Once more. Once less.

Today I walked to the market – nothing unusual there, except I was conscious that though it was one more such walk, it was one less.  With just 26 days until we depart Cambodia,  every activity now has a poignancy about it.  Embarking on even the mundane here, I seek to engage all my senses deeply , intentionally building into the bank of memories of belonging in Cambodia.  I shall miss it all soon.

Its a ten minute walk to market.  There are no footpaths and I must trust that all cars, trucks, cycles ridden by school children, motos – even those driven by boys or girls who look no more than 13, give me the margin I need to survive.  The road is uneven and I trip at times.  The smell of coffee shops that now proliferate along the road, masks the smell of rubbish rotting in plastic bags.  I divert to a quieter street and laughter ripples as grandparents play with small children at their front doors. I turn a corner and the market is in sight.   Displays of colourful fruit atop mats at the road’s edge, catch my eye.  The sellers urge me to stop,  but I walk directly to “my” seller.

A&J-29 copyDear smiling lady.  I don’t know your name, but for two years now, your face has lit up whenever I came in view.  You have patiently listened to my halting Khmer. You have asked about my grandchildren and delighted to see photos on my smart phone.  Then in my hearing you relayed my stories to nearby sellers who now also smile as I step near and alert “my” seller to my coming.

You know my standard order it seems – always reaching for the pineapples and lettuce as you see me approach.  You reach for my cloth bag, knowing I aver plastic bags.  I choose to believe my action makes a difference though there are an average of ten million plastic bags a day used in Phnom Penh!

Last week when I took my young Khmer English student along to buy some provisions, you told her to tell me not to go home to Australia because you will miss me.  I don’t even know your name, yet I have received a most precious gift of relationship.  One sustaining life-giving relationship in a city of 2.2 million people.

Entering a new country and new culture two years ago, I craved this sense of belonging. Now my remaining days loom full of “once more, once less moments.”  The community in which I found a new belonging stretches far and wide beyond the market place.  I have engaged with Khmer and expat circles in my volunteer workplaces, in my place of worship, in my leisure and learning activities.

I am not oblivious to the social and human rights issues in this land.  My empathy quotient has expanded here. Last night my head could barely manage the juxtaposition from visiting two Phnom Penh homes.

First was the home of a 13 year old girl who most days pulls a cart along my street collecting recyclables for her family’s income.  Unforgettably, my senses on full alert, pelai on street.JPGI saw dignity there amidst the refuse in which she and seven other families live. In my belonging here a relationship of trust has been built with this girl and now with her family.  It is like gold to me.

Then I returned to a child’s birthday in my “rich” street.  I sat with my neighbours who have helped me with language here, whose cheery waves have indicated my belonging.  Their home is full of prized Cambodian timber furniture and decorations.  Their guests were well-dressed professionals.  I was welcomed and engaged – a rich memory stored, yet my head and heart ached with the contrast – very different realities in the same city.

These are sensual memories to store. Final words too, have great weight and potency.  Accordingly, I have been anticipating final words where I shall speak affirmations – life-giving conclusions to present relationships.  I have already received some spontaneously given to me.

When teaching my final conversational English lesson to one young man, I asked the familiar language learning question, “What did you do last weekend?”  As it happened, the preceding weekend he had been among the thousands of mourners on the streets of Phnom Penh for the slain Cambodian Political analyst Kem Ley.  In our office we had seen staff members weep at this loss in the immediately ensuing days.

When my student commented “good person always die from bad people.” (sic),  then “I am so sad about government why they don’t think about the country.” (sic), I could not refrain from sharing a personal reflection that has endured for my two years in this land.

Cambodia is ranked 150/168 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index while Australia is ranked 13/168  so I feel assured about my home country’s stance on preventing corruption.  Cambodia’s human rights abuses have been widely known and yet all the while I have been here I have felt ashamed at Australia’s current recognised human rights abuses.

I talked about the asylum seeker detention centres Australia maintains in breech of human rights, believing that I could say about this issue the same two statements made by my student reported above.  He listened respectfully to my explanations and finally responded gently, “Thank you for telling me about your country.”  I sensed his general belief that developed countries are somehow better in all respects had been damaged.

IMG_8101Now I stand at the threshold of returning to my homeland and community, to where I belong by passport, language and culture.

I know there will be challenges ahead in this reentry phase.  I have assisted others through the same phase over the years. I have read much of the literature.

One challenge will be to reengage with my home culture and community while allowing all my senses to remain familiar with the Cambodia learning experience.  To enter into all the “once again” experiences of life that lie ahead.

“Will you come back?”I hear again and again.  Final words which include “Yes, I hope to return for a visit some time.” are a comfort to those with whom I have shared a belonging in Cambodia.






The Journey Within

Sadness lurks quite close sometimes. Yesterday, to my surprise, it momentarily laid hold of me.

We were invited to share lunch with the staff of the language school we have attended since arriving here. Young, passionate, gentle, good-humoured teachers all, their presence alongside me has been life-giving. Lessons learned have been far more than language and culture. We have shared an openness to mutual learning about the vast differences in cultures and life experiences between my home country and theirs. I teared up realising I will surely miss this.


Two years ago in Sydney, listening to the experience of one who had lived overseas for 14 years, I grabbed onto the words “No journey has value unless it goes an equal distance within”.  I wrote these words down and pondered them often in our early days here in Phnom Penh. To my surprise, I later saw the complete quote on the walls of the Foreign Correspondents Club here in Phnom Penh.

