Friday, March 24, 2017

TROPICAL SPRING

As North America starts to thaw and flowers and trees start to bloom, Cambodia hits its hottest part of the year. Yet, strangely enough, this time of year is still when most flowers and trees bloom here, too. You can't miss the trees that line the streets now covered in yellow or purple flowers. It's beautiful!

Looking closely, we've also found a few fun surprises. Those potted plants lining the back of our apartment's parking area? Turns out some of them are pineapple plants!



Even cuter, walking down the street today we saw an even tinier pineapple plant and couldn't resist taking a photo. : )




Friday, March 17, 2017

CONFLICTED

We have been living in Phnom Penh for about 17 months now. When we first moved to Cambodia, I didn’t have much time or energy to evaluate my new life in this city. Yes, it was hot and dusty, no getting around noticing that, but we needed to find an apartment, find a school, find grocery stores and furnishings and friends and…everything. That took all of my focus. After months of preparation and transition in the US, we began months of transition and settling in on this side of the ocean. There wasn’t a break to take it all in for a while. 

After a while of living in Phnom Penh, though, I did have time to look around and process it. I’ll tell you something that maybe some missionaries won’t tell you. I realized that I didn’t like it here. I didn’t hate it. I just…didn’t like it. 


Initially, not liking it here felt fine. Some people really struggle as they come out of a “honeymoon stage” of living in a new place, finding that reality doesn’t live up to the place they fell in love with when they were bright-eyed, excited and naive. I thought, it’s a bonus: there’s no need to struggle to get over the “honeymoon stage” if you never have one. I also realized that most places are hard when you first arrive. I didn’t sweat it. 

Yet, after months and months, I got to a point where I wondered if I would ever like it here. I tried to like it. I tried not to see the trash, not to hear the construction. I tried to make peace with the endless lines of ants in my apartment, with the bugs in the rice. I tried not to mind sweating all day, everyday. I tried to find it endearing when Cambodians asked me how much I weigh. 

I tried to build community. I tried to factor out the stress of language learning and culture shock from my impression of my new home. I tried to focus on the things I liked. Pineapples! Cheap housing! Our wonderful tuktuk driver! I never thought about leaving or doubted our commitment to live out our callings here for the foreseeable future, but at one point I finally was honest with myself: I just didn’t like it here. 

I tell you this to help explain just how weird it is to find myself, with two and a half weeks before we board a plane to head back to the USA for 3 month, conflicted about leaving. It’s a miracle of sorts, really. 

As my low point hit, we took our planned module away from language school and took a couple weeks off. We saw my brother and his family in the neighboring country where they live and spent some time resting on a beach in Thailand. We didn’t think about Cambodia or Phnom Penh. When we returned home, I continued to pray that God would help me like, even love, living here. 

Little by little, I felt my heart lift in this place. Going away gave me the chance to come back and have the feeling of coming home. My brain functioned better after some time away from the classroom, and I was able to use my new language skills more in my everyday life. Our lease ran out and we found a new apartment—which doesn’t have a massive construction site next door. Little things started adding up. I now know the people at neighborhood shops that wave to me as I walk down the street. We have discovered fun, tucked-away cafes and restaurants. We finally have the ability to follow along in the hymnals and sing a few songs at church. We find ourselves busy hosting friends for dinner.

A few weeks ago we were riding to the other side of town as evening was falling. I love watching the city come to life as everyone returns home or commences their evening activities. As I took in the sunset, got peeks of dinner cooking at corner stands and marveled at the motorcycles carefully balanced with all manner of people, animals, vegetables, I realized: I really like living here. In fact, I like it more and more every day.

Yet, as this momentum finally grows, it’s time to pause here and return home for a while. That, too, is a weird feeling. As we return to the States, I have to wonder—will I lose all the momentum I’ve found in liking life here, building community, language learning? After being away for this long, will we still feel at home in the communities we have left behind in the States? Will we be able to communicate the massive changes we’ve seen in the last year and a half? Will we be able to share the stories we have heard in ways that resonate? 

We’ve already realized that 3 months is a really long time to be away from Cambodia…and that 3 months is a really short time to be back in the US. I feel like, just as I’ve gotten a bit settled, just as I’ve gotten the hang of things here for a bit, the cloud has lifted and it’s time to pack up and move again. It’s a strange, transient journey we are on. 

