What My Neighbors Taught Me

Note: This experience happened awhile back, before both the Night of the Epi-Pen and also the possible attempted break-in. But because what happened in this story is significant to my life and ministry in Cambodia, I’m still going to share it, even if it’s a little late.


I love my neighbors. Yes, the ones that might move. (Insert frowny face here.) I cherish a special affection for two ladies in particular. They always welcome me to sit down and talk with them while they cook. My communication with them is rather stop-and-start, but they never seem impatient with me.

A couple weeks ago, as my kids were playing outside, I walked up to these two ladies and made small talk. Small talk about babies. My friend just had twins; I asked about the word for twin. Small talk about pregnancy. The neighbor is pregnant; I shared stories from my pregnancies. Small talk about cooking. They asked about mine; I told them it’s not great. Small talk about the weather, about wet season and dry season. About how different it is from America, that for six months, it almost never rains, and then during the next six months, barely a day goes by that it doesn’t rain.

I make small talk because studying 2 hours a day for 6 months just cannot produce a fluent speaker.  That amount of study enables me to navigate life in this city . . . and to make small talk.

They offered me vegetable soup; it smelled wonderful. I sat down to eat it with them; it tasted as good as it smelled. While we were eating together, one of the ladies asked me to tell her about myself. Jonathan had told her I was a scientist, and she wanted to know about my education. So I started to tell her.

I told her I liked studying math when I was younger. I liked studying science when I was younger. Then I decided to go to university to study more math and science.

I realized, though, as I was telling my education story, that it’s not just an education story. It’s a testimony. A testimony to the Creator’s work, and to my love for that Creator.

I still remember Mr. Fox’s 9th grade geometry class, where I first learned about right angle trigonometry and was struck with the realization that God invented those mesmerizing SOH CAH TOA relationships. I used to talk about how I really “found God” in Scientific American magazine. The universe God created, from the tiniest quark to the largest galactic supercluster, and every element of my beloved Periodic Table in between, amazes me. God amazes me.

I wanted to tell her that.

But I couldn’t.

The closest I could get was, “The God that is above everything, the God that created everything, I am amazed by the stuff He made. So I like to study it.”

I once heard another missionary mom say she was on the “20 year plan” to learning Khmer. I liked that phrase so much that I’ve incorporated in into my own personal vernacular. Being on the 20-year plan means I plan to study Khmer, summer after homeschool summer, until I’m no longer homeschooling my children. I thought I would just review my first 6 months of study and practice basic conversation this summer. I didn’t think I’d get to spiritual conversations until, oh, about year 8 or so. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in year 2.

But my neighbors taught me something that night. Something important. They taught me that when people ask me, the foreigner, “What do you do? Why are you here?” I have this amazing opportunity to inject my testimony, my faith in God, into their lives.

Even if I am on the 20 year plan.

So I have a new goal for my summer study: I can learn how to say my testimony. I can memorize my story. And I can plant tiny seeds of faith while answering the most basic of questions: What on earth are you doing in Cambodia?


The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 1 Peter 3:15

An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 1: A Trip or Two to the Seamstress)

— by Elizabeth

The seamstress on my street does my mending, and each time I am happy with the quality of her work (and with her exceptionally low prices). While she speaks no English at all, she does speak her own language rather rapidly.

I’d been admiring the purple dress (my favorite color!) in her window for weeks but didn’t have the courage to ask about it. Asking about it would expose my ridiculous lack of Khmer language. But there was a wedding coming up, and I wanted something more formal than what I owned.  So three days before the wedding (can you tell I brought my whole self, including the procrastinating part, to Cambodia??), off I marched to the sewing shop. And this is how it happened:

I tell the seamstress I like the dress. I stand there next to it, unable to think of the word for “wear.” Because of course I want to wear it before buying it. Oh why didn’t I study first? That’s what Jonathan does before he attempts something new.  I have a limited Khmer vocabulary, and only the most used portions come to the front of my brain during a conversation. Words I don’t use much — like words about clothing — stay way in the back. Think think think. What is the word for wear?? The only thing I can think of is the word for clothes. I stand there unproductively, actually waving my hand in circles as if it could help me. She talks at me while I think. I have no idea what she is saying. Then poof! The word I need comes to me.

