I was out shopping this weekend (grocery shopping, that is) and then eating with a friend when she mentioned that Cambodia has really changed since she arrived (many years ago). Even in the brief stint that I’ve been living here, things are different. Soon, a 40-story building will grace Phnom Penh’s skyline, and the KFC opens either this month or next month. There are SUV’s (and I mean luxury SUVs—Hummers, Range Rovers, Mercedes) driving down the streets. As I looked around the shopping center we were in, I couldn’t help but wonder, is this progress?

Many would argue that an economic boom in Cambodia is a great thing. I certainly think that it’s helpful for people to have employment, and that a self-sustaining economy for Cambodia is a must. However, I’m not sure that what has happened in this country is what we should be aiming for in development. The rich are getting richer, and the gap between the richest and poorest Cambodians is widening. So the wealth benefits the few, not the many (some of you are now declaring me a communist—hang in there, I’ll explain).

I guess what drives me crazy is that the stability and growth of the Cambodian economy doesn’t seem to be improving things like health care, hunger, or justice. The tax structure is abominable, and though there is more money flowing in from business, the huge amount of foreign aid received here isn’t changing ($601 million in 2007). Instead, what has appeared are massive office and apartment buildings that the poor cannot afford; luxury items (plasma screens? really?) that people simply don’t need; and foreign imports that just aren’t any good (KFC, McDonald’s… American culture at it’s finest). In other words, all that new money can be shunted right into conspicuous consumption; it’s a practice I find suspect anyway, and certainly one I’m not about to endorse for a recently stabilized economy.

Living here has forced me to examine the value of living simply—it’s not something I’ve ever been good at. The words “need” and “want” are badly conflated in my vocabulary. But I’ve examined how I use the things that I purchase, and I think twice about whether or not I’ll really eat all the food that I buy (because after looking at hungry kids, I’ve changed my mind about mindlessly filling my fridge). So it’s really difficult for me to look around and see a class of rich Cambodians living off the fruit of cheap labor or foreign investment when there are children picking trash at the city dump. Is there a way to ensure that the wealth gets spread around? Is it a case of selfishness?

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what true progress looks like. I have an inkling, though, that it might have something to do with fewer hungry kids, more people getting an education, less disease, and certainly a reduction in poverty. I think what I’m craving here is not just a new economy, but a new value system—one more closely aligned with the Kingdom vision in the Gospels. In that case, it has to be more than just improving businesses and structures; it has to do with reaching people’s hearts.



Big news from Phnom Penh... I had my first taste of Mexican food in Cambodia yesterday! Now, I've been able to make my own tacos (or at least attempt it) but it's not the same, precisely, and I've grown nearly desperate of late for some jalapenos. Of course, the restaurant we visited (called Cantina) was not quite the same as the bevy of options in and around LA (La Estrella, Prontos, oh how I miss you!). However, I did get to play the expert, explaining the quesadilla, burrito, and pico de gallo to my British friends... it was a fun and educational adventure.

Now, as to taste: the salsa was fairly good, the tortillas were a little too oily and not soft enough (how they managed that combo, I'll never know) for my preference. There was a noticeable lack of cheese, and it wasn't spicy enough for me... but the overall effect was good. I'll go back and sample the tacos... perhaps those will be better than the burrito was. Or maybe I need to relax my standards.

The most interesting part? All the different smells. And I don't mean food. In addition to the odor of the river (fishy, mostly, and not in a good way), someone was smoking marijuana nearby. Oh so appetizing. Another reminder that I am NOT in California, where that was at least banned from happening in the restaurant. In any case, my cravings for south of the border (and I mean the US border) cuisine have been somewhat tempered. Next up: the hunt for a good cheeseburger.


I have not spent much time describing my adjustment to life in another culture. To be honest, I don’t think about it that often. But today it is weighing on my mind, for many reasons.

I’m learning a thing or two about myself, and about Cambodia, too. For one, I’ve discovered that I like feedback. I like to know how people feel about me, their opinion of what I’m saying. Sometimes, I even like a fight, or at least a good debate. Whether that’s a function of my culture or my personality is irrelevant, because the Khmer will not fight with me. I spent two days this week leading a facilitation training for some of our staff. Even if they thought I was teaching complete rubbish (and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t), they would still say thank you and leave smiling. This unstinting hospitality and desire to please is both wonderful and frustrating. Coming from a culture in which a reaction—disgust, laughter, even a glare—can tell so much, the strangeness of inspiring only smiles and impassive faces can be maddening at times.

