Traditional yet Fresh

I always used to wonder, when I read the Biblical accounts of Holy Week, where all the people came from. Surely they weren't standing around, waiting for a donkey to come down the street with Jesus on its back. Of course they didn't hang out around the palace, hoping for the opportunity to cause a mob scene. I've come to realize that I was mistaken.

I was in a car accident last May, and at the time of impact, the street was deserted. Two minutes after the crash, a few people had wandered near the scene. Five minutes later, there were fifteen people. Twenty minutes later, trucks pulled over and people stepped out. Thirty minutes later, the friends of the man driving the motorbike I hit arrived en masse. A huge crowd had gathered, because they knew that something had happened, and they wanted to know what was going on.

This is so foreign to American culture. We schedule our political protests and fit them into our calendar. We have a day to remember AIDS, and a day to tell our mothers and fathers we love them. We live by the calendar, so when something important happens, we don't have time to stop and be a part of it. In fact, if someone came up to us today and said, "Hey, you should join in with this amazing thing that's happening at the church right now," we would probably respond by saying, "No way, I have things to do to get ready for Easter."

Imagine if the disciples, when Jesus invited them to dinner said, "We'd love to, but we have some preparations to take care of, Jesus." Or if someone asked them to go to the cross and they answered, "In a minute, I have this big project I'm working on."

This is a week when we immerse ourselves in tradition and remembrance of a very significant, world-changing event. We symbolically walk the path that Jesus took, his steps to the cross, charting his last days as a way of honoring his sacrifice and examining our own hearts. But let's not forget that the first Holy Week was not scheduled, or planned, and no one was given a time to arrive for the Palm Sunday parade. Instead, people were in the right place at the right time, were able and willing to respond to the invitations they were given. They were drawn to walk with Jesus because they recognized that something was happening, something rare. We're a bit cheated, aren't we? We've read the script. It spoils the big reveal on Easter Sunday, when what should be unexpected is instead a celebration of what we knew all along would come.

This year, let's not only carry with us the traditions of Holy Week, but the spontaneity and response that those first crowds exemplified. I think then we will truly shout with joy at the Easter tomb—when we can arrive there with those who mourn and see the miracle of our salvation demonstrated anew.


Land of Expertise

It's an easy thing to do, pretending to be an expert. Sometimes it happens to me intentionally, when I give the "Welcome to Cambodia" lecture. Other times, it's accidental. When I bump into other tourists and they ask questions, for instance. But it's a dangerous place to be in too long, this land of expertise. Especially when you aren't an expert at all.

I was in a café with a friend, drinking coffee, and doing some work the other day, when a group came in and sat down next to us. Four of the people were visiting Cambodia, and the other three lived here, though I'm not sure how long they've been in-country. We picked up their conversation in snatches, always coming in at precisely the wrong moment.

"Cambodians really don't work very hard," one of them said.

"Yes," agreed another, "if you go into their shops, you never see them cleaning or doing anything. They always have time to sit and talk with you."

(cue startled gasps by Kate)

"It's pretty clear that those who are really poor are that way because they drink or gamble," said one of the women who lives here.

"Well, not in the countryside," one of them corrected.

"No," admitted the first speaker, "but in Phnom Penh, it's certainly the case."

I was appalled. These are the kinds of claims that come from deep-rooted cultural assumptions and thought patterns, from drawing conclusions and asking questions later. They're exactly the kinds of things I fear will happen to our teams, or worse, will happen to me.

Today, I gave a talk on cross-cultural ministry challenges to a bunch of NGO partners. I'm by no means an expert. This fact was reinforced when I spoke with some World Relief staff last week about my upcoming talk. I was trying to clarify what their expectations were, and we chatted about their culture and mine. I'm continually surprised at how much I still have to learn.

We always tell people to take the "posture of a learner" when they visit Cambodia on a short-term mission trip. It's good advice, and often pays big dividends, when they leave with a better grasp of God's heart for the world, and how the church can—and does—respond to poverty.

But it's only good advice if we follow it ourselves. I worry that one day, I'll think I know it all. I pray that my natural inclination to answer questions with definitive statements does not mean that my experience or someone else's is biased. I'm counting on two things to save me: the grace of God, and overhearing more conversations like the one in the café.


