December 28, 2010

Distress and Progress

Tonight I was really distressed about life. Okay...let me rephrase that: For the past several years, I have been distressed about life. I want to be making progress, to be moving forward, to be making the best decisions. Graduate school (and the prospect of boring alternatives a.k.a work) have posed the biggest challenge of my life because they are not decided for me. I have to choose to do them, and they are big, expensive choices.

My quest for graduate school got serious this fall, and I was proud of my applications to the University of New Mexico and Northern Arizona University for degrees in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). I sent them in around Thanksgiving, even though the due date was February 15.

Then I had to wait.

A week ago, I found an article called "5 situations when you shouldn't go to graduate school." The blogger argues against going to graduate school to deal with uncertainty. After reading her article, I googled around for other people who wanted to rain on my graduate school parade. It's the most expensive choice for people who don't know what to do, it's not necessary for most careers, it's not going to be the romantic time you think...and so on.

I felt like those articles were written for confused people like me--just persuasive enough to pull the rug right out from underneath your plans and make you feel terrible. Then I got this e-mail from Cambodia. Starting in February, the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT--the big organization behind the school I taught for) is looking for a volunteer to live and work in the remote areas of Cambodia with their team to help them learn English. Basically, live in the most beautiful, quiet part of Cambodia and teach very motivated people to speak better English so they can get more funding to implement sustainable development projects in the villages. It's almost perfect. No noisy city or other volunteers to compare myself to. I did the math on how much it would cost. I looked at flights. Living expense would be minimal, the experience invaluable...and so on.

So there I was, my mind boggled by Christmas, coffee and cookie overdose, a newfound distrust of graduate school, the pressing need to find full time employment and adulthood; and a once-in-a-lifetime escape hatch to malaria-ville. The options and distractions were overwhelming.

Tonight, I thought the confusion was going to get the best of me as I sat there eating popcorn, lamenting my woes to my mother. I was thinking about all the unknowns, all the "what-if" situations, and all the lame jobs I could get just to save a buck or two. I even asked her what would happen if I didn't get accepted to grad school. A job, she suggested. I think prison would have sounded better to me at that moment.

Then, there on the table amidst bills, Christmas cards and other letters not addressed to me, a little envelope from Northern Arizona University. Congratulations, you've been admitted to our program. The timing could not have been better. I was so worried that I would have to wait until March to find out whether I had been accepted. I needed a little reassurance that I was doing the right thing.

It's a small step. I've still got to get serious financial aid and/or establish residency before this degree is even an option, but acceptance to the program is the first step. The best part is that I won't be as tempted by distractions like Cambodia if I have a goal. It's obvious that my lifestyle at the moment is not the best situation for me. I need more intellectual stimulation and more interaction with people who have the same interests as I do (those are called "friends"). For a few months I need to stay home, make some cash; then go to grad school, become a better teacher, then stock up on anti-malarials and go save the world.

December 19, 2010

Warm your heart with hugs, sincerity and a mug of spiced wine

Our lives wouldn't be the same without you. My mom pointed out this line from a friend's Christmas card, and told me how much she liked the sentiment because of it's sincerity and simplicity.

The annual Griesel Christmas party was last night. My parents host an open house each year to celebrate the past year with friends, coworkers past and present, and family. The preparations for this Christmas-in-Germany-themed party began in September, but it all came together about 6 o'clock last night with the arrival of the first guests.

My mother had decked our halls with real greenery, lights and a massive Christmas tree. There were candles and sparkling ornaments, festive table settings and even my gingerbread house. My parents had baked dozens of traditional German cookies, cake balls and other holiday goodies. Achim prepared sauerkraut and ham shanks, bratwursts and pork chops in giant roasters. Our bar was stocked with German beer and warm, spiced wine. I contributed German licorice and expert opinions on decor and food.

From its humble beginnings, this party has gained a serious following and has become quite an event. As I have become an adult in the past few years, I have come to appreciate this party more. Last year, for example, the party was the day after my graduation from UNK and just weeks before my departure for Cambodia. With those two events as my conversation pieces, I made friends with lots of people at the party, and I gained a network of adults who are still rooting for me.

This year, I wasn't planning my jump into the unknowns of Southeast Asia, but I am still forging my way into adulthood. It was reassuring for me to catch up with people who have watched me mature, and people who will commiserate with the difficult process of figuring it all out.

The holidays are a time to enjoy the company of others, to be generous, and above all, to be thankful for the good things in our lives. Our friends and family are worth celebrating all year, but it is important to take time to show appreciation for the impact of others on our lives.

This morning, as I enjoy the leftover food from the party, I am appreciating the people in my life. I am lucky to have friends and family who support and care about me. It wouldn't be the same without you.

December 15, 2010

Blog by Jena ft. T-Pain and Pitbull

I think my life would be a lot better if I had someone to "feature." I mean, take a listen to top 40 radio, and most songs have an artist featuring someone else. Eminem featuring Rihanna, Rihanna featuring Drake, Drake featuring Lil Wayne. It's not a duet exactly, more like a sidekick.

I often compare my life to Hip-hop music, and I've decided I need someone to be my sidekick. Given my choice of artists, my first choice is T-Pain. This popular fellow has "sung" his way into nearly every song released in the past three years, letting his studio magic take auto-tune from little-known studio technology to the top of the charts repeatedly. Voice altering technology was developed to help artists hit the perfect pitch more consistently, and of course many artists are vehemently against this kind of assistance. T-Pain, on the other hand, has embraced auto-tune in a bear hug. When he sings, it sounds like an astronaut with a synthesizer instead of vocal chords. The effect is completely unnatural, but somehow enchanting. He had me at "I'm in Love with a Stripper"--a song about etiquette at the Gentlemen's Club.

But the rap song that is my life wouldn't be complete without a visit from Pitbull, the Miami boy. I first became acquainted with Pitbull because of his popularity in Cambodia. The subsequent Khmer cover version of his song "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" became the soundtrack of my stay in Cambodia, and the song taught me how to count in Khmer. My favorite thing about Pitbull is the sound he makes before every rap verse. It's a Latin tongue roll that always signals his arrival.

Because the world is good, Pitbull and T-Pain have teamed up for "Hey Baby (Drop it to the Floor)"--a song unapologetically focused on the goings-on at the local club. T-Pain and Pitbull do not disappoint me in this jam, as they explore the outter limits of the characteristics I described above. Pitbull is whirling his tongue before every verse, and T-Pain is playing his vocal chords like a baby grand.

If I had T-Pain and Pitbull to accompany me throughout the day, I believe I would be much more popular. My mundane phrases at work--would you like a sample, that'll be $20, and have a Merry Christmas--would be transformed into auto-tuned, tongue-rolled blasts of genius. I would be more fun at my crochet group, and I could order coffee with memorable flare. And besides, featuring at least one other person really takes the pressure off. If I biff the sentence, I know T-Pain is going to auto-tune me back to right, and Pitbull will translate the corrected version into Spanish.

This is the break I've been looking for. La la la la la la la la. If you don't listen to the radio, start--or go to youtube. I want you to imagine this entire post as performed by T-Pain and Pitbull.

December 10, 2010

Conversation sparks blog post

"I'm not as judgmental as I look," I confided during conversation about the power of Facebook-friending among senior citizens. Old people can still feel the sparks--that's why I didn't friend him. I believe it.

Old or not, sparks are more than simple attraction. When is the last time you felt the little Pop Rocks in your soul? Your hear skips a beat, your stomach does a triple flip. Mild electrocution. All of these somewhat unpleasant feeling that, for some reason, make you want more. It's an adrenaline rush like you're being chased by hyenas, but you're also winning the Boston Marathon. For me, it manifests in nervous gestures, a leg twitch and a cackling laugh. (Combined with coffee, these manifestations are magnified beyond all reason...thus explaining the essential problem with coffee dates!)

Sparks are a great indicator of compatibility, but they can also be dangerous--as my conversation partner eluded. I watched a video clip of an airplane with malfunctioning landing gear grind down the runway, shooting fiery orange sparks toward the fuel tanks. In order to land, the pilots had to take the enormous risk of explosion. In the end, the plane landed safely--though the landing gear was completely destroyed. On many levels, this is a horrible metaphor for relationships.

My conversation today got me thinking about the longevity of sparks and their importance. At 23, of course I don't know know much about old flames. For now, I'll enjoy eye contact with cute men, and I will regard my Facebook as a giant fire hazard.

December 9, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

The Killers and the customers of Licorice International have me in the holiday spirit tonight. It's December of a very strange year and I'm ready for the familiarity of the holidays.

The Killers, a band that skips my ears in favor of my soul, sings "Boots," a Christmas-themed song about the power of holiday tradition to heal the year's wounds. Sometimes I need a little help to see past the enormous amount of work that accompanies the festivities. This year, instead of dead week and Finals, I get to participate in the preparations. At Licorice International, I get to help people pick out presents for grandparents or grandkids. Just a little something to put a smile on their faces.

Just as The Killers describe the perfect holiday scene with frost and presents and family gathered, I imagine the licorice sitting by the fire (not too close!), waiting to be enjoyed. The generosity of the holidays warming the hearts and hands of all. And the magnificent tree shimmering with ornaments and twinkling lights has a gravitational pull stronger than any Scrooge. We eat, we drink,
 and we open presents. If one of those three doesn't make you grin, you're not invited.

