The little sibs...
“Happy Birthday” and “You eat rice” are the only 2 phrases that my little sister here knows in English. Honestly, I’m beginning to doubt that the Khmai phrases she’s been teaching me are even real. Maybe that's part of the reason people laugh so much when I try to communicate. Yosue, my 11-year-old brother has taken it upon himself to teach the Khmai alphabet to his little sister and the random foreign girl living in the room above him, who is so ignorant of the language and culture. That’s me. So Moria struggle through the alphabet song. (Actually she's quite good. I struggle a lot). It goes something like this:
Ga ka go ko ngo.
Ja cha jo cho nyo.
Da ta do to nao.
Da tda do tdo no.
Ba pa bo pbo mo.
Ya ra la wa sa ha la ah.
There's your little Khmai lesson for the day. That’s just the consonants. And don’t ask me how to write them, because I will do my best, and end up with a bunch of undecipherable squiggles on a page. The language is hard. I think I should stick to learning vocabulary and conversation with my real tutor. The alphabet song is sort of a cross between the happy birthday song and a Buddhist monk chant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about birthdays lately, because the tune has been stuck in my head from learning the alphabet, and Moria shouts “happy birthday!” every time she wants to say something in English, (or any time she gives me something or I give her something). My small group is also celebrating the birthdays of two of our amazing women this weekend, and I just wrote a birthday note for my sister, so if I mail it today, it might find its way through the crazy Cambodian mail system to Atlanta before the 31st. The tradition for my host family is to wake up the birthday boy or girl at 5am with a little cupcake and candle and photograph them blowing it out in bed as we all shout something (I don’t know what). Needless to say, I have never been so glad to have a birthday in April (NOT while I am in Cambodia).
Today is a sort of birthday for me, though. It’s 2 months since I first set foot in this country. I guess it’s more of an unimportant month-iversary. I’m one-third through my 6-month internship, which is crazy to me. Before leaving for Cambodia, my sister gave me her book (My Utmost for His Highest, of course), which she had had during her 6-month internship in South Africa. Inside the cover, she wrote about how HNGR was one of the best times and one of the hardest times. I’m seeing the truth of that statement now.
The fresh tropical fruit, warm breezy weather, ginger chicken, exciting city life, small group community, World Relief staff, passionate worship at church and work, challenging assignments, friendly ladies at the market place, loving host-family, and daily serendipitous blessings from God have been some of the best things of my life.
But it has also been hard. And these hard things are more difficult to articulate: The grief of seeing children walking barefoot on the road around my bicycle begging for money. The frustration with men-- who leave their families, beat their wives, sleep with prostitutes and spread AIDS to their family. The frustration with women-- who keep selling their daughters back to the brothels, even after they are able to escape, and take their children out of school, because they can make more money selling bracelets on the street. The frustration that after 4 more months of working here, trying to stand with the vulnerable, these things will still happen, and the emaciated homeless man that I see in my neighbourhood as I bike past every day will still be sitting at his post when I step on the plane to leave again. The fear of violence in the streets around me and the annoyance of noises that keep me awake at night are hard. The difficulty of making friends and building a community and fully engaging in this place when I know I’m going to leave again soon is hard. And the struggles with communicating in a different language and cultural context is also hard.
But on this “birthday,” I want to celebrate the lessons that God has been teaching me and the things he has blessed me with up until this point. These things are literally too numerous for me to count and definitely too much to recount in a blog post. So I will just mention one thing of significance, one recurring theme for my work and life here, (and anywhere). This is important:
The stories. I love asking the staff and family and people in the villages and communities around me about their stories, because often, even if their English is limited, they will happily recount what they can. I have heard so many stories of hardship and suffering. (Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Cambodia has been served more than it’s portion of injustice and pain). But the stories are also rich with redemption, grace, and hope. It’s a lot to take in, both good and bad, but with each testimony I hear, my view of God’s kingdom broadens that much more. While they are not Bible-stories, I believe that they are God-stories. We can learn so much about God and the world and even ourselves from pouring over the stories of biblical heroes like Abraham, Ruth, Samuel, Hosea, Mary, Stephen, and Paul. In the same way, the story of a man in Siem Reap who was diagnosed to die of a blood disease within 2 years, but has been healed after starting to eat the moringa given to him, or the story of a teenager in Kandal who takes care of his family since his father left them, or the story of a widow with HIV/AIDS in Phnom Penh, who would have commit suicide had it not been for friends from the WR cell group coming to her and the power of Jesus entering her--these are all stories that should be told.
They should be told not just because these people deserve to have their voice be heard, but also because people need to know. Why do people need to know? Why should you know or care? That’s a question that continues to come to me as I attempt to tell these stories to the rest of the world. Just look at their faith! Look at their perseverance and passion. Imagine their pain and frustration. This is not happening in another world. This is happening in your world. This isn’t happening to a stranger. This is happening to my friends, to your brothers and sisters. Take a moment to pray for the people of Cambodia. Did you know they are praying for you? Forget about borders and passports and long-distance flights for a moment to imagine these stories all being bound up into a book along with your own story. All these God-stories are part of the same book, the same meta-narrative of redemption. Reading them can help us open our eyes to the author, the one working in and through all of us. That’s why you should know. That’s why you should care.
So as I blow out my meta-physical candle in my imaginary cupcake for my fake birthday, I make a wish for more unity in this world of believers. I pray for open eyes and an open heart to experience God’s kingdom work for the rest of my time here, and for the rest of my days, wherever they may be. I hope that the stories of our modern heroes of faith will be spread around the globe, and be received with open arms. Yeah, that’s one hell of a candle-wish.