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” Lillian Smith

Has my journey into Cambodia included an equal journey into the world within?

Now with less than four months of living in Cambodia ahead of me, I am coasting along nicely in the Acceptance phase of culture shock.  Externally, I am functioning smoothly in the community around me. Sometimes stretched along the way in areas of food, health care, transport – all are comfortable now. (Constant rubbish underfoot though is not comfortable.)

Internally?  I wonder ..

Then today, sadness returns for a longer encounter when I hear news that the mother of one of my English students passed away this morning. Sadness for a woman younger than me who suffered a stroke a few years ago and has lain at home with personal care services being given by her devoted 27yo son.  Sadness for my student.


As I mull over the differences in care and rehabilitation services for a stroke victim in my home country, I recall an early English lesson with this student when I was using a UK sourced lesson about “What makes a good day?” Looking at the weather the lesson taught that good weather makes a good day. Stormy weather makes a bad day. I remember asking this student what would a bad day be like for him. He replied, “A bad day for me is when my mother does not eat rice. I never care about the weather.”

The sobriety of that answer moved me within. I began a journey of learning about the reality of daily life struggles of the poor in Phnom Penh.

A good day is when an ill lady can take some food. A good day is when vulnerable children choose to attend a homework club offered to give them an education beyond the minimum offered by government schools. A good day is when someone chooses NOT to believe the exploitative offer of employment overseas or in the big city, but stays in their own community working for change.

Wanting to learn more, I recently asked my students to write stories of human slavery as they glimpse it in their communities.

Tum was just 17 when he went from his province to Thailand seeking to earn income for his family.  He had been running for his life under fire from border guards on the outward journey and exploited when he finally found work on a farm.  Deciding to run away, he was robbed of the little he had by border police on his fear filled journey back home, then ashamed to return with no funds to help his family. They were simply happy to have him home.

Karuna daily sees a woman in her slum community in Phnom Penh suffering mental illness since she returned from a season of employment in Thailand. Karuna remembers her as a vibrant young woman before the move.   Noting the change in her, Karuna has determined never to seek work abroad.

Daruth sees families in his community in a nearby province where young women lured to the city with job offers have found themselves as sex workers. Some return to their village, but their future is shattered.  Daruth now sees the impact, especially on the next generation growing up with the expectation that they will do the same. He laments, “That is really the worse result of that human trafficking.”

I read these stories with great consternation. An issue I have been concerned about perhaps at a theoretical distance engages me more deeply because of personal stories from people here now very dear to me.

Do I really need to question if there has been any internal journey on my part?

I can add to these my trip to the heart of the forest. Just a week later a local activist was attacked while in the forest. And I reflect that I have met people willing to risk their lives for their natural environment.

And last weekend I witnessed the evolving story of human rights workers arrested and gaoled on what is generally regarded as politically motivated prosecutions.

Let me confess that such matters would have been of low interest to me before my journey to Cambodia.

Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to ask my neighbour why her husband yelled seeming abuse at the young girl I have befriended who collects recyclables on our street. Her reply was “He is only joking”, but I have seen the fear in the little girl’s eyes.

And on the same day, my home government launched a campaign to educate Australians that domestic violence can start from the same situation I see in my street.  I acknowledge that my home country is not without blame.

I know there will be different challenges to face when later this year I move from this community of belonging and learning to re-enter my own culture.  My journey within is significant.



In the Heart of the Forest

The familiarity now of my city Phnom Penh embraced me, even at 5.30am as we drove in the pre-dawn light beginning a journey to Preahforest Vihear, one of Cambodia’s northern provinces. It was to be an adventurous, arduous journey to the heart of the forest.

We were to be guests of the Prey Lang Community Network for an overnight stay in the Prey Lang forest on a weekend expedition organised by Peace Bridges. This was an opportunity not-to-be-missed to learn about activism.   It was a journey of my heart too, learning from the hearts of poor rural Cambodian activists.

Daily in the city of Phnom Penh I witness huge economic disparities. The Khmer language for rich people is Nea Mien – literally the group of people who HAVE.  I see their desire for luxury timber products as evidence of their status.  But there are consequences for others.

I have been sadly aware of the deforestation of Cambodia as every week I read in the local press about prolific and unrelenting illegal logging.



When I readOne cause of this deforestation is often overlooked: global demand for luxury timber. In the case of Cambodia, the Chinese craving for rosewood—which includes any number of richly hued timbers—has spawned an illegal multi-million dollar timber trade where rare tree species are poached. Around 85% of Cambodia’s timber exports end up in China, where the wood is turned into furniture for the local market, but also into wood products such as luxury floors exported to U.S. and European markets.”  I knew it was time to see the forest before it was too late.

Joining us for the trip into the forest were members of the Prey Lang Community Network. Sitting in the darkness near our campfires (it was too hot to sit “around” storytellingthem!), the network leaders shared their story. The forest provides more than just timber. There are favourite foods to be collected from the plant life.  There is income to be generated from collecting resin from the trees. There is the wonder of living beside such a marvelous natural resource and being able to find delight in simply belonging there.

Some network members have been engaged in lobbying for the forests for over a decade.  Others are in the Youth sectors of the network.  In response to my question as to what the network would like to achieve, one young man replied from his heart.  I want this forest to be here for my children’s children. It is a real fear that this may not be so.

Activists regularly go on patrol seeking out illegal loggers, confiscating chain saws and now destroying their inner workings before handing them to local authorities.  I learned there have been death threats made against three activists following chainsaw confiscations earlier this year.  Local authorities intimidate activists and their families.

