Of course, photos to come at that point, too. As quite a few Cambodians have sang to me in the last few days, now I'll share with you... I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
There have been small reminders of the season. I’ve heard carols playing at the grocery store, and hummed along as I purchased my milk. The best, however, was riding in a car only to hear a Christmas song by none other than New Kids on the Block, a band that in 1989 I thought was the “best ever” (though I was 8 at the time, and my tastes have changed a bit). This catchy tune was followed up by none other than that Christmas smash “Feliz Navidad.” I will let you draw your own conclusions about a Spanish song playing in Cambodia.
I went to lunch recently at a small restaurant in my neighborhood. It’s operated as an NGO, and gives women some training in hospitality. Imagine my surprise when I found the place decked out for the holidays, with a tree and even carols playing over the loudspeakers. I couldn’t stop smiling. Later, when I found the staff at World Relief putting the finishing touches on a Christmas tree in our office, they made fun of me and how happy such a small thing made me feel. The extent to which I decorated at home was this small nativity scene. It’s hard to tell, but the baby Jesus does have a face.
I’m torn between being grateful that Christmas remains unsullied and pure here and sad that there’s little recognition of the holiday. Those who celebrate it do so because it reflects their faith. No traces of materialism here. Those who don’t get excited about evergreens, snow, and baby Jesus… well, most of them haven’t even heard the story.
I was leaving the house last week when I was surprised by my landlords. They handed me a little bag and said, “Merry Holiday.” It was possibly the sweetest thing I’ve seen in awhile. Inside were some small gifts and a card that said in English, “Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.” I am trying to think of a way to share with them in a return gift just why this holiday is so important.
I heard a radio commercial a few years ago proclaim “This Christmas, it’s all about YOU!” Which, of course, made me laugh and then soberly reflect on how many people find that statement to be true. I’m excited to try out Christmas in a culture that doesn’t expect packages and ribbons, cookies and candy. I miss my family, my traditions, and I will really miss all the holiday goodies, but I’m curious to celebrate boldly in a place where this story, and my beliefs in general, are not the norm at all.
In Luke 1, Mary bursts out into song. I kind of wish that I had been there, to see this very young woman (probably younger than me) either recite this beautiful poem, or start to sing in the middle of the day. Did everyone look at her like she was crazy? Did they sing along? Who wrote it down? Would she remember it later and be embarrassed? She doesn’t really pull any punches at the beginning: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant (Luke 1: 47-48a). What a thing to say!
I started to think about this young lady, and the fact that her response to an unexpected and potentially shameful pregnancy was this song. Then I realized that she’s not reacting to the nine months of waiting, or the pain of labor, but to something wholly different. This kid is going to change her life. She will have to raise this child, care for him, and the whole time she’ll know she’s doing it because God asked her to, and though she probably knows that all babies are a miracle, she’s got the inside scoop that this one is the Messiah. She has been chosen for something, has a purpose that includes this very unique task. Of course she should be singing!
So then, of course, being incredibly selfish, I started to think about my own response to something like this (not that I’m having any children over here, I just want to make that clear). When God calls us, we get the inside scoop on something transformative. We are always called to a purpose, to something very unique. Over the past few months, I’ve been a bit whiny about how that purpose is hard, and how it includes some things that are difficult for me (that would be what I mean when I say that I am “incredibly selfish”). I’m sure Mary had her moments, too, and they probably weren’t pretty. Yet, she also has this great song to go back to, to remember the feeling of being chosen. He has been mindful, she says, of the humble state of His servant. Later, she sings, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name (v. 49).
As I sit here on a Saturday morning in Cambodia, drinking my coffee and listening to the sounds of this new country, I am thinking about how phenomenal it is. How incredibly wonderful that out of all the people He might’ve used, I get to be here, working with amazing people, riding on motorbikes, in the dust and the rain, with the mosquitoes and the mangoes, learning a new language, discovering a culture, finding new friendships, being homesick, feeling stretched, feeling loved. This time here, it will change me, just like that long-ago moment did for Mary. My whole life will be different, simply because I’ve been here and done this. It is a miracle, I think, that God lets us in like that, invites us to participate in something extraordinary. In this moment, my soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. How can I do anything other than sing?
Somewhere just before the middle of this book, the author, Donald Miller, discusses passion and belief, and why passion without any belief is nothing, and gives us nothing. He talks about how our faith, our belief, should be passionate, and should concern us with many things, like justice and truth, and how Christ would walk through a fallen American world. I agree with this. But I think there is something more than passion.
I was reading this book the other day at a café across town. I had a fruit shake and a little snack, and enjoyed the shade and the quiet, and read about God, and belief, and one man’s thoughts on these things. When I got up to leave, or rather, just before, three little kids—one girl, two boys, all under 13—started begging. The girl took my water and one of the boys slurped down the rest of my fruit shake when I gave the okay. They wanted 1000 riel (a quarter) or even 100 riel (around 3 cents). They were dirty and persistent. I said no. The café where I was eating, and several places nearby are set up as NGOs, working for the poor in Phnom Penh, and I’m wary of begging children because it is an outlet for trafficking. In other words, the kids may not see the money that they “earn.”
I tried to say no nicely. The kids would have none of it. They asked me for ice cream, and the boys climbed onto the back of my bike, as if I would be willing to take them somewhere. They pleaded and smiled, and were so dirty and heartbreaking, and I refused. For some reason, I couldn’t reach into my pocket and help them. I wanted to buy them some food, but despite standing outside a café, I couldn’t, and I don’t know why. It was terrible. As I finally drove away, I had tears in my eyes. The only word I could think of at the time was compassion.
Compassion means a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. The word appears all over the Bible (I even looked it up) and usually in reference to God. The psalms are littered with mentions of a God who is gracious and compassionate. Some of the darkest places in the Old Testament—while Jeremiah laments, when Hosea is married to a prostitute, as a bitter Jonah cries out in the belly of a great fish—mention compassion. It describes Jesus, who sees crowds, has compassion, and heals, feeds, and cares for them.
Recently, as I was traveling to one of the provinces, we crossed a river, and a little boy spent nearly the entire 20 minutes we were on board the ferry banging on my car window, pleading for money. As we drove away, his greasy fingerprints were visible on the other side of the glass. Perhaps I can choose to self-righteously explain my reluctance to help these kids by saying that I don’t just want to help them with a meal today; I want to bring healing to a system that leaves them on the street in the first place. That sounds like a good excuse, but it doesn’t put food in their stomachs. Maybe the true answer is that I am jaded, and I feel like 1000 riel for each of these four kids (a total of a dollar) is simply a drop in the bucket of the ocean of poverty I know exists here.
This is why I cannot accept that passion is enough. I looked up the word “passion” and found it mentioned only 7 times in the NIV, all in reference to sin. Passionate beliefs are still capable (as my own behavior suggests) of looking hungry children in the face and walking away. If we believe with passion the truth of the Gospel, it is not enough for the hungry, for the poor, for the lost. I think if we believe with compassion, though, there may be hope. I think it’s the second part of the definition that makes the difference: strong desire to alleviate the suffering. It is this desire, to couple belief with action for the oppressed, the broken, and the hurting that will move us to help, to feed, and to care.
From what I can remember, the plot of Cats revolves around a junkyard full of felines and their stories, and is based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. They sing the lines he wrote and the goal is to make you feel all emotional for them as they do it. Simple enough.
