Change for Sale

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Starbucks, drinking my coffee and doing some work, when I heard a man behind me say “I promise you, it will change your life.” Naturally, I was curious. So I shamelessly eavesdropped while the young man promoted a weight loss product to a young woman. He promised her that she would lose 100 pounds; claimed that his family had experienced radical change by using the product; and told her that spots with his promotion team were filling up fast and she would need to give him $500—soon—to reserve her place with the company.

I know that this high-pressure sales technique is simply what the young man has been taught, and my guess is that it’s working for him. But all the talk of “life changing” made me rather skeptical. After all, is radical change really something that can be bought and sold?

I started to think about whether I would be susceptible to such a pitch. What would I do if someone told me they could help me change my life? What would I want to change? I briefly considered asking this guy (and his captive audience) if his life is as satisfying as he would have us believe. Is it deep-down change, or does he just have more money to spend?

As Christians, we talk about the fact that our lives are different because we know the Lord. We believe that we have been irrevocably changed, don’t we? But what does that promise truly mean when someone sits across the table from us, offering a chance to change our lives? According to Paul, it means that “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). It means that we can cry out to God and say, “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

My prayer for all of us this week is that we would regard the changes that God is working in us as proof that it is only through Him that we can experience true and lasting change; even more, I pray that we will be satisfied with Christ’s love, that we will be glad and sing for joy.


Home Sweet Home

Let me bust a myth for you: Not all "missionaries" like to travel. I know this is quite the revelation, so let me explain. I, for one, am not a huge fan of air travel. I like airports, I like the intrigue and mystique of new places and the comfortable familiarity of home. But the space between those, the one where I have to sit suspended above an ocean in an aluminum tube for hours on end—this is not my favorite thing. Yet I do it, and do it regularly, most recently flying "home" to Ohio where I'm trying to do a little thing called 'writing my dissertation' in the span of a few months.

Being back in the US is weird for a number of reasons. First, it's been awhile since I've been so much a part of day-to-day life here. Usually my trips are a whirlwind of activity, bouncing from here to there and trying to soak up as much time as possible with people I haven't seen in months. They are also filled with business, visiting and talking about work, recruiting volunteers, and always, always talking about Cambodia. The slower pace of life now is taking some time to get used to; it's a unique feeling after so much idealization of life in the States as compared to daily living in Southeast Asia.

Here's the thing: living abroad is exciting and worthwhile, but I think overseas workers are apt to fall into the "sacrifice mindset" where we think about how much we've given up to be where we are. Oh, I think it's natural and it's not everyone, all the time. But there are days when I definitely think it would be worth it to jump a plane and find an In 'n Out burger waiting for me on the other side of the ocean. I'm sure it sounds odd to hear someone say that the servant life has its downfalls. As an example, I went into the dry cleaner today, and when I gave my name and phone number, I didn't have to repeat it five times, no one commented on my marital status or how long I had been living in the US, no one mentioned my very clear use of the English language. It was, for lack of a better word, easy. Sometimes I miss easy.

Yet, this long period of being back in the US is also a stark reminder to me of just what I'm not missing by living abroad, a good reinforcement of the unique experiences I'm having by being exactly where God has placed me. Why sometimes it's better for life to be harder, to appreciate the things that God has put in my path, to learn the lessons and participate in what He is teaching me with all that I am. I think it's a lesson He has for all of us, when we find ourselves in places we wouldn't choose, circumstances that seem awkward or difficult. Because let's be honest, there are also some really amazing things that happen when we find ourselves in places we didn't expect to be. In Cambodia, that means I get to be part of an exciting ministry. In the US, I get to meet my six-month-old niece for the first time this week. In both places, God is blessing me, blessing us, as we live out our calling and live in the richness of His grace.


Life Gone Mad

This is my niece, Tori. This picture perfectly illustrates how I felt this morning when I arrived soaking wet at the office (early morning rain). Why? My cell phone just stopped working last week and can't be repaired. There are doubts as to whether my visa will be renewed and my passport returned by the time I am supposed to get on a plane next week. I need documents translated and can't do it myself. I had to wake up early this morning. I am wet and cold. I'm worried my data entry won't be finished. My travel agent won't return my emails regarding a transit hotel during my 12 hour layover in Korea. I have a 12 hour layover in Korea next week.

All in all, it's nothing that's really bad, just some minor annoyances. I just hope that underneath my "angry-face" I'm as cute as Tori is. We'll see.


Big Fat Liar

I've been whining about how it hasn't been raining, as you all know. So of course, as soon as I mentioned the drought... what should happen but daily rain showers, thunderstorms, and downpours. Usually at inconvenient times. In fact, just now I am drying off at a coffee shop after getting caught out in an impromptu downpour. Your prayers are working.

I thought that I had more to update on, but as I sit here, staring at the computer, it seems I don't. I am preparing to return to the US for some time. Many of you know that I am trying to finish my dissertation this fall. Right now, my flight is scheduled for September 20th. Please pray (since I know it works!) that I'm able to finish up some things that are left to be done around here, and that I make good progress toward completing my degree. It is often hard to focus here; there are distractions, and competing projects. I could come up with many excuses, but I'll just again request some prayer and moral support. Until I'm finished, I imagine updates will be pretty sparse. Also, since I'll be in the US, I might not have anything interesting to say!

And with that, I am going to venture out into the chilly Cambodian afternoon (okay, it's probably around 75 degrees) because I need a book that I left at home. Oh, and some dry clothes. The ones I'm wearing smell like rain.


Hot and Dry

Remember how I was complaining about the lack of rain? I wasn't joking. Cambodia's suffering from a drought.

This will affect lots of things, like rice harvest, then rice prices, migrant labor... the list goes on and on. So please pray for rain and pray for a good harvest this year. World Relief works in some of the most heavily affected provinces, so please also pray that we would be a blessing to the people there as we reach out to them.


Like a Child

I'm staying with my friend's children this week, as she's had to take her oldest son to Thailand for medical treatment. It was rather spur-of-the-moment, but I've stayed with them before, love them dearly, and think they are a lot of fun (although homework time is not always a barrel of laughs). The youngest (age 5, almost 6) and I were in the car today driving home from an after-school class he has. I had some cookies in the car, from a store called "The Shop" and he was eating one. Here's our conversation.

"Kate, where did you buy the cookies?"
"At 'The Shop.'"
"What shop?"
"A shop called 'The Shop.'"
"No, what shop?"
"It was a place called 'The Shop'. The name of the restaurant is 'The Shop.'"
"The shop is called 'The Shop?'"
"Yes. It's kind of confusing, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Can I have the other cookie?"

Abbot & Costello have nothing on Jonathan & Kate.


January 7th Market

It's been almost two months since I moved to a new apartment. We've settled in, gotten used to things, have been rejoicing in the cooler temps over on this side of the neighborhood. The move was only maybe a quarter of a mile away, but the new place has such a different feeling than the old one did.

For instance, we now have a pack of dogs who like to howl. When a siren sounds, when a cart rolls by playing some silly tune...the sound of howling is shortly to follow. This is, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) not restricted to nighttime howling. At 3 pm on a Tuesday, I have been forced to look up from an article about HIV interventions when the howling became too much.

The street is much busier, so there's more traffic (quite a difference from the quiet house before), but it means that moto taxis and tuk tuks are available whenever we want them. It's also closer to get into the center of town, which means the weekly trips to the grocery store take a lot less time, and it's not such a chore to run errands.

