when in reality I don’t have the heart to tell her I think they’re gross.
Comparing one’s physical features is commonplace in Cambodia. Earlier this year I contracted chicken pox (in spite of being inoculated as a baby and again prior to going to Southeast Asia), and everyone was eager to point out that I was “uglier” than before. Now that I’m no longer pox-covered, they are happy to report that I’m pretty again.
When a country that is made up of a single racial group, and has lived in the area for centuries, comes in contact with Americans that come in many different shapes sizes and colors, some interesting observations and assumptions happen.
When I first arrived here, my family wasn’t terribly surprised by my looks. They assumed I would look “American.” I’m blonde-ish, blue-eyed, with pale white skin, and I’m even taller than most Cambodians. I am a big, white American woman. My family is excited to have me. But not all of the volunteers look like an “American.” Breaking that stereotype is one of the biggest goals that my fellow volunteers are working on. Several months ago my Mak and family were able to meet the volunteer who lives closest to me. They noted that she had a “Khmer” face, dark skin, black hair and dark eyes. “She mustn’t be American. Is she Khmer? Indian?” they asked.
I quickly tried to explain that no, she is American just like me. My friend then took over and began to explain that her grandparents are from Mexico, a country near the United States, and that Americans come in all colors. I tried to add that my grandparents came from England and Germany, so my skin is lighter. “That’s why when I go walking my skin turns red and not black when I don’t cover up,” I say. As my Mak ponders this new information, my 6-year-old niece clarifies, “So America has black and white skin?” And I confirm yes, and that we have brown, purple, yellow, orange, red and green skin.
She laughs at my joke imagining this Technicolor society that is my homeland. I also tell them that usually when people are green it means they’re sick and might puke on you, so one should stay far away.
The color of skin is deeply rooted in beauty and social status in Cambodia. The lighter one’s skin the prettier they are. This stereotypical thought can have a detrimental impact on Peace Corps volunteers who serve in India, Africa and the Middle East. They try to change how they are perceived compared to volunteers of European decent. On the mild side, they’re just told they’re ugly and maybe not actually American. That’s on the low end of the spectrum; the truly devastating stories are on par with racial inequality in the U.S.
The other night, while watching the Miss Globe competition on television — this year hosted in Cambodia — my family niece yelled, “aht sa’at” (not pretty) as the Miss United States contestant entered the stage. Assuming the answer, I still asked her, “Why?” “Dark skin,” is all she replied, because I obviously should have agreed with her. Working our way down the rest of the contestants we argued about each of the women’s levels of beauty based on their skin color. I could see what my niece couldn’t — that they were all gorgeous, competent women.
The entire conversation hurt my soul on many levels. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Cambodia is a country that during last summer’s Olympic games criticized its top female marathon runner because her skin was too dark. The story became world news — that the athlete had dark skin because she trained outside; therefore she wasn’t as pretty as she could be. But the headline should have been that Cambodia was showcasing its first female athlete in that sport.
I guess all I can hope for is that I teach my nieces — those in Cambodia and in the States — that they are pretty, but much more importantly, that they are worth more than their beauty. I hope they learn that being a kind human, a strong friend, and a person who has the ability to take care of one’s self is much more important than the color of their hair and the shade of their skin.
Moab native Taylor N. Flanders is a community health education volunteer for the Peace Corps in Cambodia.