I tell her I want to wear that dress. I tell her, if I like the dress, I will buy it. She looks a bit confused, but she teaches me the word for “to try on.” I stand and think some more. Suddenly I know what to say: “I want to try it on now.” The light goes on, and she pulls the dress off the mannequin. I have found the Magic Key. (Magic Keys are an essential part of my life. The Magic Key asks a question that forces the hearer to answer me using words I already know. Or, as in this case, the Key asks someone to do the very thing I want them to do.)

I try it on, and it fits (hooray!). But the back shows too much skin, so I tell her I don’t usually show my back, because I am “shy.” (That’s the only way I know to explain my desire for more coverage.) She teaches me another new word, which literally means “skin for enclosing.”  She’ll basically make a wrap to cover my back and shoulders.

Then it’s time to hem the bottom. I don’t have my dress shoes with me. (Um, again, why did I not think to bring them?? I am so unprepared.) I’m not sure how much she should cut off, so I ask for her advice. She doesn’t seem to understand that I want her help in deciding the length. So I ask her to make it the normal length for dresses. Again, her face registers no understanding. I stand there, think think thinking again, about how to do this hemline. (Have you noticed yet that I do a lot of standing around and thinking??)  At one point she even tells me I should have my husband come (she knows he’s a better speaker than I am).

Finally I tell her, cut just a little bit. She seems to understand that. (Magic Key alert!)

But when I go to pick it up later, it’s not ready. She seems to be concerned that the dress and wrap materials are not exactly the same color, so she hasn’t sewed the wrap yet. At first glance, they look exactly the same to me. But as I examine them closer, I notice a slight difference. She is very concerned, so I start wondering if the slight color difference is a big deal to Khmer people and will I show up to the wedding looking extremely inappropriate?? (Insert internal freak out moment right here.) I stand there. Thinking. Asking myself what to do, as if I could possibly help myself. All this time she is talking at me again, and I understand nothing. Finally I say, sort of questioningly, “they’re close to the same color.” She agrees, “yes, a little bit different color.” I ask her if that’s good.  She says yes. (There’s that Magic Key again. Because let’s face it, all I really care about is covering up that back.)

In the end, I’m very happy with my new dress and wrap. And I’m very happy with my seamstress.satnight (2)

Wherein I Offer My Deepest Apologies to Khmer Speakers Everywhere (and to Alexander Graham Bell)

–by Elizabeth

Our family has a favorite tuk tuk driver. His name is Bun, and I dial his number every week on grocery day.

I say:  “Can you come to my house now?”

Normally he tells me yes and is at my doorstep in less than 60 seconds. This week I couldn’t understand his reply. But I don’t worry. What usually happens when I can’t understand him is that he’s unavailable and is sending a friend instead.

Would this be a good time to mention that I don’t understand Khmer very well on the telephone?

I wait at the door for his friend, but after 10 minutes, there’s no tuk tuk in sight.  I begin to wonder if he meant what I assumed he meant. I run inside to discuss my little problem with Jonathan and come back out a few minutes later, determined to wait longer.

A tuk tuk has arrived. He’s not my usual driver, but I recognize him. As I leave my house, I see that he is talking on his phone. Hmm. Perhaps he’s calling Bun to ask why I wasn’t waiting at the door for him. Oh well, he hangs up when I walk outside, and I tell him where I want to go.

Just as the tuk tuk starts driving, my phone rings. It’s Bun. Oh dear. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone. I answer the phone, but I’m not sure what he’s saying. Instead, I assure him: “Tuk tuk came already. Sorry. Cannot understand. Street loud.” That seems to satisfy him.

But wait a second. My driver is now going in the wrong direction. “Stop!” I tell him. He stops, turns around, says something in Khmer, and smiles. I return a blank stare. He then points to another tuk tuk driver (whom I also recognize) and says something else, still smiling. Huh? His meaning is lost on me. And he keeps driving the wrong direction.

