When learning is a two-way street
Ever since he was a kid, Anthony Jensen says, he’s been interested in learning how people live around the world. But until fairly recently, he never had many chances to go see for himself.
That changed when Jensen decided to volunteer with the Peace Corps.
Since last summer, the Marshall area native has been working as a teacher in the southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. In correspondence with the Independent, he said he is learning as much as his students.
Jensen is a 2008 graduate of Marshall High School and went on to study political science and history at St. John’s University in Collegeville.
“I think I first started thinking about the Peace Corps when I was a freshman at SJU,” Jensen said. “Up until that point, I had not had the opportunity to travel outside of the United States, aside from a family vacation to Canada when I was young.” After college graduation, he took the next step and became a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Although his original preference was an assignment in Latin America, Jensen’s destination as a volunteer ended up being a rural community in Kampong Thom province, in central Cambodia.
“It was surprising to get an assignment in Asia in the sense that I had no idea where I would be going,” he said. Before going to Cambodia, he researched the country’s history and read news and blog posts written by other Peace Corps Volunteers. After arriving, he and other Peace Corps Trainees also went through two months of pre-service training. Still, he said, he wasn’t sure what life would be like.
“In the end, it’s taken a year of living there to get a basic sense of things,” Jensen said.
As a Volunteer, Jensen spends about 20 hours a week teaching English classes at a public high school in Kampong Thom province, in addition to time spent working on community development projects. Those projects range from an organic garden at the school to leading adult English education classes and youth development camps for area teenagers.
“At first glance, teaching English may not seem of great importance,” Jensen said, but knowing English opens up important opportunities for his students. “For many of my students who will have the opportunity to study at a university in Cambodia, knowledge of English will be necessary to complete a degree,” he said, as well as to compete in the job market and communicate across cultures.
Poverty is a reality in the local community, Jensen said. The majority of families make their living from farming rice, and the pace of life is set by the planting and harvesting schedules. In 2010, a farmer could expect to be paid about 25 cents for every kilogram of rice sold, Jensen said.
Jensen said his co-workers at the high school must also take on additional teaching and other work to make ends meet.
“Currently, a high school teacher in Cambodia makes around $100 a month, which is not enough to support a family with children. It is also common for teachers to supplement their incomes through rice farming,” he said.
Many people in Cambodia also feel the legacy of violence committed under the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, he said.
“People were uprooted from their homes and lives and moved to communal work camps where they labored under horrific conditions of starvation, disease and summary executions,” Jensen said. “Everyone has lost somebody close to them. All families have stories from this period of time and no one was left untouched.”
Jensen said one remarkable story he heard was that of his host grandmother. As a young woman, she worked as a midwife in spite of civil war and bombings, and somehow was spared when the Khmer Rouge began executing “intellectuals” like doctors, teachers and artists.
“Others in her family, including her husband, did not survive the regime,” Jensen said.
But although people in Cambodia know poverty and loss, Jensen said it doesn’t define them. In their spare time, people play sports, worship, and enjoy time with friends.
“Life here has diversity,” he said. “Listening to the young people in my community, you can hear their different ambitions. Some aspire to be doctors, others policemen, many would like to work for a few years at an NGO and then start their own businesses. . . One student even told me he wanted to be a disc jockey.”
“My favorite part of teaching and working with my students is the cultural exchanges that take place between us every day,” Jensen said. Learning about other cultures is a big part of the Peace Corps’ service, he said. “My students and I are constantly exchanging our ideas and discussing our outlooks, giving us new perspectives on everyday life.”
Jensen said his service has given him some new perspectives. For one, he’s learned how quickly it’s possible to adjust to living conditions very different from those in the United States. Jensen said his understanding of people living with the challenges of poverty has also changed.
“It is easy to think of the poor as just that, poor,” he said. “The reality is, of course, much more complex and nuanced, and to see how people deal with the hardships of getting from day to day is truly remarkable.”
Although living and working in a foreign country can be hard at times, Jensen said, Peace Corps service has some very real benefits. “They are sometimes as simple as two people from vastly different parts of the world sitting down together and enjoying each other’s company.”
Jensen said there are a variety of ways people can get involved with the Peace Corps. Volunteering is one way, and helping to fund Peace Corps projects through the Peace Corps Partnership program, at donate.peacecorps.gov, is another.