I learned a little about the hearts of those who care deeply for the natural resources of this country and are prepared to risk their lives even to stand against levels of corruption I have never encountered personally.  Sadly, as I drifted to sleep delighting in the sounds of the forest’s wildlife, there was a distant sound of a chain saw.  And on our journey out of the forest we passed piles of logs lying in fields with armed guards beside them.  Our party’s leader was told these are “firewood”.

We were told that our visit alone would have made an impact in a small way. Loggers would have known that foreigners were in the forest, (we had been joined by some Danish Forestry students.) and no logs would have been removed from the forest while we were there.  Now the community activists welcome my sharing this story in this way so more people may know that their livelihoods are being threatened.

Our local hosts live in villages without running water and electricity.  Education and health infrastructures are poor. The delights of the forest are one thing freely available to them.  My heart aches for their loss and I am impacted by their willingness to seek justice at the risk of their own lives.

I now understand more the story of a young Khmer friend here in Phnom Penh who comes from a distant province, which he rarely has an opportunity to visit, and when he does, sadness embraces him.  As a child he loved to run in the forest, to chase after wild animals.  Life was tough growing up in his poor family and he had to work all the time; the forest was his greatest source of delight.  He too lives with the sadness that future generations may not know that.

Living in this city of disarray I need to escape to a place of green.  It is life giving to me.  I shall always treasure my up-close glimpse in the heart of the forest into the hearts of Cambodian villagers.   Their desire is that the forest experience be known by generations to come in this land.  I shall treasure my witness to their heart of belonging that I can observe but never fully enter into.

I will always be grateful to have seen Prey Lang.  The journey was arduous and DUSTY, but so worth it to be in a forest in Cambodia.  There is peace in a forest and life to be seen and heard.   A special gift was to listen to the local villagers express their love for the forest – a place that provides food and livelihoods.  Their hearts desire to preserve this for future generations is heartfelt and worthy of attention around the world.

IMG_6097 copy


Four weddings and a funeral

I was awakened one morning this week by the sounds of a funeral procession moving along my street in the pre-dawn light en route to our neighbourhood Wat. All clothed in white, men, women and children walked slowly along the street to the beat of a drum. A truck draped in black and white cloth carrying the coffin and a large portrait of the deceased followed behind.

The portrait was of an older lady we have seen regularly walking with other neighbours back and forward the length of our short street each morning as her form of exercise.  Three days earlier a tent had been erected outside this lady’s house. Buddhist monks had arrived to chant and family and friends dressed in white had arrived to mourn the passing of this lady.

This past month our street has seen one funeral and four weddings.  Festivities on the doorstep of the family home are an important signal to the community that a death has occurred or a marriage is taking place. Each event requires the erection of a tent to house guests in front of the family home. Often, an additional tent is erected for cooking the food for the event.

It is the dry cool season here so a flurry of weddings is happening across this land. The festivities usually start with an early morning procession of guests carrying gifts of fruit to the wedding tent where a wedding breakfast is served to close family and friends.  photo 2From my balcony I recently watched a wedding tent being decorated – an arch of flowers, red carpet mat, large portraits of the couple at the door ready for the early morning procession.  Selfishly, I dreaded the next evening as usually many more people come for a traditional meal served to the accompaniment of a wedding singer at FULL volume until late.

Delight and surprise met me then when I returned home late next afternoon to find the wedding tent all packed up – just small amounts of debris on the road to indicate the morning’s festivities. A neighbour sitting on my doorstep informed me that the evening meal was to be in a reception house in this city.  Ah.. of course..  Ours is a “rich” street.

I would not have given it that label when we arrived – it looked a pretty average street to me. A row of three story attached brick houses on either side, awnings over the front of the houses like verandas where cars are parked or meals cooked and eaten – where neighbours socialise openly.  Yet when we first invited staff from Alongsiders to our home, Karuna had stood on our balcony and said, “This is a rich street.”  I wondered then what she saw. Now I think I understand a little more.

Our street finishes at the end of the row of houses. It is wide and spacious – room for cars, motos, food vendors with their carts, children on bicycles to easily move up and down. The dwellings are multi-storied. Every home here has a car parked in front. When it pours with rain the noise on the tin verandas is LOUD. These occasions are fun for the children who stand under drainpipes, playing with whoops of delight and laughter relishing the freedom to enjoy their home environment without risk of flooding. Each day these children proceed to schools – some to international schools where they learn English. I would have to agree – in the Cambodian context, this is a rich street.

I have visited Karuna’s home and more fully understand the contrast of a “slum” community defined by the government as informal settlements erected on state public land.  Here there are no cars but a narrow laneway between dwellings made of timber, galvanised iron and some brick. Motos (motor bikes) can just pass each other. Neighbours converse with each other from their houses across the laneway. Children walk to a local government school where their education is minimal and their attendance spasmodic. When it rains,  their “streets” and often their homes are flooded.

Recently holidaying in Malaysia I happened to observe the deep drainage provisions.  It’s not what I usually look at on holidays(!) but the wide clean footpaths with grates over drains contrast greatly with what I experience daily in this Cambodian city.  I couldn’t help but think of one lady I visited last year in Phnom Penh whose home has flooded each rainy season for 32 years.  She accepts this and simply lifts up her furniture as best she can til the water recedes from her home. Something shifted in me..

