Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Michael John Wanigasekera, September 12, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:00 - Experiences before Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Hello. Today is September 12, 2020. My name is Jay Sztuk. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji, 1974 through 1976. And today, I'm going to be interviewing Michael John Wanigasekera who was a P--[unintelligible]--Volunteer in Cambodia from 2013 through 2015.

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera was born in Arizona but grew up in Texas. Wanigasekera graduated from the University of New Mexico in marketing where he also earned a master's degree in international management. Wanigasekera's parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka. Everywhere he goes, Wanigasekera has to deal with the stereotypical image of Americans being white.

Keywords: Arizona; Asian Americans; Assumptions; Awareness; Interests; Master's degrees; Stereotypical Americans; Texas; Undergraduate education; University of New Mexico

Subjects: Emigration and immigration; Immigrants; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.)--2010-2020; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Sri Lanka; Universities and colleges

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
GPS: Arizona
Map Coordinates: 34.2744, -111.6602
GPS: Texas
Map Coordinates: 31.4757, -99.3312
GPS: University of New Mexico
Map Coordinates: 35.08389, -106.61861
GPS: Sri Lanka
Map Coordinates: 7, 81
00:02:27 - Motivation for joining Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: What inspired you to join Peace Corps rather than going out and getting a high paid job after you got your master's degree?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera had a history of volunteering at homeless shelters, with Habitat for Humanity, and, for 5 years, teaching English to immigrants. Wanigasekera joined Peace Corps because he wanted to continue to help people and make a difference.

Keywords: Altruism; Contributions; Habitat for Humanity; Teaching English as a second language (TESL)

Subjects: Charities; Emigration and immigration; Immigrants; Non-governmental organizations; Nonprofit organizations; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:04:00 - Peace Corps application

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, why Cambodia? Was that, uh, a selection or was it just some--uh, the first place you were offered? Or what?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera had no preference for where he might be placed. Wanigasekera's application went smoothly. His waiting period was about 6 or 7 months.

Keywords: Applying; Challenging; History; Waiting periods

Subjects: Cambodia; Emotions; Peace Corps (U.S.); Vietnam; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
GPS: Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 16, 108
00:06:20 - Cohort membership

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Partial Transcript: Uh, was there--when you landed in Cambodia, uh, what was, uh--how did you, uh--what was your initial impression of the country?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera's cohort of 49 trainees consisted of teachers and health trainees. Pre-service training lasted for 2 months.

Keywords: Cohorts; Cultural training; Language training; Swearing in

Subjects: Cambodia; Culture shock; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Teachers; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community health services; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
00:07:33 - Assignment

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Partial Transcript: We went to our village. So, the first time I went to my village, where I was gonna, you know, stay for the 2 years, they didn't see me as an American. They saw me as Indian.

Segment Synopsis: When Wanigasekera got to his work site, the local people, for months, viewed him as an Indian rather than as an American. It was difficult for Wanigasekera to convince them otherwise. Sometimes, another Volunteer would visit Wanigasekera and, if they were white, would be treated like a celebrity.

Keywords: Challenging; Differences; Difficult; Diversity; Local people; Locals; Perceptions; Prejudice; Second Goal; Site visits; Skin color; Skin whitening; Social interactions; Stereotypes; Transition periods; Villages; White privilege

Subjects: Culture shock; Emotions; India; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Race discrimination; Race relations; Racism; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: India
Map Coordinates: 21, 78
GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
00:12:02 - Diversity in the Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: So, how diverse was your, your training cohort? Were, were there other people of color in the--in your group?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera says that other members of racial minorities in his cohort had similar, hurtful experiences. Wanigasekera's was the seventh cohort sent to Cambodia and perhaps the most ethnically diverse.

Keywords: Cohorts; People of color; Prejudice

Subjects: Cambodia; Emotions; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Race discrimination; Race relations; Racism; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
00:13:45 - Pre-service training

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Partial Transcript: Uh, your training was in this Takeo Province. And what were your living conditions like there?

Segment Synopsis: During pre-service training, the members of Wanigasekera's cohort lived with host families. Wanigasekera says race wasn't an issue during pre-service training. Not all of the trainees completed pre-service training. Some people left voluntarily. Others got sick or were caught riding on a moped which was grounds for termination. Overall, Wanigasekera feels training was very good.