My home in Cambodia is not in a junkyard (though there’s a lot of trash on my street). Yet, we seem to have a number of stray cats running around at night. Unlike the characters in Cats, I don’t think these animals have glitter on their fur, and certainly no spandex. At least, not that I’ve noticed. The most distinct difference, however, is that the screeching and hissing of these cats is not even a little bit musical. Also, they don’t appear to have any kind of emotional story to tell.
Adding to the cacophony of animal noises are the neighborhood dogs. While American guard dogs are taught to lie quietly or growl menacingly before attacking a stranger, Cambodian dogs take a different tactic. These dogs are trained to bark. Constantly, and for both friends and foes (and especially stray felines), which means barking all night long. I don’t recall any dogs in the story of Cats on Broadway, but I’m thinking this is a pretty serious plotline in the drama taking place outside my door each night. Cats show up, dogs bark. Cats retreat, dogs bark. Cats come back, dogs bark louder. I’m sure there’s a story here.
I guess the main point of this little digression is to point out that, 10 years after watching Cats on Broadway, I seem to be living it out, but without the spandex and song, of course. The whole experience is making me reevaluate my initial impressions of the musical, and my feelings on animal choirs in general. Not in a positive way, I assure you. Just another thing that's changed as a result of life in Cambodia.
Instead, these have been replaced by other, somewhat strange questions. I’ve decided to pose them here, because, frankly, I think they might be entertaining. So, in no particular order, questions about (and from) Cambodia…
Why does the smell of my laundry change depending on the time of day it is hung outside to dry?
Will I ever see a lizard out of the corner of my eye and not think it is a mouse?
Does barking all night long strain a dog’s vocal cords?
Is it possible not to flinch every time I take a cold shower (which is daily)?
Why, when I’m not interested, do I see at least 6 men riding bicycles selling things I need to buy, but when I’m thinking about it, no one is around?
Why are Cambodians so into bad 80s (and 90s) love ballads?
How is it possible that the average Cambodian man is shorter, thinner, and still stronger than me? (hmm, maybe I don’t want to answer that)
Do my landlords know my name or do they actually think it is “Madame?” Will they ever call me anything other than “Madame?”
Is there a limit to the number of mangoes one person can eat in a lifetime?
There are too many stories to tell at this point, about our time in the provinces before the retreat, my thoughts and emotions at this juncture in my stay—those will come later. It was Thanksgiving on Thursday, as every American knows. I spent it welcoming Cambodian staff to a luxurious (for Cambodia) retreat center, fixing problems, and even eating turkey (ordered for the occasion). The turkey and mashed potatoes were a great reminder of what my friends and family must have been doing on the other side of the world, but it’s still not the same. Perhaps trying to recreate it wasn’t the best idea. In the aftermath, I am homesick.
After my trip to the US, I’ve been pouting a bit. Coming back has been hard, not in the sense that anything is particularly difficult, but in the fact that nothing is happening. In the US, I could talk about different relationships, tell stories, have a conversation about what was going on. For three weeks, I felt like nothing was happening here. I got up, I went to work, I slept. Not a lot to talk about there. So I pulled a pout, refused to talk, and really only hurt myself. I should have learned a long time ago that isolation is only a punishment to me.
I found myself in an interesting place last week, though. While I wanted to remain withdrawn and wallow in my homesickness, I was in a situation with a lot of others, serving and attending to lots of different needs and details. While I desperately wanted some contact with the people I refused to email a week ago, I didn’t have time to connect to the internet. Frustrating, indeed. I don’t quite understand these emotions. I’m not one to live in the “extremes” of temper. So to be so up and down is a strange feeling, and one that makes me uncomfortable. Am I learning to open up to my own feelings (how pop-psychology does that sound)? Is it the Lord doing some work on my heart?
In the midst of putting aside my ambivalence towards being here, I’ve been showing others around. This means that I have to think critically about what I show them, how we travel through the country, and the culture clash that inevitably results. It has been funny to gauge my own reactions against those of the team. I suppose that will happen continuously, as I stay while others come and go. My own opinions will deepen, become more nuanced, and I’ll never again be able to look at Cambodia as any other developing nation. It will always be a place I’ve lived, a place I’ve cared about, a place I’ve struggled to understand.
Here’s where my bi-polarity of feeling is evident. In explaining Cambodia to these visitors, I have remembered why I love it. In growing frustrated with Cambodian culture, especially through my work, I remember what is so easy about the US. It’s a duality I’m learning to live with, and as I do so, I’m not pouting so much. In fact, as I sat in my office today, I realized that I no longer wake up every morning and think “I’m in Cambodia.” My job, my life, and this place are starting to feel like home. I’m not pouting anymore.
This little incident stirred up a lot of feelings, most of them negative. First, I was angry. What right does someone have to take my belongings. I was upset that I made the mistake of not protecting my bag better (and after living here, I should know to do that). I am sick of being a target because of my skin color and my nationality. For the first time, I’m thinking seriously about what motivates crime. Is it simply greed? Hard circumstances? A lack of options? I suppose I’m a bit indignant—how dare they steal my bag. Though I would feel bad if it happened to anyone, it’s somehow worse that it was me. Is that selfish?
Second, the inconvenience of it all was overwhelming. Instead of spending the afternoon finishing preparations for the arrival of a team from the US, I had to call my bank in America to block my debit card, go to the Cambodian bank to report my card stolen and withdraw cash to last me for the week (usually I can use an ATM), report my cell phone number stolen, go to the phone company to restore it, and purchase a new phone. On Monday, I had to take my passport (thankfully, safe at home) and my US driver’s license so that one of our staff could arrange for me to have a replacement Cambodian license and motorbike registration. I already had a new bike key made up and had to retrieve my spare house key from my cleaner so I could get inside my apartment.
Now, seven days later, something strange has happened. I didn’t have time to dwell on this incident very much after it happened, and in fact almost forgot about the incident (after being upset for a time), except to be very careful. Then, while riding up to a resort for our staff retreat, I got an interesting phone call. My purse had been returned! The money and my phone are gone, but my keys and cards (including my driver’s license) are all inside.
Is it a miracle? In my life, it might be a small one. I’ve never heard of this happening in Cambodia (and neither has anyone else), and barely heard of it in the US. It comes at a time when I have been feeling particularly alone here. At the moment it happened, I struggled not to cry. Times are busy, and so this was another thing that occupied my time and energy. Now, looking back, it seems so small, such a little thing. I’ve spent the last few days with our staff, and a team from the US, touring our work in Cambodia and interacting with the locals. I’ve been distracted from this, absorbed in other issues, and so my recovered purse represents, to me, a small bit of God’s grace in my life. A few minutes next week saved, a bit of stress averted. At the moment, I can’t think of another blessing I’d rather have from the Lord.
Perhaps this whole incident can be interpreted in another light. As I'm learning to live a life of sacrifice, I'm finding new meaning in familiar scripture passages. Like this one: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" (Luke 12:33). As much as I love the little pink bag that's been recovered, I think that maybe this little lesson has taught me that someday I'll have to be content without it.
Despite the familiarity of the week, I’ve been noticing some things about Phnom Penh. My senses have been in overdrive, I think, absorbing all the differences, feeling out the place I’m going to be for awhile. I never took the time before, to consider what God means when he says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s not just that we have great, functioning bodies and incredible intellect, it’s that we can soak up an environment, figure out what a place feels like, and come to know it that way. Put simply, I’ve been grateful this week for my five senses.