"A smile below each nose and above each chin" or so the song goes. That's my motto this December.

December 4, 2010

Full-time Licorice Lass

I've been appreciating my job a lot lately. I'm picking up extra hours during the holidays, and besides a happy bank account, I'm grateful for a supportive workplace.

Working part-time gives me plenty of time to connect with my inner college kid. I can ponder graduate schools, work out for hours (I could, anyway), attempt to read complicated books, volunteer and catch up on NCIS.

But for the hours that I am actually at work, I think I've hit the jackpot. When my mother first suggested I apply there, I didn't take it very seriously. A candy store? Are you kidding me? But I went in anyway, and one meeting with the Licorice Ladies convinced me that I would fit right in. Being such a small business, the employees are a critical part of Licorice International's success. The Licorice Ladies and the other employees have treated me like family right from the start. It's nice to work with people who ask about your life outside the office.

Since July, with the help of my licorice co-workers, I've become a licorice aficionado. I've tasted nearly all of the 160 varieties of licorice in our store, and I've become familiar with licorices of yesteryear. Customers always ask about my favorites: the Salmiak Rocks from Holland and American Bridge Mix. Along with my ever-refining pallet, my sense of smell continues to improve as my nose is constantly exposed to the different smells of licorice. I can recognize many licorices just by smell--not just anybody can put that on a resume.

Besides eating and sniffing, I have recently been given a few more responsibilities around the store. During the holiday rush, I get to work in the back: pulling orders, packaging licorice and labeling bags. Because it's out of the ordinary, working in the back is exciting for me, and I can see my contributions immediately. I like seeing the online orders because I imagine who is eating the different kinds of licorice. Some people order the really salty Dutch licorice or the really bitter stuff from Italy. I always wonder when and how they eat it because it's not a typical bag of candy.

I never imagined that my first job out of college would be selling licorice, but I think it's been a blessing. I work with good people in an interesting part of town, and I can eat licorice all day. It's a good gig.

 P.S. We're doing a gingerbread house contest this year. I made a house that is displayed on the Licorice blog:
link to my gingerbread house at Licorice International

December 2, 2010

Goals--and this time I don't mean Soccer

People must like goals. Everyone talks about goals--for some it's weight loss; for others it's about money. We have short- and long-term goals, we have attainable goals and pipe dreams, we have public and private goals. It's goal-mania out there. What goals do you have? Do you know your friends' goals?

I've heard that goal-setting is one of the keys to happiness because goals show optimism. At Lincoln Literacy Council training, we talked about setting attainable and specific goals--we need the who, what, when and why so we know when the goal has been met.

It's easy to make a goal statement if you know what you want. By February 1, I want to have lost 15 pounds so I can look great for my vacation in Cabo. Straightforward goal and vacay in Cabo--it's all good.

But what if your goal is a little less straightforward?

Since I was little, I have been fascinated by the pioneers of the Great Plains. People who set off into the unknown with the hope that they would find something great. Blind faith, bravery and good genetics I suppose. I have always wanted to be the best at whatever I'm doing, and if I can be first, I will. I like setting a precedent--leading the way. Unless the way is into a dark basement, then I'm quick to delegate.

I love the idea of pioneering something, being the first. But what is my frontier? What great unknown can I tame with my proverbial covered wagon? Too bad I missed out on the Gold Rush. Or the Space Race. Or Disco.

What will be the next Final Frontier? How do you set a goal about something unknown?

I have the feeling that the answer is not as complicated as I want it to be. For now, I've got two mini-goals.

1. Learn another language to fluency--wait, not specific enough. Live in a foreign country for two years, thereby learning the local language to fluency. Anyone else smell adventure?

2. Grow a real ponytail braid: twelve inches of braided hair whipping dangerously around my head. I'll need a ruler!

Happy goal setting and achieving!

November 29, 2010

Thanks for giving me all that FOOD!

I may have just created the single most delicious dessert in the history of eating--it's a hybrid cake-ball/mexi-brownie. Mexi-brownie-ball, if you will.

Just what I needed after a holiday weekend that left my stomach distended and my jeans seriously tight.

Thanksgiving is one of the best holidays. Without the pressures of Christmas or the scary decor of Halloween, it's a time to simply give thanks and share food with loved ones--in a sick, competitive eating sort of way. We all know it's coming. Everyone understands that we will cram turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes until it hurts, and then have seconds and just when it seems that our bellies couldn't possibly stretch another millimeter, we break out the pumpkin pie. We will be relatively miserable with our swollen bellies, but the warmth in our hearts is worth the trouble.

It would be a good idea to cut back in the days following, but the left overs are a temptation unto themselves. Stuffing with eggs for breakfast, turkey nachos, green bean casserole for a snack--in our house, anything goes. And I've been going to the fridge pretty often. Yum, but ouch.

I'm ready to reintroduce portion control and salad to my diet this week. I'm also looking forward to a few of those Mexi-brownie-balls.

November 24, 2010

Cambodian Water Festival

I wore my blue Krama all day. In case you didn't read about it in the news, a  panic-fueled stampede during Cambodia's Water Festival killed nearly 350 people.

My Khmer teacher sent me a sad email this morning, and my Facebook Newsfeed is still with condolences and people checking on one another. I'm heartbroken because Cambodia is so close to my heart. The Water Festival celebrates the end of the rainy season and the flow reversal of the Tonle Sap River. The Festival is supposed to be a celebration of life, but this year it is marked with a great loss of life.

I'm not a religious person, but I prayed today. I prayed for my former students, coworkers and CWF staff.

I'm thinking about the families of those who never came home. They must go to the hospital and check if their loved ones are injured or dead. I'm thinking about the vivid red sunsets and the view at Riverside. I'm remembering my students laughter and the way they always answered, "stay home, watch TV" to any question about the weekend or holiday. Many times, I wanted to tell them to get out of the house and do something, but this time, I hope they were at home watching TV.

November 23, 2010

There is no place like Nebraska... especially if you grew up here.

Why is it that Nebraskan Adventure Lady just doesn't sound right?

I had a mini-epiphany today. Something about how I want to leave no stone unturned--even in my backyard yada yada. Something else about how Nebraska is actually a very adventurous place to live because of pioneers and fanatical football. A third something about my unwarranted distaste for all things Midwestern--except for giant thunderclouds.

If I could just have the same observant eye that once looked upon the sunset Mekong or the dandelion meadows in the Austrian Alps, I could be the Nebraskan Adventure Lady.

To be realistic, my hometown will never inspire me in the same way as a foreign land, but that shouldn't diminish it's value. Where else can I run into ex-boyfriends' friends at the grocery store and ask where the lemon juice is? Where else can I mention my grandpa's name in a crowded room and expect at least 50% of them to know him? Where else can I come home and hear my brother belting out the latest Katy Perry tune?

I'm going to make a point of seeing this strange limbo period as the adventure it is. Sure, there's no jungle treks or exotic script, but there is soul-searching and applications and dishes to be done!

November 17, 2010

Playing to the Judge is the best way to win Apples to Apples

You'll never forget Kearney, or so the slogan goes.

My spot at the old WC
 My college town--Kearney, Nebraska--is the place where I started to become an adult. Since I've been back home, I've forgotten many of the wonders of college life: no supervision, minimal accountability, and the freedom/curse of setting your own boundaries (and bedtime!).

I went back to Kearney yesterday to speak on behalf of UNK alumni who have traveled abroad. A fitting role for me, the former Cambodian/Austrian/Thai Adventure Lady. I chatted with nervous freshmen, eager sophomores and excited juniors about studying abroad. Did I encourage them to take the plunge? Of course. Did I quell any travel anxieties? With my jittery enthusiasm, probably not.  Do your research, I said, Don't worry too much about the language barrier and pack light.

The guest speaking engagement was my excuse to come back, but I hung around the rest of the day to catch up with old friends. I'll never forget my Writing Center friends, nor our beloved Game Nights. Now that we are a year older, our conversations focus on life after UNK--the cursed GRE, the graduate school applications, and the success of long-term relationships. Add a little wine and coffee to the conversation and we were a mess of games, gossip and  giggles.

Most of my closest friends have left Kearney to be employed in other cities and states. A few remain, and I was happy to reconnect over chai tea, or better yet, cold beers and San Pedro. The best part of college is the companionship of friends with common interests; friends who know your insecurities and your mistakes, but enjoy hanging out with you regardless.

Although the trip made me long for the life I left behind, the encouragement from my old friends excited me for the new friends to come.Today, my face is sore from all the smiles and laughs--something to be thankful for.

I'll never forget Kearney because of the close friendships that continue to evolve as time demands.

...and because of Barista's--definitely won't forget that, either!

November 13, 2010

The First Snow

A while ago, I said I'd leave the bigger decisions for the first snow...

I read on Facebook that CWF is looking for more volunteers for the November-February semester. For a moment, I was ready for an encore; another round of mosquito nets and stir-fry.

Then the raindrops outside turned to snowflakes, and I remembered how much I have been looking forward to winter.