And today I read  Rules for Street Weddings do Exist for Some.  It  includes the notion of a “two-tiered society that is showing no signs of rebalancing.”photo 1

I know the social enterprise that made this extravagant cake for a top-tier Cambodian wedding.  I smile that in this case the willingness of members of the top tier of society  to pay brings great benefits to the members of the bottom tier of society.

But beyond my smile, my discomfort is reaching a level where I am unsettled enough to seek new ways to act justly.

Across the globe there are cries for justice in many many places and causes.  But I resolve now, in MY encounter with the world in 2016, to grow in my learning and experience of acting justly.


  • Craig Greenfield, founder of Alongsiders, writing insights on global justice issues and God’s heart for the poor, inspires me with this blog.
  • Michelle Higgins at Urbana 15 challenges me with her call to activism.  ( see from 15 minutes if you don’t watch it all)
  • And the issue of children in detention in Nauru never leaves my mind.

2016 and beyond..

Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.  *





A Shocking Week

Last night I lay awake grieving about refugees across the globe. I am not alone in this grief.

One week ago, rostered to lead prayers in my International Christian Fellowship here in Phnom Penh, I called upon this Christian community to pray for the emerging Crisis in Europe.  I had been stirred when I read that Angela Merkel had just done something huge for Syrian refugees – and for the future of Europe.

And we prayed for this crisis of immigration in Europe – for the leaders of the nations where refugees are seeking to find a safe haven, that they would lead with compassion and provide places of safety and welcome.  We prayed for those people who are harassed and helpless in their own lands and need to find safety that they would find God’s people along the way who will care for the alien in their land. We prayed that the migrants would arrive safely in a new place of welcome and we prayed for the conflicts in their homelands that are causing their fear. Lord bring your peace in these places. Still the conflict, let your light shine

Then this week unfolded with stories of thousands stuck at the railway station in Budapest  and the unforgettable image of the drowned toddler on the beach in Turkey  that has moved the world.


Why did I lay awake last night? I was thinking about the many refugees I have met in my lifetime. They are precious people to me. I am forever changed for the better because I know them.

It was my first encounter in Sydney with a refugee family from Bosnia in 1995 that had surprisingly revealed to me my own prejudice against refugees. As their story unfolded I was shocked to realise they were not people LESS than me before needing to flee their home in Sarajevo. The parents had professional employment, and a home and garden and aspirations for their growing family. All this was put at risk when Serbian forces began shelling their city.

Then ten years ago an Afghani family moved in next door to our home in Sydney. They had spent seven years in a refugee camp in India, waiting sponsored entry into Australia. It was some years later when the adult daughters and their mother made a visit to Afghanistan, that these daughters fully appreciated the great risk and sacrifice their parents had made in fleeing their homeland to provide safety for their family. We love this Muslim family deeply and they frequently demonstrate their love for us – their Christian neighbours.

Yesterday as I read more about the current crisis in Europe, I was moved to think of my Iranian asylum-seeking Muslim friends in Sydney. They were among the last arrivals of asylum seekers on Christmas Island two years ago. I had not heard from them for a while, so phoned to check on their wellbeing. Good news!! Two weeks ago they were given a visa to work in Australia. After two years living in our community, they are now offered the dignity of employment. My friend, a gifted artist, hugged and kissed me down the phone. It was my joy to return this greeting with a deep love for these precious God-given friends.

And now I live in Cambodia where recent news is that the government here really does not want to accept any more refugees from Nauru.  I grieve deeply for the plight of those marooned there, while trusting that those who came here will forge a place of contentment for themselves here.

But what shocked and grieved me even more deeply this week was an encounter with five expat women here in Phnom Penh. As we talked about current news, conversation turned to the toddler image and refugees generally. I heard “Send them back to where they came from.” and “Why doesn’t God just stop the war in Syria?” and “They are economic refugees.” and “The Muslims will get there and just take over Europe.”

I had been listening to stories from these long-term residents of Phnom Penh of their works of compassion for trafficked and exploited women in this country. Their efforts to relieve the impact of such trauma in people’s lives are praiseworthy. And yet compassion for the trauma of loss from war, from the heart wrenching decision to flee and its consequences seemed yet to be awakened.

Syrians in Germany are giving Angela Merkel the title “compassionate mother” for her stance. Today I ache for those who need compassion and I ache for those who have yet to learn this for those who need to flee their homelands.

And I pray to the God of all compassion for mercy.

My shifting has thinked.

I admit to speaking these muddled words the other morning as I awoke.  Of course I meant “my thinking has shifted”!  I was involuntarily declaring what my subconscious had recognised.  Close to a year of living in Phnom Penh and I own that the accumulation of stories and experiences is shifting my thinking.  There is a move from head to heart, a gaining perhaps of insight – the most precious gift of my being here.

Last Friday I read Psalm 37 because I wanted to reflect on verse 4 “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  As I walked from Language School to the Alongsiders office my heart had been softly moaning that there was a weekend ahead when we had no plans to connect with friends.  Despair changed to delight two hours later when I had a message from a Sydney friend in Phnom Penh for a few days suggesting we get together.  I turned to this verse because I appreciated again that God takes an unspoken prayer and gives a gift. 

But as I read Psalm 37 it was actually the verses about those who are evil, those who succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes that impacted me the most.   Like pieces in a jigsaw, my thinking spontaneously connected some of the multiplicity of stories I have heard while in Cambodia with the truths in this Psalm.  Suddenly my heart recognised that the Khmer people I encounter, daily experience those who are evil.  Always aware of the reality of Cambodia’s predilection to corruption and bribery, they may not be aware that as a country their world ranking on the Corruptions Perception Index is 156/175.