It started off when I came back to my apartment. In the past, it’s had this semi-strange smell, and it kind of annoyed me. It was a really stale smell, almost a mildew scent (which I have tried desperately to remove). When I walked in the door last Thursday, though, something had changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but it was a familiar scent, one that I recognized as the way that Cambodia smelled to me the very first time I came here, in 2006. A dusty, wood-fire scent, but tinged with something else I can’t name. I smelled it walking down the street, and driving to work, too. I’ve had other olfactory reminders. About 3 months ago, I was driving down the Russian Blvd. and was overwhelmed with the scent of the magnolia trees that line the road. It immediately made me think of driving down Oak Knoll Dr. in Pasadena, though I have no idea if there are magnolia trees there. In that moment, I nearly closed my eyes and with the feeling of being back in the US (of course, I was driving, so I couldn’t actually close my eyes).
My other senses have been touched by this place, too. For months, the humidity was just about a felt object here, the air so sticky with moisture that I could feel it settle on my skin. I’ve been able to touch the heat rising off of cars, motorbikes and people as we bake in the sun at an intersection. In those moments, the air is almost oppressive; it is a solid mass to push through so I can breathe.
I’m learning to taste the traces of coconut and curry spices in Cambodian foods. I’ve been a little sick this week, and my sore throat is burned by the acrid diesel fuels that are kicked up by big trucks rolling through. On the road, the dust makes me cough, it’s so thick.
My ears are learning to pick up words in a different language, but also other sounds. I’ve been awakened every morning to a saw slicing steel (my neighbors are doing some construction), and I fall asleep to dogs barking and cats shrieking. Just tonight, driving home, I heard a cell phone ringing to the tune of Jingle Bells, and laughed out loud. And on Wednesday, I saw the strangest thing just four blocks from my apartment—a herd (not just one, but a whole herd) of goats, running through the street.
So while my brain processes the strangeness of these different things, it’s also getting used to them. Just as I’ve learned to breathe through my mouth as I drive past a garbage pile or turn up the music to block out the dogs, I’ll get used to all these strange sensations. These are the things that I failed to notice in the US—the scent of my parent’s house, the feel of the California sunshine. I’ll take these things for granted, if I’m not careful, and someday, I’ll be somewhere else, smell something strange, and remember Cambodia.
It was hard to leave. I feel like there simply wasn’t enough time with the people I love. Yet, when I asked myself what “enough” meant, I realized that I wanted not just more days, but months and years spent with them. I still want to walk through life with people I care about, a phone call or a few miles away, in community and in country. The places I visited (even the new places) had so much familiarity to them, so much of my “old life” that it was hard to realize that I’d moved on. Cambodia wasn’t just another country, it was another life, a place I existed only sometimes. This all sounds strange and existential, but hopefully it makes a bit of sense.
This is the third time I’ve left the US for a life somewhere else. The first was a bloodbath, a brutal exchange of goodbyes and tears. Yet, there was a lot of excitement, a lot of hope for what was coming up ahead. The second time was more subdued. I was headed back to responsibility, and could foresee another time when I’d be back, with more chances to catch up, to feel a part of life in the States. This time, it’s hard to describe. There’s not much excitement in coming back, or at least, it’s not the same. I know what life is here in Cambodia, and I’ve spent a lot of time contrasting it to life in America. So it was harder to get on the plane, harder to leave, harder to elect to distance myself from what was a good life.
Maybe the contrast isn’t fair. After all, it’s not that I chose to leave a bad situation for a good one. It’s not a good idea to set up my life in Cambodia as the opposite of my life in California. On both sides of the ocean, there are good things and hard things. Maybe the trick is to keep in perspective that the hard things in both places don’t outweigh the good things. Sadly, being in one place means I can’t be in the other; and I really want to be in two places at once. For now, my feet stay in the dusty Cambodian soil, and my thoughts drift between two continents. It isn't contrast, it's compromise.
I was in a bookstore recently and read this poem. In some ways, it expresses my longings and my tumult better than I know how to do. It is the last stanza that reminds me most of my time here. Forgive me for the long post, and for the wave of melancholy. I am filled with joy among the people I love, and sorrow when I think of leaving again. So…
Goodbye, goodbye to one place or another,
To every mouth, to every sorrow,
To the insolent morn, to weeks
Which wound in the days and disappeared,
Goodbye to this voice and that one stained
With amaranth, and goodbye
To the usual bed and plate,
To the twilit setting of all goodbyes,
To the chair that is part of the same twilight,
To the way made by my shoes.
I spread myself, no question;
I turned over whole lives,
Changed skin, lamps, and hates,
It was something I had to do,
Not by law or whim,
More of a chain reaction;
Each new journey enchained me;
I took pleasure in place, in all places.
And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye
With still newborn tenderness
As if the bread were to open and suddenly
Flee from the world of the table.
So I left behind all languages,
Repeated goodbyes like an old door,
Changed cinemas, reasons, and tombs,
Left everywhere for somewhere else;
I went on being, and being always
Half undone with joy,
A bridegroom among sadness,
Never knowing how or when,
Ready to return, never returning.
It’s well known that he who returns never left,
So I traced and retraced my life,
Changing clothes and planets,
Growing used to the company,
To the great whirl of exile,
To the great solitude of bells tolling.
-Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered, 1961-1962
Translated by Alastair Reid
A brief announcement: This blog posting comes to you from… my apartment. That’s right, the Internet saga appears to be over and I now have DSL in my own home. It’s terribly exciting. Okay, back to my other thoughts.
I’ve just returned from Cambodia’s seashore, Sihanoukville. The vacation was due to a few scheduled days off in honor of a Cambodian religious holiday: pchum ben. The Khmer take this time to travel to their home villages and visit pagodas (temples) to sacrifice to the ghosts and spirits of their ancestors. Then, the food they’ve taken for the sacrifice is shared and eaten by their family, though some of what is left on the ground around the pagodas. The sacrifice is made to appease the ancestors and bring good luck for the year.
From a Western perspective, it’s hard to digest the idea that our ancestors might hang out around the cemetery and want to eat dinner. Yet, for Cambodians, this is a very real, very important holiday.
I’ll be having my own personal pchum ben over the next few weeks. I’ll be back in the US, visiting (not my ancestors) my family, friends, and several of the partner churches I work with. I’ll also be attending our annual partnership meetings and an event called “Congregate” at WR Headquarters in Baltimore. I’m quite excited about the trip, enough that I don’t mind that I’ll be in an airplane for a very long time. So, hopefully I will see most of you soon. Until then…
Tourism Opens Doors for Women
These phrases were printed on banners hanging across Kampuchea Krom and Mao Tse Toung Blvds. in Phnom Penh.
I’ve been thinking about these signs since I saw them last week. They were up in “celebration” of World Tourism Day (Sept. 27th). In the past few years, Cambodia has become a tourist destination. It helps that the temples of Angkor Wat were in the running to be one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World. The country is a popular place for backpackers and “adventure” tourists, and it’s quite a bargain. Still, is tourism the way to move a developing nation into the developed world?
It seems like something out of “1984,” or some USSR propaganda campaign. The sentiment is strange to me: encourage foreign visitors who will… do what, exactly? Alleviate poverty how? Which doors will open for women? And what happens behind those same doors when they are closed?