From the view hole of my figurative soul submarine, the water is clearing. Combing the depths of my desires, and my resume, I discovered that I am always teaching. Even now, I am volunteering with the Lincoln Literacy Council to tutor a South Korean woman (who happens to be a writer!). This morning, sitting cross-legged at my student's low table, I watched her grow as a writer. I saw the smile as she realized an alternate way to explain the scene. I felt the excitement in her red pen as she scribbled down the words she wanted. I got the goosebumps of destiny and I felt the intense tingle of my feet falling asleep.

As I hunker down for another Nebraskan winter, I can't help but wonder about Cambodia. In lieu of sun-drenched hours swimming at the Sport Club, this winter I'll be popping vitamin D supplements; and instead of sweating on a moto, I'll be defrosting windshields. I'm inspired to keep going where I left off in Phnom Penh: to continue teaching, and make a living doing something I'd do for free.

November 7, 2010

Chilly Weather, Chili Weather, and how's the weather in Chile?

Recently, my thoughts have been about as clear as the lyrics in a Kings of Leon song. You hear lots of garbled syllables and decide that they are indeed words, but which words?

Kings of Leon may be on my stereo, but tonight, the threat of winter has me in a quiet and reflective mood. Note: this does not mean good, or even original writing coming up.

Outside, the air has finally turned cold. My year of perpetual summer is gone. My trusty flip-flops are stowed in the closet next to the backpack I bought in Siem Riep. This morning, I clutched my Styrofoam coffee cup with leather gloves. I saw my breath huff and puff as I detoured around the block before work. I enjoyed the peppery heat of a big bowl of homemade chili for dinner. Winter is definitely coming.

It's sandal weather in Chile.

November 1, 2010

Invisa-eye and other things you tolerate abroad

"I'm glad I went to Cambodia," I told my mom today.

I explained to her that Cambodia temporarily freed me from my dependency on hair and make-up. For the first time in years, I was able to tolerate,  the so-called "invisa-eye", or blond eyelashes sans mascara. I wore my hair in variations on the ponytail, pulling my bangs back off my forehead. I didn't plug in a straightener or even a blow dryer the entire time. I left my make-up bag in the suitcase. It started out as a weather-related modification, but the change in my physical presentation was a startling revelation for me. I no longer wanted to hide behind carefully blown-out bangs and smoky eyeliner. It was my face: for better or for not-so-better.

Despite my lack of warpaint, I've never felt more comfortable in my own skin--and that's saying a lot for an insecure gal.

Since Cambodia, I've continued to embrace my hair's natural texture, though I do occasionally pull out the blow dryer to speed things up. Without the tan, and with a lot more mirror time, I have fully relapsed into my make-up bag. Just filling in the eyebrows suddenly turns into lip gloss, and pretty soon I've got stage make-up.

I'm starting to wonder how many post-Cambodia blogs I can get away with. New adventure, please!

October 24, 2010

A major turn-off (and I don't mean garlic breath)

Sensory overload.

Not since the silenced roar of Tokyo have I felt so over-stimulated. This morning I had to turn off the Law and Order mega-thon, power down my CD player and take a mind break.

While I love the escape of mindless entertainment, this dependency on technology always catches up with me. I hold my breath and overeat while parked in front of a massive flat screen. If NCIS isn't on, I settle for Jersey Shore reruns. I drink diet cola until my stomach burns and I wonder where all these headaches are coming from. I'm easily irritated by actual human interaction, but my self-esteem correlates directly to the number of people who have written on my Facebook.

This lasts as long as my body (or mother) allows. Sometimes days or even weeks.

But eventually, I can't handle anymore. The noise of TV, the unrealistic plot lines (and body lines), and the strange obsession with social media---it suddenly seems unbearable, and I find myself on a walk around the neighborhood, thankful I left my iPod at home. Passing multi-million dollar houses, I acknowledge my judgments on how many square feet are really necessary. I wave to neighbors I don't know, and I smile at the yip-yip-yippy dogs chasing me down fence lines.

Open fields in sight and wind in my ears, I can breathe easier. I stop second-guessing myself (well, almost!).

After the walk, I feel better in my room with the door closed and the lamp on. Outside my window, the rhythmic hum of Old Cheney sounds less like traffic and more like waves.

Now if I could just turn off this laptop...

October 22, 2010

Back-up Plan

I'm learning.

My drive on Old Cheney Road helped me reset my compass. My gut was telling me to rethink UNL grad school. The back-up plans (in case I don't get accepted to UNL) were sounding better than the plan. Red flag.

What began as a private back-up plan has now made the leap from my brain to my blog. Graduate school in the Southwest. I'm thinking Arizona and New Mexico. I'm thinking TESOL, Applied Linguistics, or this program called Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies. Even I couldn't come up with a title that sounds more Jena than that last one.

What about UNL? Well, no word on acceptance yet, but I applied and I learned. My resume and personal statement read something like, "ESL, ESL, ESL...I really want to be a teacher, but I can be a businessperson, no problem." When there are roughly one million choices, it's hard to know where to begin. I met an interesting person, applied to a program that was totally unexpected, and I learned something about what I want.

I want to go West. I want graduate school. I want adventure.

Check back next week...may have new back-up plan taking over.

October 19, 2010

Old Cheney Road

In true No Coffee, No Workee style, today was pretty desperate until I splurged on a soy latte.

Coffee in the cup holder, I decided to get over my self-pity with a little help from unpaved roads. It's something I learned in Kearney--passing city limit signs and stirring up a little dust is good for the soul. Today I saw green fields dotted with massive country homes. I noticed the old telephone poles, eerie as always.  I spotted cattle grazing, and I even saw an old corn picker. But the big sky with its wind-whipped clouds stole the show again.

Coffee, drivee, thinkee.

Something about the expanse of the prairie always clears my head. Or maybe it was the caffeine. No matter, I'll take a moment of clarity where I can get it. I've got my eye a pair of cowboy boots at The Fort (Western Outfitters), and my heart is set on a journey westward.

October 17, 2010

...or I could go to Europe.

I'm a major flight risk. Something isn't sitting right with my current plan of attack in Lincoln, Nebraska U.S.A. Jobwise, things aren't exactly falling into place, and schoolwise, well, my application has been submitted.

My boyfriend (currently pursuing a doctorate in Belgium) says, "you should come to Europe," and I think he's on to something.

I imagine cathedrals and cobblestones and little tables with foamy lattes. I smell baguettes and sausage. I eavesdrop on private conversations in languages I don't understand (yet!). Oh, the wonder of Europe, that cultural center of cool, home of the man-capri and the people who speak 4 languages.

As I think back fondly to my study abroad in Graz, Austria, I wonder why I came back. Europe is the ultimate backdrop for reading and writing. I imagine how fun it would be to find a new city to explore. I try to justify my longing for a place ticket with something totally unreasonable--getting my Master's in Europe. I have looked into this option before, but always chickened out because of the extra work involved (getting a visa from the most bureaucratic nations on Earth...). I am able to overlook that necessary evil at the moment. Taking a more practical angle, I assess my existing education, interests, and even ancestory. Only a few generations ago, my family cam from Germany and Scandinavia. I like tall people with Germanic accents. How many years have I already invested in learning German? It's ten, but who's counting...besides me?

Compared to Cambodia, this idea is pretty safe. I'm getting restless here in my castle. It's time to wander. Or, less romantic, time to plan a wander that could eventually take place.

October 11, 2010

On why I need to find another part-time job ASAP

Any NCIS fans out there?

I've just figured out why I've never seen any movies my friends ask me about. I'm too busy watching crime drama re-runs on USA. Between mega-marathons of  Law and Order, I watch NCIS, a show about military-related crime set in Washington, D.C.

My favorite character on NCIS is Ziva David, former Mossad Assassin. She's a badass Israeli who speaks a handful of useful languages and has a widow's peak hairline. Plus, she can kill someone with a well-placed strike of the hand--or gun.

While I watch the NCIS gang stick it to the bad guys, I stick it to store-bought blankets with my crochet hook. My afghan is really coming along thanks to Ziva and company.

Now that I sound like a nerdy and pathetic 23-year-old, I want to divert your attention to the people who have written a Wikipedia biography of Ziva--the fictional character. Those people really need a hobby and/or job. Maybe something not yarn-related.

October 4, 2010

From Cambodia to Cowgirl

I don't know what's gotten into me lately, but I've got a real hankerin' for a Country Western lifestyle.

The Bolo Tie makes a comeback

While I did know and lipsync the entirity of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" at a recent wedding reception, I had to sit out the "Boot Scootin' Boogie" because I didn't know the line dance. During other country songs, I looked on as the cowboys in attendance gracefully whipped young women around the dancefloor. For years I've been running from my rodeo roots in Wyoming, but I'm starting to understand the appeal.

There's nothing like a pair of jeans that have molded to the every curve of your can of Copenhagen. Cowboy boots look pretty sharp if you've got a shining belt buckle. I'm still accepting the Bolo tie, but who doesn't like a wing collered shirt tucked into a clean pair of black Wranglers?

I think it's high time I look to the West for my next reinvention. Fire up the pick-up truck, put on some George Straight and head for the sunset.

