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.

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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?

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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)