Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THRIVING

If I were to describe 2016, our first full year here, it would go something like: hold on tight and put one foot in front of the other. Go to class, pass your tests, buy your groceries, don't let ants completely take over your apartment...and give up trying to have the energy for much more than that. Culture shock, construction zones, insane heat and the element of unknown mixed into every aspect of our life all combined to make 2016 overwhelming. The year became about showing up and praying for the best. For a chronic overachiever, it was a gut check to hope to only get by.

For me, though, 2017 was about roots. After barely surviving in 2016, I wanted to put down some roots and settle into life and work in Cambodia. Our community here, while still small, grew. Our love and understanding of the people in our church deepened. Our growing language and cultural understanding gave our interactions a lot more nuance. I started to love living in Phnom Penh. We spent the whole year without moving apartments (it's been a long time since that happened!). We bought a car and explored outside of our well worn pathswe saw some of the countryside and a few of the city's hidden corners. We even got to spend 3 months in the US connecting with friends, family and supporters which left us feeling deeply connected on both sides of the ocean.


2017 was still a very challenging, very humbling year, but it was about more than just not falling over. It was about stabilizing, sending down roots, going deeper.

Now that we are already a couple of weeks into 2018, I've spent some time thinking over the coming year, planning and setting goals. So, what's my hope for 2018? My hope for the year could be summarized by the word thrive. After hanging on and then sending out roots, I'm praying this year I'll see many of my relationships, goals and work sprout and send up green shoots. I hope our language abilities finally transition from being able to just communicate to being able to really listen and fully understand the Cambodians we have gotten to know or with whom we hope to build relationships. I hope it's a year where everyday life here not only doesn't drain me, but becomes normal enough that I have the energy to mine the environment around me for the gems of life and inspiration it holds.

As I have begun to absorb the culture on this side of the world, I've started to let go of making big, detailed plans for the days, weeks or even months ahead. I've started, instead, setting goals with an eye toward the next quarter or year, sometimes for the next few years. Before moving here, I never would've guessed it would take two years of ground work for me to even begin thinking about actively thriving here. But now? It makes sense.

I heard a story a while back about bamboo, and maybe you have heard it too. Apparently, there is a kind of Chinese bamboo that requires you to water it everyday, give it sunshine, and maintain it. But for the first whole year there's no noticeable growth. The same goes for the second year. And the third whole year! You constantly care for it, but there are no signs of life above the soil. Yet, in the forth year, a sprout appears and before you know it, the shoot doubles and triples each week until it has grown over 90 feet in 6 weeks.

(Full disclosure: some further internet research gives me some conflicting ideas about how factually true this story is, but I'm going to run with it anyway! It's at the very least a good parable.)

I won't push the metaphor too far, as we have seen some sprouts from our work in much less than 4 years, but this story resonated with me. Sometimes there is a lot of work that has to take place underground before you have any evidence of growth, and sometimes that work takes whole years. It takes patience and faith and a hand to the plow. But one day, Lord willing, those sprouts do come up above the soil. Eventually you have a tall, sturdy, thriving tree.

So, this year I am hoping, praying and working towards thriving. I hope you thrive this year, too. If you're not there yet, take heart. God meets you in the hanging on and the below-the-surface years, too. But, in 2018, I'm praying the ground is finally stirring under us all.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

A HOLY CHRISTMAS

This Christmas night is a holy Christmas (a holy Christmas)
The very first Christmas, born on a cold night (on a cold night)
The shepherds, some guarding, some sleeping (That’s right!)
Suddenly an angel appeared in the sky.

The above is a translation of the first verse of first Khmer Christmas song I learned (you can listen to it here). We sung this song for the first time last Sunday, and it is meaningful to me because it represents my journey of celebrating Christmas in Cambodia.

We arrived in Cambodia in late October 2015. We had just a few weeks before the Christmas season started. With the heat, the lack of knowledge about where to go Christmas shopping and the exhaustion from adjusting to a new country, we did not do any Christmas preparations beyond buying two short strings of lights to hang on the wall. We didn’t even go to our church’s Christmas service, since it was early in December and we had to make a quick trip across the border. It wasn’t a bad Christmas, but we had some definite limitations. It was the least Christmasy that Christmas has ever felt. (If you want to revisit that Christmas, here’s a link to the blog I wrote about it at the time.)

