Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cambodia, Day 1

My feet are on Cambodian soil. I've met several Khmer people, nearly all women, and started the work of trying to tune my ear to their extremely different phoneme set. I've seen Cambodian street traffic, and I've felt Cambodian heat and humidity.

The heat and humidity are intense, but eminently bearable. It's typical Texas July weather. We sometimes went camping in July, and by the end of each day we would be fully as sweaty and sticky as I am here. It's still a very good idea to drink extra water, and to be thoughtful and deliberate about any strenuous physical activity, but it seems to me too many folks are afraid of the heat. I'm not accusing anyone of being a hypochondriac, but it's quite well established that hammering a group of people with repeated messages about "You're supposed to feel sick, you're supposed to feel uncomfortable" has a framing effect. I genuinely think if we had a simpler, down-to-earth talk about precautions like drinking water, but also a little mindfulness work on noticing and then ignoring the heat, we'd be better off.

We spent several hours at a site where a group of Khmer women and one American expat, a Texan from Carrollton, gave us a crash course in Khmer culture and etiquette. They keep pretty tight security around the place -- no photos allowed, and a certain secrecy around the house's location -- which is why I'm not including the names of any of the women. Well, the real reason is that I couldn't, even if I wanted to: I can't yet listen to Khmer any better than I can speak it. We learned an incredibly simple dance which I wasn't anywhere near coordinated enough to do, and we played a couple of local games, during one of which I fell while being chased and skinned myself up, but didn't break anything important. We wrote our names in Khmer script, which I still find completely baffling. The lessons were useful, but the language barrier is so massive, and the cultural difference so expansive, that we barely succeeded in touching the surface, never mind scratching it. But they were warm and friendly, and the lessons were nicely put together and helpful, so I appreciate them a great deal. It was a nice welcome. Oh, and I had my first rambutan, which was tasty. 

The part of the day that engrossed me was the first drive from the airport to the learning site. That was a chance to people-watch, building-watch, and traffic-watch. The traffic is anarchic, but in normal range for much of the world. I saw a fair amount of what American drivers would call daredevil driving -- lane-splitting by small scooters, chiefly -- but I didn't really see any near misses, let alone accidents. No doubt they happen, but I get the feeling most people here are accustomed to the traffic and have a serviceable mastery of the unwritten rules of driving. Lots of passengers balance precariously on scooters as they speed through traffic, and that would scare the life out of me.

But mostly I got to peek inside lots of shops and cafes and watch people watch the world go by. Much of what I saw is probably attributable to the heat wave, but no one seemed so much as focused and determined, let alone happy. A lot of people wore defeated looks on their faces. It's dicey, trying to decode facial expressions on people from a very different culture, and all I had were quick glimpses, but weariness is weariness, and alertness is alertness, and the only form of alertness I saw was a guarded, defensive look. I did see a few children playing, and they were happy and had kid-energy, but only a few.

Looking back on all of that, Matthew 9:36 is very much on my heart. I don't want at all to be condescending, or to presume everyone here is miserable; there's no shortage of neighborhoods in the United States where I could find a comparable air of suspicion and defeat. But we drove all over Phnom Penh, and it seemed as though it was everywhere. The shepherds who have risen up to look after these sheep have instead enriched themselves. Jesus talked so much about the Good Shepherd because of the enormous price in misery left behind by bad ones. I know, in the abstract, about the systemic roots of poverty, poor education and abuse that afflict this country, but yesterday I took a very unscientific sample of the people, and I saw it. It was nothing dramatic, nothing that would make good YouTube; it was in the air, like the humidity. And seeing more and more of it, in neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood, drove into my heart how enormous is the job of helping, of ministering in a way that makes a meaningful difference.

That, of course, takes me up to Matthew 19:26  Big jobs are God's specialty, and audacious children who go in His name to offer what they have to ease the suffering of others bring along His words, His love. And yes, we'll find His words and His love waiting for us here, in the mouths and hearts of the workers who were here long before us. So, even if we don't see miraculous, overnight solutions to problems, what we do plants seeds, and what we do brings people together in respectful and loving work, one encounter at a time.

At the end of the day, we had dinner at a very American-looking pizza joint. The toppings list was in Khmer, which made ordering a little adventurous, but it was all very familiar and tasty. The ambitious part of me thinks it was an opportunity wasted -- dang it, we have pizza joints in Eugene! -- but the exhausted part of me welcomed the chance not to watch or think very carefully. 

There's a lot to learn, far too much for the very scarce and precious time we have, but every bit of it can be pressed into service for the work ahead. Because the amount to learn is tiny next to the amount of work cut out for us all, American and Khmer alike.

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