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.