STM Freak Out Syndrome

I have recently come to the conclusion that there's a little control freak inside of each of us. Some people are better at hiding it, at living in a way that fools the rest of us into thinking they are incredibly laid back and easygoing, unfazed by the difficulties of life. I've also concluded that there is one great equalizer, something that exposes even the most well-concealed inner control freak. It's called "the short-term mission trip."

For the past month (and for the next month), World Relief Cambodia is hosting teams of Americans to teach ESL to our staff. We've been doing this for the past four years, and I like to think we're getting better at it every year. However, there is one thing that I just cannot figure out how to improve. I'm at a loss when it comes to dealing with Short Term Mission Freak Out Syndrome, or STMFOS.

Every person has a unique STMFOS trigger. For some, travel is what prompts stress. No matter how many times I say that arriving at the Phnom Penh airport three hours before your departure time is a bit extreme, or rehash plans for transport to and from different mission locations, some folks just aren't reassured. Others need to know that their living quarters are taken care of—that there is a bed, a bathroom (with an American-style toilet), and food and water. I once answered a phone call from a volunteer who was staying three hours away from the city and wanted me to do something about the power outage at his location. It was difficult to explain that I was not in charge of the main power supply for the country of Cambodia.

This is not to say that these anxieties are unjustified. I sometimes think that all of the worry and fear people express over these easily-controlled aspects of the trip is masking some deeper issues. It might be a long-standing belief that cross-cultural differences will result in embarrassing mistakes, fears of failing at completing the "mission" or facing the unknown in another country.

Many churches are sending multiple teams this summer, to different parts of the globe. Those who go often learn to trust in God's daily provision during the journey, amidst other faith-stretching experiences. Those who stay home have the opportunity to be a source of great comfort to people, to cover them in prayer and in love as they go. Perfect love drives out fear, after all. Even fear over what might be served for dinner.


Out in the Field

There are many days when my work keeps me behind a desk, staring at a computer. While those days are no less valuable than the ones I spend visiting our projects, they are slightly less inspiring. I've had the chance to visit a couple of our kid's clubs in the past two weeks, in two different provinces. Watching the faces of these kids as they focus on our staff and the puppet shows and dramas they perform is always a treat. It reminds me why I'm here, why our ministry is important, and what we're working for. Also, it's fun, and the kids are really cute. Here are a few photos from the last two weeks.


The Allure of Rural

I always have a moment, while visiting our work in rural Cambodian villages, when I think, "I would love to live here."

Then I realize there's no indoor plumbing, little electricity, and no refrigerators, and I amend that to something along the lines of, "I'm so glad to be visiting today."

Yesterday, I wandered around a picturesque village in Kampong Cham province with several of our staff, field testing survey questions. The sky was a clear blue, the trees have turned green after the recent rains, and the dirt road was a rusty red. Small houses stood amidst palm trees, in clearings where the forest had been cut back for people to make their homes.

As we walked, I marveled at life in this small community, the hushed feel of the streets beneath the canopy of green, the stares of children as they passed on their bicycles, even the hum and swish of the cows as they walked past. It seemed to be an ideal place to live, and for a few moments made me wish I could capture something of that peace in my own neighborhood.

Until we spoke with some of the villagers.

The first woman we met answered survey questions about the social networks in the village. "People here don't really trust each other," she told us.

Then we went to survey some children, and tried to speak with a six-year-old in her home. The smell of brewing rice wine drifted up from the distillery underneath the house. It was clear that several of the men working on the wine had sampled their own brew. It was 10 a.m.

When the little girl couldn't answer our questions—which was the point of our field test—we moved on. We found a house with a little boy who was willing to participate and the staff interviewed him while I hung back with the translator and another visitor. We quickly realized that too many white faces were doing more harm than good. This also gave us a good view of the drama that was about to play out when a man stumbled into the yard, obviously drunk, and began to wash his feet with water from the well. He bumbled his way around, lighting a cigarette and eventually shouting "AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!" as well as some other nonsensical words. Finally, an older woman dressed only in her shower sarong came to ask us to please leave; the man wasn't happy that we were doing a survey in his house, and as he was the head of the family, we needed to go. If we stayed longer, she told us, he would grow belligerent and possibly destructive.

