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Peace Corps volunteer Paul Peouin worked in Ukraine
Peace Corps volunteer Paul Peouin worked in Ukraine
Cambodian-American Peace Corps volunteer Paul Peou
By Alla Vetrovcova, Kyiv Post Staff Writer
Sep 4, 2003 04:28
American Peace Corps volunteer Paul Peou looks dapper in Podil’s fashionable Black Orange Cafe, but his recent stint with the Corps in Odessa proved challenging at times.
Arriving at Podil’s trendy Black Orange Cafe, resembling a fashion model more than a Peace Corps volunteer, curly haired Cambodian-American Paul Peou said he was ready to talk about his spartan two-year existence in Odessa. It soon became apparent, however, that he didn’t so much survive in the Black Sea city as succeed.
“I always wanted to join the Peace Corps,” Peou said. “My family came to the U.S. as refugees from Cambodia in 1980, so I wanted to give something back. We lived pretty comfortably in the States,” he added.
Between sips of a Coca Cola (Hr 5), the 27-year-old recalled how he arrived in Ukraine in 2001. His first stop was a Peace Corps education center in Cherkasy, southwest of Kyiv, where he and his fellow Corps recruits underwent three months of intensive language training, as well as a course in Ukrainian culture. He didn’t know it at the time, but his living conditions there were luxurious compared to what was to follow.
“When I first came to Cherkasy, we had electricity and water,” Peou said, before ordering beef stroganoff with mushroom sauce (Hr 14.50). Upon moving to Odessa, where he lived in a university dorm, next to a shoe repairman, such decadent appointments were a thing of the past. “I was in shock,” he began. “Within days of arriving, all of a sudden the electricity and hot water were turned off.”
It was a rude welcome to Odessa, but Peou would rebound.
Since being established in the United States in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps program has sent some 165,000 American volunteers to development-related projects in more than 70 countries.
“Some people came [to Ukraine] with only college experience, while others have significant work experience,” Peou explained. Peace Corps groups vary from 40 to 80 people. Peou said that, of the 60 people who comprised his own group, only 35 people finished the two-year mission. That’s a typical number of drop-outs, he said. “Some volunteers decided to go home earlier for medical reasons,” he explained. “Some were asked to leave because they didn’t follow the Peace Corps guidelines.”
Peou, whose Peace Corps specialties were business administration and the English language, added, “Most definitely, our goal was not to make money here. We’re forbidden to have income other than the Peace Corps wage.”
Though a Peace Corps member’s monthly allowance is paltry, his room and board are paid for. Once they complete their two-year terms, all successful volunteers receive a $1500 stipend. That amount has remained unchanged since it was first established in the 1960s.
Peou, who graduated in 1998 from Penn State University with a BA in economics, worked three years in the U.S. before joining the Corps, which assigned him to be a guest lecturer in corporate finance at Odessa State Economics University.
The end of Peou’s career in international voluntarism, in August, coincided with the visit to Ukraine of U.S. Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, who landed in Kyiv on Aug. 7 for a three-day visit, during which he met with Ukrainian officials and Peace Corps staff and volunteers. Peou had to buy some new clothes before meeting Vasquez at the U.S. Embassy.
“No worn-out tee-short,” he said with a smile. “For that event I had to equip myself with a tie and a proper jacket from a local VidiOne shop. Luckily, they were on sale. Otherwise I couldn’t afford all this stuff with my small budget.”
In terms of ethnic diversity, Ukraine’s not exactly the United States, and an Asian like Peou can stand out. “Because of my Asian look, I was stopped so often by militsia in Odessa to check my documents that I got tired of that. So I involved the Peace Corps, the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [to help me out],” he explained. Eventually, Peou provided nearly every militsia station in Odessa and its oblast with a picture of himself, accompanied by a note stipulating that he had permission to work legally as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Despite such petty hassles, Peou has had a good time.
“I’ve met really great people here,” he said. “I wanted to meet Via Gra, but never caught a concert. But I met [Russian singer] Christina Orbakaite in Odessa this July, and she signed my CD,” he boasted.
Western ex-pats don’t usually find it difficult to pay the bills in Ukraine. But then, most of them aren’t working for the Peace Corps.
“Three days before my pay day, I had enough money to buy rice as well as some vegetables I had at home. I figured I could survive for three days,” he said. He did. But it was consistently a challenge for him to live on his in-country income, and he tried to use his U.S. savings as sparingly as possible. The result was character-building.
“I think I’ve matured living in Ukraine, both professionally and emotionally,” Peou said. “I wouldn’t mind staying here longer; I feel comfortable here. I always try to travel to small towns to meet new people.”
Peou has improved on more than just his people skills.
“When I came home to Pennsylvania, I cooked a Ukrainian dinner for my friends and parents. Borscht and kapusta salad were good, but I didn’t make good blini,” Peou said, while enjoying some blini himself. These made with one of his favorite local foods, red caviar (Hr 18.50). “And unfortunately, I didn’t have Ukrainian vodka with me.”
Finally, over a dessert of chocolate-topped ice cream and fresh fruit (Hr 11.50), Peou summed up his impressions of his time in Ukraine.
“I’ve had good days and bad days,” he said. “I’ve felt the corners of babushka bags, the jabs of their elbows, the presence of a beautiful person ignoring me, the joy, the stinginess, and the generosity. I’ve run the HASH, drank the samogonka, chased the salo with vodka. And when I look back, I am honestly glad that I did it.”
Black Orange Cafe
29A Sahaydachnoho, 416-3567.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to the last customer.