Rae Richards, 129 TCCS
Welcome to a new column meant to explore the highs and lows of Peace Corps volunteer life—in Thailand and beyond! Each month, we will highlight a current Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in the world and interview them about the best and most difficult experiences that they have had in the last month. Through storytelling, we can gleam at how different and similar life is between volunteers across provinces and borders—enjoy!
Volunteer name: Paul Stahlke
Site: Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Interviewed by: Rae Richards
Rae: Hey Paul! Thanks for talking to me today. I’m going to start off by asking you some silly questions so that people get a sense of who you are. First question– who’s your favorite fictional character and why?
Paul: Charles Boyle from Brooklyn Nine Nine. [Laughter] Recommended by a very handsome and intellectual friend of mine. I love him because I share his hopeless romanticism and weak understanding of social boundaries. He’s also so good– so loyal and dedicated.
Rae: He’s the best! So pure and sweet, good call. Okay next question: on a scale from 1-10, how funny do you think you are?
Paul: Oh, ten. [Laughter] My sister is studying to get her PhD and I always joke that she’s smarter but I’m funnier and we’ll just see who it works out for.
Rae: That’s amazing. The confidence of that answer is something to behold. Okay final icebreaker– what is the best meal you’ve had in the last week?
Paul: Can I give a couple answers? The most interesting were some crocodile eggs given to me by a coworker. They were similar to a chicken egg but longer– kinda like dinosaur eggs. Sounds super cool but honestly they just tasted like a more plain version of chicken eggs. And my host mom boiled the sh*t out of them but the whites would not congeal– it was super runny. And the yolk was super chalky. Not super into it. Now for the best meal– my host mother’s grilled chicken, homemade with love. There’s something about Cambodian chickens– they’re not as plump as American chickens but they’re so freaking good. Plus those chickens crow at 2 in the morning so I feel good eating them. [Laughter]
Rae: I hate the chickens in Thailand. I swear they have a chicken fight club because I hear them making all kinds of sounds at the weirdest hours. [Laughter] But enough chicken talk– now I want to talk to you about a really low moment you’ve had in the last 30 days or so. It can be a specific challenge you’ve had or something more general– whatever comes to mind.
Paul: So kinda serious– in the past month I’ve learned that my mom (back in Colorado) has had several medical issues come up. And through talking to PCV’s in Thailand and my friend David in Ecuador, I’ve realized that even though all of our sites and experiences are super different, I think what we share is the pain of not being home when stuff happens. Especially in our early twenties, when our parents are getting older. It’s really likely you’ll miss something while you’re serving. It’s hard.
Rae: Ahh, and it never goes away, that feeling of being too far away when you want to be close. Even though there’s no cure, how do you cope when you’re going through a tough time like this?
Paul: Reconnecting with people that I love the most at site is big for me. Especially my host mother and my host sister. Spending time around them– my Khmer is good enough and my sister’s English is good enough that we are able to reach a level of understanding. I can really relate what I’m feeling and going through and I feel very supported by them. For issues that my host family can’t relate to as much, I turn to the great volunteers in my province. I’ve made some great friends in Peace Corps Cambodia that I can confide in. Something I’ve definitely learned during my service is the value of community– whether it’s the village or my cohort. Before this experience, I was very introverted and if I was upset I would just keep it to myself. But I’ve learned just how important it is to be vulnerable and tell people when you’re struggling.
Rae: I empathize with that a lot. Community is huge for survival out here. Do you have a go-to movie or song that helps pick you up when you’re having a rough time?
Paul: Probably watching the Office, honestly. I am a millennial dude from the suburbs!
Rae: Ahaha, it’s a classic. Now I’d like to talk to you about a really positive experience you’ve had in the last month– anything come to mind? Any victory, anything that brought you joy?
Paul: Yeah! I used to work at a nonprofit before joining PC and the intern coordinator for that office has a son who was traveling through Southeast Asia and she was able to connect us while he was in Cambodia. He was able to visit my site and he was very interested in seeing what my life is like. Initially, I thought he would just want to come for lunch but he actually wanted to see my school and my village and stuff. We sat at a table with my host mom and he asked her a bunch of questions about her culture and her connection to the land, her daily life. As I’m three months away from COS (Closing of Service), it’s easy for me to be looking beyond what I’m doing right now and where I’m living right now. But this was a cool reminder that what we do as volunteers is a really cool, unique experience of sharing. The wonder of living in a culture that’s so much older than ours– it’s a very rare thing. The interaction reminded me of the way I felt when I first started my service– the awe that I felt.
Rae: Wow, what a nice moment of reflection. How are you feeling about COS?
Paul: I feel really good. I remember going into my service with several goals– speaking Khmer and building relationships with people– and I feel like I’ve achieved them. It’s been a really rich and fertile time in my life. I’ve grown so much and learned about so many things.
Rae: How do you catalogue these joyful moments? Do you journal or take photos or anything along those lines?
Paul: For whatever reason, journaling has been such a hard habit for me to form. Normally what I do is take photos of things. I’m lucky enough to have parents who are supportive and allow me to share my experiences with them. And I also use my Instagram to make short videos of my life here– people back home ask a lot of questions but seem to appreciate those videos.
Rae: I think using social media is a clever way us Millenials get to keep record of our PC service. Speaking of social media, what media are you consuming these days? Movies, podcasts, apps– what’s good?
Paul: There’s a lot of news coming out of the US recently that is keeping me quite busy [Laughter] I’m addicted to the news cycle! Listening to podcasts from 538, Vox, the Washington Post. It’s a way I stay connected to my own culture and politics. What else? I’m currently reading a book called Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama.
Rae: I love it– I can see a clear theme here. My last question is what’s your IG so people can keep up with your adventures in the future?
Paul: It’s pawlstocky
Rae: Thanks so much for talking with me Paul! It’s been a blast.
Thank you for reading this installment of Peaks and Valleys! To read old interviews, please visit us at https://pctmagazine.org/category/pcvs-online/peaks-valleys/
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