What bothers me about these signs is that they seem to celebrate a kind of tourism that doesn’t exist. It assumes that money from tourist enterprises goes directly to people in need. Which, given the political structure in Cambodia, is not the case. Two popular tourist sites in Phnom Penh are Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choueng Ek “Killing Fields.” Each of these requires an entry fee. Where does the money from these sights end up? Certainly not in the hands of the families whose loved ones are buried at the Killing Fields. Those whose relatives were tortured at Tuol Sleng do not see any profit. Cambodia’s brutal history, this same genocide that is now open for tourist business, left many families without husbands, mothers, sisters, children. A generation later, would the individuals lost to that time be the ones to make a difference here? Would these be the people who would “open doors for women” and “alleviate poverty?”
Of course, I’m no economist, and I don’t know the best way to alleviate poverty or improve the status of women worldwide. I guess my protest here is against the hypocrisy of these statements. The women who benefit from tourism are the ones who work the market stalls selling Cambodia souvenirs. The ones who can study English and work in the hotels. And, lest I paint too nice of a picture, the women who work as prostitutes in the brothels and hotels that cater to tourists. The poverty that’s alleviated? It’s not the poverty that exists in the provinces, where the majority of Cambodia’s population lives. Bringing more foreigners to Cambodia doesn’t help the subsistence farmer grow more crops or increase the harvest.
I’m confused about what bringing more people to Cambodia will accomplish. What will they see? A bustling, dirty city and some ancient temples? Poverty and hunger, corruption and disease? Or will they experience a foreign city, interesting because it is different than home? Who gets exploited in the tourist scenario? Is it better to alleviate poverty and give women a chance when doing these things will change the way Cambodia is presented to the international audience? If it wasn’t so dusty, so poor, so exotic, would people still travel here?
The political motivations behind these banners are somewhat complicated, and too long to discuss here. I can understand why politicians would turn to tourism as a great hope for national improvement. After all, it’s a lot easier to invite people over and ask them to excuse your messy house than it is to actually clean up years of dirt, clutter, and disrepair. These banners might just be Cambodia’s way of asking for the international tourist community to participate in the housekeeping effort by putting a few dollars in the bucket by the front door. So, friends, hop on a plane and come visit me in Cambodia. In doing so, you’ll be alleviating poverty and opening doors for women. Doesn’t that make you feel better about the price of airfare?
In any case, allow me to wish you (a few days late) a Happy World Tourism Day!
Now, I know what you're thinking, but I can assure you, these laws were not passed simply because of my accident. Though the timing is a bit suspicious...
Oh, and I'm not so sore anymore, but my elbow is still pretty scraped up. The staff has been tracking my use of bandages (from big gauze down to current Band-aid). Still no sign of a staph infection.
The lying part didn’t last long, as there was still traffic, and I didn’t think I was hurt that badly. I collected my bike (which started), and kept moving. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that it really hit me—I was in an accident. There’s no closure on a vehicle smash-up here. The cops aren’t called, insurance forms aren’t filed. The driver of the other car didn’t even stop. I found out later that (in the words of someone else), he probably didn’t want to pay. The rules are straightforward: the person with the bigger car pays the other person for their injury or damages. Unless the person with the bigger car also happens to be Someone Really Important, in which case they receive the money.
In any case, I made it to the hair salon, where I was promptly cleaned up by the proprietor—all I could think was, “I really hope that towel is clean. I don’t want a staph infection.”—and given the haircut I wanted. I’m tempted to tell the owner she should change the name to Kim Srah Beauty Salon and Motorbike Accident Recovery Center. When I got back to work in the afternoon, my bike was put back together by our wonderful guard/mechanic. The scrapes on my elbow, knees, and hip were painful, but nothing too bad. Except for when I tried to use an alcohol wipe on them. That was a new level of pain (but, goodbye staph infection).
As the shock wore off, things started to hurt more. I’m incredibly stiff, and my shoulder and neck are pretty sore. I won’t be moving quickly for the next couple of days. I say “ow” a lot. But still, I’m fine. I keep repeating the phrases, “it could have been worse” and “thank God I’m not hurt any more.”
Last week, a woman from my church told me her flatmate had her purse stolen as she rode on the back of a motorbike. The woman said she felt vulnerable, scared of all the possible things that could happen to a female foreigner. It’s true. There is a lot of danger. Robbery, traffic accidents, illness. Things that could happen anywhere, really, but I seem to have a heightened awareness of them here. Today I’m a little more wary of Cambodia, a little more cautious of all the things that might hurt me. My body will heal, and I probably won’t even have a scar. But my memory will always hold the feelings from that split-second of lying in the street, stretched out like I had just stolen second base. Today I am vulnerable, and cautious, and very, very sore.
The War at Home. Back in 2004/2005, I spent a long Southern California winter battling one particular problem in my apartment: crickets. The little buggers seemed to come from everywhere and would shock me by simply being in the room when I got home. In the end, I vanquished them with a can of Raid and some well thrown shoes. Cambodia has brought on a new challenge in my war against God’s smallest creatures: the ant. To be fair, these are the smallest and least disgusting of the things that I’ve found in my apartment (2 cockroaches have met a very bad end, thanks to about half a can of bug spray. Gross.). However, the ants are far more insidious than the others, and more numerous by far. Leave a plate on the counter, and there they are. Think your cereal is safe on the shelves? Think again. This is life in the tropics, and believe me, the war is on.
The Helmet. I purchased a motorbike over a month ago. This is both a really fun thing, and a really terrifying thing. Last week, I saw two men riding in front of me wipe out in a busy street, and one had to be carried to the side of the road. Suddenly, I am very aware of my own mortality, and while I really, really like driving fast, I also really, really like having arms and legs. Also, owning and driving the bike have produced some interesting protective behaviors in the staff. They help me park and pull the bike out. They check it for me when I’m at work. They start it for me (which is sometimes difficult). And the landlords at my apartment let me park it inside and always watch to make sure I can get on, off, and away without a problem (I had some trouble at first). Though all the attention is overwhelming, the sentiment is nice, and, I have to admit, helpful (parking is actually kind of a challenge!).
The bike, which is an older model and blue and white (for those who care about the details), allows for one other fun detail: my helmet. Nearly all the expatriates and visitors have commented on this fact. First, it’s pink. Bubble gum pink with a white stripe around the back. And while there are similar helmets in Phnom Penh, I think I’m the only one so far with this particular model, which means that motodope drivers, staff friends, and other people recognize me when I come driving by. Which means I’ve had to learn to wave and drive. Yes, that took some practice.
Water. I have to buy water. This means for drinking, cooking, brushing my teeth and cleaning fruit and vegetables, I have to purchase a natural resource. It’s not a big hassle, but makes for interesting conversations when I try to buy cases of bottled water from the roadside seller. I am working on getting it delivered to my home. That should simplify things a bit. In the meantime, I am single-handedly destroying the environment with the amount of plastic bottles I throw away. Though I think there’s a woman who goes through the trash after it’s been tossed to pull out the bottles. Lately, I’ve been trying to separate it out for her. I’m not sure that makes me feel any better about the method of “recycling” I am employing.
Phone. I was told the phone will be installed on Wednesday. If I had an internet connection at home, I could update as soon as the phone arrives. However, since the phone comes before the internet, you’ll have to wait. I know the suspense is killing you.
Sandals. Someone asked recently if my sandals had turned up. Sadly, they are still making a (very) extended tour of Cambodia. I even looked for them during my trip through the provinces. Wherever they are, I certainly hope they’re happy. I head back to the States in a few weeks, and I’ll be looking for a replacement.
