The Glass Darkly

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Our Heritage

I went to a funeral this week with my young son. Even though he has been to several funerals in the last 18 months, I had to review with him again the traditions surrounding Christian funerals in America. I also was aware that though we use the label, Christian funeral, it does not necessarily mean that all Christians follow the same traditions or ways of conducting the funeral and its preparations. Funerals are one of those events of life so closely linked with our religious views of the after-life and the cultural significance we place on our earthly bodies. That cultural reflection has been interesting for me.

But I also like the way funerals force we as humans to address our finiteness and weaknesses. I appreciated the simplicity and honesty of this funeral. One thing which struck me in listening to those who shared at this funeral was how every family has its struggles, yet can still make a positive impact on the lives of others and the church. What a blessed testimony!

A little over a year ago, my aunt, my father’s only sister, passed away at a young age from a terminal illness. She chose the non-traditional option of donating her body for research and cremation. Sharing at her memorial service sparked my reflection on the stories of brokenness on my father’s side of my family. Yet, despite all of the difficulties, there were still ways his family reached out to those around them and the church. My aunt’s testimony is part of the blessing my father’s family passed on to me.

My Aunt Helen’s aspirations for higher education and her giving heart for many years in the medical field inspired me throughout my life, even through the years when we hardly met. My grandfather often commented how I reminded him of my aunt. When I felt discouraged with my abilities in different areas, he would say that, like my aunt, I was a jack of many trades (so it was ok to be master of none!). She chose one of the noblest professions I can think of and even in her passing showed her dedication to the advancement of learning and research. Because of my aunt, I studied and worked in the health field for a number of years. She was also a teacher of health and medicine and, in the end, I chose the teaching field too.

There are many other ways that I could mention where I feel like my Aunt Helen touched my life, even though I don’t know that she ever knew. Like her father, she was very aware of the time that was ticking away up until the moment she parted from this life. Yet she never stopped giving and inspiring. It makes me sad to think that too often we only come to realize the value of our family heritage, both good and bad, after key members have passed on. At the same time, I am encouraged to know that no matter what our life story entails, even if it feels discouraging, there are blessings to be thankful for. It seems funerals can be a catalyst for reflection, helping us to articulate those blessings.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Introduction to Alone-ness

Over the years I have come to recognize the difference between being alone, feeling lonely and desiring to stand alone. As I look back over my personal journals, I did a lot of writing about these concepts. I find it funny on one count because aside from short seasons of my life, I cannot say that I am a lonely person. In fact I am usually a very social person, but one who also chooses to escape my social settings at times to be alone. As I reflect on three particular experiences of alone-ness which I have observed in my life, I wonder if we, as humans, use alone-ness in healthy ways.

As a child I had a lot of alone time. It was wonderful, nurturing and refreshing times, usually at my piano or in the barn with my animals. Those times were tremendously important to my health, emotionally, spiritually and physically. When I lived abroad, I was never alone, never. I always had other women in my home; my work centered on training and coaching people; my afternoons and evenings were spent with students; and my nights were spent with the young women who lived with us. Yet, amazingly, there were times, especially in the beginning when I felt very alone. My life was filled with people, yet my feelings of inadequacy and lack of privacy made me feel very lonely. Finally, upon my return from overseas and re-adaptation to American culture, I realize how our views of alone-ness makes a big difference in how others perceive us or feel they can relate to us. Not only did I feel a shock returning to a culture where people are more distant from each other, but also, I returned to a country which enjoys a certain level of imperialistic isolation from the rest of the world.

My journals touch on these three experiences of my life. I think I will post some of them to help me more clearly explain my ideas about loneliness versus choosing to be alone over the next couple days. We'll see if I receive any new revelations.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Olympics

I just love the olympics. What an incredible cross-cultural event! I love the spirit, determination, hopes, sheer grit and courage exhibited by the athletes and their trainers. But I also love listening to the many languages represented. What joy and pride the athletes from many nations must feel to hear the announcements in their own languages and to see their national flags flying high, representing their countries. The team spirits are often inspiring too.