Hot Season Lessons

Once, a long time ago, I posted a list of tips for surviving the rainy season. Today, I present:

10 Things That Hot Season Has Taught Me.

10. Defrosting your freezer doesn't take very long, but if you leave the doors closed for two days before you open it, you might end up thinking it would be more pleasant for someone to have actually barfed inside.

9. Three showers a day is not as excessive as you might otherwise think.

8. Deodorant should be provided free to everyone.

7. There is no good time to go outside. People will tell you that morning or evening are the best, but these are lies.

6. Seek out air conditioning whenever possible.

5. Apparently, motorbike helmets provide sun protection. At least, they provide enough protection that one of our staff members wore a helmet when we had to walk outside for five minutes last week.

4. Laundry dries much faster in the hot season than any other season. This is perhaps the only benefit of hot season.

3. Learn your temperature conversions. You should do this so that when you drive past the airport and the digital temperature sign reads "39C," you can easily convert this to 102F.

2. Fans. In the absence of air conditioning, they are your only hope.

1. Your body can sweat in more places than you think it can.

Hot season lasts until (at least) June. Think of all the lessons I can learn by then!


Smoke and Ash

Here are some photos of the fire. Credit goes to Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC) who distributed these images.


The Superhero Complex

I went to Bible study tonight, which is a normal Monday night activity for me. The other women there chatted a bit, and we talked about how hot it was today (over 100°, according to the internet, which can always be trusted). We settled in, and had a time of worship together. And then my phone rang.

My roommate, Kerstin, was calling, which was rather odd, since she knew I was at Bible study and had an idea of when I'd be home (and we don't have roommate separation anxiety issues, so that wasn't it either). Of course, I answered, and she informed me that there was a giant fire on the next block, and could she come over to where our Bible study was, in case it spread to our street.

Thus launched a great deal of speculation. We headed up to the rooftop to look for the fire, and found a blazing red sky and a giant plume of smoke. This, of course, meant we had to try to figure out where the fire was actually burning—and there are a lot of houses in this part of town, built right next to each other. It's a scary, scary thing to watch your city go up in flames, especially when you know that the response of the fire department is contingent upon things like corruption, pay, and their ability to navigate crowds of spectators.

We watched, and we waited, and slowly information came in. The fire was not on the next block, but was very near to a temple which is only a few blocks away from my apartment. There are a large number of small wooden houses behind the temple, and many of them have now burned. We smelled smoke and listened to sirens in the distance. And we prayed.

By the end of the evening, the fire had been contained, if not extinguished. We heard that several of World Relief's cell church members had lost homes to the fire. We found out that one of our staff members had lost everything (and was searching for his family). We discovered that others were safe. We learned that it was an electrical spark that started the fire. We wondered how people would find somewhere to sleep tonight. Still, we prayed.

It's a strange thing, to have your neighborhood go up in smoke. I've gotten used to living near poverty, to living near oppression. I hope I've not grown passive, but I'm sure my reaction has been blunted, the more I've seen, the more I've become accustomed to the wrongs that are perpetrated only a few meters away from my front gate. It's a consequence of doing something like this, of living in hard places. We end up seeing things that we might miss otherwise, having stayed in comfortable locales, surrounded by things we've long known.

But I'm not used to fires, and I'm not used to feeling so unsafe, so unsure. I'm not used to being grateful that my passport is in the hands of the government for processing, and that it can't be lost to a fire. I'm not used to wondering if my apartment will be there when I get home. I'm not used to a bright red sky and a plume of smoke.

I think part of it is that I have something of a superhero complex. So often, I hear that it's so great that I'm living here, working here. Even my colleagues think I'm different; sometimes they tell me I'm special. It's a real ego boost. And it has weird consequences. Like making me feel that I'm invincible. Or positioning me on a slippery slope where I think that bad things are what happen to other people, and what I'm here to prevent, or to fix.