Milk. As mentioned above, I am headed back to the US next month. This is exciting for many reasons, but also because I will get to drink a glass of real milk. We have box milk, or UHT (Ultra High T-something). The box proudly proclaims that the liquid inside is “Made from real, fresh milk!” Which means it tastes only a bit like “real, fresh milk!” and mostly like “watery, imitation milk!” Except for the chocolate variety, though I may have been distracted by the chocolate. They don’t skimp on that part here. In any case, I’m looking forward to “real, fresh milk!” on my trip. Among other tasty, non-dairy treats.
So there you have it… updates big and small. Mostly small. Perhaps now you have a bit of a taste of life in Phnom Penh. (Though hopefully you can’t taste the milk. Believe me, it’s not good.)
I want to install the internet at my house. I haven’t done it yet, because I knew it would be a bit of a hassle, and wanted to keep my costs down for the month of August. So I’ve been slowly tackling the issue this month. First, I have to get a dedicated phone line for the DSL service. I tried to call Camintel, the recommended provider. I called for a half hour one day and could not get through. I kept trying. Finally I reached someone who was supposed to call back. He never did.
Last Friday, I got a hold of them again, and the woman took my info, and never called. On Tuesday, I called again and was told to come to the office. Today I went to the office. I met the woman I talked to on Friday (who told me she had tried to call twice). I drew a map for them to locate my apartment. The woman I talked to on Tuesday drew another map (it looked exactly the same as mine). Then the woman I met on Friday drew another map (again, exactly the same) before walking off to find a technician, and then coming back to tell me they couldn’t provide service. I’m still not sure why.
I went to Telecom Cambodia next (on the recommendation of Camintel). I found the single English-speaking representative who assured me they could provide service if only I could bring my passport, lease, and a photo of myself before signing the contract. I left, thinking it would be another day. Upon my return to the office, I realized that in order to have my 6 month visa renewal processed before my return to the states, I had to start the process… you guessed it… tomorrow. Which means handing my passport over to “the Ministry” for a few days. Gathering up all the documents I needed, I headed back to Telecom Cambodia to sign my contract.
If you’re still reading this tale, you’re thinking… okay, she’s going to wrap it up, or she’s got even more problems. Settle in, there’s more (but not a lot more, thank goodness).
All was going well, except for a missing manager (so my payment couldn’t be processed) and a brief window wherein they misplaced my photo (it ended up on the floor; no, I did not have another copy). I have an invoice that claims I paid the installation fee, and a promise to have them call me about installation (probably tomorrow, but really, who knows?). All this before I headed back outside to realize that it had started raining. Not hard, but enough that it would be a wet trip back across town.
The only sentence that’s appropriate here is this one: when it rains, it pours. I truly mean that. I had made it ¾ of the way back to the office, when, of course, the monsoon that had been threatening all day decided to begin. The main road through the district where I live (and where the office is) has a set of railroad tracks. Crossing the railroad tracks means that you have officially entered Toul Kork (our district). I have never, ever seen a real train traveling on these tracks. Until today (are you shaking your head? I was…). I waited for the train, sped back to the office, and am now sitting here, soaking wet. My colleagues are worried that I will catch a cold (outside temp: roughly 60 degrees).
So, to sum it up, I still have: no phone, no internet, and wet clothes. At several points, I kept trying to decide if I should laugh or cry. Right now, I choose laugh. Feel free to join me.
I am homesick. It seems rather strange to write it out like that, like I’m admitting to some kind of addiction. “Hi, my name is Kate, and I’m homesick.” People told me it was coming; they reassured me that I could not escape it. I am resigned to feeling this ache for a time. It’s not the kind of homesickness that makes me cry myself to sleep every night, and it’s not the kind that makes me break down in the middle of the afternoon. It’s just a steady, continually present realization that I am very, very far away from people I care about. And that all of the things I thought were familiar are now changing, without me, and that I am changing too.
Perhaps nostalgic is a better word for what I’m feeling. I don’t want to leave Cambodia. I’m settled in now, and I have a routine and a rhythm here. I like it. It is a home for me now. Yet there are things missing that I can’t quite name, but can feel. People don’t really use the phone here so much. In the US, I would have good phone conversations with people, and I could call and check in. With friendships here, it’s usually more about spending time together, and sending an SMS to check in. Both ways are good, but it’s hard to explain just what those lengthy conversations meant in terms of the relationships they built and the friendships they solidified. And it’s hard to explain why hearing someone’s voice—especially someone across the country—was such a good thing.
These sorts of thoughts bring me back to thinking about the life I left in the US, the one I won’t be getting back. Friendships change, people change, and we should fully expect them to. I think what is most frightening is that I will change. I have already. I am used to being a person who doesn’t cry but am now one who tears up at the sight of prostitutes, or gets emotional over a line in an email. This kind of thing is scary, because it leads me to think about what two years of this might change in me. Beyond the language, beyond the experience, I will learn things in Cambodia about depending on God, fighting for change, and praying for this nation that I couldn’t know if I stayed in the States. It is part of what I signed up for (and what I put on the front page of this blog, for goodness sake). I don’t regret it, but it is overwhelming.
I’ve seen my prayers answered here, and I’ve seen myself change. These are good things. I am learning about brokenness, about trust, and about patience—hard lessons. So I am homesick: for people, for places, and for who I used to be. I am grappling with the old while in pursuit of the new. In the midst of it, though, I have found myself crying out to the One who brought me here, who is teaching me, and who will stay with me. “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5). I will become a person who sheds tears, a person who weeps even, and I will trust that the person I am becoming is the person God wants me to be.
Last week, I spent two and half days in the provinces, interviewing staff who participated in our summer ESL program. I spent four hours on Sunday driving down a two lane country road, dodging cattle, dogs, and water buffaloes (not to mention logging trucks, bicycles, and even two men who nearly darted in front of our truck) to get to our farthest provincial office, in Stoung. Stoung is in Kampong Thom province, which is essentially a flood plain in the center of Cambodia. Our office there is the most “rustic” of the three where we host the ESL program. The electricity turns off at night, the Asian squat toilets take some getting used to, and the house next store breeds crocodiles. This is as close as I get to real Cambodian living. That said, I love it.
I spent two weeks in Stoung last summer. I taught English to the staff there, and in doing so, built friendships with these people—as much as possible in a short time with limited shared language. Last September, I had a chance to send some cards and photos back to them, through World Relief staff visiting the US. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with tears in my eyes, writing out cards in simple English for these people with whom I spent only a fraction of my life. Later, in an email to a friend, I wrote, “I have been putting together a small package to send to my new friends in Cambodia and am overwhelmed with a desire to BE there, to see them again.” I remember thinking that cards and photos weren’t enough for me. I wanted to build relationships in person, to have that precious time that comes from sharing meals, sharing work, sharing conversation with others.
I woke up in Stoung last Monday morning, to a real, live rooster crowing at 5 a.m. I encountered the photos I sent last year on display in the office. I shared worship time and laughter with people I left last summer. In the hours I spent at Stoung, I had the indescribable feeling of coming home. Stoung is the first place I put down roots in Cambodia. Scenes from last summer played themselves out again in my mind as I looked around the building. Familiar faces smiled back at me. We shared communion that morning, and it was more than symbolic for me. These people, in a “rustic” office, in the middle of nowhere, in the country of Cambodia, are people I care about. When I lived among them, they cared for me and loved me. They are people I prayed for, and for whom I shed tears. They are, in truth, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if we don’t speak the same language.