Keywords: Cultural differences; Cultural training; Examinations; Exams; Host families; Illness; Language training; Mosquito nets; Quitting; Sickness; Transportation

Subjects: Emotions; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:18:45 - Assignment challenges

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Partial Transcript: So, after training, what was the name of the village where you were assigned?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera was assigned to the village of Chrey Thom, population 300. The weather was very hot and the amenities were few. Wanigasekera was the first foreigner to live in the village. Wanigasekera had 3 different host families at his work site and 2 different host families during pre-service training. Every couple of months, the police would ask to see Wanigasekera's passport. Finally, Wanigasekera complained to the Peace Corps security officer who was able to vouch for Wanigasekera. Although he was faced with difficulties, Wanigasekera wanted to remain and serve the people.

[Video freezes at 25:03 and the camera is turned off at 30:25. The interview continues as audio only.]

Keywords: Adjustment; Amenities; Arrangements; Changes; Chrey Thom (Cambodia); Commitments; Criticism; Difficult; Foreigners; Host families; Host sister; Mosquito nets; Peace Corps staff; Pre-service training; Problems; Running water; Rural areas; Safety and security managers; Telephone calls; Villages; Weather

Subjects: Emotions; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Social norms; Stress (Psychology); Vietnam; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 16, 108
GPS: Chrey Thom (Cambodia)
Map Coordinates: 11.716667, 105.1079122
00:25:43 - Teaching

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Partial Transcript: And the language must have been quite a barrier at the village there.

Segment Synopsis: All of Wanigasekera's classes were taught with a counterpart. Wanigasekera became good friends with his counterparts. Wanigasekera's counterparts helped him improve his fluency in Khymer. Wanigasekera worked to encourage his students and motivate his co-teachers. The teachers were paid little and had side jobs. Wanigasekera taught grades 8 to 12 with 40 - 50 students per class. Wanigasekera got on well with the students, whom he found hard-working.

[Video freezes at 25:03 and the camera is turned off at 30:25. The interview continues as audio only.]

Keywords: Class sizes; Co-teachers; Counterparts; Encouragement; Friends; Improvements; Jobs; Language barriers; Motivation; Phnom Penh (Cambodia); Pronunciation; Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL); Translation; Villages

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; School management and organization; Teachers; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

GPS: Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
00:30:42 - Daily routines / Lack of appreciation for Peace Corps service

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Partial Transcript: Tell me about a typical day there in the village. You were staying with a host family.

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera woke up at 5:30 AM on weekdays and was at school from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Wanigasekera feels that most Cambodians like Americans although older people might have some animosity because of the Vietnam War. Wanigasekera feels there is a great need for Peace Corps in Cambodia. Wanigasekera feels that Peace Corps service is also largely unappreciated in the U.S.

[Video freezes at 25:03 and the camera is turned off at 30:25. The interview continues as audio only.]

Keywords: Anti-Americanism; Deaths; Illness; Impact; Perspectives; Sickness; Texas

Subjects: Cambodia; Emotions; Older people; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Map Coordinates: 16, 108
GPS: Texas
Map Coordinates: 31.4757, -99.3312
00:37:09 - Acclimation

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Partial Transcript: W--did you eventually, kind of, feel at home there in the village and were you accepted and started to make, make friends?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera's second year was not as difficult as he was able to build some positive relationships. People who visited from other villages would still make fun of Wanigasekera as they didn't accept him as an American. Wanigasekera feels that all the Volunteers should be responsible for educating the local people about the ethnic diversity of the U.S. Wanigasekera discussed this with the Peace Corps director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, when she visited Cambodia.

[Video freezes at 25:03 and the camera is turned off at 30:25. The interview continues as audio only.]

Keywords: Carrie Hessler-Radelet; Differences; Difficult; Diversity; Host family; Interpersonal relations; Local people; Locals; Outsiders; Peace Corps directors; Peace Corps staff; Problems; Relationships; Safety and security managers; Second Goal; Site visits; Support; Telephone calls; Villages

Subjects: Acculturation; Cambodia; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667
00:42:48 - Biggest accomplishments

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Partial Transcript: Um, what do you think your biggest accomplishments were?

Segment Synopsis: Wanigasekera did a lot to develop the school such as digging wells for clean water, building a basketball court, painting murals, starting a library, and teaching various health and safety lessons. Wanigasekera's family helped to fund some of his secondary projects. In part, Wanigasekera wanted to empower female students. Wanigasekera was 1 of 4 Volunteers who were able to meet with Michelle Obama about this issue when she came to Cambodia.

[Video freezes at 25:03 and the camera is turned off at 30:25. The interview continues as audio only.]

Keywords: Challenging; Community involvement; Empowerment; Extracurricular activities; Family; Funding; Gender discrimination; Grants; Improvements; Michelle Obama; Motivation; Role of women; Secondary projects

Subjects: Cambodia; Finance; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Cambodia; Social norms; Student activities; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Cambodia
Map Coordinates: 11.55, 104.916667