12.12.2008

Warm Arms

All right, to properly introduce you to what I like to call The Glory of Arm Warmers, I went over to the market and bought some. Here they are:


Take note of the crazy stripes. Now, how about a close up?


Attractive, aren't they? The woman who sold them to me indicated that they are, indeed for the protection of my delicate white skin against the harsh Cambodian sun. The fashion benefits are just extra I guess.

12.09.2008

Advocacy/Whining

When I was a kid, it didn't take long in our household to discover that whiners didn't get what they wanted. In fact, it was a surefire way to get exactly what you didn't want-- sent to your room or some other undesirable outcome (like a heaping pile of spinach). So I grew up, and I became a person who doesn't like to whine, who is afraid of complaining too loud, and who sometimes doesn't protest enough. Maybe that's too harsh. In any case, it can sometimes take a lot for me to speak up about something, especially if it involves a confrontation of any kind. Perhaps this is why I fit in with Cambodians.

This week I've been thinking about when it might be appropriate to whine. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is International Human Rights Day. Although the US doesn't "celebrate" it with a holiday (unlike Cambodia), people around the world will pause and hopefully think about what it means to support "human rights," what those rights might be, and how they've been forgotten, neglected, or even trampled over in years past. Hopefully, people will also think about preventing these problems in years to come.

In contemplating how to address these problems, the word "advocacy" comes to mind. I've spent time with people who aspire to be "advocates," and I think some of that ethos has rubbed off on me. I want to stand in the gap, to be a voice for those who have been silenced. It has only been recently that I've wondered how often that voice might sound a little whiny.

After all, if you really want to dig in and speak for people who can't speak for themselves, it will probably sound a lot like this:

"It's not fair!"

"It's not right!"

"Stop it!"

Which, at the end of the day, sounds pretty much like a childish squabble over who gets the toy.

These words have come up in relation to a very minor injustice, something that doesn't even look like advocacy; at least, it is not the typical "global issue advocacy." In this small situation, I know the right place for me is to be standing in the gap, pressed on one side by what is right and on the other by what is easy. I feel a lot like I'm whining, calling out something that is unfair, and that in the end will have little impact on any global crisis. I'm finding myself a bit more sympathetic with people like Nathan and Jeremiah, Mordecai and Daniel, men who had to speak up when faced with a person or a problem that was untenable. I've had to sacrifice a bit of my pride, to swallow the aversion I have to being a "whiner" in the hope that by speaking up, the right outcome will emerge. Is this whining? Is this advocacy?

Perhaps what is different about advocacy (apart from being a term with fewer negative connotations) is that it is done in service to others. Whining seems to be something we do for ourselves, when we don't get our way, when things are more difficult than we'd like them to be. Advocacy is for those who aren't getting what they want, for whom difficulty is a lifestyle. Done carelessly or selfishly, advocacy can resemble whining quite a bit. Done right, I think advocacy sounds less like whining and more like a call into something better, something purposeful, something that will free others from oppression and bondage.

In the end, this is what God did for us. He says to us: "All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations- a people who continually provoke me to my very face" (Isaiah 65:2-3). As advocates, we hold out our hands to obstinate people, rebuking self-serving attitudes, exhorting selfish actions, and inviting change. We regard the oppressed with our Father as the example: "Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear" (v. 24). We act fairly, we act rightly, and we stop oppression. But instead of screaming, crying, and flailing, we do it mercifully, prayerfully, and humbly. After all, if we are truly advocates, we are not seeking our personal agenda, we are seeking God's agenda: justice and peace.

12.05.2008

Arm Warmers

I've been out of the US for awhile, but I just have to ask:

Are arm warmers the fashion in the US too?

I meant to take a photo of this phenomenon, but haven't had a chance (attribute it to my inability to drive my motorbike while photographing). I'm essentially talking about knit cloth that girls wear on their arms. Sometimes striped, sometimes in crazy patterns. And while some would suggest that this is simply a variation on the elbow-length gloves that serve to protect one's skin from dust and sun, I think it's a horse of a different color. For one: I've seen these unsightly things on women who are not only driving, but walking around the store or market. For another: well, the gloves are not usually such a bold fashion statement, being as they are white or nude in color.

The whole thing reminds me of a childhood fascination with legwarmers (ostensibly due to a ballerina phase) which popped back up amongst undergrads at USC in the last few years. I'm wondering if Asia is on the cutting edge of fashion here (and given the stripes-on-plaids outfits I spot daily, I'm doubtful), or if this is simply another deluded Cambodian fashion trend akin to sparkly, sequined baseball caps (in pink!) jauntily perched atop the heads of young men about town.

If it is a fashion trend, I suppose I'll have to get a pair before I'm back for Christmas. Unless I'm a trend behind and it is, in fact, stripes and plaids that are this season's Ugg boots.

12.01.2008

AIDS Day

Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. I'm not sure who started it, but I think it's an important day, as I'm sure you'll hear from Bono, The Gap, and Starbucks. For years, AIDS had a stigma, and in the US it still does, despite the fact that now the populations greatest at risk are, like those around the world, the poorest. Considerable amounts of money have been spent to combat the disease, to educate, to medicate. Even so, the AIDS problem rages on.

I'm fairly sure most people don't like to think of AIDS. After all, it's a disease passed on in ways we don't like to talk about and connected with issues we like to pretend don't exist. Many times it is easier to condemn those who have the illness rather than face the fact that their situations predispose them to exposure to HIV/AIDS; a child born to poor, unfaithful parents in the slums who sees drug abuse as an everyday fact is not likely to learn that there are other choices and healthier behaviors. We forget that AIDS is, as we teach thousands of Cambodians every day, as much a community problem as an individual one.

One of the most powerful ways that I have seen community response is here in Cambodia through the work of the church. It is hard to describe what it means to those infected with HIV when they are the subject of intentional care. When church members overcome fear and stigma to reach out and help them with something as basic as cooking a meal when they are sick. It changes lives, and leads many of those infected with HIV to the church and to Jesus.

I recently had the opportunity to pray with a group of men and women who were infected with AIDS and the community members who had taken it upon themselves to care for these individuals. When we asked them how we could pray for them, I anticipated that they would ask for money, better access to medications, or something practical. Instead, they all asked unanimously if we would pray that their village would grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Somehow, in the midst of caring for other's needs, and in meeting together to learn about community response to HIV, they developed a passion for reaching their neighbors.

While I find this kind of community action incredible and poignant, it certainly does not need to be an isolated example. The reason it is World AIDS Day is because we can all do something to reach those with AIDS, or those at risk. Be a mentor, serve at a soup kitchen, volunteer at a drug counseling center. Be around those people who live with the threat of HIV and AIDS, and watch your compassion grow. Serve those people in the name of Jesus, sharing the gospel through your actions. Pray for their salvation, and be ready for your heart and love for them to grow. What is important is not the size of the benefit concert you hold (though, if that's what you want to do, go for it), what is crucial is that you do something.

If you're still at a loss, you can start by filling out this petition, improving access to life-extending antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for the poor. After that... talk to others, look around. There are opportunities for those who are willing to help.


This little guy's mother has HIV. He's too young to be tested.

11.26.2008

Christmas Party

Many of you know that human trafficking is one of the most troubling issues facing Cambodia. According to the US State Department, Cambodia is a "source, destination, and transit" country for men, women and children into forced labor or other work. One of the primary ways that women are exploited is in prostitution. Other women have no other option than to go into commercial sex work due to lack of education, debt, or even family pressure. This Christmas, some of our World Relief staff, including those working in our trafficking prevention program, are partnering with Destiny Rescue to give these women an alternative.


video

Will you join us in praying for this unique outreach? Even if we reach just one woman through this event, it will mean one life exposed to the freedom that is ours in Christ. One life that can be transformed. Pray with me-- pray with us-- as we work for the Gospel and transformation in Cambodia.

11.21.2008

Counting Votes

In lieu of a sensitive, thought-provoking and well-written blog post on my life, I thought I'd update about the voting that took place a few weeks ago. Turns out people actually like me! And your liking has translated into something good (i.e. other than simply elevating my self-esteem): those 19 votes made it possible for me to trounce other entries in this online competition (which is probably more about having fun than winning, but...). In the spirit of teamwork, you should know this makes all of us winners (now don't you feel good?!).