After more than a year’s worth of experiences in Cambodia, Jensen had plenty to talk about. He said he’s recently started a blog where he writes about life in his community. Those writings can be seen at anthonyjjensen.wordpress.com.
SIDEBAR: In Cambodia, the consequences of the past are still felt
By Anthony Jensen
Special to the Independent
In April 1975, the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, fell to communist Khmer Rouge forces after five years of civil war with the American-supported government of President Lon Nol. Immediately following the fall of Phnom Penh, a forced evacuation of the urban populace to the countryside took place. And so began over three years of genocidal rule in the country.
In total, according to Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2 million to 2.5 million Cambodians died as a result of Khmer Rouge rule, which only ended with a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979. Despite the toppling of the regime, Cambodia would face continued civil conflict between various factions including Khmer Rouge insurgents until the late 1990s.
The decades of violence in Cambodia have left a contemporary society that is impossible to separate from the past. Cambodians who have lived through the terrors of the late 1970s continue to be plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In one study conducted amongst the Cambodian diaspora in Long Beach, Calif., 62 percent of people studied were diagnosed with PTSD. In addition, researchers have documented PTSD symptoms being passed between generations of Cambodians.
When I spent a summer in Bosnia Herzegovina, the physical scars of the country’s conflict in the early 1990s were easily seen. Ten-story communist-era apartment buildings in the Sarajevo suburb in which I lived still bore the pockmarks of exploded artillery shells. In my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Cambodia, it can be more difficult to perceive the consequences of the decades of conflict.
In rural Cambodia, the visible indicators of the past genocide often go unnoticed to those who did not experience it. A pagoda once used as a prison and execution center, a canal or reservoir dug with forced labor, a rice field in which bones of the dead still lie. But to those who lived through the deprivations of those years, these reminders abound.
Some of the effects of the genocide and its aftermath can be as simple as what Cambodians eat. After years of near starvation, foods eaten during the Khmer Rouge era continue to be consumed today such as morning glory, spiders and field mice.
With the prevalence of PTSD, the way people process emotions often differs from the manner in which may be expected. On two occasions, I have come across fatal traffic accidents in Cambodia. In both instances, people, showing no discernible emotion, had gathered around staring at the bodies, one of which was horribly maimed underneath a truck.
The consequences of the last few decades also manifest in people’s fears. In 1993, a Japanese UN volunteer was shot and killed in a village not far from where I now live. My host father worked with him. To this day, people disagree about who killed him.
Some say it was the Khmer Rouge, while others say the killers were locals angered that they had not been hired to work on the UN-organized national election. This uncertainty, pervasive throughout the 1990s, is still felt in the present, despite violence and robbery in my community being rare occurrences. Often when I go out, I am still warned about the dangers posed by faceless “gangsters” by my host family, who still remember the young Japanese volunteer.
Recent political tension between the country’s major political parties caused by a national election in July has also brought worries about instability to the surface again.
In the election, leading political figures openly used rhetoric implying that a vote for the wrong party could plunge the country into another civil war. Although Cambodian youth, who have come of age in the last decade, were not persuaded by these fear tactics, older Cambodians around the country openly worry about the results of an upset political status quo and have traditionally favored the political party advocating stability, instead of change.
Some of the structures of Cambodian society obliterated by the Khmer Rouge have made remarkable progress in rebuilding in the intervening years since 1979, while others continue to suffer. Although Cambodian public schools are rife with problems such as endemic cheating and high dropout rates, when one remembers that teachers as a group were almost completely eradicated by the Khmer Rouge and that the education system has been rebuilt from nothing, the existence of these schools and their progress is remarkable.
Today in Cambodia, people go to work in their rice fields and market stalls. They go to parties and play volleyball together. They head to the pagoda to pray and head home to watch the latest Thai drama on TV. They joke with each other and complain about the weather. They linger into the evening near the river, fishing and gossiping. That the canal in which they fish was built by forced labor battalions or the pagoda in which they pray was once a makeshift jail and execution center is an inescapable aspect of life in contemporary Cambodia. Life here continues despite the tragedies of the past decades, but that does not mean those tragedies are easily forgotten.
“according to Craig Etcheson of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2 to 2.5 million Cambodians died as a result of the Khmer Rouge” www.mekong.net/cambodia/deaths.htm
“62 percent of people studied were diagnosed with PTSD”
“researchers have documented PTSD symptoms being passed from older to younger generations”
– Other information comes through my own experiences, observations and notes.