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.