September 29, 2010

Muse in the Mojave

Lately, I have been freaking out about everything.

Brandon Flowers's album, "Flamingo" lets listeners escape in the Mojave Desert
I mean, between the (prospect of a) job search, the university applications and the gross amount of free time, I have lots to worry about--and lots of time to do it.

In the thick of my personal discovery mission, I find an escape in music. If you thought I was obsessed with John Mayer, get ready for this.The Killers are my ultimate band: indie rock with synthesizers and a quirky-cute lead singer.

The Killers seem to know when I need a little music therapy. Their last album, "Day and Age" was released shortly after I returned from Austria. I don't think I listened to anything else that semester.

Now that I'm writing phrases like "vice of introspection" and other emo metaphors, the lead singer of the Killers has conveniently released his first solo album: "Flamingo". I may not be a music aficionado, but my weary soul is pleased by a good melody.

Brandon Flowers--the lead singer of the Killers wrote a collection of songs as a tribute to his homeland, the desert southwest. It's been said that The Killers' first album was often mistaken for a British band, and in response, the band has focused on representing Las Vegas through their music. Flowers' attempt is very literal: each song on "Flamingo" tells a story about his childhood. He was born near Las Vegas, grew up Mormon in Utah, and eventually returned to Las Vegas to begin a music career.

Behind Flowers's storytelling, the steel guitars paint the arid landscape at dawn. As the castanents ripple through the bright verses, cymbals accent the beat and maracas add a touch of Mexico. Driving beats and a voice best described as a "cannonball" fuel the tracks' emotional journey through the big three: faith, hope and love.

I'm enjoying the musical escape into Flowers's Southwest, rolling down desert highways, making lots of gambling references, and remembering the good old days (that never were).

Yep--sounds a lot better than job searching. Maybe I should road trip.

September 24, 2010

A little less talk, a lot more coffee

What is it about coffee?

It is more than a hot drink. It's a culture with an international following. It's good for breakfast and for thinking. At home, at the office, or--dare I say it--in the coffee shop, coffee is an essential part of those who drink it.

I don't think coffee's appeal comes from the taste. Certainly boiling water poured through roasted, bitter, ground up beans sounds less than delicious. The aroma of fresh coffee is much better than the taste, but we don't just smell it. We drink the stuff. For many people, the caffeine in coffee is the most important part of the morning. I admit that I'm not really myself until cup number two is halfway gone.

But it's not just a drink--it's also something to do. Going for coffee is a great excuse to meet friends, get to know a stranger, or take someone from friend (or stranger) to something more. "Let's go for coffee". It's one of those troublesome and noncommittal suggestions. It's a step up from Facebook-friending someone, but not quite an invitation for dirty martinis in a bar with mood-lighting. The trouble with going on a "coffee date"--no matter the ratio of coffee to date--is the surge of caffiene. Any existing jitters magnify into distracting twitches. It's the inverse of alcohol: instead of sleepy and relaxed, coffee makes you feel deer-in-the-headlights awake. You might just jump onto the hood of a car by accident--a real buzzkill. That's why you should stick with decaf if you haven't eaten or if you have any intention of persuing a real relationship. Until the phrase "That's the coffee talking" becomes an acceptable excuse for trash-talking or ridiculous bouts of laughter, after sunset, I'm sticking to one cup.

Ready to run and two reasons to stay

Last night I googled "Teaching English Abroad".

Feeling the return of flight risk, I browsed teaching positions in Korea, China and Croatia. I tried to remember the gut feeling I got from selecting "Cambodia" from drop-down menus, but I couldn't find it.

Unable to feel real excitement (or blind trust) this time, I shut Baby Top and turned off the light.

This morning, I was determined to see America with fresh eyes. Here are my two things I love about living in Lincoln.

1. Driving my own car. Having reliable transportation at any hour is freedom. In Nebraska, parking is rarely an issue (except Husker game day...don't get me started). My Mitsubishi is more convenient than the Strassenbahn in Austria, less crowded than the JR train in Tokyo, and infinitely safer than the motos of Phnom Penh.

2. Grocery stores. American grocery stores should be the model for the world. First, a giant cart to load with food for the next week, month or year. Second, thousands of food choices displayed on pristine shelves. Third, and most importantly, checkstands big enough to hold $500 in Doritos, and someone getting paid to put my groceries into Earth-destroying plastic bags. Austria had a good selection of goods, but the checkstands were built for a maximum of four items, and the poor guy who forgets his own shopping bag will be tarred and feathered on the spot. Obviously I have rich memories from study abroad. Japan's stores are similar to Austria, except everything is written in impossible Japanese. What am I getting here? Is this fish or chocolate? Cambodia has Lucky Supermarket, but that's so boring. Let's talk about the markets: claustrophobes, beware. No pristine shelving here--just buckets of fruit, tables of veggies, stacks of fresh meat slabs, and live eel in a tub. Although I constantly worrying about stepping on chickens or low-hanging meat shanks, I never once worried about a shopping bag.

For now, I'm living in Lincoln. I love my car and my groceries. I can't guaruntee that my wandering days are over; in fact, I think they are just beginning, but I'll enjoy home while I've got it.

September 23, 2010

Cookies, Jobs and Wisdom

My 10-year-old brother is a constant reminder that it's all relative.

"They aren't that bad," he reassured me, "I mean, I'm not gagging or anything." My oatmeal cookies had met the only basic requirement of food--not stimulating the gag reflex. Nevermind that I had him in mind when I substituted chocolate chips for raisons. And nevermind that I have told him a few times about the social convention of praising (or at least not insulting) the food that others make, even if you don't like it.

"You don't have to say that it's your favorite, and you don't have to get seconds, but it is polite to show appreciation of the effort." I said, wondering when I learned to do this.

My brother takes the same approach to my job hunt. He makes valid suggestions about finding hourly work as a cashier at a grocery store or Target. When I express my lack of interest, I am reminded of the oatmeal cookies. Cashiering isn't that bad, I mean, I'm not gagging...

But the real question is why have runny oatmeal cookies when you can have coffee and a slab of licorice?

September 22, 2010

Getting What You Really Want

In my abundant spare time, I have taken to crochet and motivational books.

Crochet I have yet to master, but reading--that I can do for sure.

The books I find at Gere Library (that's Charles H., not Richard) are usually written for women who are tired of their lackluster careers, getting run over by pushy colleagues and generally people who are ready to stick it to the man.

The women who write these books have found successful methods to getting everything they ever wanted--or so it seems. They offer suggestions for how to manipulate people courteously, how to sabotage colleagues discretely, and how to charm your way out of uncomfortable situations. Basically, how to be a backstabbing bitch and still have a great job and friends (or at least people willing to serve your personal fabulousness).

Anyway, I'm into it.

The advice in such books seems reasonable. For instance, if I don't know how I am going to get my dream job, I should imagine how someone else (a celebrity or someone you admire) might get the job. This technique is supposed to inspire creative thinking and bold action.

I ask myself: What would Lady Gaga do?

1. Crochet a glittery body suit
2. Add a face covering and a wig
3. Finish my resume with a lipstick kiss
4. Write a song demanding the job
5. Sing my song atop the manager's desk

If all this works out, I may not get the job, but I will have a Grammy Award and my picture on the worst-dressed list. I might even get arrested.

September 20, 2010

Becoming the Cambodian Adventure Lady

Everywhere you go, there you are.
Cambodian Adventure Lady in Kratie, Cambodia

It's an old adage, a cliché, and one of the most wonderful and horrible facts of life. Horrible because the only thing you can never outrun is yourself, but wonderful for exactly the same reason.

I went to Cambodia to become someone else. I was going to break out of my textbooks and apathetic college student community to do something totally different. I was going to volunteer in Cambodia. I don't really know who I wanted to become, but whoever she was didn't materialize as I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh. It was me sitting there anxiously filling out the customs form wondering why I had signed up for this and how I was going to survive.

There I was, with my suitcase and backpack in the thick of Cambodian midnight, waiting for a sea change in myself.

I waited and waited, but it was still just me. As I began to adapt to the surroundings, or perhaps just get lazier, I stopped wearing make-up. I started taking naps and wearing my hair in tight ponytails. I wanted so badly to be an ex-pat, to find my calling in a new culture. I was embarrassed to be homesick for the Great Plains and people with blond hair.

I had wanted to be the Cambodian Adventure Lady for at least a year before I left Nebraska, but once in Cambodia, I had no idea what to do. I was finally living the dream, and it was not quite what I expected. I thought it would be grass huts, hippies and hardship; not city smog and ice cream treats. This was supposed to be my chance to transform, to find myself anew. I found myself, instead, being very much my old self, just much sweatier.

I think we all find ourselves in this position--in the vice of introspection, hoping to unlock the mystery of life's purpose. Everywhere you go, there you are. That bothersome phrase again. I go all the way to Cambodia and the same stuff still bothers me. I'm still tall and awkward; in fact, now I'm a side show among petite, dark-haired people. I'm still unsure of what I want to with my life, and I still want yogurt for breakfast. Not exactly a complete rebirth.

Same old me, different visa.

This trend of my generation to travel the world, through backpacking or as English teachers, has created a new sense of loss in all of us. Who are we? Where do we belong? What are we looking for in these faraway lands?