Your prize is my gratitude, and the chance to view a more recent photo of me, in what is called the Hall of Fame. Since I don't play any professional sports (for good reason), this may be my only chance to say that. Also, by viewing said photo, you will realize that Cambodian children don't follow me everywhere (see photo to the side) and that I have, in fact, cut my hair at least once in the last year or so.

Apparently this competition is ongoing, with new themes every month. I'll do the site engineer, Angela, a favor and offer up chances to compete (if you're a blogger), or you can request that I participate again and give you another chance to vote for me and boost my self-regard even higher (yes, it's possible). As my Cambodian friends say, "up to you."

11.16.2008

Musical Moments

For most of us, music is something that defines our preferences. The genre we listen to, what we purchase, all of it makes a statement about who we are and what we like. Some people can be derogatory about others' tastes, and others make it their goal to collect as much music as possible. Whatever your approach to listening is, it's likely to be for pleasure, rather than for educational purposes.

In countries around the world, songs are used to communicate history, to unite people around a cause, and yes, even for entertainment. The literacy rate in Cambodia is still at just 74% of the population, and even lower for women. In this country, songs are a powerful way to transmit information. They are easily taught, learned, and remembered. Just think about how many song lyrics you remember (and how many you wish you didn't!). A couple of months ago, trapped on a bus, we watched as a group of women sang and danced to a song about Revlon "Charlie" perfume. Another Cambodian man lauded some brand of liquor as girls danced around and sang about how great the drink was.

On a different note, World Relief staff in Cambodia teach songs to children about hand washing and clipping their fingernails. With adults, we teach songs that proclaim the ways AIDS can be transmitted. Only a week ago, I listened as an adult education group sang about a man who traveled to Phnom Penh and met a beautiful woman. However, this woman gave him AIDS, and now he has learned that he cannot judge people based solely on their appearance. The final verse was a plea to Cambodian men and women to care for those living with HIV and AIDS since we know they are suffering.

Of course, for all this noble song writing about the perils of marital unfaithfulness and AIDS, there are plenty of songs in this culture taken from Western pop hits. Richard Marx, Britney Spears, and that obnoxious "Beautiful Girl" song from last summer all have translations in Khmer (and karaoke videos besides!). There are also worship songs in Khmer, traditional Khmer folk songs, and yes, even Khmer rap.

Also last week, Cambodians celebrated the annual Water Festival. Thousands of people lined the riverside in Phnom Penh to watch boat races, attend concerts and enjoy time away from work. In reading about the event over the weekend, I discovered that there are many "Water Festival Songs" written both past and present. This year, several of the songs were dedicated to all-female racing teams, with lyrics about how the women don't have boyfriends, but they might "take a walk" with one man after the race (i.e., go on a date or even something less innocent). However, the one that has stuck with me was one about a Deaf Husband and a Crippled Wife. The song ends extolling the virtues of a faithful marriage, but I have no idea how it arrives at that point. According to the newspaper, the lyrics are something like this:
"I ask him to tie up the cow/He ties up the buffalo instead."
and
"She sticks out her bow leg/She trips my elderly father."

11.06.2008

Head Phones

I have an iPod. It's great. I love it. The iPod headphones, however, are not great. They've started to get a little worse for wear. So when Deanna decided to replace her broken headphones, I tagged along and bought some too. For $5, I figured it was a good deal (since when I tried to replace them in Thailand, it was going to be around $50 for new ones).

We got home, opened up our packages, and I discovered that my headphones were pink (which was okay) and jeweled (which was a bit more ostentatious than I wanted). Then I discovered that my headphones were not created equal. Literally. One side is longer than the other. I have decided that this is because I am supposed to wrap one around the back of my neck (to avoid choking, perhaps?). Deanna maintains it is a manufacturing defect. Whatever. Mine have jewels and have lasted longer than hers did. I think she's jealous.

11.02.2008

Love Notes

Over the summer, we had some volunteers from the US offer extra training to our staff. In order to make that possible, I had to hire an additional translator. We do this fairly often, and so I'm used to hiring temporary workers and when things are finished, we say goodbye with the promise to hopefully work together again in the future.

This year, we hired a male translator who was really helpful, but with whom I had pretty limited interaction. He was out in the provinces quite a bit, so I basically contacted him to give him details on when to meet us for travel, and where to pick up his paycheck. In no way would I have considered this person a friend, or even an acquaintance. So, imagine my surprise when he came in to pick up his final pay and sat for 30 minutes, asking me all kinds of questions. Catching on to the fact that he seemed to think we could mean more to each other than employer/employee, I did my best to make sure he knew that I had work to finish, and offered to let him know when I would be going back to the US (although I was careful to note that it would not be "for a long time").

Since then, he has sent me an SMS at 11:30 at night (way too late for the average Cambodian), phoned "just to say hello" and sent a few other messages my way, most of which I have ignored. I thought I spotted him at a restaurant last week, but didn't say hello, figuring the easiest way to avoid him was, well, to avoid him. Then I had to dodge 3 phone calls and read a humorous SMS regarding why I didn't say hello. I didn't think it was a good idea to text back "well, dude, i'm avoiding you."

In the midst of a busy week, my phone beeped one morning. Picking up the SMS, I found the following:
"Good morning. How a[re] u? Last night i dream about u and than i say i love u. When i get up i didnt see u."
It's certainly not a marriage proposal, but I think it might be the creepiest SMS I have received to date. I'm now curious as to whether Cambodia has anything resembling a restraining order.

10.24.2008

Vote Kate!

It's time for a little shameless self-promotion. At the behest of my sister, Liz, I checked out something called "A Month of Stuff..." Her friend, Angela, runs the site, and I signed up thinking it might be fun. The site features interviews with different bloggers, posting the responses of a new person just about every day. And folks, today is my day.

The catch with this "month of stuff" idea is that it isn't just interviews... it's a competition. If you know me "in real life" you know that I hate to lose. Especially when I have the chance to do something about it. To win, I need YOU, dear reader, to support my interview by commenting on the entry. It can be as simple as "Kate is Great!" or a similar statement. However, you'll amuse me and show off for my blog if you come up with something fun. Of course, no pressure. It's the number of comments that count, so you can send others over to help the cause. Voting closes at the end of the month, so time is of the essence! I can promise that the more people who comment, the happier I'll be, and the more often I'll blog in return. So, really, everyone wins.

In sum. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Read this. Comment. Be a winner.

This blog, however, will not self-destruct. In fact, normal reflections should resume sometime soon. Thanks for your support!

10.18.2008

Peace Train

Whether or not you are a Cat Stevens fan (or whatever he's calling himself nowadays), a member of the NRA, or a veteran of a foreign war, let's establish something: peace is a good thing. It's a good thing for big nations who have struggling economies, and it's a good thing for small nations that have a history of guerilla warfare, genocide, and political instability. No matter if you are voting Democrat or Republican, a Christian or an atheist, you probably agree that the last thing this world needs is more war.

Last week, Thai and Cambodian forces clashed again in a border dispute that has been growing more and more tense since July. Shots were fired, 3 Cambodians died, and the country grew nervous. The Thai side is better equipped, better trained, and better funded, but Cambodians have been fighting in these jungles for most of the last century. This was, to my knowledge, the first time Cambodian lives had been lost over this conflict. Though the border is far from Phnom Penh, we got calls warning us to stay in at night, to avoid traveling unnecessarily, and to be wary of Cambodian attacks on Thai citizens living in the city. A few years ago, Cambodians rioted over remarks supposedly made by a Thai actress that Angkor Wat, the jewel of the country, should be in the hands of the Thais. There is not much love lost between the people of each nation.

Even now, despite a cease fire and a relaxed atmosphere, the threat of war remains. Leaders are meeting to discuss the problem and troops are still stationed at the border. Will you join with me in praying for peace? Cambodia, a nation taught by experience that violence is how to solve major problems, needs to see diplomatic solutions. The people here have had their fill of bullets, mortars, and bombs. It is time for these people to see peace.