Whatever. I know these roads. I know these drivers. I will get to Lucky Supermarket. Eventually. Both tuk tuks turn down another road, and the other driver stops at a house while my driver watches him. Then my driver turns around and goes in the right direction. He drops me off at the store, and I say: “Wait about 30 minutes.”

I shop and get in line and am just about to pay when my phone rings. I do not recognize the number, but I intuitively know it’s my driver. It has been 31 minutes. First I silence my phone. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone.  But he calls a second time, and this time I feel I obligated to answer. I do not know what he is saying. But I say: “Wait 3 minutes more” and hang up.

My tuk tuk is waiting for me, all smiles, when I walk out of the store. I tell him: “Sorry. Talk phone difficult me.” He smiles and nods. Would this be a good time to mention that my 6 months of language study gave me survival speaking ability only?

We learned in PILAT (Principles in Language Acquisition Techniques) that learning should be comprehension-based. In other words, we should practice hearing and understanding before we practice speaking. I have unfortunately reversed this. Sometimes when I speak in Khmer — and nearly always on the phone — I am, as my dad would say, “on transmit only,” with no possibility of receiving.

It is for this gaping hole in my conversational ability that I sincerely apologize to Khmer speakers everywhere, especially when using the telephone.

C’est la Vie (or, That’s Life)

Sometimes life surprises me. Like that time when Jonathan was sick with viral meningitis, and I was in the school room, and suddenly the light bulb burst into flame. Literal 2-inch orange flames.

That never happened to me in America.

Or that time when Jonathan was recovering from middle and outer ear infections, and he went up to our beloved roof, with its 3 square meters of peace and tranquility (and several potted plants), only to discover that someone had painted those pots. And the rocks in the pots. And even the plants themselves.

That never happened to me in America either.

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of surprising things did happen to me in America. Like the time a Canadian goose blew itself up when its wings touched two nearby power lines in our yard. Or the time a different Canadian goose attacked my leg while a dog the size of a pony jumped on my back. That was in my neighbor’s yard, by the way.

But back to surprises in Cambodia.

Our boys wailed about our painted plants. I was at the end of myself. That week I had dealt with more sickness in the family and fought off more discouragement than is usual for me, and now, my roof, my precious stronghold of sanity, had been vandalized.

But with Otto Koning’s Pineapple Story* at the front of my mind, we set out to solve the mystery of who, and more importantly, why. Next door to us is a boarding school, and there is an old man who lives there. All day long he lounges on a hammock on the roof, watching television and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally he does some odd jobs around the place.

The neighbor children told us that this man painted our pots and plants and rocks, but none of them seemed to know why. The adults were a bit more helpful, laughing embarrassedly at our questions. This man is apparently bored and likes to make things look nicer. While we were at the ocean with my parents, he took the opportunity to “improve” our rooftop view.

I thought it would be common courtesy to ask before forcing home improvement projects on someone else. But it wasn’t very long until I could see the humor. “My neighbor painted my plants,” I’ll say. And when you ask me why my neighbor painted my plants, I’ll say, “oh, because he thought it would look better.” You might ask if it did look any better, and I’ll say, “no, not at all.”

The neighbors asked us if we wanted him to paint them again, perhaps all one color? (He originally painted them yellow and white.) We said yes, white is best. (Actually, UNpainted is best, but…) And I did have some hope that our pots would get better when we saw him outside this week, painting three tables white.

We played badminton and frisbee on our roof today. And those pots, they were one color, all right. They were 100% yellow. (Surprise! A different shade of yellow.) But we enjoyed our roof just as much as we did before our neighbor painted our plants.


*Otto Koning was a missionary who planted pineapples in his yard. They took 3 years to grow, but before he could eat any of them, the nationals stole them all. This happened several times, and he was always angry about it. Only when he gave his “right” to eat those pineapples to God, could he stop being angry. The nationals noticed his change in behavior, and he started to have success in ministry.

