Slum Dog Missionary Kid~Part One

image

I often think about how it will be for my children to grow up in Cambodia as it is so different from where I grew up. So, I thought I’d start writing about that here…

I grew up in a privileged home in Canada. Canada: one of the richest nations, good schools, “free” health care, quality law enforcement, and clean streets.

One can be quite sheltered living in Canada, but they don’t have to be. There is still the abusive family, alcoholism, homelessness, drug abuse, etc… But one can easily turn a blind eye to all of that and focus on entertainment and self fulfillment. And you don’t need a lot of money to do that; it is a mindset that makes people selfish and inward focused, not an abundance of, or lack of, money.

When I lived in Canada I would often volunteer for an inner-city church which would serve dinner to the poor every Friday night. It wasn’t a soup kitchen, it was a restaurant. The patrons would arrive, be seated, given a menu, and served by a waiter. Most of the food came from local grocery stores giving deli-made sandwiches, donairs, microwave pizza, sometimes a cake or two; all the stuff, while still good, that was no longer sellable from the store’s counter. There was rarely a shortage of that food. There was a professional chef who would cook up one special meal for the night: spaghetti and meatballs, or pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, something good like that. Those chef specials were always 86’d first.

Sometimes I worked as a waiter, but usually I was given doorman duty. My job as a doorman was to let people in as the empty tables allowed. And, more importantly, my job was to keep anyone out who was visibly drunk or high. Those who were denied access were given a bowl of soup, a bun, and a coffee at the door. Occasionally a disallowed customer would gladly accept his soup and toss it all over the doorman. That never happened to me though, it only happened to the doormen who got too preachy about the evils of alcohol. The key word was ‘visibly’ drunk or high. I once had a man show up wearing a jester’s hat. I told him I couldn’t let him in (I was sure I could smell booze coming from his long beard too). He asked if he could come in if he took off the hat and behave himself. I thought for a second and said yes. He went in and didn’t make any problems.

The restaurant was in the basement of an old Catholic church. The church had a rectory, then used for storage, towards the back and up an old narrow staircase. The rectory was painfully small with space for no more than a bed and a table. A pocket-sized bathroom with defunct plumbing was situated in the corner. The sanctuary was used on Sundays by the church running the restaurant. The floor of the sanctuary was old wood, uneven and wavy, covered with dirty carpet. I feared my foot would go through if I stepped on a particularly weak spot. The whole place smelled of moth balls and old plaster. It was one of those old buildings that is both alluring and repugnant at the same time.

I enjoyed working the door. As a waiter I was too busy to talk to anyone, but as a doorman I was able to have many interesting conversations. Street people don’t bother with small talk, you get all the gritty details from the start. “Hi. My name’s Joe. I’m a recovering cocaine addict. I had a relapse last week. I just got to take it one day at a time”…”My name is Steve. There are bad people trying to get into my room at night. I hear them talking in the hallway. Last night they were banging on my door. I don’t open it though. I told the landlord, but he won’t listen to me”. Often they would ask me to pray for them, which I did.

In Canada there are different kinds and levels of poverty: there is college student poor and “going out on my own” poor, which are just temporary situations; there is poor due to a lack of self esteem or ambition, in which the person will have a low paying job and a small apartment, maybe an old car, but not much beyond that, and not much hope it’ll ever get better; and then there is the deep poverty where one doesn’t have a home, or a job, or even a change of clothes. This deep poverty is not caused by laziness or lack of ambition–there are other factors, like mental illness.

My first encounter with this deep poverty happened when I was 19 years old. I was an electrical apprentice. My boss, a Christian man, would often do work for inner city businesses at a discounted rate. One of these businesses was an old hotel, maybe one hundred years old or so. Now it was being used as an apartment building for street folk. Have $50? You can rent a room at the York Hotel for a couple of nights. A ‘No Knives’ sign hung at the front entrance. The reception desk was worked by a perpetually tired woman. The wide staircase leading up to the rooms had a dusty carpet which I’m sure at one time was plush and luxurious. Each single room was just that: a single bed in one corner, a small wall-mounted sink in the other, a cheap light above the sink and one on the ceiling, both with an off-white glass shade with blue floral design, hundred year old paint job on the walls. Bathrooms were common-use down the hall, four urinals along the wall and two stalls with wooden dividers and doors. No showers. I never looked into the women’s washroom.

My boss, Bert, and I were there to fix some lights which had stopped working in four rooms, two rooms above the other two on different floors. Three rooms empty, one occupied. The problem in all four rooms was related so we started in the one closest to the electrical panel and worked our way through the other rooms in succession, and finally to the last room where the guest was staying. Bert knocked on the door and an old man answered. The man was completely naked. My sheltered 19 year old brain didn’t know what to make of that. Why would he not put clothes on before answering the door? Does he not care if a woman was knocking? What if it was the receptionist? Maybe she’d be too tired to care. The old man appeared to be half asleep. Bert, who was himself past 60 years old, calmly and politely explained why we were there and suggested the man take a moment to put some pants on before we came in, which he did.