10.15.2008

Totally Devoted

I don't talk about it a lot, but the main reason I came to Cambodia is not my love for the people, my desire to do good, or my need to live abroad. It is, in a word, obedience. I felt called to come, in a way that was undeniable and inescapable. That doesn't make a lot of sense to people who don't believe in God, and even to some who do. This idea that my life is not my own, that it belongs to Someone Else who intends to use it for a glorious purpose-- well, that's just crazy talk, isn't it?

When I thought about making this move, I also thought a lot about not moving. After all, left to myself, with no other obligations to satisfy, I would be happy to sit in a chair at the beach, working my way through a stack of novels, listening to good music and drinking coffee for most of my life. Occasionally, I would probably eat some kind of Mexican food. Nevertheless, that is not the life that God planned out for me. Instead, I am here, sometimes uncomfortable, lonely and part of something different. In the end, the desire to live rightly before God, to follow the call, and to walk in obedience overrode my selfish inclinations and fears.

It is from this position of obedience that I'm now thinking about that decision again. I don't regret it, I wouldn't change it, and I can't go back. I am already here, already changed, already moving forward. I have been, however, thinking about this idea of "obedience." In 1 Samuel, when Saul is rejected as king, Samuel says to him "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). This has been a verse that I've thought about a lot over the years. I want to obey, to do right in the eyes of the Lord. I've done that in the big things (and am working on the little ones), but lately I've felt like there is something more.

As I've been praying about some things this week, God is revealing to me that straightforward obedience is not enough. Perhaps that is because, despite obeying, I have done it begrudgingly, expectantly. Although the Lord rewards obedience, it needs to be with a right attitude. Our obedience certainly opens up a host of other blessings, but we cannot obey with that as our aim. Instead, we have to obey for the sheer delight of doing what the Lord says. That, to me, is tough stuff.

When David speaks to Solomon regarding the temple, he says this: "And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever" (1 Chronicles 28:19). We are not to serve the Lord only in obedience, but in devotion. When Paul writes about marriage, he exalts singleness, writing, "I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord"(1 Corinthians 7:35).

There is more to serving the Lord than just doing what He says because we are afraid of the consequences, seeking the blessing, or unsure of how else to live. He searches our hearts, understands every motive. Even our obedience is subject to this scrutiny. I'm not sure I understand yet what it means to be devoted to the Lord. Certainly it will take my life, most assuredly my finances, and likely some other things I am hesitant to give up. God is calling me in deeper, asking for more than mere actions done in service to Him.

Obedience provides freedom; when we are doing what is right, what God has asked from us, we can walk without guilt, without fear, without remorse. Yet, I think maybe the key is how Paul begins that phrase: not to restrict you. Obedience feels restrictive, a code of right and wrong, option A or B. Undivided devotion? In those words I sense the opening up of possibilities, an unleashing of unimaginable options. It goes beyond simply right or wrong and becomes less a choice and more a posture of the heart. Obedience will serve us, but devotion... that serves the Lord.

10.08.2008

Holding Steady

It's a busy time for me right now. By the end of the month, we will have welcomed at least 20 visitors to World Relief Cambodia, many of whom are leaders in our partner churches, and 2 of whom are English nobility (no, I'm not joking). In the first two weeks of November, we'll have another 15 people here, and a major leadership retreat for around 80 people. I'm responsible for coordinating a lot of these visits. It's a job I enjoy. I like working with people, telling them about the work we do, dreaming about the possibilities that exist when we collaborate.

Even so, there are more items on my to-do list than hours in the day. And all of these things are work-related, apart from the regular activities that come from maintaining a life (i.e., food, laundry, connecting with friends here and abroad) and being part of a church (e.g., attending Bible study and Sunday service, praying for outreach opportunities, and working with the youth group). I'm trying not to get swamped in the wave of things, and recognizing that it's simply a season of work. There are truths to be gleaned here, in the midst of the activity, if only I can look for them.

In many ways, it is a strange feeling to be so busy. Cambodia, after all, is a pretty laid back place. I think my first year here was really not about "productivity" but instead about being grounded here, learning what it felt like to walk around in this culture, and finding my bearings. Now that I'm more settled, I can actually start to "do" more. It's tempting to start to measure my success here by what is accomplished rather than what I've learned. Despite having a to-do list, I struggle to remind myself that this work, my life, is an exercise not in removing things, but in building a Kingdom-- one that will endure.

One of my favorite quotations has seemed more relevant this month. Richard Foster wrote:
"We may not see the end from the beginning, but we keep on doing what we know to do. We pray, we listen, we worship, we carry out the duty of the present moment."
While I want that time to reflect, to process, to learn, I'm sensing that this is a time to keep moving. Booking hotel rooms and planning meals does not seem to be filled with eternal significance. Yet, in the doing, the serving, the obedience, there is purpose. So I will carry out in the present moment what is required, and do it joyfully and wholeheartedly-- for the most part.

10.01.2008

Pchum Ben

It was a holiday in Cambodia last week, called Pchum Ben. It's a big deal in Cambo, especially for the majority Buddhist population. It's a sobering time for Christians, but, apparently a lot of fun for at least one village. If only I'd known about this, I would have used my own water buffalo ride as practice!

The Pchum Ben holiday began in ancient times— it was even celebrated at the time of the Angkorian empire. During this fifteen day lunar festival, Cambodians gather at temples to honor their ancestors. With a prevailing belief in Buddhist teachings (though strongly animistic in their practice), many Cambodians believe in the concept of reincarnation. While many people are recreated into the human or animal world after death, those who have bad karma are condemned to live in the spiritual world— a type of earthbound purgatory. The Pchum Ben festival takes place during a time of the year when these spirit ancestors are believed to be roaming the Earth. It is a time for their living relatives to gather in remembrance and also to offer food to these tortured souls. Additionally, it is a time for those who are alive to meditate and pray to reduce the bad karma of the spirits and help them escape the misery of the spirit world through reincarnation.

For modern Cambodians, the festival takes place over fifteen days, and the final day is the most significant. Prior to this last day, families are scheduled to “host” a service at the temple for their ancestors. Family members gather at the temple, recording an “invitation” list of relatives who must be remembered. It is believed that unless they are invited, spirits cannot receive the offerings. Families prepare special food for their ancestors, and also leave bai ben (sticky rice balls) in the shaded areas of the temple for those who have been forgotten or who no longer have living relatives to offer sacrifices for them. The monks prepare the ceremonial reading and burning of the invitation list— as a notification to the spirits of where to find their relatives. Then the monks lead the family in chants, meditations, and prayers for their relatives. The ceremony is an opportunity for the living relatives to earn merit for those who are deceased.

On the fifteenth day, the temples play host to a large communal feast, as everyone is invited to the temple to participate in the ceremony for their ancestors. It is also a significant day in that the most miserable of the souls, priads, are only able to receive prayers, food, and be reunited with living relatives during this day (traditionally the darkest day). On the final days of the Pchum Ben festival, temples are crowded with people who are sacrificing and praying. Additionally, many disabled or homeless individuals gather near the temples to receive money or offerings— it is seen as a way to make merit to give money or food to them.

For Cambodian Christians, this festival can be a time of difficulty. If their families continue to celebrate the holiday, there can be great pressure to participate and offer to the spirits. This is a time when they need encouragement to stand firm in their faith. As the Psalmist said, “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth. I hate those who cling to worthless idols; I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul” (Psalm 31: 5-7). Pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith to remain true to the only Lord, Jesus Christ.

Part of this post appeared in our WR bimonthly partnership newsletter. If you'd like to receive newsletter updates via email, please click here.

9.18.2008

Moving Forward


Well, it had to happen sometime. Despite being fashion-forward and not a little funky, the Pink Helmet was retired a few weeks ago. The visor had been a little mangled for quite awhile, and instead of replacing it a second time in only 3 weeks, I opted to get something a bit more safe. After watching a woman fall off a motorbike and scrape her face on the pavement, I suddenly became very interested in having full face protection (including chin and jaw).

Despite the plethora of options available, I have chosen a standard issue black motorcycle helmet. It's basic, it's a little boring, but it's also been great. The Pink Helmet, may it rest in peace, has been relegated to emergency and guest use only. If you come for a visit... you might even get to borrow it.