I think what's most interesting is our proximity to the market. Most Khmer go to the market at least twice a day, purchasing food and other little things that they need for their meals, or for their houses. In the mornings and afternoons, there are always lots of women out on the streets, market bags in hand, walking to or from the stalls with food, and sometimes a child in tow.

We used to live near a market, but not as close as we do now. That market was pretty well known, as was the school that we lived near, but I rarely went inside to purchase things, stopping occasionally for fruit on the side of the road instead. The market we're near now is a lot smaller, but people know where it is. I had to re-learn how to give directions to the house (everything is done by landmark, rather than street number), so I asked some Khmer staff the name of this new market. Psar bruhm-peul makara, they told me. Psar means "market" and bruhm-peul is the word for "seven" (literally, five-two). The last word, however, I didn't know, other than as a name for one of my Khmer friends. Turns out it means "January." I've not had to learn the names for the months, as most of the younger Khmer refer to the months by number, rather than by name (Month-1, Month-9, etc.).

So now I live near January 7th Market. Now, being American, I'm used to markets having some interesting names. I mean "Kroger" isn't really a word in the dictionary, nor is "Vons". But we accept these names because they were probably the name of the man who started a very small store and grew it into an empire. January 7th? That just seems like a random date. Until you dig a little deeper.

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces finally captured Phnom Penh and ended the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia. Of course, this only prompted more fighting, all the way up through the late 1980s while the Vietnamese maintained a puppet government in Cambodia. I don't know how the troops made their way through the city, but I do know that our neighborhood, in the northern part of town, close to the river, is a place where there is a history of political violence, and it has only recently stabilized. And certainly, when a city is under siege, violence isn't limited to one area.

I'm not sure why the market picked up its name. After all, it could be for lots of reasons; to commemorate a day that brought freedom from oppressive rule, to remember a day when Cambodia fell to armies from a neighboring country, as a reminder of all the rebuilding that took place after that day...I might never find out. In any case, it's humbling to live so near to something that, because of its name, is a symbol of a different time, a difficult time. It's strange to let this piece of history into my thoughts, to know that even as Cambodia struggles to put the past behind, some things will always remain. And until a giant supermarket comes in and bulldozes Psar bruhm-peul makara, this small testament to what came before will stay a part of many people's daily lives.


It’s Raining, It’s…

Another entry shamelessly borrowed from Lake Ave Church's weekly Warehouse Newsletter, albeit with photo this time. When I'm not trying to write ten other things each week, I'll work on something new, I promise. Until then…

As I'm writing this, I'm waiting for it to rain. In Cambodia, starting in late May/early June, the monsoons come, and they last for a few months. Monsoon just means really heavy rain, and it's a fact of life here. It provides much needed water for rice farmers, who depend on it for a good harvest. In the city, we time our laundry to be dry before late afternoon (when rains typically come) and plan trips to the market accordingly. Occasionally, we get caught in the downpour, and arrive home dripping wet and chilled. But lately, it hasn't been raining here in the city. I think the last rain was sometime last week—and it's usually every day or every other day here.

We had a few days when it was overcast and some drops fell. But what we really need is the massive opening up of the sky, a release of the moisture gathering in the heavens (and in the air) and falling in great sheets toward the ground. I've found myself glancing toward the horizon, hoping that the clouds are gathering, wanting to see the darkening, the gray of an approaching storm. Sometimes it has been there, but my hopes go unfulfilled.

Why the wait? When it rains, it feels like everything (and everyone) takes a great big gasping breath, clearing their lungs, expelling the stress of living under the constant pressure of intense sunlight and weighty humidity. For a few moments, it's as though we've opened a release valve of sorts, and it feels wonderful. Perhaps I'm being a bit dramatic, but I'm hot, and my plants are slowly dying. I'm ready for a thunderstorm.

I wonder how much of this is like our Christian life, how much time we spend waiting for the things we expect to simply happen. Dry spells are not unique, as we sit and wait for God to show up on the horizon, for grace to fall into our lives, for the blessings we think are coming our way. I don't have many answers as to how to deal with these dry spells; I'm as much inclined to them as anyone else. I do know, however, that unlike the weather, our Heavenly Father does not limit himself to one season of rain and is not unpredictable or capricious. He's always waiting to bless us, always ready to shower us with grace and love. So let us fix our eyes on the horizon, fix them on Jesus, and carry on through the heat and the humidity, when it feels oppressive and difficult. And let's pray; pray for rain, pray for grace, pray for the presence of the Lord to water our lives.


One Good Turn

Well, write a letter, and expect a response, right? We finished the summer ESL program (round 4!) last week with a graduation party. Imagine my surprise when I was handed a note by one of the provincial students as the party was drawing to a close. It's so great it deserved to be shared.

Dear Cat!

I am ----- from ------. I would like to thankful for your Program. When finished, you always Party. Because of you, I can speak English but at the future I am well. I thank you can't add detail or explant.

Now, for just a minute, stop in your grammatical and spelling critique (I know, this is tough) and remember that this is someone who has had only a few years of semi-regular English instruction, with little opportunity to practice, other than a couple of months out of the year. And he passed this note to a native speaker and writer who is around the same age and works in the main office of his organization, and is friends with his boss. I have no doubt that were I to be asked to write a similar letter in Khmer, I would fail miserably. Honestly, I'm having trouble just forming the letters correctly. This little note is an example of serious courage and serious thankfulness.

It's also one of the reasons I love working in Cambodia.


My Dear Cambodians,

For the past two years I have lived in your country, and I have to say, it's been great. Never have I met a more welcoming, hospitable people. You have been gracious with me as I bumbled through cultural minefields, understood my fractured, childish attempts at speaking your language, and have given me wonderful stories to tell. It's because of our great relationship that I feel free to address the following two concerns with you, in the hopes that you will not be offended and our affection for each other can only grow.

First, about your fruits. In general, I like the fruits of Cambodia, and I know you do too. You offer them to me all the time. A mango here, a rambutan there, limes, oranges, bananas, papayas, lychee-- so many things to love. I have tasted nearly all of your fruits, and I love many of them. I even find it amusing that the people of Cambodia seem to want to eat fruit all the time. You could probably teach Americans a thing or two about that. However, I find it crucial to inform you of two fruits that I will no longer eat, in the hopes that you will no longer offer them to me. Durian, a fruit you all seem to love, smells (to me) like raw sewage, has the texture of wet newspaper, and tastes only slightly better than a cross between the two. Please keep it far away from me. Durian's cousin, jackfruit, is only slightly better-smelling or -tasting, and I think eating it feels like someone put a damp sock in my mouth. I hope you will understand why I would not like to have to politely decline either of these fruits (and ultimately eat them to appease you) in the future.

Secondly, I would like to inform you that I appreciate your assistance in educating me about Cambodian traditional seating. However, repeated attempts to cajole me into sitting, on a wooden floor or platform in the "Indian style" with my legs crossed must be addressed. It is not, as you seem to think, "easy" for me to make my legs curl into this position and remain there for great lengths of time. In point of fact, it is quite difficult, even painful, seeing as I have not had to do so since I was a child and my longer legs have some issues with circulation. I've grown accustomed to sitting in chairs, you see, or having the freedom to sit on the floor any way I choose. No matter how many times you tell me that it is "easy for me" to sit in such a manner, while leaning over my bowl of rice on the floor, it will not get easier. Unless, that is, you are prepared to lead me through some stretches or other yoga positions before we eat. Even then, it might be tricky.