When I got off the plane, part of me was hoping that I would become my inner Cambodian, or at least my inner fearless world traveler. I didn't.

I remained Jena--though I prefer to think of myself as the Cambodian Adventure Lady. I may not have solved any of life's mysteries in Cambodia, but I met people who showed me how wonderful life can be even if you only have the basics. I learned that education is our most valuable resource, and that free speech is never guaranteed. I found hope for a better world and the desire to help create it. No, I didn't change into someone else or meld into a new culture. I am the same person who dreamed of giving back through volunteering, and now I have the opportunity to use what I know to continue improving the world.
Everywhere you go, there you are.

September 18, 2010

And I'd do it all over again.

I've got a pile of thank-you notes and the feeling that I did something good today.

Today I did a short presentation about Cambodia for my brother's fifth grade class. I showed them several photos from Cambodia--some photos of CWF school, some of my students, and even one of a fried tarantula being eaten.

The students were curious about this country where kids only go to school in the morning, and where Lucky Burger reigns supreme. I was delighted to recall memories from my adventure, and I was happy to share with kids who might never have thought about Cambodia before.

They say hindsight is twenty-twenty, but it's also rose-colored. The discomforts of Cambodia have already faded from my stories, and I am left remembering a time when I was living the life I dreamed about. A life I still dream about, even though I understand the hardships and sacrifices.

I believe that, in some parallel universe, I am still in Cambodia. I've found a fabulous job teaching writing in a school that pays me well and supports a local cause. But that's a parallel universe. This is Nebraska.

Today is the first day that I can say "...and I'd do it all over again" without reservation. Today I realized that going to Cambodia was important. I went to Cambodia, I learned more about the world, and today, I got to stoke the imaginations of young people. Maybe one day one of Sam's friends will decide to study abroad or volunteer.

September 12, 2010

A Hammer and a Heart of Glass

A few days ago, I read that John Mayer had "sworn off" women. You may recall him as my other boyfriend; a man whose music is like a blowtorch to the creme brulee of my heart.
According to the story, he is spending his nights home with a new love--the iPad.

I guess it's better than Jessica Simpson, but still. An iPad? How am I supposed to compete with a streamlined, all-in-one entertainment supergadget? I once tinkered with a iPad at the Apple store in Ginza (that's in Tokyo!). It was an attractive plaything, especially the piano app.

It's just hard because I have been on-again-off-again with John Mayer since Room for Squares. I remember rediscovering that CD, buried among Spice Girls and Bryan Adams, sometime in the Winter of 2007. "Your Body is a Wonderland" still makes me blush for no good reason. As I prepared to leave on my study abroad in Austria, I bought two more albums to keep me company.

John was my dinner date the first weekend in Graz. I had no TV, no internet, and no friends.

I remember falling asleep in my apartment on Froebelgasse to "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" and "In Repair."

I remember playing "Clarity" on repeat on the train from Vienna after Takeshi's dad died.

His latest album, Battle Studies, is my favorite yet. It's about the painful inability to compromise between single and taken. Sometimes he takes the words right out of my mouth--or at least I wish I were articulate (or close!) enough for him to do that. He's like a halfway-motivational speaker in my iPod--he makes the imperfect relationship sound so romantic.

The point is, it's Sunday afternoon, I've got chili on the stove, bran muffins in the oven and my real boyfriend lives in Belgium. I don't have an iPad, but I've got John Mayer playing, and doggonit, that's good enough for now.

September 3, 2010

Intuition vs. Lil Red

I just clicked submit on my first graduate school application.

No one is as shocked as I am that this application is to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I think I would have been less shocked to find myself in the middle of Tajikistan--or at least Salt Lake City. And few would have guessed that I, Jena who once poo-pooed all things business, applied to a program including "Marketing" in the title.

I applied to the UNL Communication Studies department for a MA specializing in Marketing, Communication Studies and Advertising.

A sudden change of heart? Yes. But what happened to Sociology or Linguistics? I just couldn't commit. With Communication Studies, it's been a whirlwind romance, and I am excited to see where it goes.

I think I'll have a toast to celebrate. Well, I'm not supposed to have any alcohol this week. I can't even have real toast...

I guess I'll make do with sugar-free Jell-o and congratulate myself.

September 1, 2010

Blog Lite

I'll take my coffee black, please.

And hold the Oreos. The ice cream too. Don't even show me that bread.

For the next two weeks, I am following "phase one" of the South Beach diet. It's the cleansing and re-programming part of the diet that is designed to re-balance blood sugar levels to reduce cravings for certain foods. My mom starting changing her eating habits a few years ago, and she looks great. More importantly, her more informed food-decisions have improved her energy and stopped her from feeling dizzy during the late afternoon.

I have been lamenting my low energy levels lately, and the weight I sweat off in Cambodia has returned to haunt my tailor-made pants. Having watched my mother's success with South Beach, I want to challenge myself to try it--just to see what happens. According to my mom, the first two weeks are pretty boring because you are suppose to eliminate all starches, sugars and dairy (except low-fat cheese!). Those foods are my staples, especially for breakfast. You can imagine my disappointment facing a broccoli omelet instead of a sugary cereal bar and coffee with a healthy splash of half-and-half.

This morning the Australian Kookaburra licorice--one of our most popular--nearly broke me. I needed to put the pieces into smaller bags by hand, a tortuously aromatic and tactile experience. My mouth waters at the smell of licorice any day, but on day two of South Beach, it took all my self control not to be taken out by such a devilish opponent.

The next several days it's going to be lots of grilled chicken, all the veggies I can handle, and even some string cheese to keep me sane. The diet recommends curtailing caffeine intake (it's an appetite stimulant), but also says that if a cup or two makes you happy (and boy, does it!), go for it.

Wish me luck, and don't be offended if I turn down your baked goods this week.

August 30, 2010

Shoulda been a cowboy...

Y'all, I'm back from Nashville, and let me tell you--what a trip!

The highlight and original reason for the trip was a Haute Couture exhibit at the Frist Center for Visual Arts. It was all the high society, glitz and French-ness we could handle. My mother, my "Sparkle Mom," and one of Sparkle Mom's best friends were my travel companions this time.

After the exhibit, we coined the phrase "Get your Couture on," which served as our mantra for the rest of the trip. Although in a place like Nashville, even Coco Chanel couldn't escape the pull of honky tonk.

By night, we strolled Broadway, a street famous for live music, Southern eats, and denim. There's nothing like fried catfish and hush puppies to make your "Couture" fit a little tighter. Our costumed attempt at country-trashy fizzled to merely fitting in with the crowds inside the bars. Even my "double denim" outfit and red wig didn't stop the show.

Determined to get the attention we surely deserved among the little black dresses and shining belt buckles, on the last night, three out of our four donned leopard print and a big attitude. Aside from the time I went in drag, I have never had so many comments on my outfit. Bars announced the arrival of the Cheetah girls and the tipsy bar-goers were enamored with our audacity to wear nearly matching dresses.

Glitz, glamour, and double denim aside, it's still Nashville, and it's still country. I was born in a state that shows a bucking bronco on the liscence plate, and this trip reminded me of my down-home roots. There are times when I wonder what would have become of me had I stayed in Wyoming. I could be living the dream on a ranch, roping colts, or whatever they do out there. So here's to the little rodeo in all of us, and to the great Toby Keith. Indeed, I should have been a fabulous cowgirl.

August 25, 2010

People want to know me -or- Wow! That's Awkward!

I must be a pretty fun person to know.

I choose places like Cambodia just because, I prefer drastic hair make-overs, and I have a new life plan every three days.

Most of all, I have a flare for injecting drama into everyday situations. Whether it be via a highly embellished story or a heavy dose of awkward, I bring a certain nervous zeal to any situation. I have a feeling it's really entertaining and slightly uncomfortable to watch me do things like meet a new person or navigate a crowded room. I've heard that awkward is "my thing"--it's what makes me so dang charming.

Being anxious and using lots of hand gestures is fine in public. At home, however, awkwardness translates to a major hurdle in decision-making. Especially with grad school options, my interest in a program can be totally spastic. One day, I'm ready to sign up for Linguistics in Hawai'i, the next I'm on the Peace Corps website, and by the third, I've given up all of it to start a small business. Some people call it: "leaving my options open." I call it: "really frustrating way to move further from any decision."

I blab and blog about my indecision a lot because it's a big deal for me. I want to do something as stimulating and challenging as Cambodia with a degree, rewarding career and comfortable salary waiting for me at the end.

But what is it?

August 20, 2010

Coffee, Workee, and Lunchee

Today, going to work was good for my soul.

On the way to work, I treated myself to a coffee from The Mill, a coffee shop located conveniently next door. Although my blog began as an ode to the better-ness of work with coffee in hand, this morning I remembered just how much better it is.

Vienna roast in my little Styrofoam cup, I dutifully labeled bags that would soon hold Cherry Chews, Sweet Finnish Licorice, and Salmiak Rocks.

About halfway through my coffee, the "Licorice Ladies" surprised me with birthday lunch. Talk about good for the soul! They brought a spicy Asian-inspired salad and pepperoni rolls for everyone to share. Because they know I love cold and sweet, they let me pick out two pints of Ivanna Cone's delicious ice cream--they even sang "Happy Birthday".

