If you didn’t get it in your inbox, you can read my May Newsletter here: may newsletter
If you didn’t get it in your inbox, you can read my May Newsletter here: may newsletter
In case this didn’t appear in your inbox:
Let me paint you a picture of my last Wednesday:
I am thirty minutes into my forty minute sixth grade class, usually one of my more engaged and fun groups of kids. We have been talking about a made up family on the board in preparation for this week when they will be introducing their families to the class (hopefully). We start “telling the story” by going around the room with each student saying one sentence, and then throwing our sock ball at the next student to continue sharing. We have been working up to this moment for a LONG time, and I’m getting excited as students are confidently saying “My father’s name is Phearun, and he is 44 years old.” Then the sock gets through to one of my more difficult students. He looks confused, so I tell him in Khmer what he is supposed to be saying, hoping he can translate.
I tell him “bong braw keoum chmoah Piep” and when he cant get this I break it down further, asking his neighbors to help him.
“Bong braw, anglais aye kay?” and they respond with “Older brother” ok good, good! “Chmoah anglais aye kay?”
I repeat this again, moving back towards the board to point at the word “name” and pose this question to the whole class.
My heart dropped. I was immediately frustrated with myself, I have been teaching here for HOW long, and these kids don’t remember the word for NAME???
Luckily, one of my students then put two and two together and was able to save our class from my full-blown melt down by responding with the word name. Whew.
Later that day I started to affirm myself, reminding myself that there are many different factors involved in the teaching-learning process, and that I can actually say “name” in Khmer, and we have been working on this since day one, so clearly the blame for this lapse cannot fall solely on my shoulders.
I start to blame my students, if some of them know the material really well, so much so that I feel they are bored most days, than this kid must just not be paying attention. He’s in sixth grade, he should know how to learn simple translations by now….
But then I feel bad, I can’t blame my student for now learning this, it must be that he has fallen into a bad habit of learning, that the Cambodian school system has failed to teach him how to learn. He must be so used to the copy and repeat style of learning that while he’s said the word name man times, well he just hasn’t had to comprehend it.
Ok, ok, whew. I wanted to come to the conclusion that this incident was neither my fault, or my student’s fault, we’re going to blame the school system for this one. But what does that mean? How can I be a better teacher for my students, and help them learn more if the reason I decide they aren’t learning well is that their school system or home life or cultural norms are the reason we can’t connect?
The more I think about this problem, and so many other problems I see in my village, Cambodia, and the world, the more I realize that knowing who to blame is privilege in and of itself.
When I was in sixth grade, if I didn’t learn something properly, the blame game stopped with me. My parents and teachers made my expectations very clear and I knew what I needed to do to learn properly. It may not have always been easy, or what I wanted to do, but it was always something I had the ability to do. My teachers spoke my language, in a school with practically zero distractions, my text books, even for foreign language, where written in my native language, and there was ample help available to me when I did not understand.
I have come to realize that something I used to find so simple, where the blame fell for various shortcomings in my life, was a bi-product of the privileged life I was given. Fixing problems was simple, all I had to do was find where the “blame” fell, and patch up that hole, whether it was a person, lack of resources, or a simple misunderstanding, I always knew where to look for an answer.
The more time I spend in my community, the more it strikes me that I don’t have a clue where someone would start “fixing” problems. So many challenges in this place are so complicated that it would be naive to assume that blame falls solely on one person, thing, or past event.
While I have known during this year that my job is not to “fix” things or find who or what to “blame” for different challenges and situations, I have developed such a deep love for this place, and these people that I feel it’s only natural to want to understand their world. I think I have unknowingly been trying to understand Cambodia and it’s complexities, not solely for my journey here, but because I see so much hurt and frustration in this place and in the lives of my friends that my soul longs to blame something or someone. My privileged life has lead me to believe that there is always a reason for hurt, and this has allowed me to not feel life’s challenges to the extent that many of my brothers and sisters are required to. If I can place blame for my pain on something, or someone, I can allow hurt to turn into anger, and I don’t need to come to terms with the difficult reality that somethings in life just are.