In other transportation news, my motorbike has seen some improvement. The Phnom Penh traffic police have been cracking down on motos without mirrors (accounting for about 50% of all motos in PP). I was pulled over and had to pay $1. I quickly realized that simply putting the mirrors onto the motorbike would save me a lot of trouble, so $1.50 later, I now have two mirrors. Although they are absolutely no help at all in traffic, they are successfully helping me avoid the traffic police.

In other news, we now have several new American neighbors and are busy dreaming up ways we can challenge our Khmer neighbors in sporting competitions. Suggestions are welcome. Finally, the event we all feared would take place finally has. On Saturday, despite having been up and down the stairs to our apartment for a year, I took my first tumble (down the first six stairs). It was highly embarrassing, highly painful, and I'm not looking to repeat the experience. A few bruises and some shaken confidence are the outcomes of the fall. Thankfully, none of our new neighbors were home to witness this (although the landlady and her nephew came running out-- the stairs are metal, and I wasn't quiet during my rapid descent). We're thinking of installing a harness to prevent future incidents.

9.16.2008

Water Buffalo


One of the iconic images of Cambodia is a kid sitting on top of a water buffalo. It's adorable. Every time I visit the provinces with our WR translator, Engchy, I ask if I can ride one. Each time, he suggests that I jump up on some random animal we pass while driving. That's hardly something I would feel comfortable doing.

This afternoon, we visited a church training on HIV/AIDS. When one of our staff mentioned that I wanted to ride a water buffalo, the pastor went to find one of his own animals out in the rice fields. Thirty minutes later, I was sitting on it!

9.09.2008

Celebrity Culture

I hear from a lot of people that I meet that I'm pretty special, unique, or rare. Sometimes this has to do with the fact that I live in a different part of the world. Occasionally it's because of something I've said or done. Once in awhile it's due to my sense of humor. These kind of comments always make me feel a bit encouraged. After all, it's very American (or Western) to want to stand out, to be an individual, to be known. Isn't that why we revere our celebrities and send paparazzi after Ordinary Joes and Janes... they can play a convincing character, or have some unique backstory. We are captivated with people who stand out.

I am happy to report that in Cambodia, the same thing is true. People who stand out are the recipients of lots of undue attention. Guess who stands out the most? That's right... girls with brown hair, blue eyes, and white skin. No matter where I go, someone is bound to stare. A couple of weeks ago, I almost ran over a man who was standing in the middle of the road, staring at me driving my motorbike. People remember me after minor interactions; my neighbors have a fascination with my comings and goings. At first, it was overwhelming, now it's expected, and it's always, always, nervewracking. You can practice this at home by having someone watch your every move. Not someone you know and like, but someone you barely know and can't communicate with. See how much you like it, and how your behavior starts to change.

Most recently, the staring has escalated to an entirely new level. Deanna and I decided that for reasons of health, the environment, and our general enjoyment, we should purchase bicycles. I haven't owned a bicycle since my last year in college... 5 years ago. So I was a little rusty at the bike riding, but soon got the hang of it again ("it's like riding a bike" is not just a saying, I suppose). There are many, many Cambodians who ride bicycles. Hundreds of kids cycle to the school next door in the mornings and evenings. People ride up and down our street selling various things on their bikes. A bicycle, we assumed, is no big deal to Cambodians. Apparently, this is only partly true.

Construction workers have paused in their labor to watch us ride by. Children have stared in astonishment as we've passed. Moto drivers have snappy comments to toss at us. Suddenly, we are a bike-riding spectacle. I've been considering selling tickets, and am wondering if the addition of some sort of firework would increase or decrease the attention. I should be clear that these bikes, for as great as they are, are not flashy. Run of the mill, silver, with a basket on the front. Just like nearly every other bike in Cambodia. So I can only assume that they are staring at the bicycle riders. I am thinking of learning to say in Khmer, "It's only a bicycle!" Then again, that seems a little rude.

I was hoping that there might be some sort of spiritual parallel here, about being examples of our faith even when we do something simple. Or maybe it's that people should see the way we act and be captivated by the way our love for Christ is exemplified in these actions. Yet, as much as I want the staring and the noticing to have a deeper meaning, I also want it to stop. Perhaps I am a reluctant example, an unwilling spectacle and I need to get over it. On the other hand, I am simply a person, no different than the people I ride by, trying to do something as normal as go to work. I am not really that special, unique or rare; at least, not when I'm riding a bike. Then again, maybe I just need a celebrity friend to teach me how to cope with my fame.

9.04.2008

Beauty/Ashes


I’ve been watching the plants in my apartment die slowly for the past few weeks. They started off well enough, really beautiful, making everything look cozy. Deanna and I painted pots in different colors, rearranged places for our plants to live, and were thrilled with the way everything looked. However, they went the way of many of my previous plants, succumbing to my incredible inability to keep things alive. True confession: I have a black thumb. The ones we’ve saved from their sad fate (and some that haven’t been saved) have been relocated to the front porch, where we were hoping direct sunlight and more rain would enliven them. It’s still touch and go.

Sometimes I feel like these plants trace the development of so many other things in my life. Relationships I’ve neglected are turning brown and fading quickly. And then there are those that I care about, but require me to rely on a tricky cocktail of fertilizer, sunlight, and weather to keep flowering. The orchids (and these friendships) sometimes require more effort than I’m capable to provide.

It’s not just people that I’m reminded of when I think about my struggling garden. When I’ve been looking around Cambodia lately, I’m seeing the same things. My priorities are shifting and rearranging as I’ve been here for a time. I want more depth in my friendships here, less of a social group and more of a community. My passions for certain solutions are fading as I’m exposed to weeds like corruption and fatalism.

Watching the death of my plants, of my relationships, of my worldviews, I’ve realized why it is that only a few of these things are still living. I’m a person who likes to see results—I appreciate when I can look around and feel like I’ve accomplished something (you should see how satisfied I am when the dishes are done). It’s the plants, the people, the ideals that survive which claim my attention and my care. I’m not interested in bringing something dead back to life. I want to bask in the glory of my success.

Here is where the big and scary change comes in. I want to leave things for dead in my life; my plants, my passion, my friendships. Yet the God I serve is one who restores life from what is dead. Right now, as I’ve looked around at my dead plants, I’ve also found that upon second inspection, some are still alive. I’m finding that even when I’ve killed something off, through my lack of communication—even inattention—relationships (and plants) are flourishing, blooming when I least expect it. Things I prayed about ages ago and buried are suddenly answered. More interesting is the transformation when this happens. I used to think it was creative solutions and large-scale efforts that would make things better. Instead, springing up is a desire to see the local church equipped and mobilized to create true change, lasting change.

In many respects, death and restoration are the story of this place. Cambodia is a country entrenched in death and mourning; for 30 years people have lamented the Pol Pot regime and genocide, and struggled through a civil war, poverty, and disease. Yet out of that time, out of the destruction, there is new life coming; the Church is growing, and little by little, hope is blossoming here.

It’s no coincidence to me that in this season of restoration—of relationships, of purpose—God is reminding me of the passage I spent so much time praying about before I moved to Cambodia. “…provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3). We are no longer those who grieve, surrounded by death. I don’t have to live amongst ashes, in mourning; God wants to provide beauty and joy instead. He wants us to be plants, too, sturdy, righteous oak trees, a statement for all about how Christ has brought us—and all of the things we left for dead—back to life.

8.25.2008

Ethnic Identity

I've never been confused about my ethnic identity. That's not a slam against people who have been... there's just nothing to be confused about. I am as white as they come; blue eyed, brown haired, susceptible to sunburns. So lately, I've been getting some confusing feedback from people in Cambodia about my ethnicity.

First, after I pierced my nose, one of our staff members told me I looked Indian. Even with some funky earrings, I'm not sure how that's possible.

Then, when I had my hair pulled back with a scarf, someone said I looked very French. Also that I should be driving down the road in a convertible. That's not really an ethnic thing, but still... odd.

When I took a group of volunteers to Siem Reap, a seller at the market asked me if one of them was my mother. That's a pretty normal question, except in this case, the volunteer in question was Korean. A very nice woman, lots of fun, but, um, no, that's not my mom.