Market Day, Harvest Time

by Elizabeth

We recently decided that in order to minimize the time stress in our lives, I should make solo trips to the grocery store (instead of all 6 of us going). Because I don’t drive, I have to take tuk tuks. This week, after I return home and pay the tuk tuk driver, he demands more. I call Jonathan to bring me the extra 2000 riel I need (that’s only 50 cents, but I’m out of riel). Before he can bring it to me, the tuk tuk driver sighs, trudges to his moto, and drives away (possibly because I have already given him a fair wage??). Jonathan suggests that I walk to the drivers’ loitering place to give it to him.

So I do.

But I can’t find my driver. The other drivers tell me that he has gone home.  And I’m not sure, but I think they say I can wait for him. (I’m working in Khmer here.) As I stand on the street trying to decide whether to return home or wait longer, an older woman approaches me and begins shooting questions in Khmer. Am I a Christian? Do I go to church?  Do I know Christina, who is Catholic? I try to answer the questions, but that only leads to more questions. Am I Baptist? When do I go to church? Who do I go with? Lok Dtah, over there, he speaks English well, can I go talk to him? (Lok Dtah is the word for Grandfather, and although this man is her husband, that’s the respectful way to address him.)

So I follow her to meet Grandfather. He says he has been a Christian for 4 years; he no longer goes to the pagoda. He speaks to me in both English and Khmer; I speak back mostly in Khmer. I learn that it is Lok Dtah’s grandson who invited Jonathan into his home 2 weeks ago (before viral meningitis took over our lives). He also says he is a Christian and even wants to go to church with us. I never do figure out if the grandmother is a Christian. I am, however, gone long enough that Jonathan worries and calls to check on me.

During this conversation I smile pleasantly and behave as if everything is fine. I appear to believe their confessions of faith.

But there is a war in my mind.

We’ve learned that the entire structure of Cambodian society – for a thousand years – is built on corruption. Bribes. Cheating. Poor people seeking wealth, and seeking to use people to gain more wealth. Even if those people are Christian missionaries. Our training with Team Expansion teaches us never to allow money to be involved in church planting. But these people aren’t asking for money — or a job. They are simply giving me confessions of faith. How should I treat them? Shouldn’t I believe them to be Christians? Shouldn’t I treat them as Jesus instructs us in Matthew 13:

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’” Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.” Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels.  Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!”

I am determined to fight the skepticism planted in my heart. I am committed to believing confessions of faith. I refuse to allow money to be an ingredient in church planting. But I will love my neighbors as myself. I will accept their testimonies. And I will certainly leave the judgment in the hands of the Son of Man.


Ministry Lessons . . . from a French Catholic Priest and a Khmer Worship Service

A scene from the Alsace region

Earlier this week we invited one of Jonathan’s language school friends to our house for dinner. He is a newly ordained French Catholic priest who has been assigned to Cambodia for life. He hails from the Alsace region of France. When Jonathan asked him about the most beautiful place he’s ever been, he answered that it was his own region. His home in Alsace, the place of his roots.

He told us he believes that if you cannot love the place you come from, you cannot love the place you go to. So I dropped out of the dinner conversation for a few minutes to contain my emotion. What a beautiful thing to say. He loves his home, but he has sacrificed living there because of love for his God, and his heart is open to love this place and its people as well.

I am not sure whether it is the French-English language difference, or simply because he comes from a different faith tradition than me, but his words were filled with grace and meaning for me. Tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, I love my home. Yes, I love the people who live there. Yes, I love my God, and yes, I love this place. I fully intend to love the people of this place. I want my heart to be open to love.

Then this Sunday I experienced my first non-English church service. Jonathan had attended non-English services before — in Cambodia and also in Russia and Germany — but I had not. I had not expected it to impact me quite so much (not because I thought I was immune to such things, but because I had not taken the time to think about it, silly me, mother of 4 young children, too busy getting ready for church to stop and think).

