Reflection Per Chance (the Rapper)

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Welcome back loyal followers. Those of you first time readers, where you been? Haha just kidding, feel free to take a look at my previous posts before/after or even during (if you got that ADD like me) the reading of this post. We went through a dry spell that actually almost perfectly coincided with the real dry season over here in Cambodia. However just like the rains that returned at the beginning of this month to bring back the lush green fields of the countryside, my desire to write has returned as well. I want to take a chance to reflect on my year and give you all some insight into what I have gone through. However, I am not going to do it conventionally. Ever since I was able to choose the music I listen to for myself I have been captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the rap genre. Much like any other music fans I take the lyrics I hear and apply them to my life in an effort to create connections to the artist and myself in an attempt to find some clarity in this crazy thing called life.

Just over two weeks ago my favorite rapper on the planet came out with a new mixtape and I haven’t stopped listening to it since it came out. Chance the Rapper is a young MC from Chicago and although he is an extremely talented musician he has become a philanthropist and icon for his city, something I truly admire. When he released his most recent mixtape “Coloring Book” I had no idea the impact it would have in causing me to reflect on the year I have had thus far. His upbeat, soulful and sometimes gospel mixtape gives the listener a feeling that anything is possible and there still is good left in the world worth praising and striving for. A surprisingly intelligent and insightful Youtube comment stuck out to me the other day while listening to this album. The comment read: “Chance always seems to release music at the perfect time in my life.” In a sense I agree with this comment because it came at the end of a year that required reflection and recognition of my blessings. Although I love the mixtape from start to finish some songs really inspired me to think about the year I have had and how thankful I should be for this wonderful experience. The beauty of music is that it’s a two-way street, those who make the music and those who listen can hear the same song and think completely different things and that is ok and that is beautiful and that is music. Here are a few lines from the album that have caused me to reflect and think deeply about my experience here in Cambodia.

All We Got

I have always been very taken by music, especially rap. Although a lot of people will dismiss the art form for its sometimes questionable content, there is no denying that the right song can fit any mood I am in.  “Music is all we got, we know we got it (Kanye West)” is how the chorus goes and man could I not agree more. Throughout this year I have leaned on music like a crutch. In the beginning of the year it was what kept me happy and monitored my mood. During times of loneliness one can easily spiral into states of doubt and even depression. For myself, I was human so I did certainly feel these emotions. However, music is what would get me out. When I was down I could find a song that could bring me back up. In only the way music can. I could go from “wow what a tough day, hope tomorrow isn’t like that” to “alright maybe there were some good things today, life is good, bring on tomorrow” by the time my carefully crafted playlists ran their course.

Music was always there for me. It was constant, and I always knew what I was going to get from it. Songs don’t change in their structure or the way they play in the most literal sense. However, they can take new meaning and you can hear them a whole new way depending on the way you are feeling or the way you are listening. Listening to music taught me a bit of how I should look at this year. I recognized this change in tone from the same song and realized that this could be applied to the way that I function within my community and within myself. The way I approach and function around the people I live with and work with will deeply impact the relationship that I have with them this year. When I was down the community that I was in seemed down, but when I was up and excited the world seemed bright and positive.

Lastly and I think most simply, music was something I had control over. In my room, or in my headphones I was the master of my universe. What I chose is what would play.  In a world so foreign to what I knew it was nice to have control over something. I relinquished a lot of control when I began this program and when I came into this country. A lot of decisions were made for me as I was much like a baby when I began here, unable to make good decisions for myself. Unable to speak the language, unable to read the social cues and lost in a new landscape so different from where I came from. Music was familiar, music was my decision and music was English. Although I have been fortunate enough to be in the company of quite a few people that speak English, you begin to miss speaking to a native speaker rather quickly. For myself I could listen to my favorite rap songs, close my eyes, rap along and be transported right back to my room at home in Minnesota. Music was a wonderful connection to home and I am thankful every day for the emotional connection I have with it.

“This is the sheep that ain’t like what it heard (Chance.)” Last year around this time, I was burned out. I had been working in a tough school in North Minneapolis giving my heart and soul to a group of kids who seemed to be last on the minds of many people. I was frustrated and exhausted and needed a change. Boy did I find it. Cambodia has been a wild and crazy adventure so different from anything I have ever done and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I came into the year with no expectations and have been so pleasantly surprised at how different this side of the world is. At times I sometimes wonder how somewhere so culturally different can still be on the same planet. From the lack of regard for safety and traffic laws to the exotic foods that we Americans wouldn’t even dream of eating. On the other hand, their undying and unwavering hospitality, combined with their incredible generosity is something you can only find in pockets of America let alone across the entire nation. Also their sense of community and fellowship that at times makes an individualistic American cringe and crave some alone time is just everyday life in Cambodia. All these things have given me a new set of lenses to view the world through. Seeing that things can be done so differently and that there are positives and negatives to both systems is helpful going forward in life.

“Imma give satan a swirly (Chance.)” In a way this year of commitment to the church is like giving Satan a big ole swirly. Also I just really like the image this lyric creates. Makes me giggle.

Summer Friends

“Socks on concrete, jolly rancher kids (Chance.)” This song is all about the beauty of summer when we were kids. The verses rap beautifully about all the fun Chance had during the summer and the joys of; playing with friends, riding bikes, eating ice cream, catching lightning bugs, and even mowing lawns to make money. The chorus goes “summer friends don’t stick around (Chance the Rapper and Francis & the Lights.)” which for me I applied in the sense that this year in Cambodia has been one long summer. The heat has made that an easy way to think of it, no way around that. However, in the second sense of this chorus my friends here are going to be physically gone from my life in a month. Something that is unfortunately inevitable at the end of a YAGM year. You will notice though that I just said physically, for me the friends and relationships I have made will stick with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget about the people I have met here and the friends I have made. I would also like to think that this goes in reverse. Not just for the individuals of this country but in the way they interact with next year’s YAGM, that relationship that continues will be emotionally connected with me. Although I am not directly impacting the program once I leave, part of me will always be here in the spirit of the lives I was a part of and the way they were changed.

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“May the lord give you a journey of mercy, may you be successful and grant you favor and bring you back safely (Audio Clip.)” This is a sound bit that is thrown in the mix near the end of the song and it speaks so clearly to the sort of prayers and blessings I received prior to leaving the states and I know I will receive before I leave my host community here. “I would always treat my gang (friends) like family members (Jeremih.)” This is the final chorus before the end of the song and I can’t say enough how much I agree with this for myself. In the most literal sense the young adults and students I live with have called me brother. To them I am part of their family of Christ. I have been given the chance to meet most of their families in their home villages as well. From village to village I was treated with care, respect and love just like any other person who had grown up there. I was a part of the village family as well. Overall I feel as though I am an older brother to many of the students here and I think that feeling is mutual. It is an interesting feeling as I am the youngest in my immediate family back home. However, mentorship and teaching was a large part of what I did, and it wasn’t always done in the classroom but rather done in an informal one on one life lesson sort of way.

D.R.A.M Sings Special

This one goes out to Maridith. My love, my one, my everytihing….

“You are very special, you’re special to… Everyone is special, this I know is true when I look at you (D.R.A.M.)”

She has been with me since day one of this journey and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. I am so proud of how well we have done this year and what we have accomplished separately yet together. Although physically we are separated by almost two entire continents emotionally we have managed to stay in the same room. She inspires me to do my best, and be my best. She helps me to see the good in the world and realize that everything else can be special too. I love her for who she is and I know that goes double for myself. She is a truly special woman and has done an amazing job making me feel like the luckiest man on the planet. Although we have only been able to look at each other through computer screens for the last 9 or so months it hasn’t slowed down our love. One of the most polarizing feelings I have had all year came during week 3 of me being here. I had known before I left that I loved her however it was that week that I realized I could not live without her. Life felt incomplete and unfamiliar without her at my side. A truly difficult feeling to realize when you are what feels like a million miles apart at the beginning of a yearlong commitment to being separated. As far as I was concerned we could have been on different planets this whole time. Yet we have stayed strong and learned how to support each other despite the distance, and now are just over a month away from seeing each other once again. To say I am excited would be an understatement. I love you Maridith. See you soon.