Today, when I walked into the office after being gone for a week, modeling a new haircut, I was only slightly surprised by my latest ethnic identity. Grace, our office manager, looked at me and said, "You look like a Thai girl." She proceeded to tell me that so many Thai girls look beautiful because they have a Thai mother and white father. I think there was a compliment in there somewhere...

It's not that I mind being mistaken for some other ethnic group. Most often, these comments stem from some change in style, and usually follow after some statement about how beautiful I am (good for the self-esteem, these Cambodians). My absolute favorite comment, however, happened recently, and is not at all related to my ethnicity, but my humanity.

I took part in a training course in Bangkok last week. One of the trainers was a man from Nepal (bearing a strong resemblance to Tom Cruise, not in an attractive way) who seemed to think that my colleague and I were hilarious and great fun (very astute, this man). The trainings ended around 5, and we used the evenings to shop and explore Bangkok. However, he seemed to think that we should be spending a bit more time with the other students. "It is very hard to find some people after the trainings," he said one morning, "They are like angels, flitting off to someplace else."

It seems that not only am I Thai, Korean, French, and Indian, I am also a celestial being. Or, perhaps, he just mistook me for one of the women on Charlie's Angels. Wasn't one of them named Kate, too?

8.05.2008

Making Headlines

Cambodia is not a well-known country, geographically speaking. Some people think Cambodia is in Africa (Cameroon?), South America (Columbia?), and one college-educated young woman asked me if it was in Orange County, California (um, nope). Lately, however, little, lost Cambodia is making big world news. There are a couple of reasons for this: elections and war. You know, everybody's favorite newsmakers.

Elections

I'm not a terribly political person when in the US, but here in Cambodia, I'm not sure how anyone can have any kind of political fervency. Two weeks ago, Cambodians voted parties into seats in the National Assembly (kind of like the House of Representatives). The party with the majority of votes would rule the country outright (as opposed to forming a coalition government; in the last election, it took 3 years to iron out what "coalition" meant, and even then it wasn't really fair). Since the Vietnamese occupation in 1980, Cambodia's Prime Minister has nearly always been Hun Sen, the dominant force behind the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), and a man who controls nearly everything that happens (politically anyway) in Cambo. In the last election, CPP was forced into the coalition government with other parties, but somehow came out (through lots of underhanded means, I'm guessing) as the ruling party. This year, they weren't leaving anything to chance; they wanted to win outright.

The elections took place on July 27th, and were relatively peaceful. The campaigns leading up to the big day, however, were crazy! Trucks of people cruised up and down the streets, blaring campaign songs and speeches, waving flags, and stopping traffic. Many of these people are volunteers for the party, but sometimes they are paid to campaign (around $2.50 per day for some parties). Plus, they got a free t-shirt and a hat. I nearly signed up (no, not really). By the day of the election, despite careful monitoring by lots of foreign agencies, there were still problems. Many people's names were spelled incorrectly on the voting register, or someone had already voted in their place. In the end, it seems that Hun Sen and his CPP comrades have won again, garnering about 90% of the vote. It must be nice to be unbeatable.

War?!

Cambodians are not exceptionally fond of their nearest neighbors for lots of reasons-- land stealing, hostile takeover, and historical border disputes, to name a few-- but recently things have gotten pretty interesting in our little corner of the world. Not to worry, I am miles from any "conflict zones," but circulating amongst the Cambodians are rumors of impending war and poisoned fruit (seriously. Cambodians are notorious gossips, and there is a tale going around that fruit from Thailand--and possibly Vietnam-- is poisoned). The issue is this: an ancient temple (called Preah Vihear Temple) was the site of a border dispute. The land was given to Cambodia (reluctantly, on the part of the Thais), and then the temple was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it a tourist destination, and fairly economically valuable.

The Thai people weren't happy, Cambodian riot police were sent to protect the temple, Thai soldiers went to face off, and Cambodian troops were dispatched. At one point, a few Thai soldiers crossed the border, and this resulted in their capture. Since then, soldiers have been stationed at the border, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and waiting for peace to be brokered. Recently, a second temple (Ta Moan Thom) has been the site of conflict, but it seems to be easing. Some have said the land borders are closed, but I'm not entirely sure. Things seem to be de-escalating, and some have suggested that the conflict was really due mainly to provoking strong nationalist sentiment on the eve of the election (a good threat; one CPP slogan was, "A vote for CPP is a vote for peace"-- which could be indicative of impeding war, or prevailing peace as a result of the voting). Either way, the tension doesn't help the ever-present anti-Thai sentiment, and also isn't a huge help to Cambodia's burgeoning economy.

As an outsider watching these things, it's hard to know what to suggest. War over a temple certainly seems funny, in fact war at all doesn't make a lot of sense to me (call me anti-American, but I'm not a huge fan of widespread violence). There's nationalist pride to consider, land ownership issues, economic benefits, and let's not forget political posturing. In the case of the elections, there's lots to be said for freedom and fairness, and also for stability and a climate open to the work of NGOs (as in, work I help with on a daily basis). The biggest problem I have is that I can't understand some of these things. I grew up during a time of peace, in a place where we believe (typically) in the fairness of our voting process. A history of war and genocide, unfamiliarity with a democratic system, and a lack of education that leave me susceptible to propaganda and flimsy arguments are not my back story. So I've been sitting on the sidelines, wondering what to think, watching and waiting, and trying to understand. At the end of the day, think what Cambodia has truly gained is an international audience. Hopefully, now that people know more about this place, they will pay more attention to what's going on--and cry out against things like senseless war and injustice. Perhaps that is the secret to helping things change.

7.31.2008

Power Outages

Here's the thing about a developing country: sometimes the basics are not so basic. Cambodia does not generate enough electricity to power the whole country. Some is bought from Vietnam, some is produced domestically, and when there isn't enough, well, the power goes out. In the hot season (March/April/May), Cambodia routinely (as in every day) shuts off power to different parts of the country, or even the city. The blackouts can be anywhere between a half hour to five or six hours, any time between 8 am and 11 pm. This makes everything hotter (life without a fan is awful), more inconvenient (get whatever you can out of the fridge as fast as you can), and a little suspenseful (when will the outage be today?). We've grown accustomed to power outages, keeping flashlights handy, learning to do things in the dark, even simply announcing it (oh, power's out again) instead of groaning. Even though it isn't the hot season anymore, it's been pretty warm the past few weeks, and we've had sporadic outages.

Yesterday, we (Deanna and I) came home for lunch. I went into the bathroom, and as I turned on the light, we heard a pop, and the light went out. It wouldn't turn back on, and I realized that the light in my bedroom wasn't working either. In fact, the power was out altogether. Chalking it up to poor timing-- thinking I had unwittingly chosen the exact moment of a power cut to hit the light, we went about the lunch routine and sweltered for an hour before heading back to the office. It's not uncommon for the power to go out somewhere between when we walk in the door for lunch and the moment we decide something needs to be microwaved. Life is cruel like that sometimes.

By the time Deanna went home at 4:30, the power was still out. It was out when I got home at 5:15, when our friends came over for dinner at 5:30, and as we were lighting candles to help brighten things in the ever increasing twighlight at 6:10. While it isn't unusual for the power to go out for such a stretch, what was odd was that the neighborhood was responding unusually. When the power is out, everyone gathers outside to talk, we hear the whir and hum of generators, and once, after a really long cut, the whole complex cheered when the lights came on. As we peered into our neighbor's homes, we noticed they were turning on lights and watching television. Curious.

With a glance at each other, we examined the lone fuse box for the apartment. It's not a very complicated system, I guess, because there is only one breaker switch. As neither of us are engineers, electricians, or particularly adept at construction of any kind, we had not expected that flipping the bathroom switch would blow the fuse for the entire apartment. Oops. A quick flip of the switch, and the lights came back on. Just in time to illuminate our embarrassed faces and ensure that our friends had a hearty laugh at our expense.

7.24.2008

Looking Happy

Tourists love the Russian Market. To be fair, I also love the Russian Market. But I think that's more to do with it being the location of my favorite DVD seller and close proximity to the best lime soda in Phnom Penh. Anyhow, on a typical day at the market (especially a weekend), you can find people from lots of different locations browsing the stalls, buying things they don't need, and haggling.