Life is just hard sometimes. People forget things, misunderstandings happen, sickness and suffering exist, people die, and injustices are ingrained in societies in difficult and complex ways. I don’t think I should get to turn those universal hurts into anger, to work through grief by “doing something” or “changing something” (though things undoubtedly need to be changed.) In the face of this, I am learning to sit in the uncomfortable moments. To realize that I can’t and don’t get to push aside feelings of pain and non-understanding, of feeling small and un-noticed in the eyes of the world.
This year I have been called to sit in the frustration that my Cambodian brothers and sisters were born into, and in that place I am finding hope from people who understand how unjust our world is better than I ever will.
Frustrating as it may be, and the Lord knows I struggle with patience, what I was called to do this year is sit and listen. I listen to my students when they tell me they can’t say something in English, and we review again, I listen to my LWD staff friends as they provide more insight into Cambodia’s challenges than I could ever learn on my own, and I listen to my friends as they tell me about their lives, wondering all the while how solving problems could ever have felt as simple as finding something to blame.
If you want to contemplate this concept of privilege looking different that houses, cars, and getting jobs when you apply for them, read this article: http://www.christenacleveland.com/2015/12/the-privilege-of-hopelessness/
During lent this year, I have hoping to be more vulnerable. I that this year has started to break down a lot of walls I’ve built up over the years, and I’m hoping to share more about the process of tearing those down on my blog during the following month. In the interest of full disclosure, this blog has been in my drafts for months now, as I never quite feel it is complete, so I make no promises that there will be more blogs to follow this one, only hopes that my efforts will become words on your computer screen.
Thom is the Khmer word for big, and in Cambodia you often say adjectives twice. An idea that sounded fun to me when I got to say “yuet yuet” or “toiet toiet” (slow, slow or small, small) but for some reason the second “Thom” always hurts just a little more that the first.
You see, I never would have considered myself overly self-conscious before August. Sure, I cared about how I looked, and often spent too much time in front of a mirror before going to a party or an important work function. Despite the time I spent in front of mirrors, telling myself to eat healthier, or sucking in my stomach, I never thought I had a problem with how I looked. I had decided that my negative thoughts about my appearance were normal, and simply always going to be there but never talked about.
One day, maybe three weeks into being at my site, some of my new Cambodian friends turned to me and asked me how much I weighed. A little put off by this question, and immediately in self-protective mode, I told them I didn’t know. This response, intended to make the conversation change to quite literally, anything else, had the opposite effect. My beautiful Cambodian friends responded with “Ot bunya-ha” or “No problem” and went to get their scale. Suddenly, right next to the rice fields and fried bananas, all my Cambodian friends lined up to be weighed, and there was no getting out of stepping on that scale.
Since this day, I have been weighed, my weight has been joked about, and people have informed me that I should only wear pants because they make me look slimmer than skirts.
As I said earlier, I never would have said before that I had a problem with my weight, but rather than actually being ok with my body and ignoring the ridiculously doctored images that society tells us are “normal,” I had simply settled into the American culture of not discussing uncomfortable or embarrassing topics. I learned very quickly that the tears I had to fight back when my size came up in conversation were really because I did not accept my own body.
While I was initially appalled at the fascination with my weight, or in some instances, my size, I have learned to view it as something more normal. In Cambodia, there simply are no secrets. With the majority of the country living in one or two room homes, and limited entertainment outlets, you simply cannot avoid knowing everything about the people around you. Therefore, talking about someone’s weight, salary, the price of everything you own, sexual preferences, or your mental state is viewed simply as information. Since that first time I was weighed (yes, it has happened since), I have asked many Cambodian friends why they talk about this and the response is always the same. A confused face, then a look of embarrassment as they realize they have embarrassed me. An apology, and something along the lines of “we don’t think of it as personal.” I even started to realize that my Cambodian friends often joked about their weights too, and were completely comfortable with it. Some people may want to gain or lose weight, but weight was never something people were embarrassed or ashamed to talk about.
It has become more and more clear in the past months that this topic is uncomfortable for me because I am uncomfortable with my body. I have felt many different emotions during discussions about my body. Embarrassed, sad, shameful, angry, lonely, etc. However, I have never felt that these comments were intended to be hurtful, my friends were just simply discussing facts.