John 1:1-5

I could reliably understand only a few words: “thank God,” “Jesus,” “love,” and “hallelujah.” I could not read the Cambodian song books; I did not recognize the melodies. But I worshipped all the same. It was at this service that I finally understood, at my very core, that Jesus does not speak only English. His offer of salvation is for all nations. Oh, of course I “knew” that before, but there, in that small gathering of Cambodian believers, I truly realized that God speaks all languages with the same perfect skill. He understands each Christian across the globe, no matter their language. He does not understand me better than He understands a Khmer Christian — even if I do not understand that same Khmer Christian.

What I said to my kids later was, “Isn’t it neat that everyone can talk to Jesus? Isn’t it neat that Jesus can understand everybody?” I hope they can grow up strongly convicted of what I am just now learning.

I haven’t blogged for a while. I tend to wait until something significant happens, something that really affects me. I had two of those events this week and wanted to share them with you. As always, thank you for praying for our family and for the people whose language we are trying to learn. We want to communicate the Gospel to them in their own words. We want to communicate the Gospel to them with much love. And this week God sent me those two little reminders, much-needed missionary lessons.

Scheduling a Dentist Appointment in a Foreign Country (Or, How I Made a Fool of Myself on a Monday Afternoon)

— By Elizabeth

I have been putting this off. Making that dreaded phone call to schedule dental appointments for our family. I must do this — finding a dentist and doctor in your host country is an important part of the re-settling process.

But calling the dentist here is not the same task it was in America. Here is my story:

The baby is napping. I inform the older children that I must make an important phone call and not to talk to Mommy. I walk into the kitchen, which is swelteringly hot, and close the door. I dial the phone number. Three rings. I hear a Small Voice. I hesitate. What did that voice say?? “Hello, is anyone there?” I hear an Asian accent. I guess it was English words, after all. I can barely hear her. She asks if I’ve been here before. I say no. She asks me if tomorrow is ok. I say, no, 2 weeks from now. (When has a dentist in the States ever offered to see me the next day??) She asks me what we are having trouble with. I say, we just need cleanings, X-rays, and my son may need sealants. I tell her my name and how many people need appointments (5), and she schedules appointments for 2 adults and 1 daughter. No, I say, 2 adults and 3 children. 2 sons and 1 daughter. Ok, she corrects it.

Then she asks for my phone number. To confirm the appointment later.

I do not have this 12-digit number memorized. I say, I need to look in my phone.

I look at my phone. I normally know how to find my number. But I cannot for the life of me figure out how to access it during a call. My phone is sopping wet with sweat at this point. I haven’t seen that before. Neither have I pressed the phone so hard against my ear before. I can barely hear this woman’s voice, and she’s clearly not a native English speaker.

It is at this point in time that one child decides to hit another, that other hits back, and the crying begins. I motion for them to be quiet and leave me ALONE, and I close the door again. I retreat to the bathroom just off the kitchen to try to continue the call.

I tell her, I can’t get my number right now, can I call you back with it? She gives me a number that will reach her personally, and I hang up. I briefly tell the children not to talk, not to hit, and can’t you see I’m busy trying to make this important call?? More crying ensues. I again close the door.

I dial the number she gave me. I hear some Asian words and read “Not a valid number” on my screen. Again I see my phone dripping wet. I try the number again. Same result.

I figure I’ll call the original number again and try to explain myself. I hear a New Voice. I made an appointment 10 minutes ago, I say, but I need to give you my phone number. She tries to make my appointment all over again. I say, I already made that appointment. She sends me to a Different Voice. I say, I already made an appointment and tell her when it should be. I am starting to wonder if I did make this appointment? I ask, is it scheduled? This Voice is louder, clearer, and more authoritative. Yes, it is scheduled. She asks me if I’ve been here before. I say no. I give her my phone number. She asks if they need to call me back?? I say, no, this is the number to call to confirm the appointment, later. Yes, yes, she understands.

Sigh of relief.

Then she asks, is there another phone number I can be reached at?? I say, there is my husband’s phone, but I don’t know the number. Let me look in my phone. I look again. Still no luck finding a phone number while I’m in a call. I am however still finding sweat all over my phone. I say, I can’t give that number to you now. Can I call you back??

No, no, she says, this is fine.

End call.