Daruth is office manager for Alongsiders and one of my English language students.  I observed him purposefully studying intensely last year to be unimpeachable in his skills and knowledge about driving in order to earn his Cambodian Driver’s Licence on merit alone.  Daruth’s diligence was a clear demonstration of the Cambodian proverb he taught me –  “It’s like an egg pushing a rock.”  He knows this as a daily reality as he strives to live without paying bribes both personally and for the organisation.

When government officials needed to visit the Alongsiders office to complete NGO registration, three times officials phoned Daruth to say there would be a “fee” he must pay for their “time and petrol”.  Daruth assured these officials that representing an organisation which is routinely audited, he would require a receipt for these funds.  Twice the inspection appointment was cancelled until finally Daruth succeeded as “the egg pushing the rock”.

Other stories from my English language students engage my thinking.  When asked to tell a story from his childhood, Tum, our new security guard, reminisced that as a child growing up in a village in a province far from Phnom Penh, he delighted to run in the forests near his home.  Together with his brother they would shoot snakes and sometimes other animals.  It was a place of freedom and fun – still a vivid boyhood memory that brings a smile to his face.

Tum recently moved to Phnom Penh to study at university, but much has changed now in his home village. The forests have been cleared.   Many local residents now are victims who have had their land seized criminally. Tum laments these happenings in his homeland. He can no longer relive his childhood by running free through forests. I read that between 2000 and 2005, Cambodia lost nearly 30 percent of its primary forest cover.  And land grabbing is an ongoing heartbreak across Cambodia.

I read about forced relocations from Phnom Penh too, and an academic blog writes:

In the last few years, Phnom Penh’s citizens have witnessed an endless number of fierce forced evictions—precisely 85 between 1990 and 2012—due to enormous economic pressures over land in central areas, which propelled demolitions of informal settlements and expulsions of their inhabitants in order to make room for new upper-class developments, gigantic malls and, in a few cases, new infrastructures and services. 

I guiltily contemplate for a moment the delight I have in sometimes visiting a gigantic mall here. Then Andrew has opportunity to visit one of these relocation sites with an excursion from our language school.

DSC04597Daily life is clearly a struggle and families relocated here some years ago know too well that there are those now living very comfortably far from this place.  Of necessity village residents learned to fish in a nearby lake. Now the fish supply has diminished and cannot sustain livelihoods.  Parents have gone away for employment in garment factories leaving children in the care of other family members.  And taking transport to work in the garment factories to earn a minimal income is itself a high-risk activity.truck The village children do not have a government-run school though a Christian NGO provides a teacher in a small school.

And yet, government schools are also a place of challenge as teachers ask for “contributions” from children before they will do their work as teachers.  My heart wrestles with this concept and I try to imagine what I would do as an impoverished parent.  One choice taken by many is to simply not send their children to school – surely a short-term solution with sobering long-term consequences.

A Khmer pastor last month told me of his heartbreak seeing his five year old son not wanting to go to school because he was not allowed to eat his snack at school while other boys were allowed to do so. Why? He told his father all the other boys pay the teacher money. My pastor friend now surreptitiously gives the teacher $5 a month so his son will have a peaceful time at school.  Though he would rather not do this, he so wants the future to look different, for his son not to have to pay for his future grandchildren’s education, that he hides this payment – does not want his son to see the precedent.

In all these stories as I change my thinking through this Cambodia experience, I have the distinct sense of unease because I know my own nation is not blameless.  Though Australia ranks 11/175 on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, it is in the question of refugees where my two worlds especially collide – painfully.

When last September the Phnom Penh News reported the signing of Cambodia’s deal with Australia to take refugees, I was deeply ashamed of my homeland. The deal made no sense to me at all and I was focused on my shame.  I failed to consider what locals may think until as I was checking out groceries at my local supermarket here, the cashier gently moved into my line of vision the day’s newspaper with its front page headlines.

It was a quiet, yet dramatic, gesture. Clearly she was curious as to our thinking on this and we were quick to respond with our cries of shame. It made no sense to us at all. We were deeply embarrassed. And this young Khmer women looked at us with a puzzled expression and simply asked, “Why?”   There was an unspoken and still ongoing understanding that Aussie funds given would not be used for refugee resettlement.

Now four refugees have arrived in Phnom Penh from Nauru.  They have been kept away from public spotlight while a local faith-based charity has been given a primary role in their care.  The world looks on with justifiable bewilderment. As an Aussie I am deeply disturbed at the injustices so apparent here AND at “home”. I am helped by those who articulate well these injustices.

For now, I will continue to seek to listen and learn and not be surprised as my thinking shifts in a world where wicked schemes abound.

Lost for Words

Lost for Words

After eight months of living in Phnom Penh, I search for words to engage with the new richness embedded in me. Imperceptibly, a sense of belonging has seeped into me and I am unspeakably grateful.  An evening of relaxation with young teachers and fellow students from my Language School – food, laughter and games together – leads me to realise that time spent in language learning has been the backbone of this transition. I have come to learn, and in learning, I am deeply engaged.

As I sit on the floor mat, sharing food with my teachers, they speak Khmer. I understand less then half, but love their delight when my response in Khmer to a simple question, makes them laugh and smile broadly. They know I speak because they have taught me. That must be a teacher’s greatest reward.

           photo 2                                LEC teachers

“My” language school seeks to give us practical conversational Khmer. There’s a sign at the door proclaiming, “We speak Khmer”, encouraging us to use whatever we have learned in that safe place as a start for growing confidence in the language.  There is also prominently displayed a list of “Suggestions for Language learners in Mid-Life”.   I read these helpful suggestions knowing that perhaps I am past “Midlife”, but I embrace the wisdom they declare.