I hope you can agree that these issues are reasonable and fair. I'm happy to entertain any replies about ways in which I have asked you to do unreasonable things (repeatedly) in the past two years. Working together, I think we can make our relationship even stronger than it is today.

Hugs and Kisses (in a proper, culturally-appropriate way),

p.s. By the way, I am not, nor have I ever been, French. No matter how much you want me to be.


Hello Hello Hello

When I lived in Pasadena, I was rudely awakened one morning to the sound of pounding on my door. I had been working late nights trying to finish up schoolwork, and was not entirely coherent at that point. Nevertheless, I opened the door only to be greeted by a man who shouted "Buenos dias!" in my bleary-eyed face. I think I grunted in response. Upon realizing that I would not be a good recipient for his proselytizing, he muttered "Um, read your Bible," and walked away. I nodded, closed the door, and went back to sleep. I've told this story quite a few times since then, always to big laughs, but I think something even funnier happened a couple of days ago.

Two weeks ago, I moved from the apartment with the Scary Stairs to a much bigger place a few blocks away. The new place has numerous advantages (and some quirks), but one of them is that we now enter the house through the indoor stairs, and our front porches look out over the street. There's no access to the porch, other than through the house (where we keep the doors locked). Or so we thought.

At 7 a.m. on Friday morning, I awoke to hear a man's voice in the house. While there is a couple that lives below us, they have not come into the house without letting us know, and the man never comes alone—always with his wife (it's a Khmer privacy/propriety thing, which I'm thankful for). So as I became increasingly aware of what was going on, I realized that The Voice kept repeating only one word, "Hello, Hello, Hello." My bedroom has a window that looks over the dining room, so I peeked my sleepy face out to find… a man! He was standing on our front porch, peering through our window (thank goodness for the bars on it!), trying to get our attention. As soon as he saw my face, he started to speak Khmer.

Now, my language proficiency is increasing, but 7 a.m. is decidedly not my best hour for Khmer. So I wandered downstairs attempting to figure out a few things. 1) who this person was; 2) why he was standing on my front porch; and 3) how he had arrived on the porch.

When I finally made it down the stairs and tried to talk to him (briefly wondering if I should unlock our door and let him in—early morning safety decisions are tough, I tell you), he indicated that I needed to go all the way downstairs to open our gate for someone to come in. Um, sure. Apparently I am very obedient early in the morning, because I did what I was told and found… yet another man, who wanted to come upstairs and visit us.

The second guy, at least, had a purpose. The windows in our apartment are great, but they don't have any screens. We asked for screens when we moved in and the landlord told us they would have to be specially made. No one mentioned that the man who was going to make the screens would show up at 7 a.m. (without warning) to measure the windows. Still, there he was. We somehow managed to have a conversation in which I learned what the cost of the window screens would be (though who was paying for them was a bit ambiguous) and in which I agreed that he could return the following day (at a more reasonable hour). He's been back again this morning (Saturday), around 9:30, and accompanied by the woman from downstairs (our landlord-liaison), and is supposedly making another appearance at any moment to actually add the screens.

This time, I'm awake and ready for him. Although I still haven't figured out how the other guy made it onto the front porch to begin with. That's an investigation for another day.


Stories We Tell

I am a professional storyteller. I answer questions, talk about my experiences, and share about the history of Cambodia. It requires a lot of stories, many examples, and some creative thinking. I help put out newsletters—those require stories as well. Some of these are told unconsciously, some require more planning, but all are in pursuit of educating, moving, or even persuading people. Still, sometimes I pause as I’m writing or thinking about what to tell and consider: what stories should I tell?

Cambodia is an interesting place; a country at a crossroads, really. There are stories here of devastation, of trauma, heartache, and disaster at the hands of brutal governments. There are stories of recent wounds, of an HIV/AIDS pandemic, of poverty, of mothers and children dying from preventable causes. And there are stories of hope, of a church that is growing, of lives that are changing, of transformation happening. Which are the stories I should tell?

At a glance, the answer is easy: all of them. Yet, I find myself more and more questioning my motivations in storytelling and what I hope to gain by sharing other people’s stories the way I do.

On one hand, I know that it is important to educate people about the history of Cambodia, about the problems that the country faces, and about why Cambodia is the way that it is. People need to know; there are so many who simply have not heard about the Khmer Rouge, about years of civil war, about this small nation sandwiched between two more well-known countries.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that communicating the needs of Cambodia means being sensitive to the way such communication shapes ideas and feelings about the objects of that communication. Amidst a culture of fatalism, telling stories of need, stories of hurt, stories of desolation perpetuate the idea that Cambodia is a country that is forlorn, desperate and helpless, full of weak people who cannot save themselves. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but all too often I see pictures of big, sad-eyed children, or hear people say, “Well, it’s just so sad, isn’t it?” that I wonder if what I do is really helping or not.

Sometimes I think it boils down to three questions.

Do we tell stories of the past to inform, stories that might help people understand but might evoke sadness, pity, or even guilt?

Do we tell stories of the resilience of the Cambodian people, stories that remind the audience of a tortured past and demonstrate how far Cambodia has come?

Do we tell stories of the future of Cambodia, stories that offer hope for the future and a glimpse of the potential that exists here?

I suspect it is a mixture of all three.

I wonder, also, what it is that people want to hear. Do we want to feel sad, to have our heartstrings tugged, or are we so accustomed to these feelings that they wash over us without truly impacting us? Do we want to hear about the past and the present, about transition and change, to be simply updated on what is going on? Do we want to hear stories of hope, stories that might push us to take risks or invest in something as unknown as the future of a still-unstable nation?

My own Kingdom vision is to be more than a reporter, more than a storyteller, to be someone who invites others into the process. I don’t merely want to update, to inform, but to ask people to support, to visit, to love Cambodia—the difficult parts and the delightful parts. Perhaps it is because of my own struggle to love a nation that has so much potential and so much failure at the same time. I want to tell stories that impact; I want to be a person of impact.

Yet, at the end of the day, I can look around me and see the subjects, the objects of my stories. I can look into their eyes and ask if I have respected them, honored them, and loved them by telling their stories. I think God is calling us to be people who tell stories; telling our personal story, telling stories of His faithfulness to others, telling the story of salvation. Still, we have to choose wisely. Which stories do we tell? Moreover, how do we tell them well?


Love Love Love

Once a month, I submit a reflection for a weekly newsletter sent out by my church in California (Lake Ave. Church). In lieu of an original blog post, I thought I'd share what I submitted this week.

I was eating lunch in the villages with our Khmer staff a couple of months ago when they gently reprimanded me. We were eating something called dtroukouen, or morning glory. It's a green vegetable, pretty much a water weed, and it's usually stir fried with garlic in oyster sauce. This simple dish is one of my favorites, even though it sounds disgusting. As we came up to the table, I said (in Khmer), "Oh! I love dtroukouen!"

"No, Kate," they said to me (in English). "You don't love it. You can't love it."

And they were correct. I can't (in Khmer) love dtroukouen.

You see, I used the word srolein, which means "to love." As in, I love you, Je t'adore, Te amo, etc. But when you talk about food in Khmer, srolein is incorrect. You simply don't love food. You can only cholechet it.