One such couple caught my attention last week. I'm now able to bargain for most things in Khmer, which is nice, because I get a better price. I've been helping all our volunteers negotiate for things, since now that I can bargain better, I can experience the thrill of haggling. They watched me negotiate for something for one of the volunteers, and asked if I had any "tips." I laughed and told them to be friendly. Later, I found them browsing the fruit. They asked what was good, and I helped them purchase a couple of apples. Then the questions came. Here are the highlights:

"So how do you know the language?" the German woman asked.

"Well, I live here, so I had to learn."

"What do you do here? What made you move?" her English boyfriend (?) queried.

"I work for a Christian NGO, we do a lot of health education and community health work...I really liked Cambodia after visiting, and decided to move back." (something of an understatement, but hey, these were strangers)

"This is great, we've really been wanting to meet someone who lives here. It seems like such an interesting place." Boyfriend was the one most interested in the experience, but German girlfriend nodded along.

"Yeah, it has its ups and downs, but Cambodia is a great place. I really enjoy living and working here." By this time, my volunteers were approaching, and we were out of conversation points. In fact, it was getting kind of awkward. However, they decide to throw in a stunner.

"Well, you look really happy. It's so great to see someone who is really happy here."

I've never had a complete stranger tell me something so kind before. It was especially odd, given that it was about 100 degrees, I was sweaty and dirty, tired, and a little stressed. I didn't feel unhappy, just... it wouldn't have been my prevailing emotion. I was surprised at how good it made me feel, at how genuinely convinced they were of my contentment. I wish I'd had more time with them, even (strangely) wanted to ask them to have coffee, to try to understand what it was they saw in me that was so "happy." Sadly, they've departed Cambodia and I've returned to my busy schedule. Nevertheless, it was a small blessing to me, there by the fruit stand in the market. After a year of ups and downs, in the midst of a summer of challenges, two people were able to see my joy in being here, the thrill that comes with doing what I should be. I think it must be so great to see someone who is really happy here. I'm glad that someone was me.

7.14.2008

Linguistic Foibles (Part Deux)

Sometimes, when I'm speaking Khmer, I inadvertenly say something funny. The other day, a shopkeeper thought I was negotiating a $225 furniture set for $25. We had a good laugh, once he got over the shock. However, sometimes language mishaps go both ways.

KonPleang is a 40-something Cambodian member of my church. She lives in one of the slum villages, and speaks not a word of English. I ran into her unexpectedly while working the other day, and she greeted me with a big hug and smile. She is one of the sweetest ladies I know. Yesterday, she wore a shirt to church with some English writing on it. In bold letters, the shirt proclaimed: "True F***in' Canadian."

Which is, quite simply, both explicit AND incorrect.

7.08.2008

Rainy Days

Abbie and I after 5 minutes in the rain.

This is my second rainy season in Cambodia. Therefore, I feel qualified to dispense some advice about rainy season behavior. Here are Kate's Tried and True Tips for Surviving the Rainy Season:

1. Wear dark colors. Bonus points if these dark colors also include water resistant or quick drying fabrics.

2. An improperly worn poncho is as effective as no poncho at all.

3. Rain hurts at high speeds. Be careful out there.

4. Someone should invent a windshield wiper for motorbike helmet visors.

5. Time your trips appropriately. It's better to be heading home than going out when the monsoon hits. No use traipsing around like a drowned rat in public.

6. Get home quickly! The roads flood-- which means you may get stuck and/or splashed by an SUV driving by at an inappropriate speed.

7. It's always the hottest right before it rains.

8. Laundry should be done in the morning if you want to hang it outside. Otherwise, you'll just do it again later.

9. Rain makes things colder and smellier, depending on the thing in question.

10. If you think it's going to rain, it probably is.

7.07.2008

Dream On

It finally happened. My work life-- coordinating our stream of ESL volunteers-- has finally spilled over and infected my brain. I woke up last night from a dream in which a volunteer was asking me questions. On a daily basis, my job is to answer many questions from volunteers regarding teaching, health, general Cambodia info, World Relief trivia, and personal stories. These questions, however, were a little weird. Especially since they were about raising her adult-aged son, whom I've never met-- not something that's part of my aresenal of useless knowledge.

I'm not sure what's going on in the complicated neurological pathways of my mind. In the past, I've had some pretty interesting dreams-- once I was a spy, I've had TV characters show up, and I even practiced my own wedding. I think this dream might be an indication that come August 3rd I'll need a break. It could also be my brain's way of telling me that these volunteers are leaving their imprint not just on Cambodia, but on me as well. In the meantime, I'm hoping it will be safe to sleep tonight. I'm overdue for another wedding rehearsal.

7.03.2008

New Look

Here's a secret: I love the David Bowie song, "Changes." I can't explain it, I'm not a huge Bowie fan in general, and it's kind of an odd choice for a favorite. Nevertheless... there it is.

I've been humming this song a bit as I reformatted the blog this week. Not much is different, layout, some new links on the sidebar, a new photo. I've been feeling like it's time for a new look for awhile. The old layout felt a bit cluttered, and I always had trouble reading it. I was in the mood for something crisper, cleaner, a bit more minimalist.

Anyway, look around a bit, let me know if you like it, and enjoy the ch-ch-ch-changes.

6.23.2008

Rampant Injustice

In the last week I have decided that there are two kinds of injustice. Obviously, this is pretty reductionist, and feel free to contradict me-- but first, hear me out. The first kind is Big Injustice: poverty, racism, sexism, genocide... the big ticket items. The second type is personal injustice: things that happen to us that don't seem fair. You may be thinking, "well clearly we're in a battle against Big Injustice, Kate. The little things are just bumps in the road. Unfair, but you know, in the face of Big Injustice, the little things are just an annoyance." Right, well, that line of thinking makes you a better person than me. Why? Because last week, I found myself pretty annoyed by all those little things, and a big one, too.

To start with, my home internet connection died without any explanation last Friday night. Poof, gone. Internet is a luxury item, I keep reminding myself, but it doesn't help soothe my irritation when it was nearly a week and we were still attempting to reconfigure the wireless router without the aid of a technician or anyone who has a clue what they are doing. Power outages compounded the problem, as twenty minutes before the tech was supposed to arrive, we lost the electricity, and it stayed off for 6 hours. This doesn't really count as injustice, unless you count random power outages and surges as such, but it is something that's unfair.

The second injustice, again, of the personal variety, we discovered last Saturday. A can of Pringles went missing. Then, on Sunday, we attempted to eat some snacks that Deanna carried back from her recent trip to the US. We found the box torn open (not neatly!) and half the cakes gone! My landlords (or, more likely, their grandchildren) must have come into my house through the connecting door--which, until I recently realized it was somewhat of a hazard in case of an emergency, was locked-- and opened our treats. Again, snack food is not on par with stealing someone's home, possessions, or freedom. It does, however, reveal that my neighbors are not to be trusted. And it makes me feel cheated, and resentful, grappling with how to address the issue without stepping over some invisible cultural boundary.

Lastly, the big ticket item (literally). I was pulled over by the traffic police last weekend, with a truckload of volunteers in tow. To be fair, I did go through an intersection just as the light turned red, as the left turn arrow began to turn green, and along with a few motorbikes. Of course, in my decision-making to go (versus to stop and have volunteers fly around the back of the truck), I failed to factor in that this is a known hang-out for the police. I pulled over, showed the officer my licencse while requesting that he give it back (sometimes they make you pay) and we started our negotiations.

The initial offer: 3 days of traffic school, for the foreigner.* Unless, of course, we can compromise (read: come to some agreement on how much money I will pay him).

The compromise: $20.00

My counter-offer: 5,000 riel (approx. $1.25)

Second offer: $10.00

My counter: 10,000 riel (approx. $2.50), or go ahead and write the ticket.

His reply: Fine, $5.00.

The end result: somewhere just over $4. (since I claimed I didn't have any money, despite carrying around a large cash advance for the visiting teams.)

*Note: every time he said "foreigner," I thought he was saying "for dinner," and could not figure out if I was being asked on a date, or for money to pay for his dinner. Either way, it was a no.

The whole thing was just annoying, since Phnom Penh is not known for its strict enforcement of traffic laws. In fact, we saw many people making the same move I had, just without the watchful (and greedy) eyes of the police on them.