What I also find intriguing is how Westernized the sports are. In many cases, I know that the concepts of beauty, training and accomplishment which are emulated in the Olympics are not necessarily recognized or traditionally accepted within some of the cultures represented. For example, it is fascinating to watch Chinese figure skaters, the women dressed exposing much of their bodies, "dancing" so closely and intimately with their male counterparts, often to Western music. Traditional Chinese dance would be much slower, restrained and not done in partnership with another. Furthermore, traditionally, women dress very modestly in Asian cultures and are rarely seen touching men in public for any reason.

I remember watching the few members of Cambodia's first Olympic team training in Phnom Penh where we lived. Observers stood in awe watching the team members run through the streets, as professional or national team sports are pretty much unheard of. Traditional Khmer games are generally not competitive in the same way our Western games are. The idea of judging to choose one winner is foreign. Most games are team oriented or played to just have fun, not create reigning champions.

I watch with keen interest as the news coverage spotlights the individual stories of athletes. It is touching to see the human side to these icons of strength and toughness. Though aspirations for olympic fitness are beyond the reach of most of us, the stories of family, friends, encouragement, obstacles, struggle and achievement are ones which can inspire us all. And sometimes their stories help us see the unique situations faced in the various cultures represented. What is universal, however, is the human desire to endure, to accomplish, to stand with pride representing our language and culture. I like to look at the Olympics as a celebration of culture and human spirit and a symbol of hope for global peace.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Code-switching is a phenomenon our family has dealt with a lot. It is when speakers mix languages when trying to communicate something. There are many reasons linguist give for why people tend to do this. As I reviewed a list, it helped me understand why we continue with this practice. Some of the reasons include:
  • fill a linguistic need for a certain word, phrase, discourse marker or sentence filler
  • continute the last language used (triggering)
  • quote someone
  • specify the addressee
  • qualify message (amplify or emphasize)
  • specify speaker involvement
  • mark or emphasize group identity
  • convey confidentiality, anger, annoyance
  • exclude someone from the conversation
  • change the role of the speaker, add authority

There are a couple contexts for language which we learned for the first time in Khmer. The most significant for me was how to talk to my children. My first language in that context was Khmer. Talking to a child as a teacher is very different than talking to your own child as a parent. I learned the "parent" language from my Khmer friends, neighbors and child care workers. Vocabulary was obviously different, but also the mode of communication. Mode of expression reveals the attitudes and status individuals, including children need to maintain within the culture.

One major difference I still struggle with in switching to English is that in Khmer, everything is spoken in 3rd person, even in my requests to my children. Another is that in Khmer, children never use names. It is considered disrespectful. I still struggle with teaching my children how to addresss older people respectfully in English. I fumble around as I try to remember what my parents taught me. But in observing what other parents do, it seems some "rules" have changed in recent years. For example, I hear many adults teach the children to address their teachers as "Miss or Mr.___(first name)___." I started to teach them to say Mr. ___(last name)___, but then it gets really confusing when there are multiple Mr. Millers and Mr. Sauders which my children know. So I resort to translating what I would say in Khmer, "Rebecca's daddy." I try to avoid code-switching in front of other people, but sometimes my brain can't work fast enough! So I tell my children to say "hello" to lok-kru (teacher or pastor) or older aunt (ohm).

We also use code-switching for words we still haven't become accustomed to using on a regular basis in English. This includes the variety of words children love to use and laugh about but can be embarrassing for adults in public arenas. And, I admit I use code-switching when my children need strong words and there is no private place to go to say them!

When we first returned from abroad, we used code-switching the most to communicate words or expressions for which there is no direct English equivalent. But as we got used to hearing and speaking fluent communication/expression in English, we started using what everyone else would use to encapsulate those ideas again. There are still some gems we continue to use, but probably more because we want to hear ourselves speak Khmer again.