In its own right, cholechet is a pretty interesting word. It means, literally, to bring something into your heart, or to like or prefer it. You can cholechet food (and people, by the way). You're supposed to like food. But you aren't supposed to love it.

It was a startling reminder to me of how much language affects the way we think about things. And by things, I'm talking about how we describe our relationship with God. I mean, I can tell you that I love God, but you already know that I love a water weed stir fried in oyster sauce. So why would you think that I feel strongly about the relationship I have with the Creator of the universe? Love, used colloquially, is the same word in English; we don't differentiate our love for food, cars, or big TVs from our love for the Lord. I know it's a matter of degree, and that no one would really think that I love dtroukouen as much as I love Jesus, but take a minute and consider how often you tell people that you love something (other than your family, friends, or significant other).

Still thinking? Run out of fingers to count?

I'll be honest. I do it a lot. I particularly love music. And I love tacos. But if you take those things away, I can live without them (a blander, quieter life, it's true). Yet it's not only how I describe my relationship with God, but how I think He feels about me that's impacted. We tell each other, "God loves you." It's true. God loves you. But not the way you love nachos, or 24, or the Lakers. His love is not simply a preference for us, or a desire to spend an hour with us on Tuesday nights. His love is ah'ja, as the Khmer say, the best, highest, most awesome love there can be.

In our attempt to describe the love of our Father, we've had to use a word we've cheapened with overuse. What would happen if we used the word "love" a little less often? What if we really believed that God loves us—a love like we've never experienced before? I think it would change us, change the way we love others, change the way we feel about receiving love. I think it would be pretty ah'ja.


How It Feels

As English speakers, we tend to use a lot of superlatives. You're the best, we say to people who help us. That movie was the greatest, we remark casually to a friend as we leave the theater. These kinds of statements (which I am guilty of making) diminish our ability to convince people that we've really had a significant experience. It's like we're constantly the Boy Who Cried Wolf (or Wolfiest?)

Anyway, all of this is to say that I had one of the scariest experiences of my entire life a week ago.

I was driving with our new Partnership Intern, Katie, from our apartment to a house where we were house-sitting for a few days. The house is only a few streets away, and the roads are all familiar. It was about 10 p.m., and we had been out for a few hours (I had my hair cut) and had just picked up a bunch of Katie's stuff for the week. I was turning left at a darkened intersection when Katie gasped. It all happened quickly. I spotted the motorbike, slammed on the brake, and the moto crashed into the side of our car (an SUV). He had been speeding, without his headlight, and even now, he hit the car so fast and so hard that I can only recall a vague outline of his face. For a few long moments, I was afraid I had killed a man.

Praise the Lord that he got up. We could smell the alcohol soon after the crash; our windows were rolled down; this probably saved Katie and I from being cut up by glass when the side mirror came through the open window. There was blood and broken glass all over the road, and crowds were forming. I called a friend to come, and refused to get out of the car (or move it, as some passers-by urged me to do). In Cambodia, an accident can quickly turn into a mob scene, and I was incredibly frightened of what would happen next.

Turns out the driver and his passenger were in a gang, and shortly after my friend came, the rest of the gang rolled up on their motos, claiming that they had "caught the car who did it, and [we] wouldn't get away." Some police came (not the traffic police) and told me I could leave, but we had to wait for the insurance adjuster to come first. When he arrived, he told us it was too late to do any negotiating and we would have to wait until the next day. The car went to the police station to be evaluated, and my friend drove us home.

It's one of those circumstances where culture comes into play in weird ways. I know, in my head, that the protocol for car accidents is very different here. There are negotiations, and fault is not based on any kind of scientific measurements (no CSI here). Yet as we pulled away, I said, "I guess we pray for justice," thinking that we could pray that the police would see that it was not my fault and I would be cleared of responsibility. And my friend said, "Well, you have to be careful. That guy probably has no money and he's injured. It's his fault, but how will he pay for the damage to the car or his doctor bills?" I walked away unharmed, the car was taken away in the care of the insurance company. The guy I hit? No protection other than what the gang provides.

I felt awful in that moment. I felt awful for hitting him in the first place and awful for wanting it to be his fault. Awful that this kid (he was pretty young) was out late drinking and carousing with his friends when he should have been home sleeping. Awful that his parents would get a phone call that he was seriously injured. Awful that I had damaged a work vehicle. Just awful.

I've had to examine my motives since then. Do I want to be cleared of fault because I will feel less guilty? It was an accident. There was nothing that could have prevented it (on my side) and nothing about it can be changed. Is it so that the financial repercussions will be less? The insurance company has covered everything. And lastly, most convicting: Do I want to be cleared of fault because of my own pride? Do I want "justice" in order to maintain a good driving record and my own assurance of my driving skill?

I sometimes toss these words around, "justice," "equity," "fairness," because I think they are important, because they make societies run smoothly. But the justice I should be seeking is the kind that comforts the broken, the kind that provides for those in need. I shouldn't want justice because it makes me feel good, or look less guilty, or because of my reputation.

In the end, they said it was the other guy's fault. They also said that I turned improperly (not at a 90 degree angle). Since then, I've had to drive numerous times, and each time is scary and makes me feel vulnerable. I am more sensitive to the dangers on the road, more attuned to the fact that I am always a heartbeat away from injuring someone, from the circumstances turning on me once again.

But isn't that always the case? Aren't we always only seconds away from something going wrong? In Cambodia, on the crazy roads, the answer is yes. More and more, I'm realizing that we truly rest in the grace of God, in His protection. "For in Him we live and move and have our being," says Paul (Acts 17:28). It's true, that verse. So when our Cambodian driver today made us pull over and pray before starting our hour-long journey, I bowed my head, folded my hands, and said "Amen." And then I continued to pray as I rode nervously in the front seat, watching in fear as he narrowly avoided collisions, pedestrians, and ramming the car in front of us.


Absence Makes...

Ouch. My sister just informed me that I haven't posted anything here in almost a month! That is unacceptable, I know. My only excuse is the plethora of Cambodian holdiays in the last two months-- a week for Khmer New Year, three days in May for the King's birthday, and then all the catch-up that time off implies. In any case, I'm still here, sweating and speaking a strange language. Along with other things.

One of those other things is regularly updating a site we've created for ESL volunteers this year. It's not as personal (or as much about me) as this blog, but it will provide some cultural info for those who are interested: www.eslcambodia.wordpress.com.

Until I can write a real update, I will leave you with a picture of the newest member of my family, in honor of my sister's (completely justified) nagging. This cutie pie is Tori, my niece. She's the reason I am fighting the urge to jump on a plane for a weekend visit.


Pandemic Pandemonium

Epidemiology was not my college major. The closest I got to the study of medicine was a psychology class I took in one of the med school buildings. And while I am trying to become a "doctor," the closest I got to "coding" was training people to watch movies. Not exactly a life-or-death activity.

Then I moved to Cambodia and began working with a relief and development organization whose main emphasis is (after supporting the church): health education. This means I hear a lot about preventing treatable diseases, transmission of AIDS and childhood vaccination. I even have to tell people about some of the health problems in Cambodia and occasionally provide advice on what medicines to take when volunteers come down with some minor illness. As far as medical care goes, this is pretty much as far down the road as I want to go.