Today, it didn't feel like I was at work. We were eating good food, critiquing various icecreams and enjoying the simple pleasure of a birthday party. I've only been selling licorice for a few weeks, but they've already made me feel like I belong. That means a lot to me. And getting paid to work with such good company isn't bad, either.

And I'm not just writing this because they know about my blog now. I swear! That's just lucky coincidence.

August 13, 2010

The Year of Perpetual Summer

Summer is the time when it's okay to like the new Usher song or refer to John Mayer as your other boyfriend. It feels good to lose the news in favor of trashy re-runs. It's the time of year that flip-flops have melded to your feet, and that sundress is perfect for any occasion.

In Cambodia, it was summer every day. My students may have missed the references to John Mayer, but I had a flip-flop tan for sure. This year, I got to skip out on a brutal winter, replacing the prairie with the tropics. I came home to the heat and humidity of summer on the plains, sandals at the ready.

Now the Nebraskan Dog Days have come and (with any luck) gone, and Lincoln Public Schools will begin in two weeks. The end of summer used to mean buying notebooks, pens, and hopeless organizational tools that would not make it past October. But this year, come fall, I won't have the usual transition back to school. My birthday will again signal the start of a new term, but I won't be in class.

Maybe if I keep wearing flip-flops, my year of perpetual summer will blaze on and those big, important decisions can wait for the first snow.

August 11, 2010

Labor of Licorice

Thank goodness for my job. Every hour that I don't spend slumped in the armchair with my laptop open is time well spent. Today, as I was offering advice about salty licorice, I realized that I was enjoying myself. Now that I've learned the basics about licorice, I can help people find candy they will enjoy. As a salesperson, I get to showcase my increasing knowledge of licorice, as well as my affinity for foreign countries and languages. I get to ask lots of questions and put the answers together like a puzzle that ends with a little bag of candy--and a cha-ching on the cash register. They walk out the door with a sugar rush, and I walk out with a paycheck. It's good for everyone.

August 8, 2010

Every Vacation Needs a Soundtrack.

It's the essence of family vacation. In our rented Impala, we shared a moment of true family togetherness in a sing-a-long to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok."

There's nothing like your mom and 10-year-old brother harmonizing while your stepdad drums on the steering wheel. "Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack..." Don't stop, guys. Don't stop.

My family met my German grandparents, Opa and Oma, in Hawai'i in honor of their 70th birthdays. Ten days of family togetherness isolated on an ancient volcano. Sounds like heaven or hell, depending.

Armed with David Sedaris books, my journal, and lowered standards for acceptable in-car music, I had a pretty good time.

My favorite meal was from Giovanni's Shrimp Truck near the North Shore. I ordered the only plate that comes with a disclaimer. Extremely spicy, no refunds. Since Cambodia, I've been craving all things mega-hot, and my taste buds met their match in these shrimp. Actually, they were so hot that my whole face turned red.

Besides watching the ripped Hawaiian lifeguards at the beach, my favorite activity was the forest trek. Flashback to Cambodia! My family became the Hawaiian Adventure Crew for an afternoon. The slippery mud and do-it-yourself stepping stone bridges were challenging and rewarding. Sam and Achim jumped off the cliffs at the waterfall while Oma and I marveled at human bravery. Or was it stupidity? By the end, we were soaked in sweat and caked in mud, but we had an unusual adventure. And, I forgot to think about graduate school for a few hours.

We always give Oma and Opa a hard time about their after dinner shots of Schnapps. At home and away, they drink a little of the hard stuff to calm the stomach after a good meal. The house we were staying in had a supply of only one whiskey, so after dinner, we waited for Opa to pour shots of, what else, Jack Daniel's.

Sunshine-filled memories courtesy of Ke$ha.

July 26, 2010

Cambodia in the News

The man known as "Duch" has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the death of thousands. Duch ran the infamous Toul Sleng "S-21" Prison in Phnom Penh. In this former high school, 14,000 people were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime.

In the above article, survivors of the Khmer Rouge are unsatisfied with the 35-year sentence. Bou Meng's statement gets the message across: "I underwent brutal torture. Although Duch did not hit me himself, he ordered his men to hit me in front of him. This hurt me. The verdict seems to slap me in the face and kick me in the head." Other survivors shared the sentiment that this sentence did not bring justice to a man who committed crimes against humanity.

What is justice in this situation? The judge accounted for the time Duch has already spent in prison, the coersive Khmer Rouge environment, and the remorse Duch expressed for his actions. Duch will spend the rest of his life in prison, but is it enough? Does a mere 35 years mock the suffering of a nation under a brutal regime?

The lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge still grip Cambodia, and for me, the verdict on Duch is insufficient. The sentence is an important acknowledgment of Duch's responsibility for crimes against humanity, but I don't think 35 years reflects the continuing impact of the horrors at S-21. I'm an eye-for-an-eye kind of lady, and Duch doesn't have enough eyes to pay up. The survivors and the children and grandchildren of those who weren't so lucky deserve justice and closure. Cambodians are ready to make something better for their lives, but they need a solid foundation. Coming to terms with the genocide in the 1970s is a crucial step to redefining Cambodia's future.

July 20, 2010

La vie domestique

As an adult living with my parents, I'm getting a taste of the domestic life. Certainly there are situations in which my psuedo-adulthood comes in handy. I can pick-up and drop-off my 10-year-old brother, Sam, at his sports practices, camps, and games. I can do laundry while I wait for the repairman to fix the icemaker. And I could probably cook a meal (emergencies only).

But overall, I think having another adult in the house is just confusing the system. Since both of my parents work and must travel for work, they have figured out a way to run things even when one (or both) is gone. Grandparents, aunts, cousins, and the parents of Sam's friends are all on speed-dial to help when schedules are tight. Upon my homecoming, I suddenly became the go-to girl. It's still a bit of a novelty to me. I feel like a responsible family member and a cool older sister. I don't mind little chore lists, and my brother and I get along swimmingly. I'm okay with Sam and House Duty, but the tricky part is how often the plan changes after I have rearranged all of my important daily events, like sleeping in and blogging.

Sunday night, my mom was standing in our kitchen finishing her presentation for the out-of-town business meeting the next day. Between mouse clicks, she was texting and calling people to see how Sam was going to get to and from basketball camp this week. I sat at the table, browsing unrealistic grad school programs, somewhat annoyed that she wasn't asking me lots of questions about my life aspirations.

After she tucked Sam in, I was brushing my teeth in the next room. She peeked in to say goodnight, and the best I could come up with was, "Wow, taking care of that schedule is a mess!"

She said to me, "This is my life every day."

So that is the domestic life. Squeezing in pieces of everything you need to get done, providing shelter and toothpaste for your ungrateful adult children, and lots and lots of driving.

July 14, 2010

Licorice adventure

Hello, Identity Crisis. I'm the Cambodian Adventure Lady--er--I used to be. Well, maybe I still am. I don't know.

I reinvented myself in Cambodia, and now that I'm home, I'm struggling to find a place as my new-and-improved self.

I found a job at a funky local business that buys and sells licorice from around the world. I get to ply people with sweets and chat with those who appreciate international stuff. It's a great start, and I know it will lead me to the next opportunity. Cambodia gave me the adventure bug (I hope that's the only remaining bug) and I am ready for another!

July 10, 2010

Kearney after Cambodia

Yesterday I made a much-needed trip to Kearney. I was craving Barista's coffee, but I was hungry for a reality check from my Writing Center friends.

The month I spent in Japan was "time-off" enough for me. I am ready for the next project, the next plan. The Japanese life counselor who gave me an incredible perspective on my personality, my health and even my past life suggested I look for a career that allows me to be creative while helping people. An assistant, she said, or better yet, maybe a counselor.

At this point in my life, any plan is better than no plan. I've always been that way. I took the counselor's advice and began researching the counseling profession right away. Working one-to-one with people who need help was very appealing to me. I excelled with these interactions in the Writing Center, so why not as a counselor? Upon my return to my parent's house, I asked my mom to help me get interviews with counselors in the community. We e-mailed into her social network, and the response was tremendous. So many people were willing to help me get started on my next adventure (and some even helped me with summer job opportunities!).

I had my first interview with a counselor this week. She gave me a realistic summation of her education, training, and experiences as a Licenced Mental Health Practitioner. Somewhere between the 3000 hours required for the license and the prospect of clients in crisis, I realized that counseling is a lot more than talking about life's little mysteries. This isn't to say that it's off my list of possible careers. The only things that have been crossed off so far are: actuary, accountant, surgeon, and professional athlete.

Back to Kearney. Inside Barista's with a soy latte lighting up my brain, I was catching up with Collin, my other half from the Writing Center. In the midst of our future plans and current relationships, we started reminiscing on our work in the Writing Center. I confessed that I would be happy to be a writing consultant for the rest of my life. For the rest of my life--that sounds like something worth pursuing. Maybe my youth and lack of experience are showing, but I can't imagine a job I would like more. I love writing, I enjoy the writing process, and I have a knack for working with people.