Every once in a while my husband catches himself using a Spanish phrase in code-switching. Unfortunately for me, I have forgotten nearly all my Spanish and German (and Latin for that matter!). What I like is that code-switching also serves the purpose of just helping us relive the way of thinking in those cultures. Now that we have more exposure to Hispanic culture in the city, it makes me want to dig out my Spanish texts books again. I just don't want to forget my Khmer like I did my other languages. Code-switching at least re-sparks that desire in me to maintain my language skills. More than a couple languages would sure spice things up a bit, wouldn't it?

Friday, February 10, 2006

I love my kitchen!

It sounds funny to say that I love my kitchen . . . but if I am truly honest, I love my American kitchen. Recently my mother suggested that I not prepare a certain dish because it was "too much fuss" to its preparation. I instantly came back with "cooking is so much easier in America!" I honestly could not complain. Kitchens in Asia where I used to live were dingy places, blackened from the smoke of the wood or charcoal used for cooking fuel, crawling with lizards, cockroaches, ants and rodents. And in most cases, there was no running water. So it is no wonder our landlords wanted to put a door on my kitchen after it was built. For the longest time, I could not understand why. I loved my kitchen and I loved admiring it when it was clean. But to them, the kitchen was a place you hide and protect the rest of the house from.

I also love animals. But I'd have to
say there are limits to that love. Though I worked hard to keep my kitchen spotless, nearly every morning I awoke to an ant trail leading to some forgotten crumb or a dead lizard in the corner. I hated baking and even cooking at times. I got tired of mealy worms in my flour, ants attacking my food and utensils and the mosquitoes chomping on my feet and legs from under the counter. That on top of the fact that cooking around fires (even the gas ones we had) is not fun in 90 degree weather.

A couple weeks ago I was reminiscing with a friend who grew up in Asia and went to school in Indonesia. I laughed and laughed as we exchanged scary and funny animal stories we had experienced.
I thought I would add some pictures to my memory:

We had mice all over our house, which was built like a hay barn, rafters mounted atop high wooden support posts. The mice could climb up the posts into our house and then run all around above our heads during the evening as we sat for supper or reading. They were bad, but the rats were worse.

I absolutely hate rats. I am terrified of their red eyes and I despised them for constantly maneuvering around my attempts to protect my kitchen, namely, my rice bin. When the rains came and the rodents preferred our house to the sewars, we finally went to desperate measures to ward off the rodent population. We got a cat. Two cats actually. Though I am not very fond of cats, ours were very helpful in controling the rodents and eating the cockroaches. Unfortunately they also killed our geckos.

I loved our geckos. We had the little green ones and then a number of the largest species, Tokay, pictured here. They had the most comical writhing bodies and eating habits. Though I didn't appreciate their droppings all over the house, I did enjoy their echoing chirps and whines through the night. And best of all, they ate tons of bugs.

I certainly don't miss having to sleep under mosquito nets. As my friend said, the nets were also great repellants against all the other critters I pictured here. Yes, life in America is definitely easier at times, at least where I live anyway.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Living in Two Worlds

I received another phone call from Phnom Penh, Cambodia this morning at 6:45. After the typical long delay, I was thrilled to hear the voice of one of the young women who used to live with us. I have been worried about her in the last several months as the reports we have heard regarding her work and financial situation have not been good. We slowly proceeded through the typical niceties; I chatted with her 2 year old son and asked about her husband's family (she, herself, was an orphan). We then embarked on a long review of what she was doing with her life. She mostly responded to a long emailed letter I wrote her recently. The MCCer through whom I sent the letter failed to get a translator so she had many questions. What a wonderful time we had catching up with each other!

I was reminded of two important realities in my life through this phone call. The first is the fact that my heart still feels the desire to live in two worlds, where I am now and where I lived before. Yet that is really not possible. As I expected, the memories of the former have begun to fade and the intensity of my emotional connection lessens as time passes. Life takes a lot of energy and focus. My prayer list just from those around me overwhelms me at times. When I combine it with with the needs I know exist half-way around the world and then add to that all the other needs in the world . . . I can hardly believe that my God has it all under control.