Yet, after a year and a half of praying this place would become a place where we could thrive, I’m thankful to feel conflicted to be gone for a while. I’m hopeful that this journey back to the States will help me to be able to return to Cambodia and love it even more. 
PS. See our blog last week for details on dates and details for our time in the States.

Friday, March 10, 2017

SPRING AND SUMMER PLANS


As of today, we have both completed our multi-hour Khmer language placement exams (!). We've been reviewing and getting tutoring in the weeks leading up to this examination, which will give us a thorough look at what we are and are not yet able to do in the Khmer languageeven down to the specific sounds we can and can't yet make correctly. We won't get the results for a while and will continue to take private lessons, but we are excited to finally have a bit of space in our brains to let you know some upcoming news:


We are headed back to the US for a few months soon! Actually, very soon.

We will arrive in Texas on April 5th and stay for 3 months, flying back to Cambodia on July 5th. While we have both lived overseas for extended periods of time and returned home before, this will be the first time we make a trip back to the United States together on "home assignment" before going back to the field. We've been busy in the last few weeks wrapping our minds around just a few of the details involved (and ok...maybe we have started a "to eat" list also!). We still have many things to iron out, but we wanted to let you all know and to share our rough schedule.

April 5-13th we will be in Fort Worth where we will mostly be seeing family and getting over jetlag.
April 13th-May 12th we will be in Colorado.
May 12th-Mid June we will be visiting with our partners in Texas, including some time on and around June 11th in Abilene.
On and around June 25th we will be in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
On and around June 27th-July 1st we will be in Atlanta, GA.
Finally, July 2-5th we will be back in DFW with family (and packing!).

It will likely be another 2 years before we head to the US again, so we've got lots of plans for our time home, including visiting doctors, meetings, stocking up on supplies, speaking in churches, hopefully getting some time away in the mountains, eating our mamas' cooking and most importantly, connecting with YOU. We are excited to see as many of you as possible and share about the work we are doing here and some of the changes in our lives and ministry over the last year and a half. So, while we still have 4 busy weeks left here in Cambodia before we head to the States, we are getting more excited to see you all by the day!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

TAKE A PEEK: THE WHITE BUILDING

Last up in our little around-town round-up: Phnom Penh's White Building. When we first moved here, we heard several references to the White Building, but had no idea where it was or what made it the center of so many tales of intrigue. It was months later when we saw a picture of the White Building and realized, Oh. We know that place! It was just that the White Building...isn't so white anymore. 

We visited it a while back with our language teachers (when we also went to Olympic Stadium and the Royal University of Phnom Penh). We learned about the building's history, met a resident or two and found the whole thing really interesting. 

The White Building is the last remaining building in a public housing complex built by the government in 1963 as a part of their plan to develop Phnom Penh (the Khmer Rouge took over the city in the late 70s and derailed all of those plans). It was built to house mostly state bank employees, artists and traditional dancers. It's hard to tell how big the building is from picture below, but the building stretches 6 blocks and includes over 450 apartments with about 2,500 residents.  

Today there's lots of talk of tearing the building down because it is no longer structurally sound, yet there are also people who think the building should be saved because of its iconic status and because the people who live there have a strong sense of community. This community is often stereotyped with drug usage and other seedy practices, but it is also known for its artists. It's definitely an interesting community and building right in the middle of a bustling area of Phnom Penh.  


Small shops and cafes line the alley in front of the building selling a bit of everything

Massive construction projects take place just behind the building giving the location a strange mix of past and present

The walls of the long corridors used to be covered with murals. They had been painted over somewhat recently, but we found a few hallways where art was returning to the walls. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

TAKE A PEEK: ROYAL UNIVERSITY OF PHNOM PENH

Today we thought you might like to take a peek at another site around town, so we are giving you a look at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (or RUPP). Phnom Penh actually has a lot of colleges and universities, but many of them are small, private, unregulated schools. Some of the universities we have seen don't really feel like what we think of when we think "college campus" in America. We had heard a lot about RUPP, though (several of our Khmer teachers went to college there), and we learned that parts of its campus were designed by Cambodia's most famous architect, Vann Molyvann. So, we were excited to see it.

