Sunday, December 1, 2013

Adjusting to Phnom Penh

I have been Cambodia for a week now and the journey has been an emotional one.

The first few days were tough. I wasn’t excited. I just couldn’t relax and enjoy my surroundings. At times, I wanted to fly out as soon as possible. The jet lag was awful and the heat and humidity led to dehydration.

There is essentially no structure here. I thought I had secured a place before arriving but the landlord changed his mind a day before my flight.  I scrambled to find a place for the first few nights during my  last night in New York.  I booked a hotel near the office for two nights in hopes of finding a place fairly quickly. Aide et Action took me around the city my first two days but I couldn’t find anything. Unfortunately, I also came with a pretty low budget and couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel any longer.

Luckily, a really generous and welcoming colleague offered her space. I didn’t know the conditions but accepted them without hesitation. Anjana had only known me for 5 hours and felt bad for me. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her. I spent 6 days in the apartment she shares with her friend Monica. 3 nights were spent in Anjana’s king bed and 3 nights in Monica’s. I felt like I was imposing the entire time but also had no alternative. We got to know each other pretty well during our evening talks and tuk tuk rides to work. She is from Nepal and is completing her Masters at Brandeis University. The kindness of a stranger made my first week tolerable and I am so grateful to call her a friend now.
I moved in to my new apartment this morning! It’s a cute 2 bedroom apartment in the BKK3 neighborhood. I am so happy to have my own bed. My spirit feels much better too. Having your own space makes such a difference. I share the apartment with Jenny, a German with Sri Lankan origins. She is also a volunteer and is conducting clinical psych research at the local university.
Phnom Penh is run and driven by expats. By that I mean the government is really just there for show but the NGOs actually take care of everything. Cambodia has the largest NGO presence in the world. This makes me question why I am here and the sustainability of my work. If all the expats decide to leave, what would the locals do? The expats are hired to do the work but there is no job shadowing or apprenticeship for the locals. So how will they ever learn? Don’t get me wrong, the NGOs do phenomenal work and the conditions in the country are improving because of them.

I am here with Aide et Action to focus on Early Childhood Education. The preschool system within Cambodia has developed very slowly and most are only located in the urban areas (with a 15% enrollment rate). I went out in to the field on Friday to scope out locations for prospective schools. We met with teachers and community leaders and saw kids playing in the streets during the day. It was such an enriching experience! Some of the villages didn’t even have a school. So the structure here is village – commune – district – province. I visited 3 villages in 2 communes in Kandal province which is one hour outside of Phnom Penh. We got some good prospects and hope to create 3-4 new preschools in the 2 communes within the next 6 months. If it weren’t for Aide et Action, these schools would not be created or be seen as a priority. It is so empowering to be part of an organization that is the driving force for education in this country.
On a side note, people are very curious about me and my origins and it is really embarrassing. One of the teachers asked if I had plastic surgery done on my nose because it looked too perfect! Lol. I also can’t get away with saying I’m from the United States. That answer is not satisfying enough and gets followed by but originally or where are your parents from. Being brown does help with safety though. Expats are often targets of purse snatching and pick pocketing. Blonde hair and white skin make you an easy target and brown skin leads to confusion because they don't know if you are one of them or not. I have only picked up a word or two of the language and plan on delving deeper because it helps getting around and with prices. Expats easily pay double for everything.

Off to dinner now. See you next week!


  1. Sabeen -- I so admire your courage and determination and stamina! It sounds like you are doing beautifully despite the early challenges! Keep up the great spirit! -- Anthony

  2. So your first impression was not bad at the end...the kindness of strangers helps us ease our worries and actually believe that there is a happy ending.
    That was very humane of the girls to help you and i am happy that you have a light always in your path.
    I could not help myself and compare what was like in China...almost everywhere i went i had to stop because they wanted to feel my hair and see if i had make up on because of the mulato color HAHAHA. It was funny and it was not. But you will get used to it.
    Take care and change the world babe.

  3. ROFL at their curiosity about you! How do they feel about your height? I would think you stand taller than most. Glad to hear you found a place to stay and making new and kind friends :)


COVID Reflections

It's surreal to think we are entering nine weeks of COVID quarantine. I am one of the lucky ones, I still have my job, health and fami...