In this series, I will be discussing the way Cambodian culture and beliefs have affected me. It has been very difficult for me to write (and has taken me several months), because words feel so inadequate to convey my emotions about these things. We are told in Romans that the Spirit will intercede for us with “groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” I can only pray that the Spirit will intercede for me, and that somewhere in the space between my words and your hearts, He will translate for me.
I am also well aware that my understanding of this culture may be incorrect. It is gleaned from my own interactions with nationals, as well as cultural insights from other missionaries, but I know that my limited understanding of this culture may not be representative of the culture at large. However, I am (as always) writing from my own (often painful) personal experiences, so please read these posts as such, and not as scholarly cultural commentary.
When we moved to Cambodia, we packed our life into 15 checked bags and 3 carryons. But I didn’t just bring airline baggage to Asia. I also brought ideological baggage.
Ideological baggage like Imago Dei: the belief that our Creator made us in His image, and that we have inherent value and worth. Regardless of our gender or skin color, regardless of our wealth or poverty, regardless of our abilities or disabilities, regardless of what we have done or what has been done to us. Regardless of all of those things, it is my deeply-held belief that every single human being matters to God, and is loved by Him. It’s part of my baggage.
It is not part of everyone’s baggage.
For some, value is dictated by physical appearances. When our neighbors were preparing to attend a wedding recently, I talked with one lady about it, about getting dressed up in pretty wedding dresses, and about how fun it would be. Then the conversation turned ugly – literally. She told me, “Your daughters are so pretty.” Surprised at the sudden change of subject, I replied, “Your daughter is pretty.” (She is. She’s beautiful.)
With her daughter standing right there beside her, she corrected me. “No she’s not, she’s ugly. She has dark skin. Dark skin is ugly. You are pretty; you have white skin.” I tried to convince her: “No, no, she is beautiful! Dark skin is beautiful. White skin is beautiful. God loves everyone with dark skin and with white skin.” She could not to be convinced. Because dark skin is ugly. This is a foundational belief in Cambodia.
On another day, I went out with a friend, and a Cambodian girl complimented me: “You have beautiful hair. You are very beautiful: your husband must love you!” I get quite uncomfortable at this kind of compliment, and its underlying reasoning. I don’t want people to think my husband loves me just because I am “beautiful” in their eyes.
But how should I reply to that, because my husband does love me. He is, in fact, madly in love with me – although not because I am beautiful. I attempted to skirt the beauty issue and simply said, “Yes, my husband does love me. And I love him.” I added that last part because I want people to know we love each other very much. Enduring, mutual love is not common here. (It’s not necessarily desirable, either, as the purpose of marriage is mainly women’s financial security and the production of children, with beautiful girls being far luckier in love. How very Jane Austen of them, do you not agree??) In this environment, our marriage becomes one way to model our faith.
That same day, a second woman told us that her husband has another wife now. She told us that she has two kids and is no longer beautiful but ugly, implying the connection between those facts. My friend, whose Khmer is much better than mine, told her that she WAS beautiful, but that her husband has bad character.
These women’s statements betray their beliefs about love and beauty. Love is equated with physical beauty: even in the Khmer language, the word for love is tied to the concept of physical attraction. Only the physically beautiful are worthy of love. And only the light-skinned among us can be considered beautiful (leading to an excess of “skin-whitening” products in this country).
A person’s worth, measured by their exterior.
I didn’t naturally reject this way of measuring a (female) person’s worth, simply because I was born in America, home of many equal rights activists. I didn’t automatically believe in Imago Dei, just because I was a born-again Christian. No, my staunch belief in the intrinsic value of all people, regardless of appearances, comes from walking through the dark places of an eating disorder.
In the eyes of my eating disorder, I didn’t think anyone could possibly love me, or even like me, unless I weighed 90 pounds. And when the doctor instructed me to gain weight, I didn’t want to live anymore, because that meant living in a larger body. For years – yes, years – I judged other people’s bodies just as harshly as I judged my own. And I did not live as though all people (including me) are intrinsically valuable, independent of their physical appearance.
It has been many years since I judged myself and others by those standards. So when I say I see beauty in each and every person I meet, I am not exaggerating. When I say I love people for who they are on the inside, I am not joking. And when I say I believe in the idea of Imago Dei, I am not merely giving lip service to the idea. I truly believe it.
I oftentimes feel alone in that belief.
I can say a thousands times, “you are created in the image of God and you are beautiful!! God made everyone, dark, light, small, large, and He values us all! He loves every color and shape and age.” But my shouting won’t change their worldview. Only the Spirit of God can do that.
And until He does, I will live in their world, I will love my neighbors, and I will pray.
(You can read Part 2 here.)
(You can read more of my anorexia story here.)