But the whole world is up in arms over swine flu (and rightly so, I say), and I now live in a place just poised for a scene from the movie "Outbreak." People live in close quarters, they spit on the ground, they stand close to you, and "clean" is a word we use to mean "relatively safe to touch." My whole approach to germs has changed, from "eradicate" to "stave off as long as possible." And while swine flu hasn't yet arrived on our doorstep, as an organization that thinks about these sorts of health problems, we have to do things like prepare.

So today I learned where the TamiFlu is, and that we have 500 medical kits (gloves, masks, etc.) to use when giving someone the treatment. I know things like when the fever appears, and how many days the swine flu cycle is, and somehow, I am trying to do things like wash my hands often and avoid excessive germiness.

Sometimes I forget that things here are different than the places where I used to live. And then there are the days when it all comes rushing back to me. Today is one of those days.


Decision Making

I had a conversation today about the way decisions are made sometimes in Cambodia. Not big decisions, obviously, but the small ones, such as who goes first when playing a game. I think sometimes that even those little things tell a lot about a culture. Cambodians, like Americans, use the "rock, paper, scissors" game, calling it "bau, sing, song." So even English-speaking staff or friends might say, "We bau, sing, song for it." It actually sounds kind of cute.

Another technique, though, is called "black and white," although the words, oou laum bpek don't translate to that term. This is done using the palm (white) and back (black) of your hand. If you're light-skinned like me, it's hard to imagine where "black and white" comes into play, but for the darker-skinned Cambodians, this makes perfect sense: the back of the hand is darker than the palm. Unlike bau, sing, song, oou laum bpek is played with a large group of people, and used for consensus-style decision making, but with a twist. Everyone shakes their hand back and forth, and settles on one or the other. The minority group (of either "white" or "black") are the winners, and the decision goes to them.

This idea, that the "minority" rules, is a foreign one to an American like me. Raised with democratic values, taught that the majority rules (to please the most people), the decision to award the win to the minority is one I have a tough time with. Yet it perfectly illustrates Cambodian culture. In the US, although we have a small governing body (in proportion to the population, anyway) at the national level, the Constitution is set up so that each citizen should have representation in decision-making. Recently, I've seen that in action, as people in our partner churches have offered to speak up to their Congressmen or Senators on behalf of some funding decisions that were made about World Relief—and we're grateful that they have thought it a worthy cause to pursue. Although in this case it is not the appropriate step to take, it is the perfect illustration of the American value that your voice deserves to be heard, that the citizens should influence the leaders. That the paper should cover the rock, if you will.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, a small, elite group makes decisions for the population. Although Cambodia follows the parliamentary procedure (and in case it's not clear, I think this is a valid form of government), sometimes the way it is expressed here results in much of the power being held by a few, not by the many, with little opportunity for ordinary citizens to speak up and influence policy. The American, pro-democracy voice in me often shouts that the system is unfair, that people should have more political power here, that the government should make decisions for the majority.

But sometimes, it takes a small game, a little insight into a vastly different culture, to quiet that voice, to help me realize that the values I was raised with aren't always in play here. Instead, sometimes it's a game of oou laum bpek when I want it to be one of bau, sing, song.


Folk Stories

Cambodian life is returning to normal after Khmer New Year, the biggest holiday in Cambodian culture. People travel to their home villages for a week (sometimes more) of temple visits, games, family time, and parties. Pretty much all non-essential businesses (and some essential ones) close in the city, and it's a ghost town until the party winds down. Today, in fact, was our first day back to work in a week. A break in the middle of the hot season was nice.

In honor of traditional Cambodian holidays, I thought I'd share a traditional Cambodian folk tale that my Khmer tutor shared with me. When I started laughing, I was told very sternly that this was a traditional tale, and not to make fun. I'm sure the same could be said of Yankee Doodle or George Washington and the cherry tree. Here we go...

One day, an old woman was walking to the market. When she was about halfway there, she saw a dead rabbit on the side of the road. The woman picked up the rabbit and put it in her vegetable basket and continued on her way. Suddenly, the rabbit jumped out of the basket and ran away. When the woman looked in her basket, she found that all her potatoes and carrots had been eaten! She was very sad and angry because she had nothing left to sell at the market.

While walking home, the old woman saw a very fat rabbit by the side of the road. She knew that it was the same rabbit as the one she met earlier that morning. When it ran away, she chased it! The rabbit led her to a grove where there were many wild fruits growing. The woman was happy and forgot all about the rabbit because she could sell the fruits in the market.

The End.

And in keeping with the theme of the last post, I will mention that when I had to translate this story into Khmer, we spent 10 minutes discussing the proper term for "vegetable basket," since there are approximately 8 or 9-- all vary depending on the size and shape of the basket (handle, no handle) and how it is carried (on your head, in your hands, flat, etc.). Now... who can guess the moral of the story?


Language Lessons

Every Tuesday and Friday I have a language lesson with Anna, who is the daughter of a friend and a great teacher. We've been working through an aptly-named book: "Cambodian for Beginners," and I have been pretty successful at mastering introductory conversation and spurning marriage proposals. After that, though, it's a bit more difficult to chart my progress.

Khmer (or khmai) is an interesting language for many reasons, including its many vowels, new phonetics, and naming principles. Just today I was reminded that the words for top, over, above, and up are pretty much the same (neu leu) as are the words for bottom, under, below, and down (neu krhaom). So if you wanted to say something was "over the top," you're out of luck. Despite using one word for all these pronouns, there are completely different words for long (yuu = time; wegn = distance) and short (klay = distance). This does not include the fact that you can be tall (kapua) or short (tiep).

I also discovered today in our review of fruits and vegetables, that the word for grapes is dom being bai chuu. Forgetting the rest of that word, let me tell you that the last part, chuu, means "sour." I'm not sure how you could express that someone is eating "sour grapes," since they are already the same thing. The word for shopping cart, interestingly enough, is roteah, which is also part of the word for train (roteah de pleung); just imagine the fun of grocery store lines with shopping carts the size of a train car! The words are made different because the de pleung in the word for train means, "with fire" or "with electricity" (because the word for fire and electricity is the same thing). When there is a power outage, I tell people that I don't have fire. Even when I'm lighting candles.

This doesn't even begin to cover the homophones in the language. The words for dog, far, and delicious (chagaii, chingai, chingein) are nearly identical to my ear, which can be problematic if you tell someone you want to go very delicious or that your meal is quite dog. You should be careful when you're tongue tied, since the word for tongue (andat)is pronounced similarly to the word for turtle (andaut). I'm sure you wouldn't want a turtle stuck in your mouth. Of course, sometimes the word is exactly the same, like the pronouns he and she (gowuht). Have fun figuring out if HE told HER the info or if SHE told HIM. The same is true for the words remember and wait (jahm). A sentence in which she can't remember him could easily be mistaken for one in which he couldn't wait for her.

Other vocabulary words are simply exact meanings crunched together. If you have a sore ankle, you would explain to someone that you injured the corner of your leg. Similarly, the corner of your arm (elbow) could also be hurt, say in a motorbike accident. Your knee, despite its 90 degree bend-a-bility, is in no way a corner of your body. Neither is your shoulder, come to think of it. When you take off your shoes (sbeik jeung), you remove the skin of your feet. Ouch. Your socks, though, are sraoum jeung, and gloves srouam dai. In other words, cylinder foot or cylinder hand. The names for your fingers aren't numbered either, being simply may-dai (the boss, your thumb), dai jong-croh (the finger which points), dai kandal (the finger between), dai neeung (the finger of a girl, your ring finger), and dai g'oohn (the baby finger). Sadly, the word for arm, hand, and finger are all the same, as is the leg (except for the thigh, which is called plauv, the same word for road).