Christmas 2016 was a little better. We had gotten our feet under us by that point. We got a tree and some ornaments. Decorations went up early enough to enjoy them. Lauren and I got each other presents. We made it to the Christmas service. My parents were here visiting. There were so many more of those elements that I have come to expect from Christmas.

If 2015 was about surviving Christmas, and if 2016 was about making our own Christmas traditions, then 2017 has been about starting to understand what it means to embrace the Cambodian way of doing Christmas. We are talking to more Khmer Christians about their Christmas traditions, being grateful for those who celebrate with family in their hometown and praying for those who are the only believer in their family. We enjoyed watching our own church plan a mini-Christmas pageant (I graciously declined the role of the angel). And of course, we learned our first Khmer Christmas song.



We are also discussing with our partners how to participate in their annual Christmas Trip. The Christmas Trip seeks to provide a Christmas worship service to as many of the Baptist churches around Cambodia as possible. If there is some way in which we can come alongside the leadership of the CBU as they implement this program, it could be a great opportunity to support Cambodian Baptist pastors.

Of course, we still keep as many of our familiar Christmas traditions as possible. The smell of cider and the sound of our favorite Christmas songs flow throughout our house. We will get to visit with family again this year. And even though evergreens aren’t exactly native to the tropics, we will still proudly display our little Christmas tree.

But as our new song reminds us, we are now set to embrace more than before the reality that we celebrate Christmas in Cambodia now. And there is much to learn from the Cambodian way of doing Christmas. This Christmas night is a holy Christmas indeed, no matter where we find ourselves living when it comes around.

From our family to yours, we wish you a very merry Christmas. And we hope that you too would find new ways to stay true to the best Christmas family traditions while also being open to the ways that the kingdom and mission of Jesus could change the way you celebrate his birth.

Monday, December 4, 2017

RUBBER PLANTATION

A few weeks ago, during a break in classes, we got outside the city to explore the province of Kampong Cham (about two and a half hours outside of Phnom Penh).  One of our favorite things about the trip was getting a chance to learn about and explore the rubber plantations and factories there.

The rows and rows of rubber trees were sights for sore eyes. 


A section of bark is scraped away, and the sap trickles down into the bowls. Workers were out walking between the trees collecting the sap. 


From there we went to a rubber factory. We had read they allowed visitors to come tour the facility, but we didn't really know how to get the ball rolling with that. We practiced a speech in Khmer, drove up to the gate, and got the guard's attention while fully expecting him to tell us we were crazy and that we could not go inside. Instead, before we could get a word out, he waved us in the gate, pointed to a parking space and got us signed in. The "tour" consisted of giving us badges that said "guest" and pointing us in the direction of the factory. Thankfully with a bit of Khmer, some outgoing factory workers and a bit of imagination, we learned quite a bit about the process of making rubber. 


Tanks of sap from the rubber trees are hauled in on trucks and dumped into these shoots. This part was pretty stinky!

With a bit of time, the water in it sinks to the bottom and the rubber floats to the top. The top portion gets skimmed off and pushed on to the next stage...


Here it gets washed and squished. Next it gets baked in giant ovens. 

A bit of rubber before and after it gets baked. The color and texture changes quite a bit. 

Finally the rubber gets weighed and compressed into large bricks. These were then picked up, bagged, and stacked in crates to be exported. I asked the small, older man who was picking them up without much effort how much they weighed—about 75 pounds each it turned out! We were told that Cambodia does not currently have facilities to further process the rubber. So, it gets exported out as raw rubber and imported back in as tires, erasers, shoes, etc. 

While at first we felt a bit awkward walking around the facility while everyone was working, we had a lot of fun learning and exploring. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

ALWAYS SOMETHING TO LEARN

We had always planned on eventually buying a car here in Cambodia. Life was so overwhelming when we first moved here that we decided to wait a while to buy a car. I ran errands around the neighborhood on foot. We found a tuk tuk driver who was honest and reliable (after a bit of trial and error). David got a bicycle. Yet, as life and ministry here has started to shift and as our partners and church moved to the outskirts of the city, we decided it was time to get a car. But just buying groceries in Cambodia can be complicated, so where would we even start when buying a car?