Now, all this talk about my body has been difficult for me, and lead me to evaluate what it means to be truly ok, and even confident in the body you have. I have come to realize how often our bodies ARE talked about within U.S. culture, just in different and more subtle ways. Instead of Cambodian grandmas sharing how many kilos I weigh, it’s people telling you about a “cleanse” they have started, or asking if you’re tired on days when you wear less makeup. Realizing more and more how prominent these same kinds of comments are in the United States has drastically changed how I approach this topic from that first day stepping on the scale. Originally, I simply looked at these comments as something to get through during my time here, as if all my insecurities about how I look will magically disappear when I step back on U.S. soil, but slowly, I have learned to focus more on accepting the body that I have.
I have come to realize that the only way through these frustrations and insecurities is to be confident in who I am, and however many kilos show up when I inevitably step on a scale. And I can’t help but wonder what would change in the world if more people could confidently accept themselves for however they look. How many side-eyes would turn into smiles, and fourteen year old girls would spend time developing passions rather than crying over the toilet.
I wish I could tell you that the words “Thom Thom” were no longer stressful for me, or that people poking my stomach no longer made me want to cry, but I cannot say that. While some days I can confidently laugh at how I am twice the size of my Cambodian friends, there are still days when I have to remind myself that someone telling me that I am big does not mean I should not finish my bowl of rice. Re-learning to love yourself is a process, and it requires time and patience with yourself, and my main prayer during this time is that fewer and fewer young people would have to go through this painful process in the future. That loving and accepting yourself would become the norm in every culture, and for every child.
Mad props on reading to the end of this post. This photo of my on a Kuy-Yun (tractor) was taken this morning, and I can honestly say that I like how I look in it.
I live in Cambodia. That will never stop being awesome. Here’s a newsletter to help you know more about my life.
Remember when you where seven, and you decided in less than 22 seconds that Sarah was going to be your best friend because she was nicer than Tina, and had better colored pencils? Well, my colored pencils have become my main friendship-making tool in Cambodia.
Yesterday I decided to color some Mandalas and listen to a podcast as a way to pass the time between 2 and 4 p.m. when it is unbearably hot here. I had a few errands I wanted to run that day, but I wanted to wait until the temperature wouldn’t make my twenty minute bike ride life threatening to do so.
Five minutes into my coloring, the guard’s kids came to bring him and I a snack. Their eyes lit up when they saw what I was doing, and I asked if they wanted to join. They flipped through my coloring book at least three times before I assured them that it was ok for them to pic a picture to color. Soon enough I had at least four new friends happily coloring and chatting around me, and when they went home three hours later, I realized I had forgotten to run my errands.
When my new friends showed up this morning, I apologized for not being able to play because I had to go buy some things, and biked out of my compound. Not thirty seconds later, my new friends where biking right beside me. They helped me pick out good vegetables, find some shampoo, and after much debate we decided to get fried bananas for a snack instead of waffles. After our adventures in town, we realized that I had a flat bike tire. Not wanting to deal with this predicament today, I told my friends to bike ahead of me and that I would meet them at my house. Without another word, all my parcels were taken from my bike, and distributed to the other bike baskets, while the oldest of the children tried to ride my bike home for me.
While my Khmer is getting better, and I am able to have some conversations with my new friends, our relationship is still primarily simply being together. We talk about our favorite colors, and take naps beside each other, and that is more than enough to call us friends.
Coming out of Christmas, a season of hope and joy, I can’t help but make a connection between Christmas and my new friends. We giggle over the simplest things, and continuously tell each other that the picture they are coloring is beautiful. Our friendship is simple, but we fill each other with love and joy.
I have been surprisingly at peace throughout the season of Advent. I had expected to spend many days wishing I was at home with my family, and passing around white elephant gifts with my friends throughout this season, but I have been loving finding the joy of the Lord in my new home. That is, until this morning. I woke up early today, with one thought on my mind: It is Christmas Eve, and I’m already sweating.
After trying to plaster a smile on my face at school, teaching kids how to ask “How many ___” and doing a little jig to keep them interested in counting windows, I went home for my break a broke into tears. I had lost my sense of peace, I was no longer eagerly awaiting spending Christmas in the sun, and I desperately wanted someone to offer me a Christmas cookie.