It has been over a year since I spent time in Stoung. People have changed, some of the staff are gone. I am certainly different. Yet in a few hours on Monday morning, I was able to experience something more than a time of worship, prayer, and fellowship. That morning, I saw the faithfulness of God with my own eyes, and the truth of these words: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). I had to wait nearly a year to see my prayers answered, the desires of my heart fulfilled. Last September, I sat in my kitchen and prayed for these friends. This September, I prayed and worshipped with them. My life has changed so much since last year, but God has not and will not. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).
I immediately said yes, and we called to set up a meeting. Monday morning, when we left the office to drive to her house, I spent my time on the motorbike asking the Lord, “Why are we doing this? Certainly she doesn’t remember me. There must be some reason why we’re going to see an almost-stranger today.” And God, in all His wisdom, had a reason. Just not one I had anticipated.
We said hello (and yes, she remembered me), talked with her for a few minutes, and mentioned we were on our way to Kampong Cham. Which interested Vang’s mother, Seng. She immediately jumped up and said, “I want to go to visit my relatives in Kampong Cham, could I ride with you?” As Engchy (my partner in ESL-related activities and translator) said this, my first thought was, “WHAT?!” I grew up in a culture where you do not give or take rides from strangers. Even old women strangers. Yet, somehow I found myself agreeing to the plan, and realizing as I did so that some part of Cambodia had taken root in me in the form of general hospitality, and willingness to do whatever people ask of me.
As we settled her in the car and climbed in ourselves, I thought through the plan. We were taking this woman to visit relatives (including an 80-year-old uncle) who weren’t expecting her, and we couldn’t be sure she remembered where they lived (she hadn’t visited in at least 3 years). She had no money for a trip back, and we had to be at our next stop before 5 (it was noon, and we were at least 3 hours away, plus lunch). But she had packed a small purse with some clothes and other belongings, changed into her nice traveling outfit, and looked so intent on following through that there was simply no turning back. To Kampong Cham we went.
Seng didn’t speak to us much, and I slept for part of the trip. Yet somewhere in the first hour, I realized that my morning reading had been from James “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Seng’s husband died 38 years ago, she lost two children to the Khmer Rouge, and her daughter is wasting away of AIDS. She became a Christian 3 years ago. How on earth could I refuse a ride to this woman when it was not even inconvenient to me? Wasn’t I just crying out for justice a few weeks ago? What would be more unjust than denying this woman a simple request, even if it seemed foolish?
As we got closer to her destination, my thoughts about our generosity became more skeptical. It is halfway through the rainy season, which means that the locals have started to call it the flood season. The road to Seng’s relatives was dirt—which meant that the road was essentially one long, muddy slip-n-slide and rice paddies filled with water just off to the side. Not to mention that the many potholes and dips that caused me to pray we wouldn’t get stuck (since pushing the Land Rover out of the mud was not on our itinerary). It was the third time that I thought “what are we doing?” Somehow, though, we did not get stuck, we left Seng within walking distance of her relatives (where she asked to be let out) and made it to the office in plenty of time. In fact, Engchy helped someone else pull his overloaded moto out of a ditch on the way back.
I still don’t know what I think of all of this. We didn’t do anything heroic, or all that sacrificial. I think what I’m taking away from this is that the complete audacity I saw in Seng’s asking for a ride is precisely the chutzpah we must summon when we pray to God. She asked a wild request of us, but with the right motives and we had to say yes. She started packing her bag before we had made any reply. She was expectant that we would take her with us. On Sunday, Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Luke 11) was the topic in church. These verses are a strong reminder that we are to be bold before God. He will give us what we ask when it is in service to others. The man grants his friend’s request because of his boldness and persistence. This episode in my life has helped me to understand that verse in a new way.
I don’t know what Seng’s visit to her family will hold. Perhaps she will tell them about the Gospel. Perhaps she will simply renew family ties. I may never know what happens. I promised to visit Vang again when I return to Kampong Thom, but that could be months from now—what could be a lifetime for this woman with AIDS. Until then, I will commit to praying for this family, these people I am linked to in strange ways. Until then, I will pray boldly before God, expectant of His answer. Sometimes that might be as simple as two strangers with a Land Rover heading in the direction I want to go.
“Adults” out there will laugh at me, for wishing that the “good old days” of school could come back. That’s not really what I’m thinking about. For the last couple of years, “school” meant more than simply a place to learn. I spent a lot of time on campus, teaching, working on research, taking classes, simply hanging out. I had a lot of fun there. I experienced an energy, a vibrancy, that so many workplaces lack. I had a good job, and a good life.
This year, on the first day of school, I went to the city dump. This is the third visit I’ve made to landfill, and it doesn’t get any less heartbreaking with repetition. Today, I saw little kids playing with old shoes in a disgusting stream in view of a mountain of refuse. I also saw a pharmacy (and wondered to myself how many antibiotics they sell), a restaurant, a school, and a pig. Life happens in these slums. People grow up there, they work there, and they die there.
Today I am struck by how things have changed for me. Instead of a day planner, I carry around toilet paper and hand sanitizer (Seriously. You never know.) Sometimes a day at the office involves standing next to a railroad track watching a puppet show, or watching a woman create pottery in the provinces. I ride around on motorbikes and in big SUVs, honking at cattle and blowing kisses to toddlers riding next to me. I used to put on makeup; now I spray on DEET. I am constantly surrounded by people speaking a foreign language.
I refuse to make any statements about being a “student of life.” Again, that’s not what this is about. More than anything, I am meditating today on how simple choices, small (and large) changes can turn everything upside down. After all, I’ve not done anything all that radical. I took a job and I relocated. People do it every day. Hundreds of incoming students just moved; thousands of graduates did it too. The ones in Nebraska, Calgary, and New York City probably feel the same way I do (but with significantly less DEET). Yet in all the changes, all the transition, there are constants. I have found an energy here, a vibrancy that—while different—is familiar. I still have a good job, and I still have a good life.
So today I went to the city dump. And I blew kisses at a little girl on a motorbike. I wrote reports. I held hands with kids who are at risk of being trafficked. I stood next to a railroad track and watched a puppet show. I smelled disgusting smells. I put on bug spray and sunscreen.
They don't make a textbook for this life. And I love it.
I don’t know all the right language here, and from what I can piece together, I had a “bad sector” and my “data” (read: files, photos, mp3s, everything) was lost. So my computer is back, but it doesn’t really feel like “mine.” All the programs, all the files that made it so personal to me (after all, isn’t it a personal computer?) are simply missing. As if they never existed in the first place. Two years of “Kate history” have vanished.
It is humbling, really. Because I was so cavalier about backing up files, so heedless of all the warnings about viruses and protection. So half of this problem is my own fault. I lost things that I never really cared enough about to save. I’m a half-hearted pack rat. I collected all this information, all these documents, but I never really valued them until they were gone in a clean sweep I didn’t ask for.
I wasn’t intentionally lying a couple weeks ago, or even back in May, when I said that my life fit in three suitcases. I just forgot that these days, we carry a lot of electronic baggage with us. Computers fit in our pockets, in our phones, and on our laps. Information is available with just a few clicks, little time, and little energy expended. We can save words and thoughts for years… even when we don’t need to, want to, or shouldn’t (I’m thinking of some poor course papers I once wrote). And it’s all conveniently packaged in some aluminum and plastic casing, providing a feeling of security and safety that things like information never used to have.
