Anorexia, Racism, and Defining Beauty (Imago Dei, Part 1 of 2)

by Elizabeth

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.

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Culture Days

— by Elizabeth

A week ago a high school student came to my house for math tutoring. I noticed the neighbor children pestering her as she waited for me to unlock the gate. When I let her in, one of the girls grabbed a handful of my stomach and yanked. As my student pushed her moto into my house, a boy followed her inside and began examining some of our stuff. I told him, “ot tay, ot tay,” which means “no, no.” Then I tried to lead him out of the house – I had not, after all, invited him in. He just laughed, repeated my request in falsetto, and shuffled out slowly.

A day like that makes me want to lock my doors, hide myself in my bedroom, crank up the air conditioning, and watch a movie.

It’s what I call a “bad culture day.”

The next few days I didn’t want to go outside, or even unlock the gate for our house helper in the morning. In fact, I asked Jonathan to unlock it. I just couldn’t handle another neighbor kid violating my house or my body. (These neighbor kids live in the boarding school next door – and I had never seen those two before. They don’t have normal social boundaries, even for Cambodians.)

But today I had errands to do, so I called my tuk tuk driver and walked out my front door. I paid the bill that was due and bought the items on my list. I even talked to my driver. (He wanted to know my opinions about the U.S. election. Opinions I will not be sharing in this blog. : )

Fast forward to this evening. This evening our children begged us to let them play outside on the street. We initially created a play space for them on our roof in order to avoid playing on the street, where children and adults alike touched them too much. We’ve spent a lot of time on the roof in the last several months. Lately, though, they don’t want the roof. They want the street. (That desire in itself is a huge step forward into the culture for them.) So out we went, culture-avoiding-me included.

First Jonathan stopped by a local Khmer restaurant to pick up some supper. We love their fried rice (and its price!). We started eating it in front of the house while the kids played. That’s a very Khmer thing to do. They cook in front of their houses over an open fire, just like they’ve done for thousands of years, and then eat outside as well. Nobody touched me or my children rudely. We talked with the older ladies. One of them particularly likes our children, and told us tonight that it makes her happy to watch them play. Later, when Nathaniel slipped on the wet pavement, they were very concerned for him to clean his scrapes well.

Even Faith, my shy little one, played and laughed with the girl next door. (That was a first, by the way.) We felt a sense of belonging in what we did tonight — eating Khmer food, speaking the Khmer language, and playing with our Khmer neighbors.

It was what I call a “good culture day.”

A day like today gives me the courage to go back out and try again. It gives me the courage to interact with the people – unwanted touches included.

God, give us more good culture days.

Waiting for our fried rice carry-out at the local Khmer place.

Yuck Ducks and a Yay Day

Note: The following blog post discusses long-term unrelenting stress. I wrote it just before Jonathan became severely ill with viral meningitis. He was sick for over a week, and at times his high fever and extreme pain frightened me. (He’s not quite fully recovered yet.) Long term unrelenting stress can be evaluated numerically by something called the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale. Stress is cumulative, and as it accumulates in a person’s life, the Holmes-Rahe score increases. When the score is high, a person’s risk for physical illness increases. The double whammy about stress and illness is that not only can higher stress levels lead to illness, but illness itself causes higher levels of stress. The fact that Jonathan’s illness delayed the publication of this post simply illustrates my point: we have been under greater stress lately.


Long Term Unrelenting Stress: a phenomenon we learned about during mission training. Stress that simply refuses to let up. The little things — and big things — that put pressure on us in life.

Long term unrelenting stress has been appearing in our lives lately. It ranges from the mundane of ant armies invading my kitchen and laundry taking 4 days to dry completely, to the profane of living in a house with post-trafficked girls on one side and 30 institutionalized children on the other, to the insane of neighbors blasting their music at odd hours.

And lately we’ve felt the time crunch of Jonathan’s increased language study and my increased homeschooling responsibility. As he has increased his language hours, mine have correspondingly decreased, and I often feel embarrassed that my vocabulary, comprehension, and pronunciation skills are far below his. In fact, shop owners and neighbors usually tell me that this is so (as if I didn’t already know??). After 2 weeks of intense homeschool lessons, I finally got the chance to talk to my neighbors. I could not understand the grandmother’s Khmer, and she could not understand my Khmer. Her granddaughter was forced to translate our Khmer to each other. Fortunately, both of us understood the granddaughter.

Chatting with my neighbors reminded me that I need to venture into the community regularly to practice language. In fact, our field coordinator and his wife told us at the beginning of our training that even if I don’t have a ministry role outside our family, I need to learn the local language. If a wife doesn’t learn the local language, they told me, she can feel isolated and eventually want to go back home.

I decided I needed some quality time with my host country.

So I went out alone the next morning. I don’t drive in this crazy Asia traffic, so I hired a tuk tuk to run my errands. My tuk tuk driver didn’t know the location of any of my desired destinations, so I had to give him directions. In Khmer (quite the accomplishment considering I couldn’t read a map when I first married Jonathan). I bought the school supplies and groceries I needed and used only one word of English: tortilla. (Is there a Khmer equivalent??) While I waited for those tortillas, I felt confident enough to initiate conversation with the workers.  And what’s more, I enjoyed it.

Passing the Russian Market on my way home, I noticed the tourists (who by now are easily identifiable) and realized how far I’ve come since deplaning on January 16th. I feel comfortable getting around the city by myself.  I returned home with a great sense of accomplishment – a definite yay day in an ocean of yuck ducks.

But the bonus that God provided? That afternoon I got to tutor math (thankfully that was in English). Tutoring math is one of my favorite things to do. (And I am not even joking.) From time to time in America I had the opportunity to tutor math, but I never dreamed I would get that opportunity a mere 8 months after moving here.

Our approximate four score years on this earth will invariably be seasoned with long-term unrelenting stress. But I thank God for the remarkable joys He has given me lately.