Luckily, God has provided me with a very supportive co-hort of Cambodia YAGMs, and without asking for advice or comfort, my fellow YAGM messaged our group this bit of wisdom:
“I am trying to keep the mindset of being a servant today and tomorrow. I am used to receiving a lot at Christmas – food, worship, relationships. This year is different, and it is challenging, and I will power through.”
Check mate. Regardless of what I may want to receive for Christmas this year (mashed potatoes, chocolate, hugs from loved ones), Christmas is not about receiving. Christmas is a day to celebrate the Lord giving us his son. Sending Jesus to be the ultimate example of God’s love for us, and no matter how well I thought I had grasped that concept in the past, I am now faced with the challenge of living out a truly Christ-centered Christmas, and that’s about giving.
Cambodians don’t celebrate Christmas, and in my community there are no Christmas trees, lights, cookies, or babies in a manger. But the spirit of Christmas is still here. People are giving and kind, and in many ways exemplify what Christmas is all about in a way I have never experienced before. So, with a little nudge from a good friend, I am accepting the challenge to spend my Christmas day serving. Teaching English, and giving out as much love and Peace as I can. I can only hope that this Christmas will help me understand Jesus a little bit better.
Happy Birthday Jesus!
There have been many times when I have needed things in Cambodia; directions, an English speaker, a bug killer, air conditioning, someone who will sell me rice. All of these new needs have been stressful for me. My new state of vulnerability has forced me to begin to shed my layers of self-sufficiency and breaking down years of refusing to ask for help.
Growing up in the United States, I was constantly told that the harder I worked, the more sucessful I would become. That if I studied a lot, and was involved in the right extra curricular activities, I would be successful. The people who told me this where trying to help me, to motivate me to not only survive, but to thrive in the United States of the 21st century. However, all this talk about my success led me to believe that I did not need help, and asking for it would mean looking weak.
Therefore, I have always prided myself on not needing help from other people and perhaps even being a tad stubborn. I have worked hard to not need help from others. What I am realizing now is that I had been kidding myself. Thinking I knew what it was like to rely on the Lord, while convincing myself that this would never require me to rely on his people.
In the past few months, hundred of people have said hello to me, numerous people have cooked for me and brought me small snacks, dozens have given me moto rides to the market or even my breakfast place, and atleast three have helped me with my laundry. My supervisor gave me a ride to the bus station after I offered to take a tuk tuk, our guard gave up his day off to try and take me to the market, my neighbor walked me home because I had to teach after dark, and today a man I don’t know circled my town on his moto to find eggs for me, and he wouldn’t even let me pay him for them. And my initial reaction to every one of them was “it’s ok, I don’t want to be a burden,” or even worse “why don’t they think I can do this myself?” and sometimes even laughable “why are they helping me? I can just not eat today, it’s FINE.”
The even more amazing thing is that every one of these people did so with a smile. I have learned that the idea that I am inconveniencing anyone is solely my own. People want to help me. For some reason, the culture I was raised in has convinced me that I am a burden on anyone who feels compelled to help me, while the Lord so desperately wants to take care of me, and is sending his people to do so.
The reality is I would probably survive this year without this help. I would smell terrible, and be hungry a lot… and I would likely be miserable without my Cambodian friends, constantly killing bugs and building bridges for me (this actually happened…) But I believe that these people have been placed in my life to help me break through the ridiculous idea that it is better to do life on my own, rather than simply help me survive each day.
At orientation we sang a song with the simple lyrics:
What we need is here
And that could not be more true. Food is here. Water is here. Chickens and ducks and catfish are here. Good people are here. Smiling babies are here. Coffee is here. The Lord is here, and I have everything I could need.
In the spirit of thanksgiving, here is a list of things I and thankful for today:
My life here reminds me to be thankful everyday. Cambodia is a beautiful country, and many of my friends here have shown me more love than I ever could have imagined. But there is also a lot of pain here. Cambodia has begun to show me how to focus on the good to remember to be thankful everyday for the small joys that you have, because it is only joy, and love that will change the world.
Check back later in the week for my next blog titled “my crazy Cambodian family”
oh, and Happy (almost) Thanksgiving!