And we haven't even gone over grammar yet. Oy.

All of this is the reason why some weeks, two lessons is not nearly enough, while others, it's far too much to handle. Even when we finish the book (which will be soon), I'll only be ready to upgrade to "Cambodian for Beginners II."


Buy Now!

I've been a bit remiss in posting pictures here lately, and I apologize. Hopefully this will make up for my previous lack of photography.

The hospital in my neighborhood has been around about a year now, so they're celebrating their anniversary with some specials. This one is my favorite.

Apart from the obvious, what other plastic surgeries are there to buy twice?


Sherlock Cambodia

Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a little slow. There are always things to learn, things to see, but sometimes it's hard to process them all at once and understand everything a tired brain is trying to think about.

And so, one must turn to mysteries. I love mysteries. I love solving puzzles. If it weren't for the gun-toting and dead-body inspecting, I would consider a career as a detective. Since I've decided to go the non-police-work route, this means investigating those little conundrums that pop up around me. Today's installment: The Case of the Unknown Baby.

The Mystery:

About a week ago, a baby appeared in my landlord's house. Baby is very small, obviously newborn, and spends most of the time sleeping under a little netting thing, covered in blankets (despite the 90 degree weather).

The Facts:

My landlord's daughter is pregnant, and has been for some time.

When asked, she indicated that her baby was due to be born in April.

The Unexpected Baby is cared for by a young woman who is not the landlord's daughter.

The daughter, until yesterday, was suspiciously absent from the premises.

The Obvious Question:

Who does this baby belong to?

Well, intrigued readers, I am happy to report that I have solved the mystery. Sort of. The baby does not, in fact, belong to the daughter. Although I saw her yesterday, she was sitting in such a way as to disguise whether she was still pregnant or had recently given birth. This very morning, however, I left for work only to see a very pregnant woman with her husband and mother discussing some new landscaping taking place in our little driveway.

Of course, this only prompts more questions!

First, who is the woman with the baby?


Why are they landscaping a paved courtyard?

It seems an amateur sleuth's work is never done.


Minor Inconveniences

I was explaining to someone yesterday that it's unacceptable to demonstrate anger here in Cambodia. The culture is one which values saving face, being in control of your emotions and keeping your fury to yourself. It's why you rarely see people screaming at each other in the streets, and probably why drinking, drug use, and spousal abuse are so high. That's a lot of stress to keep bottled up.

Only a few hours after making that statement, I found myself at home, attempting to turn on my computer to check my email. I'd had our tech guy install some antivirus software earlier in the day, and thought everything was fine. So imagine my surprise when my 3 month old computer would not start, claiming some kind of logon failure, and beeping at me like a petulant child. I was not pleased. I will say that it was a good thing it was 9 p.m. and too late to phone anyone for help.

Fast forward to this morning. I packed up my old and new computers for the office and climbed carefully down the stairs, only to find that between yesterday evening and this morning, my back tire had gone completely flat. I had a meeting at 9 which I was going to be on time for, except for this mishap. $11 and one new tire later, I was on my way to the office. Thank goodness for understanding staff members.

Whereupon I opened up my new computer and found it fully functional, virus protection installed, and no sign of last night's ugliness.

At no time did I yell at anyone... even in my own home I grumbled but did not scream (it was late, people were sleeping). But oh, man, did I want to. Even if I'm better at controlling those emotions (or the expression of them) all that stress has had to go somewhere. My question is where?


Rock Star

I've had a couple weird weeks where I haven't been in the office as much as usual. This break in routine is good… it's nice to be away from my desk and out in the world. Particularly when this means I get to interact with our field staff and what we term "beneficiaries," those people who we seek to serve and help with our programs. It's hard to consistently communicate passion for our work when I'm sitting miles away from the people we're trying to help.

Anyway, I was out in the field with some visitors. Among other things, we attended a support group meeting for people with HIV/AIDS, and briefly chatted with one of the group volunteers and one of the patients. The volunteer blew me away with her story. She began working with HIV patients when there was still an enormous amount of stigma and discrimination in her community. Her husband banned her from using their motorbike to help people. She was ostracized and degraded, her own family thought that she should stop helping the poor and the sick and spend her time elsewhere. Yet Sokha continued to work for those who needed her most. Now, there are 19 people in the village that she cares for, and she is the leader of a cell group. Many of those living with AIDS are members of that cell and have become Christians because of Sokha. Her husband now accepts and supports her. Most of all, as we sat there with Sokha, we could see the results of her sacrifice in the face of Sok, the other woman we interviewed.

Sok told us she was so sick that she could not get out of bed. The doctor refused to see her, because he knew she was HIV positive. No one would talk to her, her family were outcasts. Her husband, also infected, could do little to help. So it was Sokha who tracked down another doctor for Sok. When he, too, refused to come to the village, Sokha told him the symptoms of Sok's illness and asked him what medicines she should give to Sok. At one point, Sok looked at us and said, "Without her, I would be dead. She has done everything for me."

I sat there, listening, totally humbled by this conversation. Sokha is, quite simply, a rock star. She gives out of what she has, which is very little. Yet Sokha has transformed a community from one that condemns AIDS patients to one that supports and encourages them. It's when I meet people like Sokha that I realize how much farther I have to go in my own sacrifice for the Lord. Sure, I've moved away from my home country, given up a few conveniences, certainly traded away some comforts. I haven't had my husband or family tell me to stop, haven't had anyone stand in my way to keep me from serving. No one has looked at me and said that my sacrifice has kept them alive.

It's not that I want the recognition or the accolades; no, I'm very happy to carry on in the background. Watching someone like Sokha—who has her own struggles, fears, and heartaches—give up so much to serve those in her neighborhood made me wonder how far I've really extended myself. Have I acted in ways that God desires? He's quite clear on what true sacrifice looks like: "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58: 7). Even though I'm far from where I started, God's mandate is not specific on geography. The hungry, the wanderers, the naked… they exist in all places. The admiration I felt for Sokha during our conversation became a deep conviction for the ways in which I had turned a blind eye to these issues. Now, though, it has morphed into an aspiration; rather than feel guilt over what I'm not doing, I want to look for ways to be poured out, to be of service.

What I've realized is that Sokha didn't set out to be a heroine or an example. She simply did what was right, showed love to those in need of it. Turns out, that's something that I can do too.


Name Game

My office is, ironically enough, not only a wonderful workspace but also home to numerous craft supplies. When we have visitors, they often bring some kind of "kid-friendly" items which, if they aren't distributed, end up in the top drawer of my file cabinet (this is also true of bags of 1000 rubber bands). When staff bring their kids to work, I'll often dig through the drawer to find something that might be of interest. Yes, I am shamelessly trying to buy the affections of Cambodian children through gifts. So far, it's worked well.

Most recently, one of our accountants brought her daughter to work. I gave the little girl a coloring book and some markers. We did the cute "Cambodian introduction" thing where she had to say hello and call me "Ming," which is kind of a cross between "Aunt" and "Miss." It's a sign of respect, and I, too, use it when I'm talking to someone older than a sister but younger than a grandma.

