Joseph McKeen
Center for the Common Good

Philosophical blah blah blah 02/06/2011

Story posted March 07, 2011

Helen Pu '10 is in Cambodia with the Peace Corps this year.  The following is reprinted here with her permission.

The reason people can forget malnourished babies and grandmothers can laugh while holding a child with arms skinnier than twigs is because it's so utterly normal and common place here. When I saw that baby I saw a baby that was going to die. But everyone else sees something they can't change. Something that is so commonplace that it's become a way of life. Accepted just as easily as they accept the poverty that causes it all.

Peace Corps has a rule. That's a phrase I know very well in two languages and I'm sure I could figure out how to say it in a few more if I really needed it. This rule or suggestion, sometimes I forget which it is which states that I'm supposed to stay out of politics in this country. I shouldn't be caught on record talking about any of it. Whether it's American politics or otherwise. As long as I serve the Peace Corps and I'm in Cambodia I should not comment on politics in any strongly opinionated way. I agree with this policy. Here, politics are integral in life. Everyone has connections and you never know when a poorly placed word ruins your reputation and the reputation of your agency. They always tell the story of how a postcard got PC kicked out of Nigeria or something like that, which is why I'm always careful of what I say here. Though it is definitely a concious struggle.

Blogs can be filled with observations, simple commentary, and other trivial things. But, if that's the focus of your blog then it's not trivial. People read the blog to see pictures of oddly shaped marshmallows or weird things I've found in Cambodia. But, this blog never had such a focus. It was and is about my life in Cambodia. Many people might say that because I work in health education that politics has nothing to do with me. But the reason I educate, the needs I address are caused by poverty, and the only way to change poverty here and anywhere is through politics. Policy change and enforcement. It's amazing how many people refuse to see that. Poor literacy rates are caused by poverty, but what is poverty caused by? How can we relieve it? Should we increase volunteer rates? I can tell you now that even if you put a million health education volunteers in Cambodia, or Africa, or the slums of NYC there still won't be lasting change. Not if the only thing those volunteers are doing is educating about health.

When you get hurt, you need a bandaid or maybe even stitches. But those don't heal you. They are necessary treatments, but in the end the body heals itself. Volunteers, NGOs, Foundations are all bandaids. Necessary, but in the end not enough. Things need to change on a fundamental level for real change.

I never came here thinking that I could change the world. I value the connection between people. That I will create change on an individual basis and who knows how far that ripple effect will reach. But, I think the only concrete reason for why I came is still to understand people. To learn about a culture and interact with people under extremely difficult circumstances. The Peace Corps has three goals. The first is to provide needed services. The second is to share American culture. The third is to share Cambodian culture with americans. All three of these goals require understanding of people. People that serve in the Peace Corps gain a set of skills that very few people can say they have. We have an understanding of the people in Cambodia. The ability to understand is vastly underestimated just like the ability to listen.

I promise my next entry will be funny.

Read more from Helen's blog.

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The reason people can forget malnourished babies and grandmothers can laugh while holding a child with arms skinnier than twigs is because it's so utterly normal and common place here.