How Buddhism Taught Me to Love My Neighbors Better {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today. . . .


This month I didn’t like my neighbors very much. We have new neighbors, and they play their music loud, blasting it out of their apartment with the door open. Sometimes for hours at a time.

This causes problems for me. I teach my children at home, and we need an environment conducive to learning. But sometimes this month the music was so loud it prevented their little brains (and mine!) from functioning.

Now, we are no strangers to noise during the school day. There’s loud traffic. Always. And we’ve endured months on end of the pounding of homemade pile drivers while new buildings are being constructed. Once it was next door, and the other time it was across the street.

The metal shop two houses down from us sometimes starts screeching by 6 am. And then there’s the demolition of old tile and brick in the walls, floors, and bathrooms that accompanies new neighbors. They want to (understandably) clear out the old (possibly moldy) tile and personalize their new homes.

Once the drilling got loud enough that we had to leave the house and go to a coffee shop to study – a decision which was rather cumbersome with four children and their books. But my kids were sitting right next to me, and I was shouting at them, and they still could not hear what I was trying to teach them.

Music or karaoke, however, is different from these things. It’s not about people settling in to a new house or building a new house or even, as in the case of the metal shop, providing employment and incomes for people. It’s just some guy listening to his music way too loud.

You can finish reading the post here.

Exchange Theory

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins leaves his handkerchief at home and insists upon retrieving it before continuing on. The wise wizard, Gandalf, informs him, “You will have to do without pocket handkerchiefs and a great many other things before we reach our journey’s end.”  Indeed, there are things we must do without in Cambodia. But we also have Exchanges and Equivalencies for many aspects of our life in America.

(Unfortunately, this theory applies to unpleasantness as well as pleasantness. For example, I had mice in America. Here, I have rats. I had ants in America, and I have ants here. I had flooding issues in America; I have flooding issues here. My American laundry room housed giant jumping crickets, while my Asian laundry room houses giant flying cockroaches. In America, our neighbor had crying goats and squawking chickens. Here, one neighbor paints our pots, and another has screaming chickens.)

Now, on to the more pleasant Exchanges and Equivalencies. In no particular order, some of ours are:

– For van maintenance, we go to a guy named Noel instead of a guy named Ari.

–  We can drive up Bokor Mountain on the coast of Kampot, instead of Cadillac Mountain on the coast of Maine.

–  For our yearly family retreat we head south from Phnom Penh to Kep, instead of heading south from KC to Arkansas’s Camp Takodah.

– While traveling, we listen to the BBC instead of NPR. (We’ve decided we prefer British-accented news.)

– Instead of picking up last-minute groceries at our neighborhood Sunfresh, we pick up extra food at 1&1 Market.

– Instead of playing in our yard, we play on our roof and on the street.

– When we get tired of playing at our own house, we go to the park at Northbridge International School instead of Red Bridge Elementary School.

– Instead of buying fast (fried) food at the drive-through, we use what I like to call the Cambodian Drive-Through. This just means we can stop on the side of the road and buy practically anything. Sometimes we don’t even have to get out. We buy fast fruit, fast fresh bread, and fast Cokes along the road. (Betcha thought we were real healthy till that last one, huh? By the way, Jonathan says the Cokes taste better here. Must have something to do with the lack of high fructose corn syrup and addition of real sugar.)

– We even avail ourselves of the drive-through shoe department from time to time. (No joke. It’s quite convenient.)

– And when we are feeling especially unhealthy, we get donuts from USA Donut instead of Lamar’s.


– Gotta love those Cambodian skies. The clouds and sunsets here are the Best in the world, in my opinion.

– And also, Cambodian bathrooms. Love them.

These experiences do not in any way replace the people we have left behind. They simply make daily life easier and more comfortable. They are the myriad Exchanges and Equivalencies of our life. And in them, we find joy.



Kep at sunset

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

Twenty Seconds

One night this week, we awoke to loud, repetitive banging on our outside door. There were three guys — one at the door, and two others in a big van. They eventually left. But I was as shaken as my poor door, and we later learned it may not have been just a few guys at the wrong house. It could have been people trying to break in and steal from us, by tricking us into opening our front door for them. That possibility shook me even more. I found myself in a very familiar state: Much Afraid.

We usually take our kids outside to play in the afternoon, but that day, I didn’t want to go. I forced myself to walk out the front door. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew if I didn’t go then, that the next time would be even harder. So I picked up my chair, walked over to the neighbor, and sat down to talk with her.  We had a lovely time together. We talked about Bible translation, and how long I plan to live in Cambodia. . . We talked about the differences between Khmer and English and French. . . We talked about missing people who are far away from us. . . And we even talked about the night before.

To feel such community with a Cambodian — one of the reasons we came here — was very healing for my heart that night.

So I’m re-posting what I wrote in last May’s newsletter. I apparently still need those 20 seconds of insane courage.


In the movie We Bought a Zoo, the recently widowed dad tells his adolescent son, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.”