Last Friday night, I met some friends-of-friends, including a woman who has lived here for much longer than I have. I quite reluctantly found myself in the midst of a conversation about all the negative aspects of Cambodian culture—a patron/client mentality that impacts every interaction; the capacity for violence that seems to exist just beneath a veneer of content. The woman I spoke to is correct; these things exist here and come up all the time. Lately, when I am deflecting the perception of my coworkers that I am wealthy (my laptop is a continual item of fascination), or lamenting the atrocities here (last week the wife of one staff member threw acid on his face, and yesterday a church member was attacked and beaten), I have found myself longing to understand more, to be able to walk in and out of cultures simultaneously.

I am always, first and foremost, an American. Yet, I am trying to remember that this national culture, or even regional mindset, was not how I was created. God didn’t make American culture anymore than he made Cambodian culture—and one is not better than the other. We are products of our upbringing, of the places we are raised. It isn’t only nurture, though; my brown hair and blue eyes turn the heads of little children when I walk the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. As I try to understand and try to be understood, I am growing. Even when it is frustrating, when I’m confused and uncomfortable, I am still learning. At this point, that’s enough.



I woke up this morning with a cold. So, while my head is all stuffy and fluffy, I thought I'd update on some things I've noticed and that have happened recently. Just to stay on top of ever-exciting life in Phnom Penh...

1. Happy Chinese New Year!! Red lanterns and sacrifices are taking place all over. I've wished a couple of staff members a happy new year, only to have them reply "I'm not Chinese!" Which, of course, I already knew (and replied "I'm not Chinese either!''). It makes me wonder what will happen when I wish them a Happy President's Day later this month ("I'm not a President!"). Just kidding.

2. The other day, my next door neighbor was drying a side of pork ribs on their laundry line. It was an appetizing sight when I left the house at 8 a.m. The landlords downstairs often dry fish or pieces of meat in a basket on our roof... which I have to be close to as I go down the stairs. I just find this an interesting way to make... jerky?

3. New noises this week: firecrackers and cap guns. The guns sound almost real, and go off about every 10-20 mins. because I live right behind a school. Every time I hear them, I grow concerned for the teens, and the first time, I almost jumped out of my own skin. Scary.

4. I have discovered the beauty of water delivery. My "eco footprint" has changed considerably, as I have thrown out zero water bottles these last couple of weeks. This means my trash is lighter, I am more environmentally friendly, and I think I'm saving money. That trifecta produces some very happy feelings.

5. I miss my car. That's just a public service announcement. It's completely weird to miss a possession, especially in comparison to people. Nevertheless, I have found myself a bit wistful as I remember cruising around in my little 5-speed. I've been keeping it under wraps around here, because it's hard to explain that yes, I owned a car all for myself, and yes, so did almost everyone else I knew. The motorbike is awfully fun, but it doesn't come with a CD player or air conditioning. Not to mention the accidents (my scrapes and bruises are healing nicely).

6. Fruit shakes. I mentioned this before, but it is becoming a serious addiction, and I am a little worried that when mango season comes around (only another couple of months! get excited!) I will be in trouble. I may only eat mango shakes. Currently, I am enamored of the banana, strawberry, passion fruit shake. With frozen strawberries. Or pineapple. The combinations are endless.

7. I am wondering if Cambodia celebrates Valentine's Day. Give me a week and I'll let you know. Are you now picturing people saying to me, "I'm not a Valentine!" So am I.

With that, we've come full circle, and the stuffiness and fluffiness have made me forget all my other earth-shattering and/or hilarious observations. Or, at least, those I can share in brief.



Well, it’s been 4 months, so it’s time for another moto accident. (Did you think I was proposed to again? Sorry… but keep reading for wedding-related commentary.) Today, though, I had the misfortune of being the sole cause, and carrying a passenger at the time. We hit a bump, she wasn’t holding on, fell forward, and pushed me over the front of the bike. While attempting to gain my balance, we turned the bike on its side and ended up sprawled on the dirt road. Fortunately, it’s dry and dusty right now, so it was a soft landing and we’re unharmed. I do, however, have elbow and knee scrapes on the other side of my body to match the ones from the first accident. So, one could make the argument that I subconsciously tipped the bike in favor of scar symmetry.

I am fine. The passenger is fine. The bike is fine. The pink helmet is fine. My black flip flops, which I was wearing while driving, are fine. Maybe it’s time to look into full body street gear. Then again, that stuff is unbearably hot.

Also, this morning I went to a portion of a wedding ceremony (not my own, obviously) and even participated! (during the “carry in the fruit” portion, I carried the fruit-flavored soda) I also learned, from the pastor, that brides should be younger than their husbands, and that women are more beautiful because Adam (man #1) came from the dust (and up close, dust is not cute, as I learned in the afternoon). Sorry, dudes, but that apparently means you’re destined to be less pretty than those of us who were made from ribs. And you have to wait longer to be married. I’m sure all the males in the world have somehow figured out some other advantage over women that outweighs these hardships. Pregnancy comes to mind.

I think I’ll go reflect upon today’s lessons with my new addiction—the fruit shake. More on that development later.