Today I was telling our staff about how I met a bunch of people at a training and they had trouble with my name (it's a typical problem...my name ends up pronounced somewhere between "cat" and "cake"). The accountant suddenly looked at me and said, "Oh!" It seems that when I went through the Cambodian introduction process with her little girl, I told her that my name sounded like "cat." I then tossed in the Khmer word for "cat" (chmah, which sounds close to the word for "name," which is chmooah).

Apparently, when the youngster was recently asked who gave her the coloring book at the office, the little girl replied, "Ming Meow."

Which is, I think, much better than Catwoman.


Brilliant Ideas

Every so often, while driving the streets of Phnom Penh or the highways of Cambodia, I will be forced to pull to the side of the road to allow a diplomatic convoy to pass. They station soldiers and police about every 50 meters on the road to make sure that traffic comes to a complete stop. Then, amidst a whirl of sirens and blur of SUVs, the convoy passes and things return to normal. Often other vehicles will jump in at the end of the string of cars. There appear to be no rules about joining convoys.

I always assumed that these convoys were for security, as undoubtedly it is easier to protect the traveling VIP when moving at high speeds without traffic. As I thought about it in the city, though, I'm not so sure. After all, it's often pretty difficult to get around, what with the cars, motos, tuk tuks, cyclos, and people cramming the streets. Now I wonder if this "convoy" thing is really just a time-saving activity to allow the elite to get where they are going without much hassle. I imagine it drastically shortens the trip to, for instance, the airport.

I'm also curious as to how one arranges such things. After all, it would really make things easier if I could get a convoy pass a couple times a week when I have to go across town. Although I think all the people stuck in the traffic jam left in my wake might be a bit frustrated. I'll just wave as I go by. That should keep everyone happy.


Experiential Learning

I was rereading my journals a couple days ago. I've been stuck at home for 2 days. Not because of anything dramatic (though I have been a little sick), but because my floor is being re-tiled and someone needs to "supervise." So while the tile boys do their thing, I perused my old thoughts and prayers. Now before anyone gets excited about all the juicy tidbits I'm about to drop here, I'll say that it's always interesting to see how one's prayers and thoughts grow over time… and how they don't! What most interested me were the thoughts I had about my first trip to Cambodia.

I see lots of volunteers come through (and we had another team here just a couple weeks ago), so I hear lots of first impressions, lots of initial thoughts, and lots of misguided assumptions. In rereading my own thoughts, I am certainly guilty of them as well. This reminiscing about my own early perspective has coincided with revising our volunteer orientation manual… so I've been inundated with the "Cambodia Introduction" process. It's a little scary to be reminded of the way I thought and what I did (or didn't ask).

As part of my work, I answer many questions, and many of the same questions (and rarely—although I won't say never—do I outright make up answers). Some of them are relevant for orientation manuals (currency exchange) while others are… not (how long it took to get used to driving in Cambodia). I once answered the same question three times in a row in the span of 5 minutes. Not only am I a friendly fact source about Cambodian history, current events, and culture, I'm also the "appropriateness police"—reminding people when their outfits are unacceptable, to please not point their feet at that monk who is growing more and more offended, and oh, by the way, that question is way out of line and can't be translated anyway. Why keep answering these inquiries when it exhausts me or I've said the same thing five times in one day? Well, sadly, I understand the purpose.

None of the "Cambodian experts" we have on staff got that way by being quiet. We ask questions (even when they are dumb), and we ask them of our Khmer friends, neighbors, and church buddies. Just the other day I asked someone if it was all right for me to do something, or if I was crossing a cultural line that I couldn't quite see (the answer was, fortunately, no). So we became experts not because we're any smarter or better or innately understanding of things, but from living and breathing in the culture, from experiencing the kind of things that happen here, and from trying to make sense of the unknowns by talking with others who have been there.

Where, then, is the disconnect? When does asking questions turn into tedium? First, I think it's when people assume they know the answers. Often, one of our visitors will make a statement about The Way Things Are, followed by that lovely transformational phrase, "right, Kate?"—instantly hoping to soften the assumption by dressing it up with a question. I hate it when I have to "answer" by saying "well, not really." The second problem is that a lot of people ask a question and don't listen to the answer. Lots of the tougher "why" questions here are countered by some up-front information; Cambodians are very relational… that informs the way they live, work, shop, eat, everything. Thinking through the implications of one statement can inform later questions. Third, sometimes people don't think before they ask. Although I know a lot about Cambodia, that doesn't mean I'm the expert on Malaysia (and why I sometimes have to make things up). This is also where insensitivity rears its head. If you wouldn't want someone to walk into your house and ask you how much money you make, or what your daily schedule is, you can assume that others don't want to answer that either. Deep down, though, I know that people mostly have good motives. I know they want to understand everything about this culture… about the people… about what they are to do with what they see here. Unfortunately, that's not what it looks like all the time.

We learn from experience. We store up all the things that happen to us, cross-reference them with what we know about the world, and draw conclusions. Maybe we change our behavior, maybe we communicate differently, maybe we soak it all up and do nothing. Cambodia can be a great ultimate experiential learning… experience. Because there is so much that is different, so much to see, so much to process, people leave trying to make sense of what it is that is going on outside. So the questions stem from our internal balance being off, our need to be familiar and comfortable before we can feel productive. It is, as many have said before, about stress.

Where the stress transfers to me is when I realize so many of our volunteers are asking the wrong questions. Although a trip to Cambodia should never be completely self-focused, so few people leave asking themselves (out loud, anyway) "what has this changed in me?" "What has shaped my view of Cambodia?" "Why did I have so much trouble with the culture?" "Why did our village experience bring me to tears?" The introspection is just as key to understanding the experience as the cultural anthropology. At the end of the day, few people remain in Cambodia. If all the questions don't get answered, if there are cultural things left unknown, it's okay. The bigger issues of what this trip will change at home, of why it is a significant experience, of what can be learned… those should be sorted out, worked through, and talked over. That learning process might take a lifetime, but would be worth so much more than knowledge of just historical facts. Those are the questions I would love to answer, especially since I'm asking so many of them myself.


Empty Handed

I should be used to this feeling by now. It's not strange to me anymore. I'm sure there's a word to describe it somewhere. Not insecurity nor inadequacy, certainly a far cry from insincerity. It's somewhere between incompetency and ineffectuality. Could I be a little more vague?

I spent the morning with a visitor witnessing several of our projects in a poor village near Phnom Penh. I've done this fairly often, I'm used to the routine, prepared for the questions. I'd even been to this particular village before and met some of the people there. Pretty much nothing about the day was a surprise… and maybe that's where this feeling makes me particularly uncomfortable.

We sat on the floor of a small house, surrounded by women who are part of an education group. They learn about preventing HIV, and today they learned about treating childhood asthma and preventing pneumonia. Seven of the women are HIV positive, and 5 of them are on Anti-Retroviral medications (ARV). Two of the women said their husbands are also infected. It's a sobering reality to share floor space with such stories. These women know their husbands were unfaithful and are living with the consequences—living and dying with them, I should say.

One of the women, a 23 year old, was actually part of the last visit I made to this village, and was interviewed for a WR video. I have heard her story, but even this time, was brought to tears as she recounted her tragic past. Sold by her older sister into prostitution at 17, she was beaten by the brothel owner and raped by his "customers." When she was finally able to leave, the owner talked her into coming back. Eventually she left again, and made her way back to her parent's home. That was about a year ago, and now she lives with her family, whose neglect of her health, theft of what little she has (or what is given to her), and disregard for her is a constant torment. From a life in bondage, this woman has moved into a life of pain. She discovered that she was HIV positive after our staff found her very, very sick and insisted she be tested. She became a Christian, and now is training to be a volunteer with the Hope program. She said that she is happy that she has new friends who are training with her.