Living in Phnom Penh, a city with an expat population of thirty thousand people, means there are plenty of native English-speakers around. I am with English speakers often in my faith community and volunteering here as an English teacher means I could exist here without learning Khmer.  But for the past seven months I have been making attempts to learn the spoken Khmer language, three or four hours of lessons a week to learn basic conversation.   There have been good days and bad – days of drudgery and days of knowing that the task of learning a language is never-ending.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, these struggles are now being rewarded.

It’s a very interesting experience to simultaneously be both a language teacher and a language learner. The concepts I struggle with in acquiring Khmer are the same concepts my English students struggle with in acquiring English – word order is one. I often find myself speaking Khmer words in an English order as my English students speak English in a Khmer order. Gentle correction from my teachers even during social engagement is very welcome.  I reflect on ways in which I have learned well from my Khmer teacher and seek to emulate those with my English student.  I note methods of Khmer teaching that have been unhelpful for me and seek not to include those in my classes.

Seeking a measure of my progress. I check myself against this chart. Perhaps I am entering the Speech Emergence stage in regards to speech, but listening is still difficult for me. With our plan to be here just two years I may never see the stages of fluency. I need to be kind to myself, to use what I have and be thankful for that.

Recently I read about the LAMP Language learning method. This suggests you can learn language by interacting with ordinary people in everyday encounters because language is more of a social activity than an academic activity and so should be learned in social situations. Seems like we have “fallen into” this means of language acquisition as we come and go in our community.

Initially I greeted people with a smile and nod of the head.  Now I snatch intentional moments to pause and speak a few sentences with the young women at the coffee cart, the lady making fried banana sweet treats at her front door all day everyday and the mango- selling lady. I appreciate that they all smile sweetly as I stumble through my sentences. If they reply, I am elated, believing they may have understood me. Though I may not understand all of their reply, my heart soars because I am communicating with a native Khmer speaker in my own community.   Sometimes they simply return a sweet smile with glazed eyes and I know I have been incomprehensible to them!

It’s a challenge to understand Khmer spoken at the normal speed. When a seller in the market tells me the price of my purchase, I must pause to translate each single word to painstakingly arrive at the amount. Words swirl around in my head like the balls on a casino table. Each word has to find its slot in my memory before I can process it. “Moy bohun bram roy” slowly becomes one…thousand….five…. hundred Riel. Oh, I know!! You said – onethousandfivehundredReil! Sometimes nearby sellers see my slow efforts and shout the price to me in English. I feel like staring them down, but manage a smile and laughingly say, “ Shh please, I am learning Khmer -sorry I am slow.”

I am thankful for my language teacher who seeks to teach me really useful sentences. I loved his smile when I recounted how this approach had been helpful. Having been taught to say “usually I pay this price” I was armed and ready when a tuk-tuk driver wanted to charge me 12,000 Riel ($3) for a ride home from the market.   I responded “Usually I pay 5000 Riel” and directed the driver along the simplest route to my home so there was no attempt to be taken a longer route. My language functionality momentarily empowered me!

The sweetest encouragement now comes each day from the mango seller as I walk by.   Often we simply wave at her as we ride by on our moto. But the other day as we approached together she stood up from her chair under her shady umbrella and stepped out to greet us. Using Khmer I could tell her we would not buy mangoes today. I could tell her we would soon be traveling to see our grandchildren. I could tell her I like to speak with her. She replied and I understood her to say in reply, “In two years you will be speaking lots of Khmer.” There were smiles all round and hugs too.

I belong in this place and language acquisition – stumbling, difficult, error-ridden – is the Welcome Bridge I can cross whenever I choose, knowing there are neighbours in my community with whom my life is increasingly becoming entwined.

To Market. To Market.

Today my heart is tender. Its not broken, but it cracked a little today. In my Khmer lesson, my emotions overwhelmed me. I nearly sobbed out loud. Tears came to my eyes as I engaged with the knowledge that my life experience is far removed from that of the teachers at my language school. I was deeply deeply moved, wondering if I can ever “belong” here. And it was all about shopping. Let me explain.

Shopping is my current language learning topic. In Khmer there is “pisar tomada”, the everyday street market – literally market normal, and “pisar tomnu” the supermarket – literally market modern. My language learning engages with the differences.

Pisar tomada, the everyday street market is vibrant – alive with people on the move, buyers intent on negotiating their purchases, sellers seated beside their array of produce, chatting with other sellers. It’s noisy and busy and dirty and colourful and cheap and hot (in months other than this lovely cool January) and feels unpredictable. It’s a place I’m learning to love. I am no longer fearful or wary.

When we first arrived I walk slowly down the street of my local market. I had been to similar markets in different places before, but as an observer. Here in my Phnom Penh neighbourhood’s pisar tomada, fruit and vegetables are in abundance, unwrapped, fresh, much still unfamiliar to me. I can select what I want. The seller tells me the total price and I pay.

It is mostly the meat that occasionally I find off-putting. meatThe smell of a lot of non-refrigerated pork and chicken and some beef – butchered in different cuts to that I am familiar with, and animal products I still have no desire to become familiar with, confronts me! And there is fish still wriggling in large metal bowls. But it is fresh. I have been there early in the morning when the fish are delivered on the back of a small motorbike pushing its way through the crowded street.