The early disciples carried around parchment or simply remembered the things they learned from Christ. No cross-referencing, no Internet searches, no concordances or commentaries. Early missionaries said goodbye to their families forever, not until they reached the closest Internet café where they could make a cheap phone call. Paul’s letters are filled with teaching, but also with greetings. One chance to tell the believers and friends all the things you wanted to say. It makes me grateful for the few buttons I have to push to talk with my friends and family, the little effort that goes into being able to keep up with them, to convey my love. It puts into perspective what I’ve lost this week—just “stuff” that I was fortunate to carry around for awhile. And in the context of Cambodia, in the face of extreme poverty, an iTunes library is such a silly thing to mourn.
It’s funny that on Monday, my morning reading was this: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21). It sounds trite and over-spiritual, doesn’t it? But in the end, all that great music, all those treasured photos, and all my work is not coming with me. We’ll all be singing the same song, a glorious refrain to our King. Until then, I’m going to piece back together what I’ve lost, and be grateful for what I have. But I’m also going to invest in an external hard drive.
Recently, churches across the nation received a letter reminding them of the legal rights of Christian churches to evangelize and the need to register with the government. Unlike the US, the state religion is Buddhism, and while the church has relative freedom to meet and to talk about faith, it is not as though Christians are the majority here (we just passed the 1% mark). A couple of well-known American Christian authors, and some international worship bands were here this summer for big events, and the way they interacted with the government was… well, embarrassing. After they were refused the use of largest venue here, Olympic Stadium, one group apparently bribed the office in charge of granting permission. At the last minute, other government agencies were told, and could not guarantee the safety of attendees. The concert and outreach were cancelled, hours before the event. That morning, I sat in a smaller gathering with this author, as she proclaimed that the government was making things worse by keeping her out of the stadium, that God was on the move, and “what were they so afraid of anyway?” Her taunts, though designed to inspire, were arrogant and prideful in a culture where relationship and humility are the keys to understanding.
This morning, I sat in a meeting about church interactions with the Cambodian government. An Indian pastor spoke about the role of the Church in restricted contexts—places in which the Body of Christ is the minority, and even faces attack for our beliefs. In places like Cambodia, “Western” models of evangelism and missions don’t always work; they can be offensive and inconsiderate to people who live differently. Yet, what the Church stands for—grace, mercy, and peace—transcend these cultural boundaries. And what opens up for us is a place to act in the name of our faith. The pastor reminded us that the Church, no matter our denominational or doctrinal demarcations, can act for justice.
This concept of justice—a Holy justice, a healing justice—is not tied up in politics. It isn’t about making sure our candidate goes through, or that our agenda is passed. Justice is about giving a voice to those who are unable to speak. I spent last week with some friends from California who were here to meet with NGOs who respond to issues of human trafficking and the sex trade. What does justice look like for the young girls who are sold or kidnapped and taken to the brothels? Who will act for them? Who will cry out on their behalf? Other examples come to mind… civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who will stand for those innocents caught up in war, to make sure that their country is rebuilt and restored, without a competition for oil profits, and with respect for the traditions of their faith and the horrors of armed conflict?
As a Body, we have a responsibility to stand in the gap for those trapped by injustice—and not just those who agree with us. Regardless of faith, location, or political beliefs, as Christians we believe that human life is valuable to God, and is worth saving. We can intercede in many ways. Our voices. Our money. Our lifestyles Our conversations. Our prayers. Justice is not to be separated from our faith. Isaiah 1:17-18: Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” I don’t think it is an accident that these words about our intercession for others come right before the Lord’s promise of intercession on our behalf.
A final thought. The pastor concluded with this quote, from Rev. Martin Niemöller, a German pastor during WWII. Though Niemöller was initially a supporter of Nazi beliefs, it is his later life and his thoughts that inspire me to believe that even apathetic, afraid, and ambivalent individuals can be agents for change, reconciliation, and justice.
First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left
to speak up for me.
After nearly three months in Phnom Penh, I finally have a “home” of my own. I’m renting what Europeans would call a “flat,” on the second (or, to Americans, the third) floor of a newer building. I have the top two floors; the first has the living area, kitchen, bedroom, and two bathrooms. The upstairs has two more bedrooms and another bathroom. It’s a lot of space for one person, but I like to think of it as room for all the visitors I’ll have—or a roommate should I start to feel lonely. Simply getting in and out of the house is an adventure, as it has the steepest steps I’ve ever been on. Basically, I climb up and down a ladder. When it’s not raining (rare), the landlady opens the covering over the stairs, and that makes it a lot easier to fit my 5’9” frame on the stairs (I’m not really “sized” for Asia). So far, no tumbles, but it’s only been 3 days, so I’m guardedly optimistic about my time here.
What is most strange, at this point, is to have possessions again. For the last three months, I’ve had only what fit in my suitcases, plus some extra supplies picked up in the US. Suddenly, I have “stuff” again, though not much, and certainly not anything I’m really attached to. I’m realizing how little I actually need to live on (no television at this point, and no plans for one), and which things are kind of important (currently, I need a can opener if I want to eat half the food I bought).
In that sense, moving has resensitized me to the amazing luxury that is American living. For instance, in order to buy dishes, kitchen utensils, and cookware (minus the pesky can opener), I visited two markets, sent someone to a third, and haggled for what seemed like forever. My frying pan is from Korea; apparently this means it is of superior quality and worth the $8 I paid. I’m skeptical. For a comfortable chair, some bookshelves, and a table, I made two more trips around town. The fridge and the microwave necessitated stopping in at three shops, bargaining over each and every appliance, and eventually trying to explain how to deliver the fridge—in broken English and some very poor map drawing on my part. Though the prices are cheaper, there were times when I found myself wishing for a Target, just for the convenience.
My first real “problem” occurred on Monday morning. Sunday was my first night here, and the landlords, who speak no English, provided a padlock on the front door. It was pretty difficult to get unlatched with the key they gave me, and I had bought one of my own for added security. However, I had locked the original on the inside of the house during the day while I was home. This was no problem for going out during the daytime, because I latched my lock to the outside, and went in and out without a problem. Bedtime, though, presented an issue. I couldn’t open the old padlock, and it was in the space on the door where I needed to put my new lock so I could sleep without worrying about intruders (not like it’s a major concern, but hey, it is Cambodia). For hours on Sunday night (and with considerable frustration and a little despair), I tried the key, wiggling it in the padlock and trying secure the door—all to no avail. I had to settle for using the very shabby lock on the door handle, and sleeping with one eye open. In the morning, I tried to explain the situation to the very cute old Buddhist landlord couple downstairs. I dragged the poor woman up the ladder/stairs and made her look at what I’d done (after 5 minutes of her explaining how the lock on the front gate worked in case I came in after they were asleep). She took the key, and in one swift movement (it’s all in the wrist, I think) popped the lock open and looked at me as if I was the dumbest person she’d ever seen. Which, given the circumstance, might be true. I smiled sheepishly, replaced the door lock with my padlock, and practically ran down the ladder/stairs and off to work. I have no idea what she told her husband, but by the time I got home, they were polite enough to not laugh at me. At least I can now lock myself in at night. I suppose my safety is worth a little humiliation. I’m just glad they didn’t see me fall off a moto today. I think that was the more embarrassing moment…but that’s for another time.