This last incident, I think, is actually indicative of Big Injustice. It's no secret that Cambodia is corrupt, that the police do not do their job (and now I am evidence of that fact). Echoes of my mother's lectures on "civil societies" were sounding in my head after my run-in with the police. We obey the law because we anticipate that the penalties for not doing so are worse than the inconvenience of a red light. We obey the law because there are consequences, things that make it wrong to disobey. Here, the consequences are flexible, because the enforcers are not motivated or taught to be strict. Here, the consequences vary, based on who you are, how much money you have, on who else is available to take the fall. The worst part? This is the case from the lowest traffic offense all the way up to the highest, most public crimes. Just look at how long justice has been delayed in the Khmer Rouge tribunals. Nearly 30 years have passed, the perpetrators have died, and still the court system is only trying the case.

I know the US isn't perfect, I know that people are wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, that it is not an impartial system. In fact, I ran a red light in the US and got out of that ticket too. We live, though, with the expectation of justice, with the idea that when we are wronged, when others break the law, there will be a consequence. In the absence of that... well, snack food goes missing, and traffic is a mess, and eventually, somewhere along the line, there's poverty and genocide, and a host of other Big Injustices that are really hard to understand.

There's a spiritual parallel here, I'm sure, if we wanted to dig it out. "Justice is mine, says the Lord" and all of that. At the moment, I'm annoyed by injustice, big and small, wishing for things to be better, wondering if there was a way to fix it, and hoping I'll see change in my lifetime. I'm also humbled by my coworker, who when told the story of my neighbors and the snacks said, "well, just bless them. They will never get to try that food unless you bring it to them." Instantly, I felt like a jerk, whining about my lack of imported snacks. In the face of injustice, what else are we to do? We bless those who hurt us, turn the other cheek, and continue to fight for the poor, the oppressed, and for justice from the Lord.

6.19.2008

New Normal


A friend of mine told me a few months ago that once I hit the one year mark, things would "just click into place." At the time, I was struggling with homesickness, wanting to be in two places at once, and just general discomfort with life in Cambodia. Needless to say, I didn't totally believe her.

Fast forward. I was driving down the road today, after taking some volunteers to visit one of our field projects. A year ago, I rode in the car on the way to Vietnam to take care of my visa. What a difference a year makes! It struck me today, as I cruised down the road, conversing with one of my favorite Cambodian staff members, that I finally feel comfortable in Cambodia. Click.

It's been hitting me in other ways, too. I'm performing a lot of the same tasks that I did for last year's ESL program. Yet this year, I'm so much more confident about decision-making, more able to do things on my own, answer questions, and just generally be in charge. In fact, I've started bragging to my colleagues about how I can do things without their help this year, and how relieved they must be. Click.

I still receive emails related to ongoing activities among the grad students at USC. For a year, it felt like my life was running on two tracks-- the one that I was living in Cambodia, and the one I might have been living in Los Angeles. Today was the first time I read one of those emails (literally, I usually delete them!), and felt like that life was really, truly, in the past, instead of an alternate reality to the one I am experiencing. Click.

As I'm examining how, well, normal it is for me to be in Cambodia, I'm shocked at how I can trace the simultaneous development of my emotions. I'm finally feeling like myself in Cambodia, though there have been glimmers along the way. Of course, I've changed and grown, but those essentials, the things I had forgotten, had put away in the midst of transition--important stuff, like confidence, extraversion, and a personality that I'm only now reacquainting myself with-- they are blooming again, as I'm able to be Kate. For so long I felt like "Kate who moved to Cambodia." Now I simply feel like "Kate, who lives in Cambodia." The subtle semantics of that sentence, and even that little comma, are somehow important to me, to how I feel about my life here.

I've heard--and whether it's true or not, who knows-- that the worst part of grief for someone we've lost fades after a year and a bit. There's a lingering sadness, but it's the year (and that extra bit) which is necessary for our world to settle into a new kind of normal. Maybe I've been grieving for the loss of my own former life, maybe that's a lie. Sure, it's still hard, there are things I don't understand, don't like, and really miss about the U.S. I expect those things now, have learned to live with the twinge that accompanies hearing about something I've missed, the pang of homesickness that comes at odd hours, and can roll my eyes and shrug at the things I'll never understand about Cambodia.

I've come to think of it a bit like a puzzle. Where there was only a blank space, slowly something is taking shape. The pieces are falling into place-- communication, understanding, comfort. As they snap into the frame, the picture of who I am and who I am in Cambodia begins to look less distinct, more intertwined and, ultimately, more exciting. Click.

6.13.2008

Horseback Riding

Many of you already know that "summer" in Cambodia means the start of our English as a Second Language (ESL) program. This year (as was the case last year), I'm coordinating the program, which runs for 8 weeks and will see about 80 students and 40 or so volunteer teachers take part. It is, for lack of a better phrase, a ton of work. Hence any short updates, lack of email response or craziness you hear from my general direction. It's not you, it's me.

Setting up the program was interesting this year, as it involved extending our curriculum (through the help of a wonderful volunteer), and about 3 weeks before the start of classes, I realized a crucial error I had made. I had no curriculum for 3 advanced classes. And so for 2 weeks, I wrote and revised what I hope is an adequate curriculum for the students. We'll see. So far, so good. Yet even as these classes are just beginning, I'm already thinking ahead, of what could go better, of what needs to be changed.

Today, while checking my gmail account, I noticed the targeted advertising on the side. Nearly all of it concerned ESL. The first one caught my eye: ESL Summer Camp! The ad went on to read: "Learn English on a Canadian ranch. Horseback riding and outdoor fun!" My first thought: That's what our program is missing. Horses!

So here's my question: how might it even be possible to combine Canadian ranching with English lessons? I'm glad I'm not in charge of that program.

6.03.2008

Linguistic Foibles

Until 1953, Cambodia was a French colony. The French left a lot of things behind in Cambodia-- some not so great, in fact-- and one remainder is a bit of the language. Some older Cambodians still speak French, though many French speakers were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime's brutal genocide in the 1970's.

For my part, I spent four years in high school learning French. I never really used it outside of school, nor after I graduated (eight years ago now). While I've been trying to learn Khmer, the impulse to throw in a French word that I do know is sometimes overwhelming. I'm always tempted to ask for things at a restaurant and then toss in a s'il vous plait at the end. It's nice to know the language center in my brain is alive and well.

So all of this leads to a funny story. My apartment is on the second floor of a house, and the house is arranged in a kind of complex-- the homes are similar to townhouses, and arranged in two long rows, facing each other. This means that the neighbors all gather outside and know who each other is. I'm recognizable as the only foreigner, so I get lots of smiles and waves, especially from the kids. Recently, one of the other women in the complex was spending time with my landlords, and asked me (in Khmer) if I was French. I said no, I come from America.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, while my sister and brother were visiting, she approached us and began counting to 5-- in French. We humored her and I counted to 10 (some lessons last from high school, I guess!). Apparently this interaction has made us friends. She's also tried to speak to Deanna in French within the last week or so. Yesterday I was retrieving my motorbike from inside the house (where it's parked at night for safety) when she addressed me (she was sitting in the house with my elderly landlord, a very serious man who is a little weird). She began asking me questions (in Khmer) either about what month I came to Cambodia, or what province I came from in Cambodia (the words are similar, and without context, it's really tough to differentiate). I must have looked helplessly at the landlord, because he began to shake his head solemnly. Then, in a universal gesture, he pointed to his head, pointed to the woman, and frowned. I took this to mean, "She's crazy. Run away."

So, instead of doing what I wanted to do-- namely, laugh loudly at the whole situation and get my camera to capture a photo of his face-- I smiled, shrugged, walked my motorbike to the front of the house where Deanna was waiting to go to work, and related the story with glee.

I have no idea to say "crazy" in Khmer or French, but apparently I'm getting better at sign language.

5.30.2008

One Year


I'm taking a break from skyping with my sister, planning ESL curriculum, and checking facebook to do a bit of reflecting. Despite the fact that it feels alternately like I've just arrived and always lived here, the truth is that I have been in Phnom Penh for 1 year and 8 days (hours and minutes just seem tedious, and really, I'm not keeping track or counting down). Some days, I feel like those 373 days have been the most extraordinary of my life, and other days I still wonder what it would have been like to spend them somewhere else, in a different hemisphere.