I enjoy the ten-minute walk from home, discovering the fruit and vegetables I want, listening to the price and being able to figure out how much to pay. There’s a sense of accomplishment I have coming home carrying the produce, knowing I have far more than I could have bought at the supermarket for the same price.


In contrast, pisar tomnu, the supermarket is sterile – shoppers appear less present, quietly going about their shopping with no need to engage with employees. The place is air conditioned and clean and quiet and orderly. I can grab a shopping trolley. The fruit and vegetables are wrapped and refrigerated. I can use my credit card at the checkout.

My language homework has been to write Khmer sentences about the differences between Australian and Cambodian supermarkets. Now, talking about self-service checkouts and even online shopping causes my young language teacher to gasp with amazement!

But my moments of emotional self-discovery come in an exercise when, using Khmer, I ask two young teachers at the language school about their shopping patterns – when they go to market, what they buy and what time of day they go. I am not surprised to learn they go daily to a pisar tomada to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and food. In contrast, a trip to a pisar tomnu is a once-a-month event, of an evening. They look and never buy. Ouch… They never buy. It is too expensive, beyond reach of their daily lives.

I know this in theory – I see those who shop at the few malls there are in Phnom Penh. They are the emerging middle classes of Cambodia – they are dressed differently. Why do the dear hardworking young teachers at my language school have a lot so different I wonder. My heart breaks a little. Confusion rolls over me.

Returning to my teacher, I review this exercise. (Unsurprisingly, he corrects my pronunciation!) He speaks in general terms about large supermarkets in America, then asks me how many countries I have visited. Without thinking I say 46 (actually its 57). I should have been sensitive enough to say – oh, a few…

My language teacher’s startled expression unsettles me. 46!!! How could this be he struggles to imagine. I hastily explain that as a girl I had dreamt of going to Canada, had saved for it when married, that Aussies have always set out from our island continent to see the world, that in my previous roles with a mission as a sender I had visited people serving God across the globe… But still I can see the shock.

Why is my lot SOO different? I am privileged beyond words to be an Aussie. I am privileged beyond words to be in this space of learning now. I am anchored in the belief that God has determined the times and places for all men (Acts 17:26). But can I ever “belong” in Cambodia? I don’t think so. I will always be a privileged foreigner in this place. Today I feel the weight of that.

I emerge from my language class shaken in my being. I need time to process this. To give myself time, I choose to walk to Alongsiders for my day’s English teaching responsibilities.

Lost in thought, I pause at the coffee wagon to get a coffee fix as I walk. In Khmer I ask for an iced black coffee. The young woman whom I greet on my way to class each day remembers I have no milk, no sugar. I sense a small attachment in this community. I pause also at the print shop to chat with the young woman there who always does my copying. She smiles at my stumbling Khmer, but again I am strengthened because here is someone in this community with whom I am building a relationship.

I stop at a shop I had never noticed before in my walks along 271. Today my attention is caught by an array of coloured ceramic pots spilling onto the footpath. I allow my “home” culture to influence me as I decide to buy a pot for an indoor plant. My cracked western feminine heart is assuaged a little by some retail therapy.

This day I have been surprised by a cross-cultural encounter. I hold this as a gift to treasure.

A Shocking Realisation

I am experiencing culture shock.

Is this a bad thing? No. Did I anticipate this? Probably not. For many years I introduced the topic of culture shock to people going overseas to live. I am theoretically familiar with the stages of culture shock and I have coached others through this.

Why then am I somewhat surprised to find myself a “textbook” case – engaging in a real and practical way with the early stages of culture shock? And why did I fail to recognise this in myself, but needed a friend to label it for me? This is how it happened.

I don’t do life giving much time to the “what-ifs”. I prefer to just get on with what lies ahead. I don’t find it hard to practice being positive in situations – there is usually a learning opportunity. Yet last week, in my Khmer language lesson, I felt frustrated, angry, despairing and antagonistic towards my teacher – not at all my usual emotions. I managed to mask all this in class I think and conclude the lesson, but I was not happy as I walked home. In fact I was decidedly despondent.

Next morning I was chatting by Skype with a dear friend “back home”. In no time at all she had discerned that I was in a very different place to a month earlier when we had chatted. Her words to me were “Sounds like the honeymoon is over.” Really? So must I be experiencing the next stage of culture shock? But of course!!

Culture Shock Bell Curve

So what is culture shock? The online Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life.   But my entry here was hardly “sudden” – there were months of preparation, and nor was I totally unfamiliar with this place as I had made four previous visits to Cambodia. Yet I have suddenly felt somewhat disorientated.

Where is “home” now? We have set up home here and are truly delighted with our simplified living space – a one-bedroom apartment with no upkeep responsibilities.

It does feel simple to us. Yet when one of my Khmer English students was visiting for a Saturday lunch, she commented “You live in a rich street.” I looked again to see what she saw.


It’s a clean street. Every house has a car. There is no rubbish on the street and at night a security guard sets up a fence across the street and watches over it all night. We feel very safe. It is a BIG contrast to the narrow street where my student lives.

Only last Sunday we visited her home – a one room galvanised iron and timber dwelling in a slum area. The street is not wide enough for motor vehicles. Her family of five women park two motorbikes inside this room when they are home. Sleeping cooking lounging washing go on around the bikes. Yet my student emerges each day to take on the challenges of learning, preparing for a hope-filled future, eagerly seeking opportunities, while acknowledging she is poor.