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Blessings

“When the praises go up, the blessings come down (Chance.)” I have been blessed with the opportunity to worship in a growing Lutheran Church community here in Cambodia.  A young, passionate and vibrant community made up of mostly college students who have chosen to convert to being Christian in a society where they become the extreme minority the second they make that choice. It is beautiful to be around people who are so passionate and driven to worship and serve the same God I have praised so many miles away from them. “It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap (Chance.)” My blessings started long ago and have kept on coming. I consider everything involving this YAGM opportunity to be one long and extended shower of blessings. Chance sings about how when we praise God we are blessed by his power and might. I can say that in general this year has been a blessing and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without this incredible faith community and all around wonderful people supporting me and loving me. The fact is though; I didn’t choose this group of people. It was handed to me through this YAGM program and I cannot be thankful enough for them putting me into this situation and putting me in a position where I could thrive. This YAGM year literally fell into my lap, and there aren’t enough prayers in my mind to express how thankful I am for receiving this blessing.

“I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions (Chance.)” This could very well be my favorite line from the whole mixtape. To me this is a truly beautiful and magical piece of poetry. Somehow a man from a city over 8,000 miles away from me has summarized a very important concept I have learned this year here in Cambodia. I have talked a little bit in other posts about this idea only slightly. However, the musical genius who is Chance has reminded me with his carefully crafted words that this concept is not to be forgotten. In the lines that follow he talks about the blessing of having his child and falling in love with a woman who he had lost feelings for and how that could not have been better for him. I realized I have been blessed with friendship, family and faith among other things and that these are the things that matter most to me in life.

Further, this line examines a common issue we face in America, the land of consumerism and stuff. We sometimes get so connected to things and attempt to use them to fill a void where happiness and blessings should reside. Rather than be thankful for what we have in our life emotionally and relationally such as significant others, friends, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers we get so caught up on what our next purchase is. When in reality we should be buying into our relationships and managing them accordingly. I think this is something I have done well and although I could use a little work on it, I genuinely have the best intentions at heart.

Angels

“I got my city doing front flips (Chance.)” Phnom Penh has been my city throughout this year, and being a tall white kid with long hair and usually some kind of offbeat facial hair (read: twisty mustache, handlebar mustache, scraggly beard) I get a lot of looks. In a land of darker skin than mine and black hair I stick out like a sore thumb. However, the people of Cambodia have made me feel like a movie star all year. From women all over the country commenting on my nose to men calling me handsome I have always felt loved and appreciated. When I speak a little bit of Khmer it’s as if I am an exhibit at a museum and everyone laughs and repeats the words along with me, as they stare on in wonder. When I get up and start dancing whether it be at a wedding, during a small party or sometimes just out in the village with the construction workers, people come to watch and smile as I make a fool of myself. In all these ways the ice is being broken and walls that separate us are breaking down. Although we look different and that is something we talk about, we are able to move past that as well. In the end a smile and a polite bow goes a long way. “I got Angels all around me, they keep me surrounded (Saba.)” I feel as though God has been with me through this whole process. He is with me when I dance, with me when I laugh, and with me in my loneliness. I feel as though I have been blessed with a fleet of angels to keep me and protect me along this year of life in another country. “I’m the blueprint to a real man (Chance.)” I am proud of who I am. I am proud of what I have done. I hope that one day my children will look up to me as a real man.

How Great

Chance brings us to church for 5 minutes and 37 seconds. The song begins with a gospel choir singing a beautiful rendition of “How great is our God (Choir.)” My heart has truly been here in this place, and I have been singing God’s praise since I got here and I will continue to sing as I go home from this place as well. God is great. Amen. “Magnify, magnify lift it on high (Chance.)“ It is easy to get lost in your own thoughts when you are subjected to isolation of this kind. Although I was surrounded by many people we didn’t speak the same language and at first felt like we had nothing in common. During that point I was under a magnifying scope of my own wielding. Everything I did I thought of from twelve different perspectives and was unable to get outside of my thoughts. A truly exhausting point to be at. However, as time went on I was able to use my magnifying glass to look at things of importance. In a way that would make Sherlock Holmes proud I used my glass to evaluate my year and my place in this world rather than my feelings of anxiety and loneliness. “I was lost in the jungle, like Simba after the death of Mufasa, no Hog no Meer cat (Jay Electronica.)” Cambodia was my jungle, Mufasa was my America, my Timone and Pumba were family and friends. In the first few months I was lost. Physically, emotionally and spiritually. My core was shaken and as I spoke to my family in very serious tones I uttered the words: “I think I have lost my sense of humor.” For someone who strives to make a joke out of almost everything that is a big statement to make. I had lost my biggest weapon of laughter, word play. Trying to work in a language that wasn’t native tongue to my new friends, puns became useless and unusable. After hitting my point of super seriousness and trying desperately to find my voice of humor again I was back. Since then I haven’t looked back. Yet, through this experience of super seriousness I was able to embrace my serious side a bit more. Something I may have needed to take that next step in maturity.

Finish Line/Drown

My favorite song on the whole album right here. “Scars on my head I’m the boy who lived.” When I was really young I cracked my head open and had to get some stitches in my head. During 5th grade I cut my lip open and had to get some more stitches. I got scars in different places on my head and here I am, living. Not too long ago my mother told me a story of how I almost died of an asthma attack at a very young age while living in Madagascar, yet I survived. (Those Angels we were talking about earlier might have had a little something to do with these experiences…) She told me “she knew I was meant to do great things.” That is something that has stuck with me. Although I wouldn’t consider the things I have done this year as profoundly great. I think there is a bit of greatness in the complexity of relationship. Nothing is easy about being in relationship with someone. We are taught as YAGM’s to accompany the people we encounter during our year. This means to meet them where they are at and walk alongside them in life. I have not come here with the intention of making great change and in that regard I have made a larger impact than I think most can. In accompaniment you are saying to the other person or people that you don’t have all the answers and that’s ok. You are saying you are willing to work with them to find the answers. A quote given to me from my sister in law Stephanie via my Father Tom goes like this: “Stay in a country for a day you can write an article about it. Stay in a country for a week you can write a book about it. Stay in a country a year and you will never write a thing about it.” This is to say that being in relationship with a country and learning to love it and respect it comes with the burden of knowing too much. When you are in a country for up to a month you never get out of the honeymoon phase, where everything is fresh, exciting, new and wonderful. Throughout my year I have seen so very much of this country, many good things and many bad things and many things just in between. The magic of this is that something that began as pretty one dimensional and easy to explain turned into something complex and multi-faceted that goes beyond a simple answer. Something that will surely be difficult to manage when answering questions upon my return to the States.

Blessings 2

“Are you ready for your blessings, are you ready for your miracle (Chance.)” This is just the beginning of a new life. Once you experience the world outside your comfort zone you gain a new perspective for everything. For myself I now know the blessing and miracle that is four seasons. I know the blessing of choice when it comes to cuisine. I now know the blessing of being healthy and in shape. I know the blessing of being young and spontaneous. I know the blessing of being independent and self-confident. I now have a new found perspective on the blessings of family, friends, and my girlfriend. These just to name a few. My blessings will keep coming and I am excited to see what the future holds. Here is to life, exploration, courage, compassion and new experiences! God bless Chance the Rapper for inspiring me once again to write and God bless you all for taking the time to read this post.

Groove With Me

A Week in the Life…

Welcome back to all my followers of this here blog. It’s been a hot minute since I have written a blog but here I am back at it. The reason I have been a little quiet is because I have gotten into a nice routine, a groove (see title) if you will. I am going to attempt to put you in my shoes and show you a few pictures along the way to get you to understand what my life looks like from day to day.