As we sat there, across from her, watching tears fall down her cheeks and Nari (the staff leader) comfort her, I wasn't sure what to do. This story is heartbreaking—and I've heard it before, all too often. Sometimes I feel like that little boy trying to plug the dam in Holland with only his thumb. How do we stop the tide of hurt, of pain, of sorrow? Of all the things I have to offer her, there is not much that is immediate, that brings this young woman out of her situation and into something hopeful. To give her money is to ask her family to steal from her, and it's not sustainable. What does love look like here? How do we be "Good Samaritans" when the wounds are to the heart?

I promised to pray. I held out empty hands, wishing that I had something more to give, anything that would help. I know that prayer is something. I know that it is powerful and effective and that I shouldn't feel like I'm offering a consolation prize when I commit to pray. In these moments, though, it seems like such a small gift, a band-aid for a gaping wound.

Perhaps what is most humbling about these situations is that I have no control over the outcome. This woman's emotional (and physical) wounds can only be healed by God. He does promise hope for those who are suffering; to "comfort those who mourn and 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" (Isaiah 61:2-3). If we take Him at His word, holding out empty hands in prayer is to weep with those who are mourning, and in doing so, to let ourselves be transformed by their pain. I guess this is where the feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness are realized. It isn't my job to bring healing or transform lives; that responsibility belongs to the Lord. I am to serve them, to abandon my own desire to be useful, and commit myself to that supposedly meager offering of prayer. Ultimately, I suppose it gives God the glory—for who else could transform death into life? Certainly not me.


Road Warriors

Some of you wonder if, when I talk about the bad traffic and dangerous road conditions in Cambodia I am exaggerating. While certain facts or stories may be a bit embellished, for the most part, I try to be exact. This week, while driving in the provinces, I narrowly avoided hitting a baby cow about to dart into the road. There have been other near misses, in other vehicles, on other roads. What I regret is that I've never captured these on film to adequately document the phenomenon and could rely only on my storytelling abilities.

And now I don't have to.

Thanks to my alert sister, this news story found its way to me. Apparently the Google car (who knew there was such a thing?) had an incident involving a deer. Now this is sad, but it is a great reason why the Google car has no place in Cambodia. I'm not sure that Google maps could afford the damages every time they nicked a cow or water buffalo. Not to mention kids on bicycles, motorbikes loaded down with stuff, or horse-drawn carts. In any case... this is a taste of driving in Cambodia. Without the constant adrenaline rush and heart-pounding terror, of course. You have to pay extra for that.


Facing Fear

I arrived back in Cambodia just before the beginning of a holiday (not surprising, as holidays happen here about once a month). This time it was Chinese New Year. I know some of you are thinking, "wait, wait, she doesn't live in China!" and you would be correct. However, a large portion of the Khmer population is part Chinese, and so the holiday is celebrated here with lots of fake paper money burning, sacrifices to ancestors, and a day off school. Also with firecrackers. Which is the subject of the first funny story of the Year of the Ox.

Last year, during Chinese New Year, I was consistently surprised by the firecrackers going off in the neighborhood. So this year, having forgotten that the holiday was even approaching (let alone here), I said to my house cleaner on Saturday morning, "Hedia, they are doing some construction or something. There is this constant banging, so don't let it frighten you. I have been jumping at the sounds all morning." Just then, another BANG sounded. She looked at me curiously. "Kate," she said, with a great deal of patience, and not a little amusement, "That's a game."

Aside from being annoyed/scared by the noises coming from outside my house, a greater fear-inducing problem exists (potentially) inside. Some of you may also remember that there have been several instances in which a mouse has been spotted in my house. During those dangerous times, I was vastly reassured by the presence of my very own mouse assassin (and roommate), Deanna. However, she has returned to the US, leaving me vulnerable to mouse attacks once more. Since my return, I have been on the lookout for any signs of furry creatures. Several pieces of circumstantial evidence point to the existence of a mouse-like intruder, but I haven't actually spotted it yet. The question remains: to trap, or not to trap?


Cambodia (Reprise)

My friend Katie wrote this week about her to-do list after arriving back in the Philippines after time away. I think it's safe to say that we're sharing similar experiences. I've been sitting at my computer all day, trying to craft email responses, complete arrangements, and make a plan of attack for the next few weeks. I've failed utterly.

I'm not sure if it's the fatigue from traveling or simply the transition from a month of being "away" and working in a different capacity. I've actually done very little "online" work, having to communicate face-to-face with those I would normally phone or email. The break was great for me; a chance to put some distance between myself, my work, and Cambodia. On the other side it has made me grateful to be back, excited about the coming months and the work ahead, and, I must admit, a little bit lazy about some of the follow up.

In fact, as I sit here contemplating my own laziness, I'm finding it difficult to even put my thoughts together for this little update. My body is still adjusting to the time here, and my brain is stumbling to catch up. I know I'll be spending a good portion of the weekend clearing my to-do list in preparation for some of the things that await next week.

All in all, I suppose this means I am "back," at least in the physical sense. The swelling in my feet has finally gone down, and the aches and pains of sitting in an airplane seat for 12 hours are fading. Mentally, it will take me a few days to catch up with what's going on and to reconnect myself to life here. I'll push past the listless feelings, the fatigue and the transition, and life will resume. In the meantime, I'm going for a massage. Might as well clear up the aches and pains first.


Heading Back

Just a brief update as I wait at the gate for my final flight of this journey. I'm now surrounded by the familiar tones of the Khmer language as there are several Cambodians waiting to board the plane as well. I've been "stuck" in the Korean airport all day-- which isn't so bad considering they have free wireless and a Starbucks... but I can think of better ways to spend 11 hours.

I've told a couple people that this time the trip back and forth is interesting for me. There is sadness in leaving-- friends and family I see all too rarely-- but no sorrow in going. What awaits me when this plane lands is a comfortable (for the most part) life, full of familiar faces and yes, even joy. I'm returning to a full list of things to do, in fact, a meeting at 8:30 tomorrow morning! Yet I can't help but wish the stretches in between seeing all those beloved friends and family were shorter. I missed getting to spend time with a few folks while I was back, and that's disappointing. Yet I know I was missed in Cambodia too. I guess this is another instance of the aches and pains that come with growing in and out of new homes.

Nine more hours, then, and I'll be back in familiar territory. Further away from things that are dear to me, but very close to new places and people that have captured my affection. In some ways, being in transit is easier... it's very isolationist, being a stranger in a strange land, all anticipation and longing at the same time. Or perhaps this is just what I feel now because I've been traveling so much. With that, I'm going to board and say good bye to Korea, Starbucks, hot showers, and modernization for some time. It's a bittersweet farewell, though, and in just a few hours I'll be waving hello to friends, humidity, and sights and sounds of Cambodia that have come to represent, in some way, comfort.


Update Overdue

Because of my travels, I've not had much time to organize my thoughts. I've now visited 6 states, been on 12 planes (with 4 more to go!) and lost my luggage for 7 days. Once I'm settled again, have time to sort through all my emotions and impressions, I'll be back. Until then, just know that the arm warmers have enjoyed their tour of the US. As, of course, have I.