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April 2009  |  Return to issue home

Hardest Job He's Ever Loved:
Peace Corps Volunteer Writes Home from Cambodia

James Hong
James Hong

For the third consecutive year, the University of Washington leads U.S. universities in the number of alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers. One such alumnus is James Hong, '06, Mary Gates Scholar, undergraduate researcher and former staff member of the Undergraduate Research Program in UAA’s Center for Experiential Learning.

James began his Peace Corps service last July and after his 10-week training began working at his site in Memot, Cambodia. In Memot, James teaches English, computer skills and promotes a culture of discovery in a country whose educational system was all but destroyed under the Khmer Rouge.

James updates friends and family on his experiences; the following are a few excerpts about his day-to-day life and work.

July 2008: Just after arrival in Cambodia, during training
I joined the Peace Corps and came to Cambodia wanting to challenge myself. Although everything has been a dream so far—the food, the sights and scenery, the friendliness of the staff and people—I know that reality will soon set in. There will be good and bad days ahead, I believe I'm mentally and emotionally prepared for these challenges.

This will truly be the hardest job I've ever loved.

October 2008: In Memot, James’ volunteer site, post training
I've been on my own for over two weeks now. The first week-ish has been the lowest point of my entire time in Cambodia. Some days I've felt extremely lonely, isolated and homesick. Although training was intense, at least I had the company of other volunteers and trainees.

Overall—even considering the past two weeks—this has been a very positive experience. I've definitely learned a lot, and have come to appreciate a lot. I think my ups will outweigh my downs. And like I mentioned, the longer I'm here, the easier it will become.

Students show pride; student shows off new book
Left: Students show their pride for Cambodia, celebrating 30 years of liberation from the Khmer Rouge. Right: One of James’ students shows off his new book about the Khmer Rouge genocide, the first ever written by a Cambodian.

December 2008: Library hours in Memot
On most days, the library remains closed and the books inside collect dust. When teachers don't come to classes, many students leave school early and return home.

It's important to remember that after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the educational system had to be re-created from almost nothing. Illiteracy climbed to more than 40%, and most young people under the age of 14 lacked any basic education. Despite the dark history, most (not all) Khmer children today have an opportunity to discover the joys of reading—something their parents never dreamed of.

January 2009: 30 years of liberation from the Khmer Rouge
On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese soldiers, along with Cambodia freedom fighters, captured the city of Phnom Penh, thus ending nearly four years of oppression and genocide. This year, the citizens of Cambodia are celebrating 30 years of liberation from the Khmer Rouge regime.

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power, there are no formal lessons about the regime in schools (although a new curriculum is reported to begin in late 2009). Thirty years after Vietnamese troops marched through Cambodia and unearthed hundreds of mass graves, millions of Khmer still live as victims. Thirty years after we called it a crime against humanity, not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice.

Students in library; students write essays
Left: Students search the library shelves for something to read. Right: Students in James’ seminar about the Khmer Rouge genocide write essays about everything they currently know about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

March 2009: Women's Rights
For many girls, obtaining an education is pretty low in the list of priorities. Most girls have to stay home to help their parents with household chores, work in the market, farms, factories, etc. This extra burden prevents many from attending school regularly (especially if they are old enough to work), let alone attend private classes (which is basically required if you want to succeed in school). If a family has to decide between a son or a daughter going to school, it will most likely be the son.

During International Women's Rights Day, there was an assembly at my school for all the female teachers in Memot District. However, neither male teachers nor students were invited to this celebration. Actually, I don't even know if it were a celebration since I wasn't there.

While it's important to empower women to take more control over their lives, this alone will not change the attitude of society. Unless men choose to acknowledge and recognize these important issues for women, it will continue to be an uphill struggle for them. But the idea has been planted in many of the young. Hopefully it will continue to grow.

Note: The contents of James’ blog are his personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

April 2009  |  Return to issue home

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