I met another expat who used a “fixer” to help buy a reliable car. This fixer is an English “car guy” who speaks Khmer fluently and understands the complicated process of buying a car in Cambodia. We crossed our fingers that he would be all we needed to navigate this process.

We were incredibly thankful for our fixer. He took us to look at some cars, poked at their insides and laughed when they let out scary noises. When he said, That’s not good, we thanked the dealer and moved on. When we found a promising car, he took us to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for a test drive. I hadn’t considered how we would do a test drive when traffic and small roads make reaching even 20 miles per hour difficult. He confidently gunned it around the parking lot, slammed on the breaks a few times and tested the suspension on the muddy potholes. Meanwhile, I sat in the back trying not to giggle at the absurdity/hilarity of doing all this in the middle of the day in a full parking lot.



Our fixer fixed many things for us, but we still had to figure out much ourselves. We had to endure several lines and a frozen computer at the bank to pay the road tax. Then we had to figure out drivers’ licenses. We made two trips, each an hour long, to the Ministry of Transportation, while trying to figure out what the right documents are and what we had to do to acquire them. Once there, we wandered around the massive complex trying to learn the steps in the process (including lots of polite smiling and a ridiculously easy eye exam) and how to accomplish them.

We had to do all this before I even started learning how to actually drive here! Since then I’ve learned how traffic works in Phnom Penh, how and where to get gas, and how to get a car wash to keep all the mud from clogging things up. I had to get better at backing into tiny parking places here because everyone backs into spaces—not my favorite cultural quirk. I even learned how to park the car in neutral so parking guards can roll parked cars around like slide puzzles to let other cars out (it involves a hidden button I never knew existed).

Driving is still a bit overwhelming and draining for me, but now that the majority of the learning is done, I love having a car. I love being able to make long trips in an air-conditioned car instead of a hot, bumpy tuk tuk. I love getting where I want to go without telling anyone else where or why I’m going. Yet, the process of getting and driving a car here is a powerful reminder that there is always something new to learn.

I’ve learned so many big and small things in the last two years since moving here. I distinctly remember on our very first full day in Cambodia, a year before moving here, having one main task for our morning: conquering crossing the street. Now I’m out there conquering the limits of my spatial reasoning by edging our little RAV4 through our neighborhood traffic pit. Similarly, Facebook just reminded me that I started Khmer language classes for the first time 2 years ago today. I knew exactly 2 words. This week I’ve spent hours upon hours having conversations entirely in Khmer at church, at the bank, at church and in class.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes a bit frustrating how little I get to revel in the feeling of mastery in my life here. I work really hard to figure something out, to get good at it, to conquer the fear of it. Yet, I never get to feel like an expert—before the accomplishment can sink in, it’s back to square one with a new task.

I do wish I could navigate my world with less thought and energy, but I do see the upside. First of all, constantly starting over with a new process or task to master keeps me humble. More than that, though, restarting the learning process again and again reminds me that almost anything is possible with enough work, help and prayer. Everything starts small. Three years ago I crossed the street. Two years ago I sharpened my pencils and went to class for the first time. Today I’m a traffic-driving, Khmer-speaking resident of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and I’m on the look out for what I’ll be learning and figuring out next.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

MOVIE: FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER



This past week, we finally got the chance to watch the film First They Killed My Father, directed by Angelina Jolie and released on Netflix. It is based on a true story from the book of the same name about a young girl’s experience during the Khmer Rouge. Jolie fell in love with Cambodia while filming Tomb Raider in 2000, later adopting a Cambodian child and becoming close friends with Ung Loung, author of First They Killed My Father. We found the film to be respectful and balanced: it memorialized Cambodia’s past suffering without becoming overly bleak; it acknowledged the beauty of the country and its people without becoming overly sentimental.

If you are looking to learn about the facts and figures of the Khmer Rouge period, you might feel that this film is lacking. For better or worse, the story is seen entirely from the perspective of a child. As a result, we were often unclear about the passage of time, distances traveled and the historical context of events depicted. However, what you do get is a highly experiential look at the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of this time period that only a child’s eyes could provide. If you want to know more about the traumatic period that continues to affect Cambodians, or if you just want to know more about the context in which we live and serve, we recommend you check out First They Killed My Father.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A CYCLIST'S POINT OF VIEW

I bought a bicycle last year so that I wouldn’t have to rely on tuk tuk drivers to take me everywhere. I hoped to have more independence, and it did indeed feel good to get myself where I needed to go. But there was another benefit of riding a bike that I didn’t expect. From the perspective of my bike, I got insight into Khmer culture that I never could have gotten any other perspective.