I have to remember, though, that I chose this. One year and 10 days ago, I got onto an airplane with three suitcases and a whole lot of fear, with tear stains on my face and a sniffly, red nose, and officially decided that my life would be different. I consider everything up to that point—packing, selling my car, even buying the ticket--to be an unofficial decision.

I gave up on a dispassionate view of poverty and moved in down the street from people who can't fathom the wealth I have. I left behind conversations in which I feel understood and validated, choosing instead to navigate the inconsistencies and frustrations of second languages. I jumped over the international date line, and learned that phone calls are something I treasure, simply because it means that for a few minutes, I am connected to someone on the other side of the world. I left easy friendships for times of solitude, I gave up religion for faith. It's been a weird year.

I was with a friend a few weeks ago, and we were joking about how we can tell who is new to Cambodia and who has been here for awhile. She remarked, "It's all those people who step off the plane so ready to change the world, sure that they are going to turn everything around." We laughed and agreed it took about six to eight weeks for reality to intrude and these people to realize that it's simply not that easy. Of course, that initial optimism is something inherent in all of us working in ministry here... it's only the expression that dies out. We harbor the hope-- secretly--that what we are doing is making a difference, that the aches and pains in our souls (and sometimes bodies) are a part of something bigger, better, and transformative. For the most part, it is. That is why we stay.

I've turned down marriage proposals (made half in jest) and become comfortable with being the object of fascination. I learned how to make rice in a rice cooker, and that bread goes moldy in about 3 days here. I've explored the healing power of American snack food, and marveled at how many tasty fruits God made (Eve was clearly tempted by a mango). I am used to seeing far more temples than churches, to the smell of incense instead of air freshener, and the sound of horns honking and monks chanting. I have hated and loved Cambodia, been exhilarated and frustrated by it. In other words, I have lived here.

The experiences have changed me-- how could they not? Yet, I am not sure the time is right to mark those changes, to declare myself wholly altered. It has, after all, only been one year. A year so fraught with change that I've woken up in the night wondering where my good friends are and why I haven't seen them in so long. A year in which I have realized that the faces and smiles of my coworkers and (new) friends are so inexpressibly precious to me that I wondered if I could leave them behind; at the very least, I discovered I will never forget them. A year of struggle and triumph, of transition and tears, a year in which I never quite knew where my heart was. A year which has ensured that the rest of my life will look different-- though just how is still not clear.

I've done something I thought was impossible, which was leaving. Then I did something even more unlikely, which was staying. And I didn't break or fall apart, lose my mind or my senses. I grew to love Cambodia, for its beauties, in spite of (perhaps because of?) its faults, and certainly due to the potential here. I love how Cambodia has cared for me, nurtured me into a new worldview, how it is a place that God had planned for my life, even if I didn't know it 3 years ago. I love how God has demonstrated His sovereignty, His power, His love and even His purposes for me here. I love who He’s made me to be—and that He’s put me here to be that person.

373 days. Sometimes I still feel the way I did on that first day, when I wrote in my journal, “I can’t believe that this morning, I woke up in Cambodia.” I can’t believe that I am part of something bigger, better, and transformative—and that that something is my life.

5.25.2008

Idols

After hanging out in ancient temples, walking through markets filled with wooden statues, and watching people sacrificing and worshipping false gods, I can't seem to shake this scripture from my mind.

"All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing? He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy. The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint.

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it.

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god."

They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"

"Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you." -- Isaiah 44: 9-22

I think that sums it up better than anything I can think to say.

5.12.2008

Church

Too often, I think about what "the church" should be, or how the church isn't what it could be. There's lots of people who've been hurt by church, who don't understand it, who don't know it. But over the last couple of days, I've remembered why I love the church:

1. The church can be poor. It does not have to be a financial powerhouse. My church in Cambodia is small. It ran on $9,000 last year, and gave away $2000 of that in outreach. My pastor does not receive a salary, and while we currently under-give as a body, God provides each month for what the church needs to keep running. This week, we were able to be thankful that one of the Cambodian women in my church got a good job with an international school that will enable her to give. Her testimony was especially moving as only a few months ago, she was out of work and feeling quite hopeless about the situation.

2. The church is global. Last week, we had a pretty serious tragedy impact our staff and volunteers-- a traffic accident that killed two, wounded many, and (briefly) imprisoned the driver (one of the staff members I totally admire). The response in prayer and giving from American churches has been overwhelming. It is such a great reminder that we are not alone in Cambodia, but others are walking with us... even in the midst of tremendous suffering.

3. The church is active. In the midst of this tragedy, we have heard stories of how volunteers and Cambodian church members have been praying continuously and even traveled some distance (on meager budgets) to encourage and uplift those who are injured. They are truly ministering to those who are in need, even when it requires sacrifice.

I think this issue is doubly relevant as tomorrow I will embark with my siblings to Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temple (along with many others-- including one featured in Tomb Raider). Climbing over these ruined temples, forgotten and collapsing religious sites of years ago, I will remember that the church I am a part of is--first and foremost--alive. It isn't held in place by a building, a statue, or two hundred tons of stone. No, it is outward-focused, relevant to everyday struggles, and in pursuit of something precious. Despite the fact that it can be broken, sinful, and selfish, the church is trying. Just like its members.

5.04.2008

Happenings

Deanna (my roommate) just yelled to me that the current temperature is 91 degrees, and with the humidity, it feels like 107 (literally. She found it on a website). With the fan blowing on me, I've cut a little of the heat away, but I can tell it's likely building up to a heavy rain in a couple of hours. When that happens, it will be nice and cool. Until then, my hair is up and I am in a tank top and shorts (not okay for outside, but definitely okay at home), drinking a lot of water.

Why, you might ask, was Deanna yelling to me, when I am approximately 5 feet away from her (though, technically, in the other room)? Well, the daughter of my landlords is getting married tomorrow, which means that today is the cho rho, or blessing by the monks. The family comes to this portion of the event, and they have put up pink and gold cloths all over their house, to welcome guests and bless the couple. There is also music and singing blaring through the house from a loudspeaker set up outside.

There is a huge tent in front of the house where they will place tables for the meal tomorrow, and for the ceremony in the morning. The festivities will probably begin around 4:30 or 5 in the morning, with a procession of fruit at about 7. Then, while Deanna and I are at work, they will do the actual ceremony, with lots of breaks for eating. I've been invited to the evening meal, which starts at about 4:30. The Khmer have a much different approach to weddings than in the US. Whereas we come up with budgets and guest lists based on what we can afford, they invite as many people as possible, and no gifts are accepted. They want cash. So my invitation is quite strategic on their part. Even though I live upstairs, they don't know me very well. However, they know I have money, and they are expecting a pretty big gift (at least $20). The goal is to have the cash gifts cover the cost of the wedding, with whatever is left over used to make purchases (say, a new motorbike?) the couple needs.

It is going to be an interesting two days. We'll be going to bed early, in preparation for our 4:30 wake up call. Oy. To my knowledge, this is the last unmarried daughter.

In other news, the countdown is on. In t-minus 5 days, my brother and sister will arrive in Cambodia for 2 weeks. They are the first in a string of visitors lasting until approximately August. When they leave, a friend from college is coming for a couple days, a summer intern should arrive in that time frame as well, and during the first week of June, our summer ESL teams begin arriving. This means lots of trips to the airport for me (not too bad, since there's a Dairy Queen at the Phnom Penh airport... and when it's 107 degrees, ice cream is a pretty good thing). I'm excited to have friends and family here, and the prep is underway for all the teams. It is always interesting to see people's first impressions of Cambodia, especially now that I have been here for so long. Things I have started to take for granted regularly surprise or shock visitors. It reminds me to keep things in perspective and to continually examine Cambodia with fresh eyes to better serve those here for a short time.

So that's "the happs" on this side of the world. With the dulcet tones of wedding music in my ears, I'm off to find more ways to cool off. This might mean relocating to an air conditioned location. I'm also wondering where I can find ear plugs here.