Snack time, I love snack time. At LWD we usually only have snacks when there is a training, staff meeting, or some other reason for there to be more than just the office staff in our regional office. Therefore, snack time is not only a time for taking a break from work and eating delicious food, but it’s a time to talk with new people and for making new friends. One of my first snack times in the office I met at least nine different field staff, learned how to cross stitch, and the names of four new fruits while the staff laughed at my poor Khmer accent.
I simply love snack time, and this is not a new thing for my life in Cambodia, however, today I learned just how great the healing powers of snack time are. After a stressful few days, and a conversation with my country coordinator during out afternoon break, I went to our staff training a bit frustrated and upset, but thinking I would be ok. However, right before we training was about to start I just started crying, I’m not completely sure why, I was simply having a hard day and couldn’t hold in the tears any longer. I tried to sneak out to the bathroom without anyone noticing, but I was not successful. Two of my friends met me at the bathroom and tried to comfort me. The kept asking what was wrong, telling me it was ok to be upset and asking how they could help. I am very grateful for Sereye and Veary, and how they care for me on a daily basis. After a “mysterious” twenty minute bathroom break, I returned to the group and muttered something about missing home, still having a very difficult time not crying.
BUT THEN, snack time, snack time fixes everything. Our cook brought over some bananas (not even my favorite snack, see below for a detailed list of my favorite Cambodian snacks), and everything started to work itself out. As I ate snack and tried to understand the jokes being thrown around the table (translated for me when they where really funny), nothing seemed quite as bad. I started to forget that I was stressed out, and how much I missed my home. There’s just something about good food, good people, and time devoted to sharing those two things that cleanses your soul.
My favorite Cambodian snacks, on a scale of “I’d be ok not eating this again,” to “WHY is this not what I eat everyday?”
16. Hot Banana Soup To be fair, I was very full and very sweaty when I was offered this, but still not my favorite.
15. Un-roasted Peanuts I have learned in Cambodia that I don’t like the texture of non-roasted peanuts. Who knew?
14. Chewy cream colored fruit Ok, no idea what its called, but it makes your mouth rather leathery and hurts your chest when you swallow…. Not super pleasant, but hey, it cures diarrhea!
13. Crickets The Cricket I had was actually flavored really well, and nice and crunchy. But it was also still an insect…
12. Hard boiled egg with green and black dots inside Again, tasted great, and we dipped it in the lime juice and pepper sauce that I love, but it was green and black… I chose not to ask why.
11. Rice cakes cooked in Banana Leaves Rice ground into flour and them made into a very sticky cake. I never know what the filling is going to be, but I’ve yet to meet a cake I don’t like.
10. Coconut and Bean paste Cake Or pretty much any other cake from a Chinese bakery…
9. Deep fried twists with sugar glaze Chewy, deep friend, sugary, sold for about 12 cents on every street corner.. what’s not to love?
8. Roasted Bananas The small ones on the side of the road, salted and delicious!
7. All fruit Ok, so there are some very specific fruits that I love, but it would take way to long to list them all here, so I’ll just put fruit, it’s all great, especially the Pomegranates and Custard Apples, and…..
6. Sugar Cane This one requires me to forget that cavities are a thing in order for me to enjoy it (and then I still go run and brush my teeth) but it’s basically drinking sugar. perfection.
5. Waffles Waffles here are made from just egg and sugar (and milk if we have some), and they are quite tasty, a perfect road-side snack!
4. Corn Again, side of the road, salty goodness.
3. Grapefruit with Chili Salt Two very important pieces here, the Grapefruit (sour, delicious) and the chili salt (served with almost all fruit, and so good. seriously, I would eat almost anything with some chili salt on it)
2. Sweet Potato Chips SO GOOD. (they aren’t the same as sweet potato chips in the US….) but they are delicious, and go great with peanut butter!
1. Mango with Chili Salt My all-time favorite snack? Mangoes with the chili salt, and people have definitely noticed… whoops.
And this is only some of the many snacks I’ve had during my time here, because my Cambodia friends also love to snack (at least while we’re driving. We once stopped four times on a two hour ride…) I should also note that this list does not include Cambodian drinks.
Should I have pictures of all these delicious foods? yes. Do I? of course not. I’ll have to work on that for my next post!