At lunch, my pseudo-mother from the Writing Center gave it to me straight. You can be good at anything, but you should do what you love. If you enjoy the WC, don't fight it--direct it!

This whole self-discovery business is really exhausting.

July 5, 2010

Poo for Power!

I received this link in an e-mail from the director of CWF this morning. The Cambodian Rural Development Team plans to install 15 more bio-digesters--yes, the magical concrete boxes that turn poo into power. For 15 families, this means that they will have electric lights and gas cooking stoves (instead of using kerosene lanterns and wood-burning stoves). Implementing biogas in rural Cambodia helps slow deforestation and offers a sustainable solution for two basic problems.

So if that extra cash is burning a hole in your pocket, or you just feel like making a big difference in someone's life today, this is my recommendation.

Sorry, poo donations not accepted.

July 1, 2010

An update from Outer Space

No, I haven't gone on an adventure to Mars, but it sure feels like it.

I seem to have left my brain in Cambodia and my heart in Tokyo. I feel like I'm living in a strange dream world where I recognize everything and I can read all the signs and I can eavsdrop on people in restaurants, but I'm not really understanding anything. I believe this is what they call "reverse culture shock." It's powerful, disconnecting and a little revolting. For example, I thought the Japanese TV shows were lacking a certain something; they were boring. When I returned to American TV, the focus on sex and violence really shocked me. Even the country music stars are wearing corsets and mini-skirts while they sing about domestic abuse and adultery. I guess I never noticed what was making our TV "interesting".

Besides my fear of American television, I think I'm terrified of what's next for me. I always like to have a plan. A precise plan with steps and directions toward a goal. Normally, I've figured out the next mission before I complete the current, but this time is different. I've landed on my butt in the middle of my parents' basement with no idea what I'm going to do next.

What do you do after volunteering in Cambodia?

With my job and school prospects currently at a standstill, I'm working with my blog posts from Cambodia. It's strange to read through them and relive some of those moments of horror that seem totally insignificant now, or the days that really changed my experience for the better. My writing from Cambodia is comforting to me as I float in Outer Space, searching for the next adventure.

June 26, 2010

The Material Girl

Do I really need 13 pairs of shoes? What about an entrie drawer full of underwear? Surveying the full closet of clothes I left at home and the suitcase full of clothes from my trip, I felt pretty disgusting. Okay, wildly gluttonous.

Before I left, I expected these excesses, but now, after cutting back on luxuries (and doing laundry a lot more often apparently), the scope of my possessions is outrageous.

In my parents' beautiful house, sumptuous living is easy. Our eight-foot doors and 72-inch mega TV make me feel like a dwarf. A very spoiled dwarf. We have a butler's pantry the size of a small bedroom, and it's stocked full of delicious food, coffee and shining pots and pans. I remind myself that this lifestyle is my parents' reward for having high education and stressful jobs. Part of me remains disgusted with materialism, but another part is asking, where can I get one of these jobs?

It's good to be home.

Hello, America.

The main drag of Louisville, Nebraska might not seem like a threatening place, but if you've been living in Cambodia and Japan, this is an IV of Americana. My parents love eating here, midway between the Omaha airport and Lincoln, a quaint little town with a real flare for country cooking.

Jet-lag already taking a serious toll, I surveyed the menu. Hamburgers, Chicken Fried Steak, Onion Rings, a side of Gravy—typical dinner fare. I chose the half portion of chicken and noodles on mashed potatoes, thinking it would be wholesome and filling. As I waited for my food, I could barely believe the scene around me: good old country folk out on a Friday night after a ball game, an obese waitress with a booming voice, and even Coors Light beer. It was like some strange movie about Nebraska, where I am the Asian foreign exchange student.

After dinner, we strolled down to the local soft serve ice cream stand. Inside, an overweight woman in a cut-off t-shirt that reveled her love of tattoos served up the best ice cream in town. As I enjoyed my small twist cone under a twilight sky, a herd of teenage girls wearing bikinis and towels, fresh from the pool, bounced and giggled out of the car to get giant ice cream cones. I couldn't imagine anything more summer, or maybe anything more Japanese men's magazine. Either of those.

Fried food, obesity and bikinis: Home sweet home.

June 17, 2010

Further exploration into the (dis)Orient

Three weeks of Japan behind me and I'm feeling a little out of it. The contrast in lifestyle and setting between less than one month ago until now leaves me disoriented. I've done much since arriving in Tokyo and taking time to write and reflect has been lost in the shuffle of those strange Japanese sandals. My deeper frustrations with the unknowns that await me at home are showing as I struggle with my continuing identity as a foreigner.

I've finally met my boyfriend's immediate family, some of his friends, and visited his father's grave to pay respects. I've been to a symphony, a wedding reception, and even to a dog hotel (no, I was not a guest). I've eaten cheap Ramen in local restaurants and Kobe beef in a 5-star hotel at prices only a mother could love. I've met with a shoemaker who was astonished at the poor condition of my feet, and I've met with a life counselor (the Western world would probably call her a “fortune teller”) to discuss my past lives, present life and future decisions (she thinks my foot problems are a manifestation of my mental frustration). I've developed a green tea habit and fondness for fine sake (the need-a-second-job-it's-so- expensive kind). I still can't sing worth a lick, but I haven't lost my passion for karaoke.

On the briefest of Japan tours, this week I visited Kyoto, the old capital city. The traditional temples built centuries ago still perch gracefully on hills in the forest, or nestle between modern buildings in the city center. The most striking element for me was the bright orange color used as an accent on the temple buildings and gates. Next, In Takamatsu, a city that most tourist pass by, I strolled the famed--though politically charged--garden of Ritsurin. One of Takeshi's father's best friends invited us to visit Takamatsu for the day, and what a wonderful tour guide he was! Besides showing us the garden, taught me how to eat the tasty, but uber-slippery Udon noodles; and he is the one who introduced me to the aforementioned fine sake. On my last Japan tour stop, I enjoyed the port city famous for beef so delectable that American basketball star Kobe Bryant was named after it. The city of Kobe is a quaint town with a heavy influence of the foreigners who helped create it. From the front seat of the bright yellow “Splash Kobe” amphibious vehicle tour, I was able to view Kobe's most notable attractions while being a spectacle for the locals. As the tour was given totally in Japanese, I learned little, but saw much.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching soccer. As an American, I am not born in cleats and shin guards, but as a person with a strong interest in international relations, the World Cup is fascinating. And, in Japan, all eyes are on an underdog team whose first round upset against Cameroon has the nation's hopes higher than expected. Now all we need are American-style sports bars with mega TV screens and fried cheese—though I'm sure fried seaweed, fermented bean paste, or fresh fish eggs would also make good game food.

June 7, 2010

From Bong Jena to Jena-San

After five months of adjusting to Cambodia, the modernity and convenience of Japan is a relief, but also a major shock to my system. Instead of hailing (or dodging) tuk-tuks, I'm swiping my Suica card to board the JR train. Instead of sanitation practices that could best be described as non-existent, I'm enjoying the epitome of cleanliness and hygiene (don't get me started on the beautiful public toilets!). And instead of the constant harassment by people on the street, I'm occasionally the subject of a curious camera phone-user's snapshot.

I've left behind “Bong Jena”, my Cambodian title, in exchange for Jena-San, the proper Japanese version of my name. I've filed away my Khmer language to make room for Nihongo—yet another language with a new syllabic alphabet. In Cambodia, not speaking the language was almost never a problem. I was surrounded by English speakers and the signs around town were usually translated into English. In Japan, I am immersed in a Japanese family with Japanese friends in a community that does not need English to survive. I am very dependent on Takeshi's translations to help me do nearly everything—especially order food. If I couldn't read the menu in Cambodia, I would just point at one of the options and pretty much know that it was going to be a variant of stir-fry. In Japan, however, the point-and-pick is more like Russian Roulette. The Japanese have iron stomaches and the will to eat the craziest foods I've ever seen. Pointing at a random choice could get you a big plate of octopus dumpling.

Having said how scary the menu can be, the food here is fantastic. Of course I love the sushi, but Takeshi also introduced me to Rahmen, the greatest noodle soup imaginable; and to soba noodles, a healthy, slurpy meal. It will take me a while to get used to Japanese table manners. Two parts I'm struggling with are: cramming giant pieces of sushi into my mouth and chopsticking, sucking, and slurping noodles as loudly as my fellow eaters.

I'm still the tall and blond foreigner who neither speaks the language nor accurately performs local customs, but at least I have a personal guide and translator to help me navigate this strange new world.

May 31, 2010


What's the one thing on a girl's mind after five months of Cambodia and two days of stomach flu? You guessed it: a haircut. And what better place to get a haircut than the ever-fashionable Tokyo. Takeshi took me to his stylist, Saito Junko, for a major hair-renovation. Five months of pony-tailed, sunburned, chlorinated torture left my hair begging for mercy, or at least a hefty chop-off.

Though I would have liked to experiment with Japanese hair-straightening, Takeshi's stylist wisely cautioned against the chemical process in favor of embracing my natural wave. She suggested the trendy bob-style that many young women are sporting in Japan. Her charming smile and knowledge of hair textures easily swayed my opinion.