It was a startling trip, with so much imperfection juxtaposed with what is a seemingly quiet place. Rural poverty is like that. It's easy to look at these villages and see a pastoral setting that is only in need of modernization. But there's so much more going on beneath the surface. In contrast to the gritty reality of urban poverty and struggle, rural need looks easy, simple, even quaint. It can seem much like a visit to a "historical village" where one can marvel at antique technology and the progress we've made to get to where we are now. As I was reminded today, it's not a sightseeing tour or a trip into the past. People in these villages have real struggles and real temptations, the same as in any major city. The settings may look different, but people and their needs are remarkably consistent.


Selfishness: Struggling with Myself

On Wednesday, I was in Kampong Cham province, where we're preparing to do a baseline survey for some new program activities. It's been a difficult week, with lots to do, and I've been trying to combat my innate feelings of needing to strive and take responsibility for everything with the truth that this is a team effort. Also, the temperatures are still hovering around 38C or 40C (that's around 100F), and it's hard to be reasonable when you're sweating and feeling gross.

On Tuesday, I woke up at 5 a.m. after a mostly sleepless night to drive three hours with our monitoring and evaluation team. We spent the day training staff on survey procedures, and trying to find cool things to drink. In Phnom Penh, it's easy to find restaurants with clean water; in the province, not so much. I had a desperate moment yesterday, staring at a bucket of beautiful ice which I couldn't use without risking illness. Until one of the staff told me to stick my very warm Coke can into the ice bucket, I was seriously considering dealing with the nasty consequences of drinking unclean water, if only to cool off for a few minutes.

It's situations like this that make me uncomfortable.

To be clear, it's not the choice between drinking or not drinking that's uncomfortable. It's that I have to make this choice in front of Cambodian staff. Because while I sat there debating how much I desired to jeopardize my fairly stellar record of good health, seven pair of brown eyes were watching. Yes, it sounds like I'm making myself the center of attention, but it's difficult to inconspicuously ask the waitress if the water and ice at her restaurant are clean. Especially because when I speak Khmer, people tend to look at me. I'm a novelty.

It isn't just the time in the restaurant that made me feel strange. There's one room in our whole, multi-story office in Kampong Cham that has an air conditioner. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, it felt like a little slice of paradise to sit behind a desk (it's the accountant's office) and cool down. When the provincial leader, who is also a friend, offered to let me use a fold-out bed to sleep in that oasis of cool, instead of bunking with another female Cambodian staff member in a hot guest room upstairs, I wasn't sure how to respond.

Eventually, I said yes, of course, because I'm neither a fool nor a masochist. But I felt weird about my decision.

I feel like I have to constantly check myself in these situations, check my motives. Am I taking advantage of someone because I feel that I'm entitled to something, like better service, or a cheaper rate, or better living conditions? Am I trying to be comfortable at the expense of others' discomfort?

It's very easy to slip into selfishness here, when things that are luxuries in the US come cheaply, or are offered genuinely. It isn't necessarily because it's easy to feel better or more important than the Khmer people. I think it is something of a vicious cycle wherein the thought of what I've given up is enough to motivate a feeling of wanting to recapture part of the life that I left—whether it's having something that my peers have, or finding the comforts of "home" whenever possible. It's not a wrong motive, unless it stands in the way of relationships, or bleeds into entitlement, or whining, or being demanding.

In the midst of these moments of taking what is offered, even when it feels uncomfortable, I'm awed by the generosity of my Cambodian brothers and sisters. Whether it's mainly culture or mainly friendship, their willingness to give and serve is humbling, and inspires me to act that way more when I'm with them, and when I'm not.

And on Tuesday night, exhausted, hot, and preparing for another long day to come, I stopped feeling selfish, and started feeling grateful when I woke up refreshed and energized for what was ahead of me. So now I think that it's mainly a matter of decision-making, of what's right in the moment, and of living a life that balances out being gracious and serving others with caring for myself.

Of course, when I return to Kampong Cham next week, I'll probably have to fight the other Americans who will be with me for that air-conditioned space. I wonder how gracious I will be with them?