How different, then, to celebrate with our staff. They have been learning English for six weeks (though some have a higher proficiency), and the classes were not structured to be “arduous.” In fact, the hardship was usually in regard to transportation. Class was at 5:30 or 6 in the morning for some of them; others drove an hour into the city to meet their teachers, and another hour home before dinner. Students played games and practiced conversation together, and they got to know their teachers. So the graduation that we held looked nothing like any ceremony that I’ve been to in the past.
Each class presented a skit. These ranged from an educational (and hilarious) presentation on the causes and treatment of diarrhea to songs (God is so good), to a parody of the teachers (including someone pretending to be me). Then, one by one, they accepted certificates for completing the ESL program. I think my favorite part of the evening were the cheers and shouts for each different class. Unlike some celebrations that are just about individual achievements, the whole group of students was there to support each other. They cheered for each skit, laughed with each other, and after dinner, took pictures with all the teachers and other students.
It was a fitting end to the summer program. For me, what was most significant was watching the teachers/volunteers interact with the students. I’m here to promote partnership, this somewhat nebulous concept in which we build relationships that span thousands of miles, not to mention cultural barriers. In the few hours I spent with everyone together, I realized that in every ESL class, a little bit of partnership happened. With every friendship that was formed this summer, the bond between our church partners and Cambodia was strengthened. Earlier this summer, I welcomed these volunteers to a new country, saw their wide eyes, and helped them know what to expect. Now I get to wave goodbye as they leave, many of them changed by their experiences. I guess, in a way, it is our volunteers we are sending out into the great, big world, assured of their success here—success in forming friendships, in serving the staff—and confident that their knowledge of Cambodia can transform their lives and communities. Reason to celebrate, indeed.
All of this flying has made me wonder if I’m getting better at it. I’ve flown alone a lot in my life, so I’m used to entertaining myself, making awkward conversation with those next to me (most recently with two Korean men; not many words were exchanged), and trying to convey to the flight attendant that I really only want the drink and the dinner roll with my meal. I’ve figured out that in Hong Kong and Seoul they list local prices but accept American dollars, and that US airports are sadly lacking the Chanel, Burberry and other high-end stores to be found throughout Asian venues. Mostly, I’ve become comfortable wandering (sometimes rushing) through different airports, looking for my gate, hoping I haven’t missed the flight.
What I’m not good at yet is transition. Since I’ve been back (all of two days), I have realized that jumping from one culture to another is a little harder than I thought it would be. In my arrogance, I thought I could bounce into the US and encounter all the everyday people and things I left without any trace of longing. I anticipated waving farewell to America with glee and heading back to Cambodia in a spirit of anticipation and excitement. I’m better at flying, but not at leaving.
I had an amazing time in the US. I spent time with friends, I saw my family—nearly ALL of them, a small miracle—watched my sister walk down the aisle, and ate my weight in Mexican food. I stepped back into a life I deserted only a few weeks ago, and found it to be mostly the same. It is easy, that life. I know how to get to the places I love. I can navigate Los Angeles without flinching. I speak the language, most of the time, and am understood by the people I know there.
The contrast to Cambodia hit me quickly when I arrived here. I didn’t return with the sense of adventure I felt upon moving here. In fact, I got here in the dead of night, to existing responsibility and duties. I had appointments and tasks the next day. The comfort and ease of the States was gone in the blink of an eye (okay, more like 16 hours of travel). This is hard for me; to jump right in, to be in charge, to do things in another language. Cambodia is familiar, but it is not comfortable.
Yet maybe what I’m after isn’t comfort. On these many plane trips, I realized that I would never be truly comfortable. There were moments when I slept, deep sleep even, and times when I didn’t notice that my legs were crunched awkwardly under the seat in front of me, or that my neck was in a position that I would later regret. Maybe that’s what I can expect from Cambodia right now. Sometimes it will pinch, sometimes I’ll want to stretch my legs. In the end, though, the plane is important—it’s the journey, the way to get where it is you’re going. So a little discomfort is worth it when you touch down and see friends and family. A little pain seems like nothing in the face of spending time with those you love. I guess I’ll just have to keep flying, keep waiting, until the pinching is less noticeable and the friends and family are not just in the US, but in Cambodia as well. In the meantime, I guess I keep watching for the rest of the Saved by the Bell cast on my flights.
Man: “Are you married?”
Me: “No, I’m single. Are you married?”
Man: “No. (pause) You marry with me?”
Me: “Um… no.”
Not that these aren’t nice guys. The moto driver, in fact, has not overcharged me on our trips around town. That’s good. The internet café guy just wanted to practice his English, apparently for life. There is a material incentive for me to marry a Cambodian—discounts on garbage and electricity bills, amounting to something like $50 per month. What a bargain, right? Nevertheless, I think it will have to be something a little greater than that (and I’m not talking about a bigger discount) to induce me to marry the moto driver. Does that make me picky?
All of this, to say that I am heading back to the US for 10 days for my younger sister’s wedding. She is marrying an American, so no garbage discounts for her. She will, however, speak the same language as her husband. A definite bonus in my book.
A couple weeks ago, I went to Vietnam. I am in the process of getting a certain type of visa from the Cambodian government, so I had to leave the country and reenter it. Since we had work to do in that direction anyway, Vietnam became our destination. I crossed the border alone, managed to get into Vietnam without trouble, drank a Coke, and headed back in the span of about 20 minutes. Not what I would call an “extended stay.”
The thing about crossing borders is that you have to take your passport. I’m not sure who thought up the idea of the passport, or decided that stamping a piece of paper would be a good way to keep track of people. Enterprising readers can google this or find it on wikipedia and tell us all later. The main point is: While walking from Cambodia to Vietnam (approx. 100 yards), and back, I started to contemplate the usefulness of my passport. What does it say about me? What is my citizenship worth?
These days, I’m finding that calling myself “American” identifies something other than my present feelings of citizenship. America is where I come from, where I was born, and the culture that has shaped me. But I don’t live there anymore, my address is somewhere else, and so my passport seems to represent something other than my “home.” As I walked through the DMZ, all I could come up with was that these few sheets of paper give me an idea of who to call if I get in trouble.
I’m grateful for the protection of the US government. These are the people I want to have my back in a nasty situation. I’m certainly not trying to say that I want to renounce my citizenship. And I’m not about to apply to be Cambodian either. I have a passport from one nation and my feet in another. The word “expatriate” keeps ringing through my head. In more ways than one, this word describes me.
I grew up learning that to be American was to believe in “liberty and justice for all.” We sang “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” I suppose to be a “patriot” is to believe this strongly. But even in the US, people live in bondage—both literal and figurative. They are slaves through forced labor, slaves through addiction, slaves through debt. I guess I’m an “ex-patriot” in this sense—I’m not proud of this part of America.
So where do I fit? I look around Cambodia and see oppression here, too. I also see true freedom, in the faces of women who are using microfinance loans to keep their kids in school. I see it in the daily worship times of our staff, as they unashamedly call on the name of God and praise Him. But because of who I am, what I look like, and because I hold a blue passport, I’ll always be an outsider here, and it will never be my “home,” no matter how long I live here.
Thankfully, this lack of fit is not a unique problem. In fact, it goes all the way back to Abraham, who took up his tents, rounded up his cattle, and headed off to somewhere new. He wasn’t the only one to experience some questions over where he belonged. More followed. “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
What a blessing to know that we are all expatriates here, longing for a better country, with true freedom and real justice—for all. No passport required.