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Learning Cambodian Culture, and Its Restrictions

  • Im Sothearith
  • VOA Khmer

Erica Herrmann, right, is among the first group of 29 US volunteers to join the Peace Corps mission to Cambodia.

Erica Herrmann, right, is among the first group of 29 US volunteers to join the Peace Corps mission to Cambodia.

She lived in a foreign country, with foreign food and a foreign lifestyle, but Peace Corps volunteer Erica Herrmann said it was the best way to learn about Cambodia.

She lived in a foreign country, with foreign food and a foreign lifestyle, but Peace Corps volunteer Erica Herrmann said it was the best way to learn about Cambodia.

Herrman was among the first group of 29 US volunteers to join the Peace Corps mission to Cambodia. From 2007 to 2009, she lived in a remote village and learned about Cambodian culture, including some of its restrictions.

“They called me daughter and sister right away,” Herrmann told VOA Khmer in a recent interview in Washington. “It was really nice. But quickly I began to realize that that meant I was under their watch all the time.”

When she wanted to travel, she needed to inform the family. And it took several months for the family to recognize her independence.

“Being an American woman, I was used to going out and just doing whatever, not having to check in all the time,” Herrmann said. “That’s probably the most frustrating of the challenges, and of course trying to communicate that all in Khmer just complicated things.”

Ouy Seng Chan, Herrmann’s hostess, told VOA Khmer by phone she considered the American as family.

“I told her not to go out too late because I was worried about her,” Ouy Seng Chan said. “I looked after her and loved her as my real daughter. So I gave her some advice, asked her where she was going. But she never went out too late. She always came home at dusk.”

“We played and joked around together happily,” Ouy Seng Chan said. “She was never angry with me. When she left, I missed her badly, because she used to play with me everyday. At first she did not speak Khmer well. Later she could speak Khmer a lot.”

Ouy Seng Chan would call Herrmann to eat, and the American would answer, “Yes, Mom.”

“Her voice was as sweet as a bird’s singing,” Ouy Seng Chan said.

The two women exchanged cooking, Khmer and American, which Ouy Seng Chan said tasted good.

“At first she did not like Khmer food, but after about a year or so she could eat such food as sour soup, curry, Khmer traditional soup,” Ouy Seng Chan said.

Herrmann was welcomed by villagers and by those she worked with at Samdech Hun Sen Peam Chi Kang High School, in Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district.

Eng Sangha, Herrmann’s English teaching partner, said she had a strong work ethic and a friendly personality.

“She is hardworking and very punctual,” Eng Sangha said. “She always comes to work and is never late.”

And her presence helped students, like Leang Hy, now a third-year student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia.

“Before she came, most students didn’t go to study English,” Leang Hy said. “But when she came, every student came to study. She opened an evening study club for female students. She paid attention to students. She liked sharing what she had.”

For her part, Herrmann, a graduate student of public policy at American University, said she valued her time spent in the remote area.

“Just daily interaction with my students, my host family,” Herrmann said. “Learning about the culture, because I love studying different cultures and different people, and I’ve come to realize a lot of things about, not Asia in general, but Cambodia in particular, the stuff that you can’t pick up from reading and books.”

The Peace Corps was established by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote international friendship through US volunteers overseas. The Peace Corps has three main goals: to provide trained volunteers who contribute to the development of interested countries, to promote understanding of US citizens, and to promote understanding of people around the world.

Since its inception, the Peace Corps has sent nearly 200,000 volunteers to work in 139 countries throughout the world.

The Peace Corps has had an agreement with the Cambodian government since 1994, but security concerns prevented volunteers from going until 2006. So far, about 100 volunteers have entered the country.

Jon Darrah, Cambodia’s Peace Corps director, told VOA Khmer by phone the volunteers were welcomed by government leaders and local officials.

“The prime minister himself spoke very kindly of the work that we do,” Darrah said. “I think we have had a very, very good start, and we’ve enjoyed a wide range of support.”

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