I write all this as fact from my head, confused a little because I sense I am missing something big and important here – like my experience is somehow incomplete.

Then I read about culture shock. Helpful validating reading.

Everything you’re experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it’s starting to feel like a thick wall that’s preventing you from experiencing things. You feel confused, alone and realize that the familiar support systems are not easily accessible.

So, my confusion is masking anxiety in my new belonging to this new community. Now that is humbling.

photo 1

This street I walk along each day is in every way far removed from my Sydney home, and the picture does not convey the difference in noise levels and odour. Yet in a few days I shall be back in Sydney – a brief Christmas visit. Of course I eagerly anticipate connection with loved ones, but how will I respond to the greenery, the clean empty wide open streets? I enter aware of what still lies ahead of me in integrating in my Phnom Penh community.

Knowing the Adjustment phase of culture shock lies ahead gives me hope and purpose. I will eagerly embrace this. Time back in Australia will allow some time for reflecting on the true delights of engagement to date in this place. I CAN speak a few sentences in Khmer, I DO love working alongside Khmer people who have a vision for transforming their society, little by little, and I have place here to call home.

My humanity offers limitations – engagement with a new place is a process not to be hurried, not to be dismissed, but to be relished as a gift – a life experience to treasure. Hey, that’s beginning to sound positive again – I smile!

Another dear friend, a long-serving overseas worker also wrote to me this past week,

I can imagine you would get tired of all the differentness that you experience, part of being overseas! Some of it never really goes away, the impact can continue and like experiencing grief and loss, can come back and hit you again at unexpected times, or when you are feeling low from other things happening in your life.

I greatly value this counsel. My awareness grows. I embrace the experience. I will welcome the time when I can write from the Acceptance stage of the Culture Shock pathway.

A New Perspective

A New Perspective

Phnom Penh has a growing number of GOOD coffee houses. ( I mentioned this in my first blog.)

Recently we went for a coffee meeting at Paul’s Brewhouse. Though the only westerners there, we were immediately at home in its considered ambience. Good conversation, striking coffee, comfy chairs and a pleasant graphic of a tree on the wall.

Andrew and I soon returned for a Sunday Brunch. Sitting at a different table we had a new perspective of the tree graphic. Instantaneously we exclaimed in surprise.  Can you see what we saw?


Two large animals indeed!     A relocation, and a new perspective.

Sometimes it takes a relocation to realise new perspectives have been gained.

The Killing Fields is a 1984 British drama film set in Cambodia, known as Democratic Kampuchea in the 70’s, when the Khmer Rouge were committing atrocities in this country. The film tells the story of two journalists, one American and the other Cambodian. It is recommended viewing for all who come to Cambodia.

I first saw this film at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in the late 80s. I remember being unable to move from my seat at the end of the film. Tears rolled down my face as I realised that these atrocities had happened in my lifetime in my sphere of the globe and I had had no idea at the time what was going on.

One cinema in Phnom Penh shows this movie every day, giving visitors and others an opportunity to learn more about the story of this land. Seeing the movie for a second time I could engage with some of the modern history of where I now live. I was surprised though to be alert to a new perspective.

This time the film impacted me in its portrayal of a refugee family’s story.  Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist in the film has a story very similar to that of a refugee family from Bosnia I met in Sydney in 1995.

As war was threatening to break out in Bosnia in 1992, Vlatko had sent his wife and three children from Sarajevo to Croatia for safety. Vlatko then endured untold trials and uncertainties as he remained in his war-torn country for three years. His wife and children in a place of safety had no idea if he was alive.

In Killing Fields the movie we see Dith Pran endured great trials while his family in safety in USA suffered the agony of not knowing if they would ever see him again.

This is an oft-told story for refugees, across the decades, probably centuries, across the globe. My heart aches for the distress of refugees. My heart aches also for the lack of compassion shown by too many in positions of authority where care should always be shown for those seeking refuge in places of safety. I am thankful that because of life experiences I have a very different perspective now.

As we serve with Alongsiders we see Khmer people taking opportunities to bring new perspectives to orphans and vulnerable children in their own communities.

Theara is one of the inspirational Cambodians who teaches me about life in this country. Theara is a student in one of the English classes I teach. He is eager to learn and eager to pass on the English he learns to children in his community. Right now he needs new housing and a well paid job so he can save to marry his beautiful fiancée.

Theara_nThis photo shows Theara (R) twelve years ago when he was just ten. His slum had burnt down and he and his little brother were left with no home, no parents. He lives in a slum still, but he is alive and well and driven to inspire a hope-filled future to children who live there.

I am so glad I accepted Theara’s invitation to visit one of the four the homework clubs he runs in the slum. The room is inconspicuous, small, low ceilinged, a vacant space beneath a slum dwelling. But the vision contained is none of these things.

Theara explained three reasons why they have the homework club. The first is to extend the lessons the children are given in school. The second is to encourage development of a discipline of study. The third is to encourage the children to dream of a future outside of the slums. Obvious intention in this third goal is evident on the walls on the cramped room. Students have prepared an expression of their individual dream – doctor, lawyer, teacher. They have written and drawn of future possibilities. This different perspective is before them each day at homework club.

How long does it take to change a perspective? For Nobel Peace Prize winning Malala Yousafazi, the experience was instantaneous.

Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.

Speech to UN July 2013

The world is watching with interest what will flow from this new perspective.

A long way from the global stage, I am grateful for new perspectives given and received.  I am more alert to the provision of new perspectives for the poor in their own communities.

This is what it is like for me to have moved to Phnom Penh.