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Joleen X.

“I have always dreamt of living abroad with a mission and purpose. I have always wanted to make a difference or reach people who live on this side of the world. Serving with the Peace Corps allowed me to do both.”

Joleen X headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps?

I have always dreamt of living abroad with a mission and purpose. I have always wanted to make a difference or reach people who live on this side of the world. Serving with the Peace Corps allowed me to do both. I was drawn to the mission of Peace Corps and the ability to live out my personal dreams while doing so. I was excited about joining an organization that was creditable and could actually be used to influence the lives of others. I decided to teach English because I know learning English is so important. Being a first-generation American, I know that is something my parents wished for as kids. My parents were born in Laos but, unfortunately, due to the Vietnam War, the Hmong people (like my parents) were kicked out of their villages and forced out of Laos. After living in refugee camps for a couple years in Thailand, their families were finally sponsored to move to the United States. I am beyond blessed with this life; it can’t even begin to compare to what my parents had as kids. This is why my biggest dream was to come back to Southeast Asia to get the chance to make even the smallest difference in some of these kids’ lives through teaching English and in the relationships built in my two years of service.

2. What projects are you working on?

With my counterpart and other school staff, we are currently working on building a greenhouse for the community on our school campus. Peace Corps Cambodia has partnered with another organization here in Cambodia called “Volunteer for My Community.” Students in various secondary schools have the opportunity to develop and implement a community-driven project to better the community. Fortunately, I have five students working with this organization and their vision for our community was to grow organic, natural crops. Working with them, along with our school administration team, we came up with the idea of a greenhouse so we can produce these crops more easily.

Another project is a library upgrade. Our library is used for teacher meetings and holds all our books. I am working on supplying our library with more books through donations from friends and family back home. Aside from school, I tutor my host siblings every evening.

Jolene X serves as an English teacher in Cambodia.
Joleen serves as an English teacher in Cambodia.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community?

Integrating into the community took time and patience. It took time for me to get adjusted, to feel comfortable, and to learn my role in the house and at school. It took patience to allow people to warm up to me, talk to me, and not be intimidated by me. What helped me most with integrating into my community was the two months of pre-service training (PST). During PST I learned a lot about the culture, the people, the language, and life in Cambodia. PST was a journey in itself where we were pushed to integrate fast with the people we were working with and living with.

Furthermore, with the support of my host family, I felt like I had the confidence to do anything and go anywhere with them. I knew they always had my back and watched out for me like my real family would. They became family instantly and this helped me integrate with the community that much faster. School staff also became people to rely on. My co-teachers are now some of my closest friends and check on me often.

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

There have been so many highlights in my service so far. From new friendships to the various events I attend, I have had the experience of a lifetime. The Peace Corps journey has exceeded my expectations. It has definitely been filled with many highs, lows, and a lot of growth. Looking back on the first year of my service, I made friends in my cohort who are now some of my closest friends, and I have gained a family whom I can see being in my life forever.

Although there have been many highlights in my journey, overall the highlight of my service is the genuine friendships I’ve made here.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

Something I enjoy the most about this community is their ability to have fun and celebrate the little things, even on the hard days. They also celebrate big and know how to throw a party. Whether it be a wedding, birthday, housewarming, anniversary, school event, or even a funeral or memorial, they know how to eat, drink, sing, and dance. These parties don’t disappoint, and I have enjoyed this about the community.

Joleen and her host mom visit a pagoda on a Khmer holiday, Pchum Ben, or Ancestors' Day.
Joleen and her host mom visit a pagoda on a Khmer holiday, Pchum Ben (Ancestors' Day).

6. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from your community?

One thing I’ve learned from the people in this community is that hard work is a priority. Other valued character traits of the Khmer people are kindness, love, respect, and discipline.

My host dad works with a phone company and goes out to work every day in the field, then comes back to do chores around the house, feeds the chickens, waters the fruit trees, and still has time to hang out with friends for a cold beer in the late evening.

My host mom works harder than anyone I know here. She has a booth at the market where she sells clothes. She also runs a laundry service at the house. She goes to the market early every morning and comes home to prepare lunch for the family. She takes lunch to her parents, checks in on them, then comes back to the house to do a couple loads of laundry, and heads back to the market. The moment she closes her shop at the market, she’s back at home finishing laundry and starting dinner. On top of all of this, she does the dishes, sweeps the house, and keeps track of me, her three kids, and her husband. All this to say, hard work is important for a good life here in Cambodia. There is no time to be lazy. I have seen this quality in all community members.

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

After teaching, tutoring, and getting tutored, I have moments to relax, nap, eat a snack, and play on my phone. Being in Cambodia has really taught me to slow down in life, do things at a slower pace, and not be in a rush. It was hard to get used to at first, but there is so much beauty in the down time. I read a book, play my guitar, watch a TV series, or write in my journal. I find time to call and catch up with friends and family back home as well as chat and support other Peace Corps Volunteers.

I have a lot to do and many things to explore in my free time. I take bike rides in the community, evening walks with my host mom, and play with neighborhood kids to keep healthy and to enjoy the fresh air. It’s a great feeling to be a part of a community that looks out for me. I feel safe wherever I go.

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Volunteer?

There is so much to be done still. I can’t even begin to think about the next chapter of my life and saying goodbye here, but I look forward to a lot of things as I finish my service. I’m excited to complete the greenhouse garden at the school so we can use it and grow crops. I look forward to seeing my host brother and sister graduate high school and move into college. I also look forward to learning how to read and write in Khmer. It is crazy how integrated I’ve become in my short time here that I am starting to know the Khmer language more than my own native language, Hmong. It inspires me to speak more of my own language, know more of my own culture, and be prouder of being Hmong when I go back home. Overall, I can’t wait to see what these final months will hold for me and what else I can accomplish in my time here in Cambodia.

9. Once you finish your service, what will you do differently when you return to the U.S.?

I’ve learned a lot in my service. There are many things I can take home with me when I go back to the U.S., from all the food recipes to the cultural things I’ve observed, to the way Cambodians think. Although at times I felt out of place, I my community here treated me like one of their own. Sometimes it surprises me how similar yet different we are from each other. At the end of the day, this is the mission of Peace Corps: that we can learn from Khmer people and also share how we do things in America. This has been such a humbling experience.

The biggest things that I’ve learned from the Khmer people are the importance of kindness and the joy of a slow-paced life. These are two things I’ve experienced most in my time here. It is amazing what a little kindness can do, and here I see people being kind everywhere I go. Siblings are kind to each other, classmates are kind to each other, and strangers are kind to each other. It’s in the culture to be respectful, helpful, and disciplined, but what I have seen and wish to embody myself is unconditional kindness. I think this is one thing I will remember forever and keep with me. I hope to practice this when I get back home.