As many of you know already I have two different work placements that allow me a good mix of work throughout my day to day life. One site placement at an NGO, Life With Dignity (LWD), typically occupies my mornings during the week. I go to and from work by bicycle, braving the crowded streets of Phnom Penh for 30 minutes at a time. Below is a picture of my bicycle, the view from the courtyard outside my office and a view of my desk at work.

Rice is a staple of Cambodia and thus I eat it 2 or 3 times a day. However for breakfast I sometimes like to eat some bread and thus I eat some sandwich street food. They are delicious. Pictured below is the stand where I get them and the sandwich itself.

My other site placement is with the Lutheran Church in Cambodia (LCC) which is also the church that I live at. This occupies my time in the afternoon and night time during the week and week. Primarily my duties revolve around teaching English to some of the University students that live at the church along with me. I teach the advanced classes both in the afternoon (Tuesday-Thursday) and at night (Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.) When I have time in the afternoon I also spend a little bit of time working in the office with various tasks, sometimes doing write ups for the church about events and sometimes doing scheduling or whatever else needs to be done. Pictured below is the church office and the two classrooms that I can sometimes switch between.

 

As a resident of the Hostel there are three events where attendance is strongly encouraged during the week. All of them take place in the common space on the bottom floor. Tuesday nights is a weekly meeting and history of the bible course taught by one of the church administrators from Singapore, Chak Mun. We have gone from the stories in Genesis and followed a chronological timeline thus far in which we just finished discussing David. Pictured below the students gather for this weekly lesson.

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Rainbow Hostel, Tuesday Night Lessons

Sometimes our Tuesday nights are turned into prayer meetings in which we take some time to pray for things we are thankful for or things we might require a little support in. Pictured below is one such night.

The second event of the week takes place on Friday and is a more formal bible study led by the pastors and support staff of LCC. Both Tuesday and Friday each week start with us singing some songs and praising the lord. Pictured below are a few students leading us in song.

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Friday Night Bible Study, Students Singing Songs

On Saturday’s I have the morning off and the afternoon I go into the office at the church for a little bit if people are around. On Saturday nights I head across town on my bike and play basketball for 2 or 3 hours. Recently I have been playing with a large group of Filipino Cambodians who have accepted me as one of their own. Pictured below is the basketball court that I play at, as well as the soccer fields that are at the same complex. This is what most soccer fields look like in Phnom Penh. With both Basketball and Soccer you just pay for the water if you lose and split the cost of the field rental evenly. Usually between 2 and 3 dollars per 2 hours.

On Sunday’s I spend my time in the morning worshipping with the fellow students and community members in church. Pictured below are a few photos from church services.

In the afternoon on Sunday’s I participate in an outreach program in a village northeast of Phnom Penh called Kampong Cham. Most of the time I am tasked with working with one of the students in their kids programming. I help lead games and recently have been tasked with giving a quick children’s sermon. Other times I accompany Pastor Vibol as he does some more direct outreach to the members of the village who may not know much if anything about Christianity. Pictured below are some of the kids from the village. Bonus: A picture of me enjoying playing some soccer with some of the kids from the village.

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Soccer with the kiddos from the village.

Pictured above is Pastor Vibol leading a man and his wife in prayer.

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Pastor Vibol leading a man from the village of Kampong Cham in prayer.

Sometimes on Sunday nights I am able to help out with the church football (read soccer) team. Pictured below are the students and I after one of our practices.

If I don’t have any responsibilities for the church one of my new favorite things to do is attend the kick boxing matches that take place at either of the two local tv stations. Entrance is free and if you are a foreigner like me you are typically escorted to the best seats in the house. Thankfully they let me bring my friends along so I don’t have to sit alone. Pictured above is the view from one of the most thrilling boxing nights I have been to.

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Ringside seats.

 

Hope you enjoyed a little glimpse into my weekly life. The joy of living in Cambodia is that this is a routine and more often than not I am thrown a little out of my routine by spontaneous work trips, church outings or fun with friends. However when these weeks happen they go quickly as if time is moving at light speed. Keep an eye out for another blog post coming in the next week. Til next time…

Christmas in Cambodia

Welcome back loyal readers. I hope that you haven’t forgotten about me in my absence. If you are a first time reader, please scroll down and take a look at how my first few months have been so far.

Over the weekend of December 12th and 13th the church I am living at and volunteering for celebrated Christmas. It was a truly unique and memorable experience that I will not forget. On Saturday our festivities started with a fun fair for the kids in the neighborhood. Nearly 100 children from around the area came out to play some games, eat some candy canes, and enjoy some Singapore curry. It is common that over holidays (including Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year) the Cambodian people eat curry. The reason it was Singapore curry is that we had a large group of people visiting from our partner church in Singapore. They were the ones that helped organize all the games as well for the event. It was much like a school carnival and had the same sort of feel reminding me of my elementary school gatherings. My main job was to take a few pictures for the church and just be there for support. So naturally I walked around with my camera, tested out some of the games, ate my fair share of candy canes and had some fun with the kids who were there. Overall the event was full of prize drawings, candy consumption and all around fun.

On Sunday morning we had a Christmas service during our typical Sunday morning service time. A large change for me this year has been adjusting to not understanding a majority of what is going on in the service. The songs are in Khmer, the sermon is in Khmer and other than the parts I can recite in English I am mostly in a place of trying to decipher a message in a language I am still unfamiliar with. However, sometimes the sermon is translated for the various volunteer groups that worship with us. Being that the group was from Singapore the sermon was translated to Chinese, putting me in the increasingly more common position of being surrounded by languages that I don’t understand. One positive to hearing a language you truly don’t know though is that it makes you appreciate the amount of language you might already know of another language. Every time I hear Chinese, Thai, Lao, Filipino or any other language that might be spoken in this Asian language epicenter that is Phnom Penh I am reminded that I actually am starting to know a lot more Khmer that I think.

After the Christmas service there was brief period for lunch and then it was time to set up for our Christmas event that we were putting on in the afternoon that day. I would describe it much like a concert or performance in a way. In Cambodia where less than 2% of the population is Christian many churches see Christmas as a chance for evangelism and thus do large events for the community like this. There was dancing and singing and even a skit performed on stage. There was a short sermon done by the one of the Pastors that I am sure was related to Christmas, although there is no way for me to really be sure because like usual it was all in Khmer. It was a joy to see the students from the hostel take a large role in the event from designating MC’s to taking the lead on all the music and the skit they all showed great pride in what they performed. The people from the community came in bunches throughout and almost every table that was set up for the event was filled. A few games were played including one that I was forced into being a part of. I walked up onto stage and attempted to figure out the game as everyone laughed and spoke in Khmer. When the game started I tried my best to play in Khmer but was quickly given the opportunity to play in English. The game works like so: the leader tries to get you to answer a question and all the person responding has to do is not answer any of the questions asked, simple enough. I really liked the game and did pretty well but ended up choking up on my own words in the end. It was fun and all the people watching were laughing at me so I joined in and laughed at myself. After the games it was time for dinner. Dinner in Cambodia was a chicken stir fry of sorts on rice. It was delicious and I had a couple plates worth. Afterwards some of the students gave out some gifts and played a few games with the kids. Then came my favorite part of any Khmer celebration… Dancing!

If you don’t know already I love to dance! I consider myself pretty well coordinated in this category and I go hard. Something that the people of Cambodia have really come to appreciate. Throughout the night many a compliments were donned on me for my dancing abilities. Khmer dances are simple. Place some sort of plant in the center of the dance floor (in this case we used the Christmas tree set up on a table) and if a Khmer song comes on you do a sort of two step jig in a circle around the middle. If a song from the west comes on you dance in small circles however you want. There is one song that also plays that has its own type of group dance that I have been trying to figure out. We danced for a close to five hours straight taking brief breaks for hydration and by the end I was a sweaty dusty mess.

From the weather to the date of celebration to the food and language everything about Christmas was different for me this year. Something I wouldn’t trade for anything at this point. I relish in the opportunities to experience new and exciting things and I am fortunate enough to be doing that every single day here in Cambodia. This year my Christmas was all about cultural immersion. I thrust myself into the pageantry and tradition of a culture half way around the world from my home nation. It was a magical evening and was truly one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had since being here in Cambodia. To everyone reading this I wish you a Merry Christmas, I know mine was.

I hope to somehow add videos but at this point in time don’t seem to have that ability… Will hopefully figure this out soon.

Man on a Mission

Missionary: a person sent on a religious mission, especially one sent to promote Christianity in a foreign country. Synonyms (evangelist, apostle, proselytizer, preacher, televangelist, minister, priest)

Missionary is a word marred by negative connotations. Many people think of the bible pushers who go to the developing world and try and shove Christian theology down people’s throats. Missionaries are the people who have gone to the developing world to convert people and have done more harm than good. Although that is sometimes the reality for missionaries my family has never been about that. We have always been about the relational aspect of evangelism. Get to know the people, love the people you meet and let Jesus work through you.

A lot of people I encountered before leaving for Cambodia would almost shudder when I told them I was going to be a missionary and were surprised to see me say it with pride. Although many fear the word and tend to avoid it I say it with joy and excitement. I am not the first in my family to be a missionary in fact based on the history of my family you could make an argument that being a missionary is in our blood. My grandparents were missionaries, my parents were missionaries and now my brother and I have been missionaries. Something all of those before me in my family have realized and I am starting to realize is that being a missionary is so much more than evangelism in its most basic form. It is a new age of evangelism centered by accompaniment and compassion.

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(My Father as a Missionary Kid)

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(Myself as Missionary Kid)

Many people think being a missionary is about speaking the word and converting people to Christianity. However for me that just isn’t much of a reality. For one, I am not an ordained pastor and feel as though preaching is outside my job description. Secondly, I have always seen myself as a leader by example. I try to show love and caring for other people. This love that I show is the best way that I can portray the importance that Christianity has in my life. For me, some of the strongest and most loving communities have been centered by Christian faith. My church group growing up and my camp community from 5th grade to college were always highlights of my youth. Camp when I was a counselor was transformative in shaping me into the loving, compassionate person I am today. I owe it to the people who I was surrounded by and called my friends. My goal with this year was to bring that love with me to Cambodia. I want to show the people in my community that I care. Often times I know that Cambodia has been pushed aside by the Western world and that hurts. However I think that me being here and taking genuine interest in their culture has started to show that there are caring and compassionate people living in the West. Since being here I have realized however that the community I am in, once again centered around Christianity, is a strong loving community that has accepted me as a brother from the west.

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(One of my brothers in Cambodia)

Another part of being a missionary is being a steward of relationship. This has become especially important for me. I am one of the first seven ELCA YAGM’s to be in Cambodia and the first one to be at my placement in Phnom Penh. I am honored and humbled by that fact. With this comes a sense of comfort and pressure all at once. Everything I do is groundbreaking in a way. However with everything I do, I create an expectation for the (pending) YAGM next year. Also if I do a really poor job I ruin a potentially beautiful relationship all together. I don’t like to think about the failure, because in my opinion that is unacceptable and avoidable. One of the most effective ways to avoid that is by creating meaningful relationships. These relationships are crucial to a YAGM’s year. When thrust into a new culture half a world away from home you need friends and support to ease the burdens of culture shock and homesickness. Without making new friends things can be a lot more difficult. For myself I had no friends to begin with when I arrived here, I was the new kid on the block. However every friend and relationship I create this year will last through the next YAGM and so on. In long standing YAGM programs like the UK there have been different people serving year after year for more than a decade. Each new YAGM works to strengthen and further the relationship created by the person who was there prior to them. “I get by with a little help from my friends.” A quote from the Beatles that holds true when speaking about anyone. For a YAGM that is put into a situation so different from anything they may have experienced before it becomes important to have friends. For myself I look at every friendship and relationship I create as making the next year easier for the new YAGM. This year those in my community learn what I need and how I react to the culture changes. Thus they are more prepared for what is to come with a new person. They will know a little better how to provide support and care for the future YAGM. My hope is to ease the efforts of future relationship building by laying the groundwork for as many positive relationships as possible.

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(The students and I who live at the hostel taking a picture together at a going away party, My Cambodian brothers and sisters)

One of the most important things I have learned about being a missionary is that acceptance is key to survival. I have learned so much about acceptance from the people of Cambodia in only a few months. I call it an attitude of acceptance. I think this is the best way to describe the people of Cambodia. They don’t spend time worrying about things they can’t change. They don’t fret over things out of their control. I have found this to be one of the most refreshing things about the culture of Cambodia. I feel as though in America we spend a lot of time complaining about things. Whether they are in our control or not. In Cambodia people save their breath for things that make them happy and things that are of importance. I very rarely hear people talk about things that bother them or annoy them: the heat, something that smells bad, the tough living conditions, whether or not they are tired. They accept the circumstances that are presented to them and make the best of them. They spend time enjoying life rather than wasting it away complaining about it.

As a YAGM I am asked to take on a simple life. I have much to learn about it and I don’t think I could be taught by anyone better. The average Cambodian gets a salary of about 150 U.S. dollars per month. They use this money to pay rent, buy food, and anything else they need to spend money on. Despite the fact that the cost of living is lower than it is in the states this still is not very much money. Although they do want material things they aren’t burdened by them. In the states I think we are so connected to our expenses that our happiness has become tied to it. We tend to measure what we have in direct relation to our happiness. In Cambodia there is simple joy in conversation and being present with each other. Relationships are the currency of happiness in this country, and everyone is rich. They know how to maximize time with each other and spend a lot of time being happy, smiling and laughing. It is truly beautiful.

Overall being a missionary is complex. It is not as straightforward as bring your bible and a smile and change the world. I must gain the trust of a community that has many reasons to not trust someone who looks and talks like me. My nation was responsible for senseless bombing that dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs throughout the nation and killed nearly half a million people. Although I was not responsible my home country was. However despite this it doesn’t take long for them to accept me, this culture of hyper-acceptance continues to inspire me as I go throughout my year. These things I have learned are just the beginning. I believe that being a missionary is not only about these things but most importantly about what inspired this post, my desire to learn from and reflect on everything I do. It is from this reflection and learning that I am changed and my community is changed.  Without learning nothing happens. However if you take every experience as an opportunity for growth you will not only learn a lot about a brand new culture but you will also learn a great deal about yourself. I am a man on a mission. My mission is to learn, relate and serve.

Like a Phoenix…

…I have risen from my ashes and emerged beautiful once again.

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Welcome back readers. Long time, no talk. I have been quiet on the blog for two reasons:

  1. I went through a few tough times and felt I had nothing to talk about.
  2. I fell into a nice routine and felt as though nothing noteworthy was happening.

This morning I received an email from my grandmother that inspired me to write a little about struggle. In the email she writes:

“We haven’t heard from you for a while.  It’s ok to share the hard times, too.  The apostle Paul did, Moses did, David did, Jeremiah did and oh, my, how about Job? We identify with their humanness. It gives us permission, I believe, to share our struggles and then trust we are not disposed of, but still used by God. It’s a way of making use of the challenges—and by doing so give strength to others.”

–Dee Berkas

To my Grandma: I love you and appreciate your emails and the vast amount of wisdom shared within the words you type.

Simply put, being sick so far away from home is the most difficult thing I have had to experience during my year so far. The day of Thanksgiving I got a bad case of what I can only assume was the flu. The kicker being that I was actually supposed to be enjoying a retreat with my fellow YAGM’s. We were headed to the northeast region of Cambodia to a very naturally beautiful province called Ratanakiri. The 8-hour van ride to and from Ratanakiri was miserable. The way there being the worst of the two. I was wearing long pants and a thick sweatshirt and was struggling to stay warm despite the weather outside being over 90 degrees. I couldn’t eat for a few days while I was sick and was unable to join the first day of activities during our retreat. The second day I forced myself out of bed and joined my group on a boat tour of a remote village very close to the border of Laos. It was a beautiful boat tour despite my discomfort and seeing the village was a really cool experience. The next day we traveled home and I was still not feeling well yet I knew I was feeling a bit better since I could wear normal clothes once again.

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Being sick so far away from home is very difficult. For myself the comforts of home that I had somewhat forgotten came rushing back. My comfortable bed, my companions Fenway and Wrigley (dogs), comfort foods, television, and video games. With all these comforts of home swirling in my mind my homesickness began to make a resurgence in my thoughts. When all you are able to do is lay around and try to sleep you cannot help but get lost in your own thoughts which naturally leads you to thoughts longing for home. I missed my family and friends and loved ones more than ever. As I have told some people already, those were dark times. Yet, I am here to stay.

However, as the title of this blog suggests I have returned to my former self and am present once again in this place, Cambodia. I have gained back the weight I lost and with it has come my strength and appetite. I now have a new appreciation of what it means to be healthy. I am thankful every day that I wake up and I don’t feel like crap. I appreciate having the strength to ride bicycles, play basketball, and dance all night. I appreciate the ability to sing, laugh and goof around with my new friends. These are things that will not last forever as my time here in Cambodia and even on this earth is finite and that the experiences I have should be cherished. I realize that eventually my body will get older and it won’t be possible for me to play sports almost every day of the week. So right now in this moment I try to play and be active as often as I can. I am here to stay.

After this experience it has made me realize that I was comfortable before I got sick. I really started to feel like I belonged in my community and was a part of something special. I know now that after returning to my healthy state of being I was right. I feel at peace with my setting. I enjoy the people I am surrounded by and feel a part of the community. The people I buy food from at the street side stands recognize me and smile when they see me. The people on the streets in my neighborhood wave to me as I ride by on my bike in the morning and afternoon. My friends treat me as though I am their brother and friend and we share many joyous moments together. In the eyes of my community I am no longer passing through, I am here to stay.

I wanted to write this blog because one of the things that was discussed during our training in Chicago, prior to departing for our respective countries, is that during this year there will be struggles and things won’t always be great. Although I know that there will be more struggles throughout this year I know that things will always get better. I have survived an event of great struggle and from it I have grown stronger. I am more prepared for the next one and am equipped with new tools to overcome difficult times. I also learned from this recent time of struggle that this year isn’t always about what happens as much as how we as YAGM’s react. Things are going to happen that are completely out of our control, whether it be sickness or culture shock or struggles at work or anything else but how we react determines everything after that. If we take an approach of optimism, perseverance, and faith we can make it through any of these things. We are here to stay.

From City Slicker to Country Boy

Welcome back followers! If this is your first time please read my previous blogs as well.

Over the last week or so the Khmer people were celebrating Pchum Ben. A holiday where they honor their ancestors and spend time with their families. I was fortunate enough to get an invite from my host Pastor to join him and his family in the province of Kampong Thom. I accompanied him on his journey home on Sunday the 11th. We hopped on his moto bike and traveled out of Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom. Our journey was about six hours in total from start to finish including a nice stop for lunch and a quick hammock break as well as a few other stops to stretch our legs. Upon arriving I realized I was no longer in the city anymore, I was going to be a country boy for the week. Here are some observations that I had during my time in Kampong Thom:

  1. The villages are becoming more modern.

The typical ox and wheel cart are taking a backseat to the motorized tractor pictured below. You see this everywhere in the village, many people use them for various transportation needs. It can transport: people, animals, food and much more in large quantities. The steering mechanism is quite interesting though, when making sharp turns the driver must get off their seat and walk alongside the cart as they make the turn. Overall it works quite well and has become very popular. It fits like a glove onto the small roads of the village as well. Just wide enough to navigate the narrow pathways that lead through the neighborhoods.

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Electricity is making its way to the villages as well. Some people have had it longer than others. The first village I visited seemed to have had it for a while where the second place I stayed had just gotten it the year before. However, I am assuming there are still some places that don’t have it as well. Some houses had a TV and some didn’t, I did see a few that had satellite dishes on the side of their house as well. Water doesn’t run unless you pump it yourself from the well or splash it on your body with a cup but that seems to be just fine for the people it serves.

  1. Khmer Picnics are a blast.

It was about 3 o’clock on the first full day of me being in the village when the pastor’s wife came in and said it was time to go. I quickly grabbed my camera and walked down the stairs to wait for our departure. I sat there as a large tractor (as described earlier in section 1) pulled up and parked itself. We loaded it up and all 18 of us hopped on the flatbed and left for the field. We maneuvered the roads in the main village and then got to the entrance for the rice fields. It was a small stream that ran through the middle of the rice fields. We went fearlessly into the small stream and continued our bumpy pursuit of our destination. The destination was pretty far into the rice fields and the stream was no different than the bumpy path we had veered from. The way I would describe it was a lot like maneuvering uneven speed bumps every few feet or a street with many large potholes. Not the smoothest ride but what is fun about that? When we arrived some 30 minutes from when we began it was time to set up our picnic. I helped unload and lay some things out, others went off to gather plants and things and others began to start the process of cooking. A few people grabbed some mint leaves, some grabbed grapes and others grabbed some sticks that were carved into homemade chopsticks that we all used to eat.

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(Just peel the green and you got chopsticks)

As we ate and drank and had a wonderful time it began to sprinkle a little. I found shelter for my camera and then was right back sitting with my friends enjoying the rain and each other’s company.  It slowed after about 15 minutes and we decided that was probably the lighter version of what was coming. So we packed up and began our journey home. As we left we were blessed with a beautiful sunset over the rice fields, a sign and reminder of how great today’s picnic was. About five minutes later it was pouring rain. Luckily we were prepared and had brought a large clear plastic tarp. We spread it from front to back of the flat bed and everyone was sheltered. As we were going along I realized there was a hole large enough to sneak my head through. I poked my head through and looked around at the rain storm happening outside. It was gloomy and dark and wet. I decided to turn my head to those at the back and smile…. They all laughed and began to speak in Khmer and laugh some more. Our trip home took a little longer at around 45 minutes but we all returned safely and decided to wait out the storm for a little bit before we unloaded all our things. We waited about 30 minutes until the storm had calmed down. We unloaded, washed up and got ready to go to bed. Before we went to bed the Pastor turned on “Puss in Boots” for his kids… Little did he know that was one of my favorite movies so I joined them on the floor and we all laughed and enjoyed a wonderful movie before bed time.

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  1. Cheers…. A lot.

Pchum Ben is a celebration. When people celebrate they sometimes drink beer. When Cambodians celebrate and drink beer they like to “cheers” every 2-5 minutes on average. One person either seeks out someone in the circle and initiates with them, or just holds up their can/cup and everyone else joins. I loved it!

  1. I was an uncommon yet honored guest.

I only say I was uncommon because of the way I was looked at. It seemed as though many people who look like me don’t make their way to the village. As I rode through the village on a moto, danced at their village wide dance, or visited some of the friends of my host pastor I was stared at. A lot of the stares led me to believe that they don’t see people like me often. However, I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I am just that good looking that people can’t help but stare. People looked long and hard at me regardless and always had a lot of questions about where I was from, what my culture was like, and why I looked the way I did. Questioning my hairstyle, nose size, and choice of facial hair.

Despite me being so different from them I was very well received. Anywhere I went I was offered food and drink before I could sit down. I was always offered a comfortable place to sit, sometimes at the expense of someone else. I didn’t really know how to say no and spare that person’s seat, but they never outwardly showed being offended by having to give up their seat. At one point I realized that my presence at my Pastors parents’ house caused the death of a chicken. It is custom that when you have a special guest you kill a chicken is what my host pastor told me as he cut the neck of the chicken right in front of me. I never felt unwelcome and always felt appreciated and special. The hospitality was amazing and something I tried to not take for granted.

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(Cambodian style outdoor kitchen)
  1. Khmer dances are extremely fun.

One night my pastor told me he was going to take me dancing. If you don’t know me then you wouldn’t know how much I like to dance. I was very excited for this opportunity. After dinner he told me to change from the clothes I was wearing into a shirt with a collar and into some pants. I did so and we were off. It wasn’t hard to find the dance as we just followed the sound of the blaring music coming from close by in the village. We arrived at our dance and it was amazing. There were two lights lit in the entire are. One on each side of the dance floor hung from a string running from a tree across the road to the house who was hosting this party. There were about 75-100 people watching from the street and around the house, and somewhere between 25 and 50 people dancing depending on the song. The music was loud, very loud. It blasted from a large truck that held 12 large speakers. The music was varied and the dancing simple. When a Khmer song was on you danced a certain way. It was a sort of simple two step and you would dance around in a circle counter clockwise, two by two. If a song that wasn’t Khmer came on you could dance however you wanted. This was when I shined. Typically, the culture of Cambodia is pretty reserved and it is reflected that way through their dancing. Most of the time they just step back and forth kind of like a 9th grader trying to be cool at his first high school dance. To extend the metaphor I am more of the crazy senior at the dance who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. I was moving and grooving like I always do. This came with mixed emotions. Some people cheered and clapped, some stared and some just smiled and laughed. Overall it seemed as though they were all quite entertained by the white guy dancing his face off on the dirt dance floor. I realized later on after a few songs of dancing the way I did that there might be another reason for dancing so conservatively… Sweat. I was by far and away the sweatiest person there, however that didn’t matter to me. I had a blast!

  1. Animals everywhere.

The people of the village are typically farmers. When you are a farmer you typically have a lot of animals. Most families have a few cows, a handful of chickens, two or three dogs and equal as many cats. The cats and dogs roam the neighborhood and play with each other much like the children of the community. It is typical that if you want a dog you trade a chicken. As was the common price. Cows are seen as a very important investment as they are sold for a lot more and can sometimes be given as gifts to young people as a sort of investment for the future.

  1. Beautiful smiles for beautiful people.

Everywhere I went I saw the smiles of these wonderful people. They welcomed me with open arms and huge smiles on their faces. They fed me well and made sure I felt welcome and comfortable in a place that they knew was very different from my home.

  1. The houses are on stilts.

What started as a necessity to avoid a flooded house turned into a stylistic trend throughout the years.

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  1. A mosquito net is not just for mosquitoes.

You know how sometimes you don’t really appreciate something until you don’t have it? Well that was the case for myself and mosquito nets. One night for whatever reason I didn’t use one. Huge mistake. As I was going to sleep on a bed for the first time in a few days I felt as though nothing could go wrong. As I lay there waiting for my eyes to get heavy and for sleep to overcome me I was greeted by a little friend. Briefly a rat decided to make his presence known to me as he ran across my face…. His little feet pitter pattered right across my cheek and then he was gone. However, he was not gone from my mind. Little guy had me rattled. Let’s just say that wasn’t my best and most peaceful night of sleep. I was looking over my shoulder like an enemy of the Godfather… Not the best for when one is trying to sleep.

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  1. Rice is my new corn.

Growing up in the Midwest I am accustomed to seeing many a fields of corn. On road trips to visit my brother or sister at their respective colleges in Moorhead, MN or Decorah, IA I passed plenty of corn fields. They are everywhere in the Midwest. Corn is to the Midwest what rice is to Cambodia… Everywhere. Driving from Phnom Penh to the outlying provinces you pass by many lush green fields of rice. It is beautiful and I loved the sights of my road trip very much. In a way it did remind me of some of my road trips to and from the colleges of the Midwest that my siblings attended. A small and welcomed reminder of the home and the people that I love dearly.

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For the students at the church that I am living at they typically see their families twice a year. Once over Pchum Ben and once during the Khmer New Year in the beginning of April. After hearing about my trip to the province with the pastor I have had many students offer to have me at their home for Khmer New Year. I will have to figure out a way to see a few more places so as to make sure that I can get a larger look at the beautiful countryside of Cambodia. There were many other sights to behold however these are the things that stuck out to me most. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the country and am looking forward to my chance to go back.

The Concrete Jungle

Welcome back readers, hope you are all doing well! To those of you newbies out there please scroll down and read my first two posts before or after you are finished reading this one. Today I will be talking about transportation especially in regards to my current situation. I am staying in a Church and working at an office about 7 Km away from each other. The interesting part I have found so far about these two places is that Tuk Tuk drivers and Moto Drivers don’t seem to know where either of these places are. So far the past couple of days have presented various transportation snafoos… Let’s start from the beginning…

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An example of a Cambodian Tuk Tuk.

It was Monday morning and I was ready to head to work on my new bicycle. I woke up with a good amount of time and was out the door in no time. When I got downstairs to my bike I figured I would check the tire pressure and was surprised to find out that my front tire had very little air in it. I decided to disregard this fact and press on with my decision to bike to work, somehow forgetting how difficult biking is on a flat tire. I started out and made it close to 1 Km weaving through traffic and mud when all of a sudden the sky opened up and started pouring rain. Along with this rain storm came gail force winds which presented a larger issue of trying to move along. After pedaling a half a block I realized that I could actually walk faster than I was biking and decided to explore other options. (Another interesting note about my bike is that the seat doesn’t stay at the height you adjujst it to. Every time I would put the seat higher it would quickly sink back down to its default position after a few pedals. I am relatively tall and these bikes are not meant for someone as tall as me, especially when the seat is at its lowest setting… My knees hit the handlebars.) I pulled my bike over underneath a nearby awning and decided to call my country coordinator and ask for advice, in hopes that he would take pity on me and bring his truck and give me a ride to work. He agreed and said that he would have to get into a Tuk Tuk to get to his truck and then he would be by to pick me up. I agreed and decided to try and call my supervisor at my work site to let him know I would be late. I looked at the card he had given me and tried the first number… No dice. The number appeared to be disconnected. So I tried the other number on the card assuming it would work better. Nothing. Same operator response telling me that the number was disconnected. As I stood underneath the awning I thought to myself: “Ryan, this is your first day without your country coordinators, you should be able to problem solve this situation yourself without their help.” So I did, I decided to call my country coordinator back and check with him on the plan and make sure he didn’t go too far before realizing I was suddenly going to be independent. After he approved of my plan I flagged down a Tuk Tuk and told the driver I could direct him to my work. This was after he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him LWD (the name of my organization) and the street number several times both in Khmer and English. This was the first time I realized that no one knew where the heck my office was. I was successful in telling the Tuk Tuk driver to turn right (bot sdam) and turn left (bot chvang) and got to my destination only a few minutes late for work. A rough start that turned out alright in the end.

I went thorugh my morning of work quite well and was able to meet a lot of new people at the office. After my shift was over it was time for me to head home. So I walked to the curb where the security guard was and flagged down a Tuk Tuk passing by. Little did I know that was not how this worked. The security guard shooed him away and got one of the Tuk Tuk drivers from the corner. They hang around and take anyone who works at my office where they need to go (from what I can tell.) I then realized that I had very little money, not enough to get me all the way home. So I attempted to bargain for a ride as close to home as I could get. For me there is a few landmarks near where I live but remember I have no actual address for my house so I cannot just say that. After discussing for a little bit where I was going a second Tuk Tuk driver came over who understood a little more English and he was able to decipher where I needed to go. However he could not take me all the way there for the money that I had. I said that is fine and just said get me as close as you can. He did a great job in bringing me quite close to where we agreed on. I paid him and took my bike back out of the Tuk Tuk and started walking down the road. One thing that I noticed was people were looking at me strangely. I assume it was because here I was, hauling a bike around in a Tuk Tuk and walking a bike around when I clearly should be riding it. The bike wasn’t visibly flat tired until I sat down on it and then it became very clear. However with no pressure on the seat the tires looked like they had air. None the less I pushed my bike home and made it just before the rain came again. Something I’m sure my waterlogged shoes and clothes were happy about. The only problem was the length of time made me late for lunch and I had to go find a random street market and order in Khmer. Something I was more successful in than I thought I would be.

The next day I took a moto to work and was able to direct the driver once again, becuase remember no one knows where my office is… However all was well. I cannot describe the feeling of being on a moto in a city where traffic lines are mere suggestions. Sitting on the back of a moto as the driver goes over curbs onto sidewalks and weaves between trucks and buses and cars as they drive on any side of the road they want is exhilerating to say the least. Mom don’t worry I’m safe. I love you! One part about this city as well is that for as big as it is and as many streets as there are the road signs are very small and very rarely even put up. Thus driving around is more about remembering landmarks than it is looking at street signs. After work it was time to go home once again. I got out of work and knew once again I was in for a magical mystery tour as I discussed with the moto driver and security guard where I needed to go. We agreed on a place that didn’t completely sound right to me yet I assumed since our conversation yesterday with the Tuk Tuk driver ended ok I would get to the right spot. I made a mistake. I realize now one major thing about myself. I tend to laugh, nod my head and say “yeah” or “ok” a lot when I am either confused or don’t know what else to say. In this case I had a chance to correct my driver and tell him where I should go however I just did my usual and hopped on the back of the bike hoping for the best. As my driver took a completely different way across town, I knew there had been a large miscommunication between the two of us. We came to the spot where he thought he was taking me and I attempted to get him back to where I was needed to go. As we went along I kept saying the only landmark around the area I knew, Ratana Plaza, and he kept getting confused. After driving around for a bit he pulled over and called someone on the phone and handed me the device. I answered and told the person once again “Ratana Plaza” and he answered back “yes.” What a relief! The moto driver then hopped back on the bike and we went off again. During our extended moto ride it rained twice. A testament to the length of my journey. I made it home safely and tried to learn from my mistake. I went to the Pastor and asked him to help me figure out how I could tell Moto drivers where I needed to go. He gave me a few ideas that I wrote down in my notebook that I was going to try the next day.

Morning the next day, I walked down to the street determined to make it to work in the normal amount of time with no detours. I took out the business card that I had received from one of the people I was working with in my office and walked down the street asking moto drivers if they knew where it was. After asking two with no luck I came to the corner where there were 3 or 4 moto drivers all sitting on their bikes. I asked the first one if he could take me to the place on the card and he handed me off to his friend. He then handed me off to his friend and finally he agreed to take me. He wasn’t completely sure he knew where to go however I told him I could tell him where to go. I forgot how to say that phrase in Khmer so I just told him “I tell go right, go left.” He may have taken this too literally and with one quick missturn completely put me off the only route I knew that could get me to the office. I knew that I had to go northwest from my starting point however we went too far north and we were unable to go west anymore due to a large string of schools and offices that blocked the way through town. We ended up going very far north and had to work our way back southwest. Upon getting in the general area I told him to stop, then I pulled out the card again and showed him. He nodded and off we went. After going a few blocks he pulled over and asked a couple moto drivers if they knew where to go. The moto drivers responded and pointed out some directions for him to follow. We then once again hopped on our bike and drove a few more blocks before he realized those directions were wrong. We did this a few more times until we ended up back at the first moto drivers and for whatever reason the second time with these guys was the charm. I don’t know who was more relieved to finally make it to our destination. Regardless we had finally made it.
After finishing up work I mentally prepared myself for the next ride and brushed up on the phrases my pastor had given me to use. I then walked outside and was pleasantly surprised to see the security guard waiting for me by the gate with a moto driver right next to him. He pointed to the driver and said “Ratana Plaza” with a huge smile and 15 minutes later I was home. I got mad love for my new security guard friend. Today I am thankful for that security guard who now has my back. I am thankful that I didn’t get lost once again on my way home and I could make it in time for lunch!

A few things I have learned from these last few days of traveling around the city. One, I need to get better at speaking in Khmer so that I can better understand my moto drivers and vice versa. Two, it is important for me to continue to use every sepearte moto trip as a chance to learn more about the layout of this city. I do not have the luxury of signs that tell me where I am so I must remember streets and intersections and areas of town based on landmarks and visual memory. Three, I need to continue to laugh at myself for getting lost with my moto driver and realize that is ok sometimes. Four, I need to find out the name of this security guard at work and also find a way to thank that security guard for saving me today. Hopefully he has my back in the future and we can continue with our relationship. Overall the traffic in Phnom Penh is a wild and crazy thing. The streets are pretty confusing and the people don’t speak my language. However I need to remember I am the foreigner and they don’t owe me anything. They are the ones graciously offering to give someone who doesn’t speak their language a ride to somehwere they don’t even know about. They are putting just as much trust in me as I am in them. I have been humbled over and over again in the matter of a few days of trying to maneuver this city and this is just the beginning. If I learn from my mistakes each moto ride will get easier and easier. I look forward to each and every day of getting to know this wonderful city. Here’s to getting lost a few more times before I find my way!

A good example of the ratio of vehicles. Lots of Motos a few Tuk Tuks and very few cars.

Photo credit: The Cambodia Herald

Make it, Take it

Welcome back followers! To those of you who are new to the blog be sure to scroll down and check out my first blog as well. This week during orientation we discussed the long and complicated history of Cambodia. It was informative and eye opening. I was able to explore the history of a country I knew very little about. One of the most important pieces of history to Cambodia happened between 1975 and 1979. Very few people may know that there was a genocide at the hands of the Communist Party of Kampuchea  (aka Khmer Rouge) who held power during that time. Below this paragraph is a link to a brief overview (one page) of what the Khmer Rouge was and its affect on Cambodia. I challenge you to use this as a jumping off point for more research to educate yourself about a very unknown genocide that happened in the late 70’s. At the very least please take the 5 mins to quickly read this.

http://www.cambodiatribunal.org/history/cambodian-history/khmer-rouge-history/

We visited the prison mentioned in the article, S-21 aka Tuol Sleng, which is in the center of the city. Then we visited one of the killing fields, where prisoners from Tuol Sleng were typically taken, that was right outside the city limits of Phnom Penh. Overall this day was an extremely emotional and incredibly difficult piece of history to absorb. I have wrestled with dedicating a whole blog to the emotions that I felt and at this point have decided it is too much for me to handle and adequately portray in the words of a blog post.

For anyone who doesn’t know me very well I have ADD and struggle to sit for long periods of time, thus the last few weeks of sitting and listening all day have been quite draining both emotionally and surprisingly physically. I have always been self described as a dog of sorts. What I mean by this is that I do not enjoy running for the purpose of running, however give me a ball (soccer, basketball, football or tennis ball) and I can run for a lot longer as I chase it within the confines of a field or court. Upon returning home from church and a social event today I decided to take the rest of my free day and go up to Olympic Stadium and find some basketball to play. So I got home changed, grabbed my money belt and phone, strapped it to my waist underneath my shorts and headed out with a few bottles of water in hand. I found a tuk tuk and said “Olympic Stadium, 2 dollars” to the driver. After pointing to the stadium on a map and bartering a bit we settled on the price of 2.50. I then hopped in and was taken to my destination without any complications. When I got there I quickly headed over to the courts and walked up to the first one that had a game going. I asked if I could play and the person I talked to said that was fine. I then eagerly awaited my chance to finally play basketball for the first time in months. Although I was 8,365 miles from home the game was still the one I knew. I didn’t ask about any rules and just played. The first possession they left me wide open so I knocked down a quick three pointer. The 10 or so people waiting for the next game all hollered and jumped around as the skinny white foreigner quickly proved his basketball worth. After scoring two more points that game someone from the sideline shouted at me: “What’s your name?” at that point I knew I had gained the respect of my new basketball friends.

Although I tried to use the little Khmer I knew they would almost always respond to me in English. I still have a lot to learn in terms of pronunciation. However that didn’t deter me from trying. I would say La’or (Law-Oh with a soft r), which means very good, whenever someone would make a basket. Whenever I made a mistake or airballed (oops) I would say Som Tuh which means sorry or excuse me. At one point during the game a large Cambodian man, in both height and width, stepped on the court and made a few remarks in Khmer. Everyone on the court started laughing uncontrollably. From what I could gather there were two reasons for me not to laugh: 1) I did not speak the language so I didn’t know what they were saying and 2) I think the guy was making fun of me. I may never know why they were laughing but it really doesn’t matter. I was there to play basketball and quickly proved my skills to this large man as well by scoring all five points needed to win that game in quick succession. There were no jokes directed at me the rest of the games as far as I could tell.

The rules for basketball at Olympic Stadium were simple enough. Half court, make it take it to five points. All baskets are worth one point. There was one person who sat underneath the basket who was considered the ref. He called fouls and was the one who managed who would play next. To get into the next game one simply had to ask the referee. There were shooting fouls, from what I could tell, which would result in one free throw. If you made it your team also kept the ball. Two people introduced themselves as the games were played. One of them was named Mony (Moe Knee) and he was friendly and welcoming to the new guy, helping me figure out the intricacies of getting into the next game after I casually walked on the court without checking with the ref first. Also I drew attention form a guy named Kyle who was one of the better players and by the end of the day decided he had enough of the new guy scoring on him and decided to start guarding me. The only thing that was going to stop us from playing would be the impending darkness of nighttime or the rain that was threatening to downpour the whole time we were playing. The latter finally decided to show its face and just like that I was forced to say goodbye to my new friends and find a tuk tuk home. Thankfully I was quick to find one and knew the little amount of Khmer that would help my trip home. I told the driver Psar Toul Tom Pong (Sah Tu-ool Tom Pong) and he headed towards the Russian Market closest to the hostel I was staying. When I saw the market I told the driver Bot Sdam (Boats Daw-am) and he turned right, down the street I was on. I then said Choup Choup (Chupe) and he abruptly stopped in front of my temporary place of residence. I was very proud of this string of three Khmer phrases that I communicated effectively.

Although the net was torn and the rim was crooked. The concrete was sand like, and the language was foreign the game was still the same. It was the first time since being in this country that I was able to experience something that brought me truly closer to the people of Cambodia. For the most part I have been the clear outsider traveling the streets with a group of 4-8 other white Americans. This time it was just myself and the young men who played basketball at Olympic Stadium. We were able to jump, pass, dribble, shoot and sweat together all for the love of basketball. A game that doesn’t care what culture you are or what country you are from. On that court for the 2.5 hours I played I felt like someone who belonged.

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A picture of the basketball courts at Olympic Stadium.

Photo Credit: Jessica Moes

6.9.2015

And So it Begins…

As I lay here in my bed at the hostel we are staying at in Phnom Penh I am able to reflect on a few things. This is one of the first times in the last two weeks or so, other than being on a plane, that I have had some time to really think and process what all is going on. The week or so before today was mostly consumed by talking and sharing deep emotional moments with 73 other people who are crazy enough to choose to live abroad for the year in a country they have most likely never been to. As we orientated we talked about things such as race, power, privilege, faith, money, gender and how all those things will affect us when we leave the United States. Overall it was exhausting yet uplifting. After that week of intense emotional awareness I got on a plane in Chicago after saying goodbye to some of my new best friends and my wonderful girlfriend and embarked on the longest flight of my life from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea. The 14.5 hour flight was a test of will, attention span, and antsiness (which I realize is not a word.) Sleeping was not in the cards due to the sheer excitement I was feeling knowing that at the end of these travels I would be in my new home. Watching movies was difficult because I struggle to enjoy watching them on such a tiny screen and talking was shut down by our flight attendant who made us realize how loud Americans can be when we are all together and talking. After leaving Chicago at noon arriving in Korea at 4 pm was surreal. It was so strange to have spent so long on a plane and essentially not have made any progress in terms of daylight. After a short layover we left Korea for the last leg of our trip to Phnom Penh. Arriving in Phnom Penh at 11 pm was something that surely has helped alleviate the jet lag a great deal.

Now that the 7 of us are all here it has been fun to really start to figure out what in the world
Cambodia is like. The Cambodia program is brand new to YAGM this year, making me a guinea pig trail blazing adventurer for the ELCA. With this title comes a lot of mystery and unknowns. At orientation we adopted the motto of “we’ll see” and have started to really embrace that as we constantly are finding out new things that our Malaysia YAGM alumni could not prepare us for. More to come on those topics in coming blog posts. Stay tuned. The first day was centered around preparing us for our orientation that will be happening over the next few weeks. It was fun to get to know the other people in the group and get to grow together a little more. We went to the riverfront which is a more expensive and ex pat visited area of town. The restaurant we went to was actually an NGO and non profit that with all its earnings was helping feed the children of Cambodia. A mission I was definitely in support of as I had my first experience of Cambodian red curry and rice. A delicious meal that if I had not been so tired I may have been able to eat a little more of. We left that meal thinking we would stay in the area and explore the riverfront however an hour before we left we got a taste of the monsoon rains that happen during this season we are currently in. The rain beat against the tin roofs in a way that I had not heard before. The rain however does not stop the people of Cambodia from going about their business. We hopped in our took took’s and headed to the riverfront anyway. By the time we reached the riverfront, about 2.5 hours after the rain had started, the rain had stopped. Another interesting thing to note about the rain is that in most cases I have seen rain as something that breaks the humidity and heat which is not the case in this country whose temperature is as warm as its people are welcoming. If you are wondering while reading this how hot it is, we are in the middle months of temperature. It is not the coldest nor is it the warmest time of the year and it sits around 80-85 even through the night with humidity constantly above 75%. As it gets warmer I am hoping that these more mild months will better prepare me for what will surely be sweat filled and challenging in many ways throughout this next year.

This morning we were able to experience our first taste of the language of Khmer (pronounced Ka My.) The language is written in characters and is quite difficult to speak. It was great to really get to start learning this quick and complex language. We are studying with two German guys who have just graduated high school and make me feel quite foolish for only knowing my home language as they start the process of learning their third language. After our language lesson we got our first experience of a Cambodian market by visiting the “Russian Market” in Phnom Penh, which is down the street from the place we are staying. The smells, sights and sounds were all completely new to me. Upon initial entry I was quite disoriented and struggled to find any method to the tightly packed rows of this extremely diverse marketplace. However after spending about an hour and a half and completing the shopping list given to us by our country coordinators we were able to start to figure out the layout a little more and see that there in fact was quite a bit of organization to this maze. We were also able to use our newly learned Khmer words to try and barter and inquire about prices for different things. This new knowledge however was a dual edged sword. Asking in Khmer would lead the shop owners to believe you had been speaking the language for more than two hours which then made the follow up conversation quite a bit more English based. Not knowing the Khmer words for numbers made it impossible to barter in their language causing me to quickly default back to the comfort of my home dialect. Upon returning home we ate lunch and have now had some free time which I have used to update you all on what brought me to this point. I am excited to update you all along my journey and hope that you all will enjoy reading these posts. Until next time, love and peace to you all!

30.8.2015

(This is how they write the date in Cambodia therefore I will do this for my posts)