As the following story illustrates, I’ve often needed courage in my life. Toward the end of 6th grade, I heard an announcement for students who were interested in intramural volley-ball during the next school year. I was interested in intramural volleyball. I hesitated. I looked at the door. I watched a sports-y blonde girl leave for the meeting. I wanted to go. I don’t know why I wanted to go learn about intramural volleyball – hadn’t I always been afraid of balls hitting me on the head?? I looked at the door longer. I was afraid to get up out of my seat and go. I was afraid people would know I was interested in volleyball. I was afraid to leave in the middle of elective and miss some-thing. I was afraid if I went I would be stuck in intramural volleyball for-ever even if I changed my mind. My fear became glue in my seat. Even after I knew it was too late to attend that meeting, I looked at the door and wished I had gone. And I have always been so embarrassed that I was embarrassed, that I never told anyone that story.

20 seconds of courage?? Is that really all I need? The young woman who lives next door seems very sweet but shy. I have been thinking, praying, about getting to know her. I know enough Khmer to exchange a few short, insignificant sentences.

Last week we were playing outside with our kids one evening. I saw her. I hesitated. Was she staying outside or going back inside? Would she think something was wrong with me if I try to talk to her? I haven’t ever talked to her before. Jonathan knows about my fears and my hopes. He gave me a nod. That nod said, take 20 seconds and go talk to your neighbor!

I took a deep breath. I picked up baby Faith. I walked over to the newly married neighbor lady. I said something. I am not sure, but I think I asked her about her baby. I stayed, and we talked a little in Khmer. She talked with her friends in Khmer, too, and I have no clue what they were talking about. It felt. . . uncomfortable.

But I did it, I walked from my front door to her front door. A distance that is farther than the sum of its steps. A distance that is truly an ocean apart. With 20 seconds of insane courage.


“I’ll follow wherever You lead. Where You send I will go, I will go. To the ends of the earth, or down the street, Where you send I will go, I will go”

That’s the 3rd verse to a song Jonathan wrote (If you want to listen, you can click here, and then click on “One Thing” to download). Its piercing truth stays with me: now that I’ve gone to the ends of the earth, I must still go down the street.


Good Samaritans (On Trusting My Neighbor and Engaging the Culture)

After we’d lived in Cambodia a year, it was time to renew our auto insurance. Jonathan dropped off the documents at the insurance company office, and they were supposed to process them and return them to us.

A convenient time for them to deliver the documents happened to be when Jonathan was at language school. He gave them directions to our house (over the phone and in Khmer). The closest the delivery guy managed to get was the bank that is three blocks from our house.

So it was up to me to get those documents from that delivery dude.

When Jonathan called to tell me what I needed to do, I panicked. (Harm Avoidance alert.) “I can’t do that! I can’t leave the kids alone in this country!” He calmly instructed me to lock the kids in the house and run down the street to meet the insurance guy. Lock, and run.

Now there’s something you should know about walking on my street. I don’t like to walk too far. Dogs are always wandering around, looking for food scraps in trash bags. We see and hear these dogs fighting all.the.time. And you all know how I feel about wild animals.

So here I had myself quite the situation. I had to leave my kids alone in a foreign country. Not with-a-baby-sitter-alone. Alone alone. I had to walk down the street, past the place where the dogs congregate. Preferably hurriedly, since this guy was waiting for me at the bank.

Deep breath. I had to do this thing.

Thankfully the baby was sleeping in her room. I told the 3 older kids to stay in the living room for 5 minutes and play nicely. Mommy had to do something.

The neighbors were outside playing as usual.  An adult volunteer was playing with them. I locked my front door. Then suddenly, something clicked inside my brain. I didn’t lock the gate. I wasn’t worried. I didn’t even tell the neighbors I had to run an errand and was leaving my kids inside. These neighbors are always watching out for us. I trusted them not to allow an intruder to break into my house in broad daylight.

I told myself: Lock, and run.

So I did.

No tuk tuks asked me if I wanted a ride, even though 2 of them passed me. No one stared at the white lady walking down the street in a hurry. (No one walks in a hurry here.) We are neighborhood fixtures now, not a novelty.

It felt good, to know my neighbors take care of us. (And as an unrelated side note, it also felt good not to pass any rabid dogs.)

But our neighbors might move away. Several months ago the owner of the row house next door posted a sign that he wanted to sell the house. He gave the renters a one-year notice. When Jonathan learned that, he was sad. When I learned it, I was a mixture of sad and happy emotions, but mostly, happy.

Because they have lots of trash in front of the house.

Because they are always cooking with fish and fish paste.

Because they get in my personal space.

Because they get in the way of our van when leaving or coming home.

But that was before, and this is now. Now I’m not bothered by those things nearly as much.  On occasion I even think the fishy cooking smells good. (Gasp!)

Our neighbors are my main way of engaging the culture. I don’t have a lot of easy or natural ways to engage the culture – we homeschool all day, and I’m no longer studying language full time. But when I leave the house on my errands, they are always outside, available for chatting. (Most of the people in our row house don’t spend much time outside; these neighbors, on the other hand, are almost never inside.) After we finish school each day, we go outside to play, and the boarding school kids are always around for my kids to play with. They’re usually making supper about that time, and we talk in Khmer with both the kids, and with the adults who take care of them.


If they move, I will miss those times.

When I was irritated by them, I didn’t really know them very well. As I got to know them better, I also got better at looking past the irritations. I forgot those irritations even existed. By the time of the Lock and Run escapade, I realized that I would no longer be happy about them moving away . . . not even a little bit.

My neighbors are Good Samaritans to me. Blessings from an unexpected source. A source that may or may not always be with me. But one I’m nonetheless grateful for.