Wednesday, July 26, 2017


When I lived in Italy, I would often tell my Italian friends that many Americans (including myself) thought that Italian was the most beautiful sounding language in the world. Many of those friends found my love of the Italian language curious. Their language was simply an everyday tool to them, no more exotic than water or oxygen.

I have never lost my fascination with the Italian language. However, I admit that it’s not quite as shiny a language when you are using it to pay rent, explain car problems to a mechanic, describe one’s most recent bout of food poisoning or navigate any number of unpoetic, real-life situations.

Italian is known as one of the “Romance Languages.” I used to think that Romance Languages were so called because they sounded romantic. In reality they are called Romance Languages because they descend from the language spoken by ancient Romans, i.e., Latin. It’s irrelevant how velvety it feels rolling off the tongue. This takes some of the, well, romance out of the Italian language.

I had romanticized the Italian language, along with the life in Italy that it opened up to me. However, the reality was that after the bright-eyed honeymoon period wore off, I still had to do the ups and downs of daily life in an unfamiliar place, and that was often difficult.

Before moving to Cambodia, I was not infatuated with the Khmer language or nation. My feelings weren’t negative, just neutral. I was sometimes a bit envious when I heard other foreigners in Cambodia talk about how they loved the language or how they had fallen in love with the Khmer people right away. How much easier this would be if I had that excitement right from the start.

At this point my pragmatic side would speak up: “Remember that crash you felt when you first came out of the honeymoon period during your two years in Italy? Since you don’t have a honeymoon period in Cambodia, you can’t crash as hard.” This more realist way of looking at things suited my personality as well as my experiences with the country.

Exploring Cambodia's romantic side

But then a funny thing happened. When we got back to the US in April of this year for our three-month home assignment, I gradually started to romanticize Cambodia. Lauren and I would say to each other, “We can’t wait to get back to Cambodia so that we can be back in our own home, see our friends, eat good mangoes” and so on. While I never consciously articulated it this way, there were certainly times during which I was assuming my problems would go away once I finally got back to Cambodia.

We are very happy to be back in Cambodia, but our problems did not go away upon arrival. Yes, it is wonderful to be back in our own home, but we are still chasing out the geckos and spiders that decided to “sublease” our apartment. We have enjoyed connecting with some friends, but others moved away while we were gone, and we never got to say a proper goodbye. Mangoes aren’t in season, so good luck finding a sweet one. Then there’s the heat, the traffic, the different standards of customer service and all the other little things that add up to make life in Cambodia hard.

Shortly after we arrived back, some of our colleagues, veteran field personnel serving in Southeast Asia, wrote us an email that contained this line: “After talking about the wonders of Asia over and over again on home assignment, it has sometimes been a little strange to travel back and face some of the inconveniences again…Re-re-entry shock?”

This sentence captured my feelings perfectly. We had a bit of shock upon “re-entry” to the US because it was so different. But then we come back to Cambodia, and it’s both the same as and different than we remembered it. We created a slightly different picture than reality in the short time we were away, and we had to experience a bit of “re-re-entry shock."

I do, and probably always will, have some tendency to try to romanticize things. But the reality is that every place, every language, every person is a mix of pluses and minuses. I must strive to balance these two sides: on the one hand, helping others see the beauty of Cambodia and the work God is doing here so that they can have a fuller picture of the richness of the global church; on the other hand, to be honest about the struggles that I experience by living here. And to strike this balance, I will have to leave the romance language behind and just let Cambodia be what it is.