Wednesday, January 27, 2016

BOXING MATCHES AND SURPRISES: REFLECTIONS ON PREDICTABILITY

This Sunday, shortly after church, David and I found ourselves with a few others from our church in front row seats at a Cambodian boxing match. TV cameras scanned the crowd during the match, giving me my Cambodian television debut. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was or how my routine had altered so much and so quickly. 

We had gone to church on Sunday afternoon, as usual, and I figured that after church our small congregation would all chat around plates of fruit. With only slight variations, this is what we do every week after church. This Sunday conversation turned to whether or not we watched boxing, and the evening took off from there. Our Sunday evening reminded me that in our new life here, nothing is predictable.


I love learning and acquiring new knowledge, and I have realized that a big portion of the reason I love these things is that my mind is constantly trying to build context for situations and people. I want to know how things work and why. I like to learn what makes people tick. I want to learn how the history of places and people affects their everyday actions, thoughts and dreams. All of this context helps me understand and predict the world around me.

In our life here, though, I’m mostly at a loss. I can barely predict public holidays, much less guess the patterns of people I barely know or the end results of the situations I find myself in within a culture I am only starting to chip away at. 

David and I became friends with our building's security guard by breaking in our basic Khmer phrases with him. Each day we would say hello and ask how he was, and he would respond with a big smile and soksebaj toammdah, or I'm fine as usual. In December we baked him Christmas cookies, but when we took them down to him, we only found his replacement. After seeing him almost every single day for two months, he was gone.

We’ve had several multi-day weddings on our street in our three months here, but we had gotten used to the relative quiet recently. Last Thursday evening a new one popped up right in front of our house. It turned out to be a funeral with loud speakers pointed right at our apartment. It finally wrapped up Sunday evening, and our nerves breathed a sigh of relief as they packed away the musical instruments and took down the big tent housing the funeral. Tuesday morning as we left for school, they were putting the tent back up.

From the internet to electricity to the people we see on a daily basis, nothing is set in stone. Even more unlikely than the boxing match: we had a cool front this week that left us shivering in our tuk tuk!

While Phnom Penh is feeling more and more like home everyday, there is still an element to our life here in which it feels like each day we are stepping out into a brand new, unpredictable world. After three months here, I still have very, very little context for what is happening around me and very little ability to predict what will happen next.

So, what to do? I’m trying to trust that I was called here and to give up trying to predict outcomes. David and I go to school every morning, and although we are at a new school with a wonderful curriculum and kind teachers, I have no real idea if I will ever be able to speak the Khmer language with fluency (or even to just pronounce their alphabet half-way decently!). We go to church every Sunday, but I can’t say for certain if we will ever be able to build deep relationships with everyone (or anyone) there. After all, I can't even say for certain if the grocery store will have chicken this week.

I've realized that what I do know is that we will keep showing up. We will do our best to keep engaging people when we don't know if or when we will see them again. We will keep trying to lean into the learning process even when we don't know if all our effort will actually convert into knowledge. I’m learning to sit with ambiguity and to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. We will keep walking out our door each morning, looking for new and familiar faces, and looking for surprises.

After all, Saturday evening we came back to our building after dinner, and our old security guard was back, fine as usual.