So what did I learn about Cambodia from atop my mighty metal steed?



Traffic laws in the US more closely resemble the laws of mechanics, as with a clock. Traffic has many different parts that must work together. Drivers must know a complex set of formal rules before entering the realm of driving. When everybody follows the rules, they are usually able to efficiently turn in and out of each other like interlocking cogs. However, if one part gets out of place, it can bring the rest of the machine to a grinding halt.

Traffic laws in Cambodia (not the official laws but rather the laws that people actually follow) resemble the laws of hydrodynamics, as with a river. Rules dict
ate the flow of the river, but not the same rules that dictate the work of a machine. Traffic’s goal is to continue moving forward, and when obstacles attempt to impede its progress, it flows around the obstacle in whatever way it can. This is not as fast or efficient as US traffic at its best, but it is more adaptable to changing conditions.

In the US, people rely on the rules to know what to do. Who has right-of-way, when do I come to a complete stop, what is the speed limit, when can I cross the lines on the road, when can I pass other cars? Don’t worry, there’s a rule for each of those situations. When people break the rules, other drivers get upset because it endangers not only safety but the entire flow of traffic.

In Cambodia, the official rules are often little more than suggestions. So how do you navigate right-of way, passing, intersections and other interactions with your fellow road warriors? The way you navigate most things in Cambodia: you negotiate. I started to notice the subtle ways people watched each other, silently communicating, “It’s my turn,” “You’re too big to fit quickly, so I’ll go ahead,” or “I’ll leave a space here or slow down so you can go.” Like other negotiations, if you’re not confident, others will take advantage of you. If you are, you’re invited to play the game.

Because Cambodian rules are so flexible, there is almost no road rage. That alone makes Cambodian traffic worth paying attention to.

To get home, I usually have to turn left onto a busy street for a block, and then make another left turn into our apartment building. The first few times, I waited for the traffic to clear just enough for me to cross to the other side of the street, turn left, go one block, then cross back over traffic to get to my apartment. Those final maneuvers took as long as the rest of the trip to that point.

Then I realized that no Cambodian would ever do that. They would stay on the left side of the street, driving straight into oncoming traffic, especially if it’s just for one block. The first time I tried biking into oncoming traffic, I was nervous, but I no more disturbed traffic than a salmon disturbs a river by swimming upstream. People flowed around me without the slightest hint of annoyance.

Americans usually value efficiency, speed and clear-cut rules, and they avoid ambiguity. They are usually willing to sacrifice personal interaction and adaptability to achieve this. Cambodians usually value the ability to negotiate so that everybody gets to walk away with something. They value the ability to adapt to situations because you never know what will come up. They are willing to sacrifice speed, efficiency, and black-and-white rules to achieve this.

When I first saw the traffic in Cambodia, I thought it was chaotic. But appearances can be deceiving. There is more order to it than meets the eye, but its order reflects Cambodian culture more than American culture. By getting on a bike and entering the flow of traffic, I have been able to enter the flow of the culture. By getting out there and living my life in Cambodia, I have been able to enter the culture in other ways as well.

Of course, some days the culture kicks your butt, like the day that my bike got stolen. Some days, entering the culture is less of a rewarding process. All you can do is buy a new bike (and a bike lock) and get back into the flow.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

RIBBON CUTTING CEREMONY

This past week has been a full one for us, and the highlight of the whole thing has been getting to celebrate the inauguration of the Cambodia Baptist Union's new multi-purpose building. We've been using the building for a couple of months now, but this was the official opening ceremony. This building has been a dream for our partners for a long, long time and it was incredible to watch the celebration of this dream come to fruition.

Hundreds of people came from all around Phnom Penh and almost every province in Cambodia to celebrate, worship and eat together. I think we all came away from the day encouraged by God's faithfulness and excited about the future of ministry here in Cambodia.