We finally got a look and really enjoyed what we got to see of the campus. Molyvann designed the buildings to be functional (with a lot of thought on how to make sure the buildings were breezy and cool) as well as beautiful. There are also several nods to architecture from Angkor Wat throughout. Finally, this part of campus was full of trees and students studying and chatting. RUPP is not particularly close to our apartment, but we can still see ourselves making a trip over to study and enjoy this part of town in the future!

The funky library for the college of foreign languages

Classrooms on stiltsa nod to traditional Khmer houses as well as a way to keep the rooms cooler


Decorative vents to let in light but keep the air flowing through the classrooms. 

Big, beautiful treesa rarity in Phnom Penh!

Friday, February 17, 2017

GRADUATION

Today was the official end of our full-time Khmer language study program. This is both momentous and anti-climactic at the same time.

Why is it momentous? Because I have been in class for three hours per day most weekdays for over a year now, and that doesn’t include reviewing and doing homework in the afternoons (and sometimes late at night—old college habits die hard). A lot of hard work has gone into this accomplishment, and I am proud of it.


We have a working vocabulary on a relatively wide range of subjects. We have a decent understanding of basic grammar. We can have basic conversation with most people and intermediate-level conversation with a few people who speak more clearly. We have done class projects that involved interviewing strangers, typing in Khmer, and speaking in front of the class and facilitating a question and answer session. People regularly tell us that our pronunciation is clearer than the pronunciation of many foreigners who learn Khmer (pronunciation is a particular emphasis of our school).

Today our school had a luncheon for all of us “graduating seniors.” It was a fun celebration. There was even a part of the lunch program that we weren’t expecting in which teachers could ask us questions about our learning experience over the last year. Even unrehearsed we were able to offer cogent answers and even make multiple jokes that our teachers laughed at. Do you have any idea how long it has been since I have felt like I was funny, not counting the people who laughed at me because of my language mistakes?

So why was the end of the program anti-climactic? Because, let’s be real, at no other point in my life have I considered it an accomplishment to answer a couple of questions and make a joke. My standards have been lowered significantly over the last year or so as to what I consider a success. When I think of how high functioning I was in my previous life, it feels silly to think about what accomplishments I get excited about now.

Our school states that by the end of the program, you should be able to speak Khmer at or around the Advanced Low level according to the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages. When I first heard this, I thought, “Advanced Low! Great! That’s probably a step or two below college professor or Nobel laureate.”

Turns out that the ACTFL uses some slightly misleading terminology for their rankings. The Advanced level is the third of five levels, and is lower than both Superior and Distinguished. So, while I have in fact reached a level of Advanced Low, or something close to it, I’ve still got a ways to go before I apply for tenure at the local university or even become a fluent and functioning member of society.

An apt illustration of this came after the graduation luncheon at school today. One of the teachers asked me to do a video interview to use on the website for our school. As I was talking about my experience, I kept hearing myself making errors. I would try to correct them and then make even less sense, until I was rambling so far off topic that I’m sure the video is the least useful marketing video ever made. I suspect the teacher shooting the video was wondering, “Who signed off on letting this guy pass?”

So today’s graduation was momentous because of how far I’ve come, and anti-climactic because of how far I have to go. But for today, I will celebrate and take a deep breath before heading back into the language-learning fray. Perhaps this time next year I will be writing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech entirely in Khmer. At the very least, I hope to have made a few more Khmer people laugh at my witty and grammatically-correct jokes.

Friday, February 10, 2017

TAKE A PEEK: CLASS PRESENTATIONS

As we mentioned in our newsletter, we have been occupied by our big class projects for the last few weeks. These projects included creating questions on a cultural topic, doing lots of interviews with Khmer people and then gathering our information into a paper and a presentation for our classmates. While lots of work, these projects were fun for us as we got to dig deeper into some cultural areas that interest us and impact the work we will be doing here in Cambodia. David did his research and presentation on Khmer teaching styles and Lauren's was on how and why Cambodians save money. 

We are happy to report back that both of our presentations went well! We were less nervous than when we did presentations in our last module and felt like the experience helped us realize just how far our Khmer learning has come!