And that leads me to the second thing I was reminded of from this phone call. How wretched am I who ever doubts God's consistent hand of grace and hope!!! I cried after the phone call because I was expecting more requests for help, more stories of helplessness, more excuses of why this young woman could not go to church or follow in God's ways. Against our advice, this strong Christian young woman married an unbeliever. She experienced many other difficulties due to unwise choices in her life. After a while she stopped attending church and connecting with other Believers. Recently she lost her job; their motorbike was stolen; and her in-laws have had one catastrophe after another. Me, who claims to trust the Lord, ran out of patience, ran out of hope for her, had the audacity to tell her, "we cannot help you if you continue to turn your back on the Lord!" I was expecting a difficult phone conversation.

Instead she told me stories of hope. She said she has begun attending a Methodist church which had been planted in our village. Her husband attends with her when he does not need to work. This family is very poor and lives without running water. She was excited that she and her husband found a new way of making money, by collecting recyclables from along the city streets. She told me she has been reading her Bible everyday and has found favor in the eyes of the village chief who tells people she is an honest person. It is difficult for Christians to earn a good reputation in the village. She told me she could never forget the Lord, for He has blessed her above others in the village. I was astounded, encouraged . . . and ashamed. After the phone call, I immediately confessed my lack of faith and trust to God.

How Great is our God! Who am I to ever doubt His power???? What a good reminder to me, that, even though I cannot live in two worlds, I serve a God who can work wonders in the lives of every single person on this Earth. My job is to pray in faith and offer my praise. Thank you, God, for being Lord of ALL Creation.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Year of the Dog

It took me a long time to get used to the fact that most people in Cambodia who I met did not know what year they were born. They kept telling me what animal they were. It took me years to construct the cycle of twelve animals which correspond with years on our calendar. Along with that I had to learn the sophisticated names of the animals and their characteristics which people used to explain the personalities and behaviors of one another.

Another interesting practice is that when the Khmer New year arrives, everyone, in essence, has a birthday. In other words, you become another year older when the New Year enters. Khmer New Year is in mid-April, as are the Thai and Laotian New Years. The Chinese New Year, another huge festival in Cambodia, arrives around the end of January. We used to joke about the Cambodian celebrations and how fast people must age because Cambodians now like to celebrate the International New Year, the Chinese New Year and also the Khmer New Year, all within four months of each other.

Traditionally, birthdays are not celebrated, or at least not on the date of birth. In fact most people do not know their exact date of birth. In many cases, children entering school would receive new birth dates. For some whose parents did not know their child's date, the teacher would choose a date appropriate for the child's size. For others new dates were assigned to make children officially younger if they were too old for a grade. This was especially the case during war time and still is a problem for families too poor to send all their children to school. Thus, this becomes a logistical difficulty for many applying for U.S. visas. Americans cannot understand why one would have a family birthdate and a different school birthdate. Immediately immigration officers suspect documents were illegally prepared when they see birthdate discrepancies. God help the Cambodians who accidentally show documents with conflicting birthdate information to an American consulate.

February is a big birthday month in my family. Based on the Khmer calendar, I was born in the year of the dog. But based on the Chinese calendar, I was born in the next year. Next year will be the year of the pig. Which one would I rather be??? Each has its positive and negative traits, new ways of looking at animals, that's for sure!

I lost my posts!

For some reason my February posts have disappeared. I suppose those topics will wait for another time. We'll see if the problem persists. Blogger Support says it was because of something over the weekend. I don't know for sure since I still had them as of 4:30 am Monday, Feb 6. I was playing around with settings . . . and then, suddenly, they vanished! What a mystery to this whole internet business. And what a wierd feeling knowing that a vast community exists in cyberspace where thoughts and information just flies! Who knows who picks it up or cares? Is there such thing as a cyberspace culture?