The reality is that I'm no superhero. I'm as human and as vulnerable as the 350 families who have lost their homes tonight. It could have been me, sleeping outside, picking through wreckage, treading on ashes. It almost was, if the winds had blown differently, or a different transformer had sparked the flames. And while it's good that I'm here, good that I'm working, good that we're making a difference, bad things are not only what happen to other people. And even if I'm here to help fix bad things, and right wrongs, well, it doesn't mean that I'm indestructible (or that my house is).

So tonight, I'm praying, still, for families who have lost everything, the neighbors I don't know and haven't met. This time, it's not just another problem to be fixed, or wrong to be righted. It's not something with a cause that can be analyzed or complex cultural issue. It's a tragedy, and it happened just a few blocks away.


Stay How Long

A second location of my favorite coffee shop (The Shop, as you may recall) opened near my apartment about a month ago. I go there quite a bit, and the staff know who I am by now. I popped in for lunch today, and one of the guys asked me a question that's pretty familiar. Here's our conversation:

Dude: "You stay in Cambodia how long?"
Kate: "Nearly 3 years."
Dude: "But you cannot speak Khmer?"
Kate (confused): "I can speak Khmer."
Dude: looks at Kate strangely
Kate (in Khmer): "I went to America for four months. Now I forget everything. But I will study."
Dude (looking unconvinced): "Oh."

Apparently I need to get back to my language lessons. Or start lying about how long I've lived here.


Patron-Client Process

Cambodia's culture is often described as being patron-client oriented. Life is arranged with a series of benefactors, who provide job opportunities, finances when needed, and serve as "patrons" to those below them. Clients feel indebted to their patrons for their generosity and giving, and patrons are able to take advantage of these clients, sometimes bribing them for services, etc. When something goes wrong, clients can lean on their patrons for assistance. This means, in the words of Irving Berlin (as sung by Bing Crosby in the classic film, White Christmas)"There's always someone higher up where you can pass the buck."

In reality, the situation is quite complicated, and perhaps Bing is not the person to describe it. It's easy, though, to get caught up in a patron-client relationship without even realizing it.

For instance, you might hire someone for short-term labor, say, driving for a program. When that person later has trouble finding work, or they know you might be hiring again, they call you, trying to find out if you will hire them (even when the position is gone, or filled by someone else). Or, you could experience what happened to me today: someone came into my office and requested that we hire a family member for an extremely short-term position. It was difficult to know what to say. The woman is a good employee, and I really like her, but we had worked out all the details for this position already (really, we were contracting the service from a different company), and then she presented this family member option, which is cheaper, but more complicated. And really hard to decline.

I don't know how to say no in these situations. A lot of times, it's easier to say yes, and then deal with the consequences later. But sometimes, I feel constantly like I'm being put in these "patron" positions, and immediately my relationships are transformed from being someone who is on equal footing, to someone who controls purse strings. They aren't even my purse strings-- I'm often trying to use the organization's money for one of our programs. Which makes it extra difficult to turn people away, when cost is an issue and even a little will go a long way to help someone.

Navigating these complex relationships is one of the reasons I'm jealous for the situation I left in the US. When you want something done, you send out a bid, and you take the best, most cost-effective option. When there's a problem, and you need something fixed, you don't call your driver's cousin's husband, you call a professional. Of course, you pay (often a lot) for these services, and there's little relationship behind the delivery. But there's typically no worry, no questioning whether or not you've unknowingly inserted yourself into a situation you shouldn't have, no occasionally feeling taken-advantage-of, no instance of the same person coming back later and asking you to hire him or her again.

It's equally hard to explain this to Cambodians, who feel that it's perfectly all right to approach me (or anyone who clearly has more money) for these kinds of things. And it's true that I love to be able to help, and feel really good when I can use resources at my disposal to do more than just meet our organizational needs. But I seem to be missing some middle ground, some really important cultural piece, and instead of feeling like I'm blessed to be a blessing, I feel as though I've been marked for my generosity. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, and it's going to take a lot more than me simply discovering what makes me so uncomfortable to fix it.

In the meantime, I'm trying to be wise in the ways I use what's been entrusted to me. I'm trying to understand what motivates people to approach me for things I'm not ready or able to give. I'm trying to figure out how to be a patron without becoming patronizing. It's turning out to be trickier than I thought.