With Takeshi's expert translation and the international women's code about the importance of hair, I emerged from the chair refreshed and ready for Tokyo. My transformation from Cambodian minimalist to Japanese beauty starts here.

The Cambodian Adventure Lady goes to Japan

It's over. My Cambodian adventure ended with the epic one-two punch of Angkor Wat and severe stomach problem. I completed the tourist circuit by strolling across the bridge into the massive Angkor Wat complex. Of all the touristy sites in Cambodia, none get the build up of Angkor Wat. Guidebooks, tourism websites, and even my students proclaimed this wonder of the ancient world to be the best thing about Cambodia.

Somehow, the green scaffolding-covered towers of Angkor Wat didn't meet my otherworldly expectations. The complex is indeed daunting in it's size, and considering the google of man hours it must have taken to build this place, it is certainly worth admiring. Following the hundreds of tour groups through the hallways and up the stairs took away some of the mystery I was hoping for. Ducking and dodging out of the frame of other people's pictures, I tried to take some of my own. The best part of Angkor Wat was ascending the steep stairs to the top part of the temple. Leaving behind less fit tourists, Takeshi and I were able to enjoy the awesomeness of the temple from above. We stared over the lush jungles, we peered over the edges to see the ruins beneath us, and we pondered the beauty of this temple in its prime. Reconstruction, we agreed, was going to do a lot of good here. I guess I'm not much for broken ruins...

Speaking of broken ruins, somewhere between the intense heat of Siem Reap, the extra-sketchy vendor food at Angkor Wat, and a huge dinner, my body acquired a sickness that can be best described as “Cambodia is gonna miss you, Jena.” Losing my dinner from both ends on my last night in Cambodia seemed somehow fitting. Guts escaping with exhausting ferocity, I did my best to stay alive—at least long enough to get to Japan.

And I did. Just ignore your guts, I told myself as we spent the last few hours in Cambodia eating some of my favorites (pork and rice, Lucky Burger, ice cream). The occasional stomach rumble could not deter me as we took off from Siem Reap International Airport. The red eye flight from Bangkok to Tokyo was pleasant enough, but I began to feel the effects of my lapse in food judgment as soon as we touched down in Tokyo. By the time we met up with Takeshi's friends, loaded up the Nissan and made the two-hour trek into Tokyo city, I was not okay. My stomach was churning something fierce, and the lack of sleep the past two nights had me in a dense fog. I struggled to maintain consciousness as we greeted his mother, prayed together and set up our small apartment. Everyone could tell that I was feeling pretty miserable, so they told me to take a rest while they went out.

An hour into my comatose rest, the now familiar you-are-about-to-puke feeling sent me stumbling through the Japanese apartment, searching for the toilet. I slid the door closed behind me and prayed that everything that was about to come out would not soil the carpet, walls or other beautiful surfaces of this cute bathroom. I did have to sacrifice one small rug, as no trash can was within arms distance, but I think the washing machine will take care of it. A few rounds of gut-emptying later, my body gave up and decided to just sleep it off. Takeshi and his mom brought me all the essentials: re-hydration fluids, rice porridge, and cold towels.

It's not exactly what I had pictured from my arrival in Japan, but I guess if you start at the bottom, there's only one way to go...

May 26, 2010

Ends, Beginnings, and Angkor Thom

Yes, CWF Semester 15 has come and gone, and I have packed and moved out of the volunteer house. No more stir-fry, no more 6 AM class; but also, no more Khmer lessons, and no more volunteer coordinator to fix all problems. The fanfare of the student parties and the anxiety about a major change of routine gave way to excitement about a visitor from home, my boyfriend. He arrived in Phnom Penh after the CWF party, just in time to meet nearly everyone of importance and get a taste of my ex-pat life. The next day was one of the most surreal of my life. My boyfriend and I tuk tuked around Phnom Penh eating pork and rice, dodging the unruly traffic, and remembering how to act around each other.

Phnom Penh's chapter now closed, I found myself today on a cheap, rented bicycle pedaling around the temples of Angkor with my boyfriend, an advanced traveler. Angkor Wat is considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, and it is one of the largest religious structures ever built. The ancient Khmers, one of the largest and most advanced societies of the time, built this grand temple (and many others) deep in the jungles of present-day Cambodia. Left in varying stages of ruin until stumbled upon by a western explorer a few hundred years ago, these temples have become the lifeblood of the Cambodian tourism industry. The majesty of Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia, and the biggest money maker.

Meanwhile, back on my bike, I was trying to figure out how to justify not wanting to look inside any more temple ruins. My attitude toward ancient temple ruins goes something like this: they sorta all look the same to me, can I skip it and just get another cold drink? It seems that many of my friends (boyfriend included) have a strange invincibility when it comes to traveling. They can sleep whenever, wherever and for as long or short as they need to, they can eat and drink anything without getting sick, and they can walk, hike, bike, and explore for entire days without tiring. For me, the prospect of climbing around on uneven stones baking in 103 degree heat, full-sun is simply exhausting, unappealing even. After exploring the daunting awesomeness of the Bayon inside the walled city of Angkor Thom, and after strolling the elephant terrace, I was keen to go back to air conditioning, or at least ready for lunch. But, respecting the hefty entrance fee to the temple (and stuck on the far end of a loop of road), I staggered through a few more temples with patience and blood sugar waning, before slumping into a restaurant for a break. Welcome to Cambodia, boyfriend—here's your girlfriend with no make up and she's exhausted and irritable. You can't abandon ship because she's got the money. What are you going to do next?

After lunch, we continued biking along the Grand Circuit, a stretch of road that loops around to connect the temples. It turns out that the maps aren't drawn to scale, and that what we thought was going to be about an hour's ride, was more like three and a half...

A few gallons of water, one small argument, and an ice cream later, we were back at our hotel, worn thin (or at least a little less invincible) from a challenging day.

Student Party

Today is the day labeled “Student Party” on all the CWF calendars. An ambiguous event that some students adore and some teachers dread. I had low expectations for the student parties this morning at six and seven. I brought some pandan (that's a common sweet flavor in Asia) snack cakes, some juice and even some crackers for the less sweet-toothed students. Expecting the fizzle-out party of last semester, I was delighted when some of my Advanced Discussion students showed up happy and ready to teach me some games. It was fun to let them lead and to see their personalities in a different setting. At the end, the female students presented me with a lovely card, shoulder bag and a blinged-out pencil case. I felt funny receiving such nice presents from my most experimental class, but they gave it to me with such pride and gratitude that I nearly cried!

The morning level 4's, whittled down to four men about my age, showed up with a few bottles of Coke, some rice cakes and even cups and straws. It was so cute. They asked me a lot of questions about America, my boyfriend, and they even gave me a lot of advice about what to do and see in Siem Reap. I felt more like their friend instead of their teacher. That's a good feeling at the student party.

I also said goodbye to my Khmer teacher, the person who has been there for me since I arrived in Cambodia. We have grown into our roles as big sister and little sister. I've been teaching her how to use Facebook with the hope that we can stay in touch. She has given me faith in the future of Cambodia, and she has shown me an honest friendship (which is saying a lot in this country). Under cover of giggles, we saw the tears in each others' eyes this morning as we said our well-wishes, hoping that this wasn't our last iced coffee with sweet milk together.

Despite the solar-heated water (reminiscent of the NE Family YMCA) I tried to savor my final swim at the Sport Club. Sun blazing, rich blue sky, and the sound of power saws and jackhammers across the street—yes, this will be one of my finer memories. Barely afloat thanks to a week of overindulgence in last-chance foods and student party buffet, I cranked out 1000 meters and bid farewell to the delightfully upper middle class oasis I have grown so fond of.

My evening level 4 class, the one with 15 students who come every single day, treated me to Lucky Burger and Karaoke—at the same time. We sat in the tiny VIP room with burgers in one hand and microphones in the other. Between songs, we ate a burger each, then moved on to the mountain of fried chicken and french fries. Greasy as the whole situation was, I enjoyed the company of my students, and I was flattered that they wanted to do something this nice (and expensive) for me. There were times in the semester when I forgot who (and why) I was teaching, but tonight I was able to deeply appreciate my students.

May 20, 2010


If there is one piece of clothing that symbolizes Cambodia, it is the krama. This utilitarian piece of checkered cloth can be worn as a head wrap, a skirt, a changing robe, a swimsuit, and even as a water bottle carrier (I pioneered the last one in Kratie Province). While climbing Bokor, I wrapped my head tightly in my purple-checked krama to keep the sweat out of my eyes and the bugs out of my hair. The history of the krama long predates the Khmer Rouge, but the infamy of the red-checked krama lives on. This krama was a symbol of the regime, worn by all members.

This morning, I asked my Khmer teacher about the appropriate price of a krama. Without naming a price, she told me that her aunt owned a krama shop in the Russian Market. Cha-ching! I'm a sucker for a good deal, and there is no deal better than the family discount (and I'll throw in another one, free for you!).

In an event known hereafter as Kramapalooza, I scored nearly a dozen krama for under five bucks. What does one do with such a legion of head wrap? Besides completely filling my suitcase, I now have Christmas and birthdays covered for all my closest friends. Head wrap, anyone?