June 11, 2014 - By Susan Bromley
Ryan McCabe knew nothing about Cambodia two years ago, not even where to locate it on a map.
Now, the 2006 Brandon High School graduate who earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University in 2012, has 18 months of first-hand education on the country, knowledge he will carry forever as a result of being a Peace Corps volunteer.
"I wanted to broaden my horizons and experience something new and when I learned about the Peace Corps, I knew it was something I wanted to do," said McCabe. "I wanted to fully experience living in a different culture instead of visiting. I wanted to experience what it was like to view the world differently."
So McCabe went from majoring in human biology and studying for the MCAT exam to get into medical school to learning about what it is like to live and teach English in an underdeveloped Asian country. Cambodia was devastated by Khmer Rouge, the ruling Communist Party from 1975-79 led by Pol Pot, primarily remembered for genocide and social engineering policies.
"It was a coup that controlled Cambodia— teachers, monks, they killed them, they wanted to create a pure culture," explained McCabe. "People with intelligence threatened that. Buddhist monks, educators, anyone thought to have intelligence they killed. They had to dumb themselves down in order to survive. Very harsh conditions, some of the people I met that survived, they worked all day from sunrise to sunset and only thing they had to eat was a tin can of rice porridge, which was supposed to feed 10 people. A lot of them died from malnourishment, they lost their culture."
The Peace Corps is a U.S. International service organization that sends Americans abroad as volunteers to address needs in developing nations. According to peacecorps.gov, the mission of the Peace Corps is "to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans."
McCabe was assigned to Cambodia as an educator, teaching English at a high school. He left for Cambodia July 12, 2012, not knowing exactly what to expect, but packing only two 50-pound bags with items for a very tropical climate. Upon arrival, he and other volunteers received two months of cultural and skill training in which they learned the language, as well as how to be culturally appropriate.
"Basically, how to integrate," he said.
"Cambodian culture is very conservative, very formal. For men, it was a lot easier, they don't have a lot of expectations, it was just to be very respectful of the host culture."
Expectations for women were stricter— they are to wear long skirts or pants and no short sleeves. McCabe took a course in teaching English as a foreign language and his host family helped integrate him into the Cambodian culture. The people were very caring, he noted, and Buddhism, the primary religion in Cambodia, has a great influence.
"They've struggled through a lot and appreciate everything they have and really value giving to other people, too," said McCabe. "Host families really go out of their way to make sure you're comfortable and your needs are met. Any time they are eating food and someone walks by, my family will invite them to eat with us. They want to make sure everyone is cared for."
McCabe's host family was considered upper middle class, with the host father an assistant school director and his host mother a teacher. The couple had two children, a 19-year-old boy that is a college student in the capital of Phnom Penh and a 13-year-old girl who was in ninth grade while McCabe was there. Their home had brick walls with plaster and electricity, but no plumbing and they used buckets for showers. Cold showers were refreshing due to the oppressive heat and McCabe would take 3-4 showers per day as a necessity. Still, after three months in the country and with a better grasp of the language, McCabe heard his students whispering about how sweaty he was.
"They sweat, but not that much, they are used to the climate over there," he said.
McCabe was in Thnol Bambek, a small village of about 75 families, in Takeo Province. He taught students from 7th through 12th grades that ranged in age from 12 to 25 and on a typical day, would wake at about 5 a.m. Along with most everyone else. Due to Cambodia's close proximity to the equator, the sun rises at 5:30 a.m. and sets about 6:30 p.m. year-round.
He would teach from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then from 11-2, teachers, students, and most everyone else took an afternoon break in which they eat lunch, relax, take a shower and nap. School resumed from 2-5. Teachers have private classes that start at 6 p.m. for families with the ability to pay, but the poor can't afford it and don't receive a very good education.
"It's hard to break the cycle of poverty," McCabe said. "As part of the Peace Corps mission, to lift them out of poverty, I would teach private classes for free to students that can't afford paid lessons."
McCabe also played soccer with the students and some volleyball.
School begins in October in Cambodia and then in April, the entire month is taken off to celebrate the Khmer New Year, a very big holiday.
"It's a very, very happy time for them," said McCabe. "The harvest season of rice is over and everyone, especially in the rural areas, celebrates."
He believes Cambodia to be the country with the most holidays, perhaps 3-4 days per month, with dancing, singing and feasts. McCabe loved the food, and ate a bowl of rice with every meal, as well as a lot of soup with fish and vegetables.
"They use what they have, everything is made fresh daily," he said. "My family did not have a refrigerator. My host mother would go to the market in the morning and return home to make food. Usually what we had for lunch was also what we had for dinner."
McCabe rarely went to the market and said his height of 6'2" made him an oddity as most Cambodians are 5'5" or shorter. He would hit his head and there was often yelling, with the market crowded and not much room to move around. Cambodians would touch his skin, fascinated by his arm hair.
"I'm just not used to it and they were grabbing me to buy things from them," he said. "Usually I went just to buy fruit. The fruit is amazing over there— dragon fruit, mangoes... a vast variety. So good."
While there was no refrigerator, his host family owned a television and watched Korean drama dubbed in the Cambodian language for perhaps an hour at night.
During the wet season, McCabe said mosquitoes were terrible and so they would eat dinner and go inside, where he slept under a mosquito net.
The commitment he made to the Peace Corps, roughly 18 months in a foreign culture, was difficult, he acknowledged, but he learned a lot, too.
"I realized how comfortable America is," he said. "They struggle over there and there is such an education gap... My perspective is open to different ways of seeing things now."
In one project, McCabe worked with malnourished children under the age of five, interviewing family members and learning what habits the families with malnourished children had, and what the habits were of families with healthy children. He hosted feeding sessions and taught families how to use the food they had available to make nutritious meals so their children could develop properly.
"The best moment of my life was seeing the impact I had in this community, they were very thankful," he said. "We developed a community garden to grow vegetables and give to students that needed them. We taught them which vegetables are good to grow."
"They value family and friendship and I think that is where they get their joy from. It was just an unbelievable experience, because I was accepted into the host family and my community also accepted me as a member of their community, it was a huge honor for me. I will go back... The biggest thing I took away, I definitely value my friends and family more coming back. It was a very good feeling to feel accepted. I've learned to open my perspective and view things differently. In America, you get used to a routine, and get very comfortable, and I was able to open my eyes and realize there is more than one way of doing things."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville