Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One Year

Six days ago, on 25 January, Egyptians remembered the day when the people started to take charge of their country. It was Police Day, a national holiday in Egypt, and protesters took to Tahrir Square to protest the emergency law, the corruption and abuse of the police, and the lack of freedom in their country. The protest was big, but because it was a holiday and it was localized downtown, it didn’t affect us much down in Maadi. It was a Tuesday. The protests continued over the next two days, and the embassy even closed early so that employees could leave before the evening influx of protesters. Then it was Friday, and things really started to happen. It was massive. Friends who lived in Zamalek could hear the chanting from their apartment. Our emergency radio crackled to life for the first time with a real message from the Marines (for the first time other than routine radio checks to verify that they were working). We were told to stay home; don’t leave for any reason, unless an employee was needed at work, and then only go in the daily secured caravan. This situation lasted over the weekend.

And then we were evacuated. One year ago today. This isn’t the anniversary that Egypt remembers, but it’s the one that I remember. One year ago today, Alexa and I were ripped away from my husband, from her father, from our home. We were told by some that we had a choice (it was an authorized, not a mandated, evacuation). We were told by others that we didn’t (my husband and his coworkers, who were required to stay, were “highly encouraged” to get their wives and children on those planes). In the end, it didn’t matter. All the wives and children from my husband’s office evacuated, along with most of the other dependents and non-essential personnel, but anyone who chose not to evacuate only had one extra day there: the evacuation became mandatory on 1 February, while I was still in transit.

Then came three long months of separation. I never worried about Jeff; he had the Marines protecting him. I did worry about Alexa and her reaction to the long, sudden separation. She had nightmares. She refused to be more than a foot away from me. She couldn’t fall asleep without physical contact. I was sad and felt all alone, despite my extended family’s presence and support. I missed my husband, and I missed Egypt. But I handled it. It was Alexa I worried about.

And then it was over, and we went back. I said my good-byes, reconciled myself to leaving on something approaching my own terms rather than the relatively traumatic terms of the evacuation. It was over, and we moved on. Didn’t we?

Alexa is still very shy, although she’s so much better than she was. I was a shy child, too; maybe her extreme shyness comes naturally. And maybe it doesn’t—maybe it’s a lasting effect of the evacuation, her temporary loss of her father that probably felt pretty permanent to her, and the stress that her mother couldn’t help but pass on to her. But she’s so much better now, definitely within the normal range of toddler behavior. So has she forgotten? Is she all better now? I hope so; I pray so.

Then there’s me. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to Cambodia. Is it just because there’s no commissary, no Maadi Community Church, no Maadi Women’s Guild? Or is there a part of me that’s afraid to settle in too deeply here, that remembers how suddenly I can be pulled out? I’m not the only one having a hard time adjusting to life at a new post, and some who are having difficulty have lived in many countries before without adjustment problems. My own experiences are within the normal range, too; nothing pathological here. But if it hadn’t been for the evacuation one year ago today, would I have had an easier time here? Would I be happier here than I currently am? I’ll never know.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. I considered not even acknowledging what today is, but that didn’t feel right. Most days I think I’m over it, but then I realize that, in my head, I still always capitalize it. Today isn’t the anniversary of an evacuation. Today is the anniversary of The Evacuation. This day, one year ago, had too great of an impact on me, on Alexa, on some of my friends, on my husband and the others who were left behind, for me not to acknowledge it.

So, for what it’s worth, this is my acknowledgement. It’s today. The one year anniversary of The Evacuation. Do with it what you will. I’m still not sure what I’m doing with it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Make It Yours

Yesterday at church, we had some visitors: an American missionary to a nearby country and his wife. This missionary didn’t preach the sermon, but he was invited to introduce himself and give a testimony. In his testimony, he emphasized how God is able to open doors that people can’t close, and close doors that people can’t open; God can do the impossible, and He can work in impossible situations.

After service, we had a social time as we said farewell to a couple who are going back to their native Norway. During this social time, the visiting missionary chatted with different members of the congregation. At one point, he approached Jeff and me.

As we engaged in the expected small talk, this missionary revealed that his daughter is in college, attending a Christian university that happens to be located in the same city as my own alma mater. I made him aware of this common ground, and then the conversation got interesting.

“It’s too bad when organizations fall away from their heritage of faith,” he said. You see, my alma mater used to be affiliated with a Christian denomination, but they disaffiliated not long before I began attending there. Although I’ve been a Christian since childhood and did consider attending a Christian college, it never bothered me that the school I had chosen was not a Christian school. I knew going in that the professors had a reputation of being liberal, and that there was a liberal element among the student population, but that most of the students were fairly religious and conservative. I pointed out to our visiting missionary that, at least when I attended the school, the students were pretty religious, although most of the faculty were not.

The visiting missionary sighed and stated, “You shouldn’t have to fight your professors for your faith.”

Now, I admit that my hackles were already raised. We’d been having a pleasant conversation when he decided that it was appropriate to start criticizing my alma mater, and by extension, those of us who had chosen to study there after the disaffiliation. But this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t explain it completely at the time—I understand it better now that I’ve had some time to think about it—but I felt a strong urge to contradict this missionary, and I chose not to fight the urge. So I shared with him one fact about my college experience: “Actually, the one professor who probably did the most to help me grow as a Christian was an atheist philosophy professor.”

“You mean a Christian professor who taught atheist philosophy?” (I expected him to be surprised, but I didn’t expect this—not only did he not believe me, but it was so far out of his realm of belief that he didn’t even understand me!)

“No, a philosophy professor who was an atheist. He helped me grow as a Christian because he treated every philosophy we discussed the same way: he challenged everything. He forced me to think about what I believed and why I believed it. It wasn’t enough that I’d been taught something; I had to think it through. He helped me make my faith my own instead of something that was just passed down to me. He did more for me than any of my Christian professors did.”

Then Jeff made a simple but profound statement: “It’s an example of God using someone who would never, by his own choice, be available to be used by God.” The disbelief on the missionary’s face gave way to chagrin—almost disgust—before he made his polite excuses and turned away. I’m sure he was just as upset with me as I was with him.

Throughout the afternoon, I replayed our encounter, trying to determine exactly what it was that had gotten me so angry with this man and why my respect for him had plummeted so fiercely. I finally realized what had happened. It was a combination of factors.

I became irritated when he felt free to ignore the rules of polite society and criticize choices that had nothing to do with him; I assume that he felt justified because we both were Christians and therefore of course I would lament the demise of Christian heritage just as he did—but he didn’t know me well enough to realize that I did not view the disaffiliation as a loss of Christian heritage so much as a recognition that the school had room for more than one perspective and a belief that it was beneficial for students to be exposed to more than one voice.

I became defensive when he acted as if young Christian adults in America are somehow less than believers elsewhere in the world. After all, he lives in a country where Christianity is banned and Christians risk everything, but we shouldn’t have to fight our professors for our beliefs?  What exactly does that mean—that our professors shouldn’t challenge us, that we should be given a pass from critical thinking because we’re Christians, that we shouldn’t be willing to deal with the possibility of failing a class for our faith when believers in other parts of the world may be killed for theirs? Even more telling, exactly how is it that Christian students have to fight their professors, when the students are the ones who chose to go to that school and take those classes? Does the world owe us a safe, Christian environment, whether we choose such an environment or not? We are not entitled to an easy faith! Too many Americans choose an easy faith, when struggling results in a faith that is deeper and more real.

I lost respect for him when I realized that he does not believe that God is able to use an atheist professor to work in the life of a Christian student. This man stood before the congregation and stated that God can open doors no one can close, He can close doors no one can open, and He can work in impossible situations. Yet his reaction to my statements about my professor showed that he does not believe that God can work through an individual who does not honor Him. This lack of faith in God’s power is unbecoming in one who depends on that power so much in his own life and ministry.

I have no doubt that this man serves God to the best of his ability. I have no doubt that he is doing God’s work in his host country. I am, however, disappointed that he is so set on his own understanding of “The Truth” that he ignores the realities that Christians can have different viewpoints; that disaffiliation from a Christian denomination does not make a university less than it was; that non-Christians have something to offer to Christians. After all, American Christians are not exempt from Jesus’s statement that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and from His command to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is true that too many young Christians “lose” their faith while attending secular schools, but that isn’t because the schools didn’t do right by the students—it’s because the students were not prepared for the challenges that come with life outside of a Christian enclave. We are called to be in the world but not of it (implied by John 17:14-17, when Jesus specifically refrains from asking God to remove us); how can we function as Christians in the world if our faith is not strong enough to withstand the world’s challenges? The problem is not the universities; it is that the Christian young people who fall away never made their faith their own. Rather than behaving as if the world’s attacks on our faith are unfair trials that we shouldn’t be expected to face, we should expect them, prepare for them, even welcome them. Maybe then we’ll not only have fewer Christian students falling away—we’ll have unbelieving students becoming believers!

Please do not misconstrue anything in this post as a criticism of Christian schools. I do not question this man’s choice to send his daughter to a Christian school; nor do I question her choice to go. There are many good reasons to attend a Christian college. However, if your primary reason for choosing a Christian school is that you do not believe that you can withstand the challenging of your faith that you will experience in a secular school, please do yourself a favor—spend your time at your Christian school strengthening your faith so that it can withstand the challenges you will face in the real world. And if your reason for attending a Christian school is that you do not believe that God can work in your life in a secular environment, I suggest that you re-evaluate which God you serve: the impotent god of your imagination, or the omnipotent God of the Bible.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom, the Temple on the Hill
The city of Phnom Penh owes its name, and--according to legend--its existence, to the events that took place in 1373 at Wat Phnom. According to legend, the Mekong River ran particularly high that year. After the flooding receded, a wealthy woman named Penh found a tree on the riverbank. Inside the tree were four statues of Buddha. In order to house the statues and to prevent their being carried away by the river again, Penh built an artificial hill (a phnom, in Khmer) with a Buddhist temple (or wat) on top of it. The temple became known as Wat Phnom (temple on the hill), and the city that eventually grew up around it as Phnom Penh (Penh’s hill).

The Eastern Staircase
Wat Phnom is located on top of the only hill in Phnom Penh. Standing 27 meters, or just over 88.5 feet, high, it’s a fairly small hill. But its cultural importance—and its convenient location right across the street from the U. S. embassy—made it a natural choice when I decided to get out of the house and go see something. And I needed to get out of the house and go see something.

Accordingly, this morning, Alexa and I joined Jeff in his daily tuk-tuk ride to the embassy. After a slight delay caused by the funeral procession of someone very important—no idea who, but there were two parade-like floats carrying mourners, another one with the coffin and four police guards, and then a bus or two of additional mourners in the procession, all clogging the streets during rush hour, with police stopping other traffic at each intersection, so he must have been very important—we dropped Jeff off and traveled the one block to Wat Phnom. It was 8:10 am. I instructed our driver to pick us up at 9:30, hoping that an hour and twenty minutes would be enough time to see everything.
A path down from the summit

It was plenty of time. Wat Phnom is interesting, beautiful, photogenic … and small. I’m glad we had as much time there as we did, although we would have been okay to leave 30 minutes earlier, but I’m also glad that we didn’t have more time, at least for today.

Our driver dropped us off by the main entrance, the eastern side. He pointed out the booth where foreigners should pay their $1 entrance fee, and I stopped there first. The two ladies inside were enthralled with Alexa, but eventually they took my dollar, gave me a receipt, and paused their attempts to gain Alexa’s attention long enough for me to politely take my leave. I proceeded up the grand staircase toward the wat. About halfway there, I saw a path leading around the hill. I decided to take it and finish the climb on a different staircase. As I reached the top of the smaller staircase, I saw a sign informing foreigners that they should give a $1 “donation,” and a woman stepped up to assist me in making this donation. I told her I’d already paid, and she smiled and waved me on before I even pulled out the receipt. I went back around to the main entrance, took off my shoes, and stepped into the wat.
Inside Wat Phnom

I was amazed. From outside, it’s a very pretty building. Inside, it’s stunning. There was a huge statue of Buddha, surrounded by smaller statues and offerings of flowers, money, fruit, and incense. The walls were covered with murals. Every surface was painted or otherwise decorated. There were people standing around the borders of what obviously was the petitioners’ area, waving sticks of incense. Petitioners bowed before the idol, making their requests or returning with their offerings after their previous requests had been granted. I didn’t take pictures focusing on the petitioners, as it felt disrespectful to do so, and I didn’t take as many pictures inside the wat as I wanted to, for the same reason, but I did get a few that I hope capture the overall scene.

After a few minutes inside, I went back outside, put my shoes on, and headed down and around the hill. On one side, at the base of the hill, there was a huge clock set into the land, with a statue in the background. There also was a pretty pavilion, where men were playing hacky sack with what looked like a crushed water bottle. There was a small structure with statues of elephants outside, possibly for Sambo the elephant. Sambo, presumably not the original, who is reported to have died last year, lives at Phnom Tamao Zoo but spends most days at Wat Phnom, giving rides to tourists. I’m not sure what time he shows up, or if or when he has days off, but he wasn’t there this morning.
Holding up the roof of Wat Phnom

I spent the rest of my time wandering around the premises. I let Alexa get out of the mei tai, so we meandered slowly over the weathered stone pathways. I saw the museum, but chose to skip it today. Maybe next time I’ll cough up the extra $2 to go in. Today, I chose to stroll. It was entertaining to watch the reactions Alexa elicited, and the reactions that were elicited from her. Everyone was enthralled with Alexa, from the ticket ladies to the vendors to the woman nursing her own adorable baby. Several approached her and touched her hand or hair (I allowed only very brief touches). For her part, Alexa shunned anyone who showed interest in her. She was fascinated by the children, though, especially the little naked boy—wearing only a leather necklace—playing with a helium-filled balloon tied to a sandal. He was almost her height, making me think he must be a few months older than her (Cambodians are short!), but he wasn’t walking, so maybe not. She was enthralled with the men playing hacky sack, enough so that other onlookers marveled at her interest.
On the grounds
In the end, when I was ready to go, I turned from taking one last photograph and saw my driver approaching me. He held out his arms for Alexa (she lets him hold her regularly while I get in or out of the tuk-tuk), and she shied away. Then she realized that his was a familiar face, and she allowed him to hold her hand as we walked to the tuk-tuk. I thought she would fall asleep on the way home, but she didn’t. She sat contentedly in my lap, holding on to the side of the tuk-tuk like she started doing after she saw her daddy do it once.

All in all, it was a pleasant 80 minutes or so. Next time, I hope to visit the museum, and maybe spend a little more time in the wat itself, but it’s shady and pleasant enough just to walk around outside—although it’s getting hot, and the humidity was bad this morning; it may not be very pleasant at all in another month. But even if I don’t spend much time there right now, I’ll remember it next time the cool season comes around, and take Alexa there again. Maybe next time she’ll even get to see Sambo the elephant.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Frustration and Success

Overall, I’m settling in here. I feel a little more content, and a little (a very little) less reticent to step foot OTG (“outside the gate,” for those who don’t watch Terra Nova). But there has been one thing that has frustrated me this week, and today added a new frustration. Fortunately, the day ended with some success.

On Monday, my hair dryer died. I was using it when I heard a crack. Then I smelled, and finally saw, smoke. As Jeff puts it, I had “released the magic smoke,” and there was no hope of recovery. Ok, not a big deal, I thought. I’ll just let my hair air dry (let the frizzies begin!) and then go buy a new hair dryer.

Only, it became a big deal. I asked my housekeeper where I could buy one, and she wasn’t sure, because like most Cambodians, she has perfectly straight, shiny, beautiful hair and doesn’t need a hair dryer. However, she had two suggestions: the third floor of Soriya Center, or Central Market. Now, I’ve been warned that electronics purchased anywhere in Cambodia, but particularly in the tiny unnamed stalls of markets, tend to last a week or two—if you’re lucky—before they unceremoniously release the magic smoke. So I opted for Soriya Center, a nearby mall that has many unnamed stalls but also a few “real” stores.

Upon my arrival, I went directly to the third floor. It had a bunch of stalls and a large Sony store with lots of big screen TVs. No luck there. I tried the fourth floor—there was a large store with some household goods, but when I asked for a hair dryer, the saleslady tried to sell me some gel. I tried the first and second floors. No luck there either. I exited Soriya completely discouraged. But there was still hope: my tuk-tuk driver knows where everything is. I explained what I wanted … then explained again … and a third time, adding hand motions. Ahh, he understands! Now, my driver has excellent English, so the fact that it took three tries to make him understand should have been a clue! He didn’t know, but maybe Bayon supermarket? I had to go there anyway, so sure, let’s try that, despite my significant doubts.

As I suspected, Bayon did not have hair dryers. I resigned myself to weeks of frizzy hair while I waited for a hair dryer to arrive from my friends at Amazon. But my driver does not accept defeat easily. No, he cruised past a whole row of electric stores on the way home, decided one looked promising, and sent me in. I peered through the glass door and saw nothing but expensive cameras. As I could see the entire store, I didn’t go in. I told my driver to admit defeat that I would order one from the States. He took me home—but he cruised slowly, and slowed down even more when electric shops were in view.

I spent the rest of the week with frizzy, air-dried hair. Definitely not my preference, but not that bad in the grand scheme of things.

Then came this afternoon.

A little background: When newcomers arrive, the embassy provides a welcome kit, consisting of various household goods—sheets, towels, pots, that kind of thing. Once the newcomer’s stuff arrives, the welcome kit is returned to the embassy. Well, our welcome kit had some particularly useful items that we don’t want to lose. A rice cooker. Three high-quality, truly universal power strips that we currently are using, even though our stuff is here.

Now, we knew we’d have to give these things back. We really should have bought our own long ago. Unfortunately, we did not buy our own. However, welcome kit items usually are purchased locally, so we assumed we’d be able to buy them quickly. In preparation for returning the welcome kit on Monday, Jeff emailed the people who stock the welcome kit and asked them from whence those oh-so-precious power strips came. They helpfully gave us the name and location of the shop that stocks these little miracles.

So today, I ventured forth, armed with a name, a location, a driver, one of the power strips so there could be no confusion, and every expectation of success. I planned to augment my success with the purchase of a rice cooker, which my housekeeper had promised was available everywhere, even in the Sony store at Soriya Center.

Ah, the hopefulness of naiveté.

My trusty tuk-tuk driver got me to the correct store, with a slight detour because it was on the opposite side of the divided road, so we went to the next intersection where we could turn around … only to see the “No U-Turn” sign and the two policemen on the other side making illegal U-turners illegally U-turn themselves right back around. So it took a little longer to detour, not that big of a deal, especially on an errand in which I’d virtually been guaranteed success.

We pulled up outside the store and I confidently ventured in. “Cumriep sua,” I greeted the salesmen, trying out my Khmer language skills (with little success, judging from their faces). One of them responded in excellent English, so I pulled out my power strip and told him that I needed more. “Exactly like that?” Yes. “We don’t have that. That was ordered from overseas.” But I was told that it came from you. Do you do business with the U. S. embassy? “Yes, but they didn’t order any power strips from us last time. That didn’t come from us.”

Totally deflated, I left. Every assurance of success, and still—abject failure. Sigh. Looks like a message to Jeff is in order … can I go home now?

But no. I’d already told my driver I was going to buy a rice cooker, and I didn’t want to face the prospect of complete failure. Surely I could accomplish the second goal of the day, right?

So off we went. I told him I wanted a rice cooker. He didn’t immediately suggest a store, so I told him to head for Soriya Center. After all, my housekeeper assured me that the Sony store has them, and I personally had seen three different ones in a stall there, so even if I had to buy the thing from a stall, I was going to buy it!

On the way to Soriya, my driver suddenly pulled off. There was a large electric shop on the corner, and he suggested that I try there first. The nice young lady who believed she spoke English did not understand what I wanted. Eventually, when I couldn’t explain it any other ways, she asked “For the chicken?” No, not for the chicken. For the rice. She looked confused. I asked if they had anything at all for the kitchen, as I was seeing mostly lighting and fans. She had no idea what I was asking. So I asked if there was anything for “pteah baay” (rice-house, or kitchen, in Khmer). “No, we don’t have anything for the chicken.” (Yes, she clearly enunciated “chicken.”)

Upon my return to the tuk-tuk, my driver said “You want to go to Soriya now?” Yes, please.

At Soriya, I headed straight to the third floor, to the Sony store. As I peered through the windows, I wasn’t certain that my housekeeper was right about them having rice cookers. All I saw were huge TVs. But she’d named this store specifically, so in I went. I wasn’t too far in when I saw microwave ovens.  Ah, my hope is renewed! I kept going, all the way to the back.

Eureka! I saw toasters, slow cookers, and blenders. Then I struck gold—rice cookers. There even were brand names that I recognized! Who knew that the words “Panasonic” and “Philips” could incite such joy? I walked up and down the aisle several times, debating with myself. Is it really worth an extra $20 to get a brand I recognize, just because I recognize it? Nah, let’s be adventurous!

Decision finally made, I pointed it out to the saleslady who’d been stalking me during my perusal. (In the States, her proximity would have screamed “You’re a shoplifter!”; here, it’s annoyingly normal.) As I turned to exit the aisle, I froze.

There, on a shelf in the back of the Sony store, on the third floor of Soriya Center, were five hair dryers! Sure, the cheapest one was twice the price of the one I’d ordered off Amazon, and it looked a lot cheaper, and it has very little power. But it’s a hair dryer! Woo-hoo! Sold!

In the grand scheme of things, having a hair dryer now, rather than 1 to 5 weeks from now, doesn’t much matter. But a girl’s got to celebrate success where she can, right?

And, Miing-Miing (as Alexa calls our housekeeper), I’m sorry for doubting you!