Saturday, September 18, 2021

Proud to be an American

What does a young, well-educated man do after finishing college with a bachelor’s degree in business? Suppose this young man has a plethora of opportunities before him and comes from a well-to-do family that can assist him in furthering his business goals?

Does he take advantage of his position on the social and economic ladder by starting a career in the corporate world and begin chasing success? Does he see himself as birth-privileged, hence, able to coast for a few years before getting serious about adulthood?

Well, if you’re Andrew Smith, graduate of Flower Mound High School and UT Austin, you make a decision to join the Peace Corps and donate two years of your life lending a hand to people around the world that are not as fortunate as you are.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting 26-year-old Andrew who, along with his mom, former three-term Flower Mound Mayor Jody Smith, visited my home for an interview.

After completing his formal education, Andrew worked with the Lewisville “English as a Second Language” program before beginning his training for the Peace Corps in July 2012. He was assigned to Takeo Province in Cambodia, south of Phnom Penh, the capital of that South Asian country. He learned to speak Khmer, the language of his host country and his host family, which included a mother and father in their forties, a grandmother in her 60s and three sisters, all of whom were younger than him. He acquired an education about life in a world that is 12 time zones away from the USA.

“Many students ended up in the rice fields with their families after graduation because it was the only means of labor and support,” Andrew said. “Some would get into the tourism industry because they could earn more money that way. Yet, rice farming accounts for about 80 percent of their industry,” he added.

Andrew lived in a small wood and concrete room without indoor plumbing or air-conditioning in a damp, torrid climate, a perfect breeding ground for insects. In fact, he slept with a mosquito net covering him every night. He described a typical day in Cambodia.

“Breakfast would consist of a cup of some very strong coffee, rice and pieces of pork. The diet was mostly vegetables and the traditional dish of fish stew and a bowl of white rice were eaten almost daily.” As a result of the lack of protein he lost some weight and muscle tone and had to go to the town market and select foods containing protein, which he paid for from his $270 monthly stipend. The currency is called Riel and 4,000 of them would be equivalent to $1.

“The pace there is very slow,” he said. “Chores that would take 5 minutes here (in the US) were 45 minutes to 1 hour there. You would wake up to the sound of roosters after having slept on a bed that has a 1 inch pad and a mosquito net attached.”

Cambodia is about the size of Minnesota and has a population of 14 million, 80 percent of whom are spread out over rural rice-farming areas.  He said it was hot and humid most of the time, but the only way to get clean was to take bucket showers outside the house. As for toilet facilities, an outhouse was the most common form of human waste disposal. It had a porcelain top opening where sanitation was accomplished by the force of gravity. In poorer homes, there would just be an opening in the dirt floor of an outhouse.

Although rice was the most consistent component of the daily diet, occasionally, there were special additions. “Some of the foods that were considered delicacies were bugs, such as crickets and tarantulas,” he said with a smile, as his mom winced. “After about a year of eating them, (fried insects) they began to taste like Doritos, because of their crunchiness, but only after you put some hot sauce on them,” he grinned.

Foreigners are referred to as “Farong,” but merely as a description, without any negative connotation.

Andrew was housed in a safe area, screened beforehand by the Peace Corps organizers. In about 6 months he was fairly fluent in the language and began teaching 9th to 12th graders, partnering with teachers in local schools. Transportation was mostly by bicycle, which he would ride about 15 minutes each day, on dirt and gravel roads, to the school where he taught. If a bike wasn’t available, he’d employ hitchhiking, a very common mode of travel.

“There were spots that you could go to where hitchhikers could wait for a ride.” Evidently, Farongs were viewed as beneficial to the locals, so Andrew was treated with respect. At 6’ 2” tall, he was easy to spot among the more diminutive people on a given street.

Air pollution was a problem, especially in the capital city. He learned to use a face covering, known as a Krama Scarf, along with eye goggles when riding his bike. An item of clothing known as a Sarong scarf was typically worn by the women, although it could be used as a cover up after bathing. 

Buddhism and Hindu are the most commonly practiced religions and Andrew noted that the women are submissive to men as a sort of cultural training. He said he wasn’t comfortable with the way women allowed themselves to be treated and didn’t find that part of them to be attractive. He was surprised to find that many people had cell phones, either new or used. Televisions were scarce and reception was often a problem. 

The Peace Corps, originated by President John F. Kennedy during his term in office, has three major goals; to teach people about America; learn about foreign countries; and bring back what you’ve learned in order to help foster world peace. There were 50 volunteers in his group, and when they left, another 50 were sent to take their place. During his two-year commitment, his parents, Steve and Jody Smith, visited with him for a short time. They also had some things to say about those crunchy tarantulas, mainly that a lot of Ketchup was needed to get them down.

“I would highly recommend going into the Peace Corp,” Andrew said proudly, adding, “I feel that I’m a better American for having had the experience.” He went on to say, “I’ve always been proud of my country, but after my first-hand knowledge of another country, I appreciate being an American more than ever.”

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