Bert left me alone in the room to investigate above the ceiling light. The old man, wearing dingy grey pants now, lay on the bed with his back to me, sleeping. One ratty small black bag sat on the floor beside the bed. It slumped in on itself, mostly empty. Before getting on the bed, before Bert left the room, the old man did not once make eye contact with us. He always looked at the ground and nodded to whatever Bert spoke to him. There was nothing in his eyes or facial expression to show that he cared much about anything. It’s as though there was a continuous sighing coming from him, not audible, just there about him. I finished fixing what didn’t really need fixing and quietly let my self out, closing the door behind. After we’d gone I regretted not leaving some cash on his bed. I thought about that old man a lot. I still do.

To be continued…

Frame of Reference

image

In Cambodia I am a continuous outsider. This leads to a feeling of constant disconnect. I believe this comes from not having a point of reference for my experiences–I don’t know if what I’m seeing is normal or not. Therefore, I am neither surprised at, nor expectant to, what I experience.

My visitors from the west don’t have this issue. Their point of reference is back home in North America. To them everything is strange, or stupid, or smart…when compared to home. I used to use my home in Canada as that reference point as well, but I’ve been here too long to do that anymore. I have not been here long enough, though, to use the Cambodian way as my new reference point. I am caught between two cultures. This isn’t a negative thing and it gives me a unique perspective. Over time I will know more of what is normal and what isn’t, and this perspective will fade. But for now I can try to enjoy it, and maybe gain some wisdom from it.

image

Driving a vehicle is where one can experience this phenomenon most tangibly. In Canada people drive in straight lines between two straight lines. When I was driving in Canada, if I saw someone veering outside of the lines, I would pull up beside and give my dutiful look of disapproaval. Always I’d see that the driver was either drunk, a senior citizen, or an Asian. I know that sounds truly racist, but there are three reasons why it’s not: first, it’s true; second, I’m married to an Asian and my kids are Asian, so I can say things like that and not justly be called a hater; third, in Asia, to drive straight between two straight lines will only bring on the same looks of disapproval as mentioned above. It’s all relative and Asians are just driving like they’ve been taught. In Asia the lines on the road, if there even are any, are more of a suggestion, and to limit yourself to that restricted space is just bullheaded.

image

The problem of conflict is another interesting area to get confused about. Recently a guy in his early twenties living next door made a snide remark about my wife. My upset wife came inside and told me about it. I decided it would be good for him to answer for what he said by calling him over so that he could apologize to her. My wife didn’t like that and while the kid was walking over she was scolding me about how I was making problems. I thought I was fixing the problem, not making one. The boy stood like an idiot in front of my house until my wife told him to just go home. He got the point of what was going on though, and to this day, his facial expression goes from cocky to sheepish whenever he sees me. Afterwards my wife was clearly happy about what I did, even though I had violated some cultural taboo. Keep smiling. Bury your emotions. Don’t make problems.

image

A wise man once said, “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late!”

In Canada, when I worked in construction, I would rail on the guys under me for showing up late, even if it was just five minutes. Some of them didn’t get why and suggested that working an extra five minutes at the end of the day would be a solution to showing up late five minutes in the morning. They didn’t get that it was a matter of integrity and respect. They would be shocked when I didn’t get angry when they screwed up on the job, and equally shocked at how angry I did get for being just a little late. I would explain that I expected them to screw up on the job because they were learning something new. Being on time, however, is something they should have learned when they were five years old. Usually the guys would get it quickly. As to the more thickheaded ones, I’d just start sending them home whenever they were late.

So, take that attitude into a culture that does not consider being on time important at all. Do I get angry when someone is late? Do I try to change this? Do I adapt? Do I just need to relax? When I schedule meetings for the parents of the kids in our school, I tell them to come an hour before I really want, and we still have to make phone calls about ten minutes before the meeting starts to remind many of them to come. Is this really a cultural thing? Or is it an integrity/respect thing?

One day I will figure it all out and my new frame of reference will ruin all the fun I’m having.

Demagogue Democracy

image

Not too long ago I would teach English to a bunch of young Cambodians. These guys would ask me lots of questions about life in Canada. And through these questions I discovered that a lot of young Cambodians have no real idea what western democratic life is like at all. In fact, here’s what they thought democracy is: you only have to work three days a week, you will make anywhere between $100 000 to $1 000 000 per year (without paying taxes), and you get lots of free stuff from the government–woo hoo!

But then I would explain the reality of high taxes, and the requirement to get government permits to do stuff on your own land which you don’t really own, and how hard people really do work, and that many people are in serious debt, and that the government is in serious debt, and the lack of real freedom for most people.

Cambodia needs liberty and freedom, yes. But, democracy being introduced into this country by a guy who’s spent much of his life in France is not what this country needs. Just imagine the culture of corruption which already exists being combined with a European style democratic nanny state. And it’s laughable to think that democracy will eliminate corruption, it’ll just allow corruption to grow, especially when more foreign aid comes pouring in as a reward for the new democracy.

Cambodia needs a government that will back off, limit its own power, reject foreign aid, and let the people prosper on their own. Cambodia needs help with this, absolutely. Help will come through non-governmental organizations and, infinitely more important, help will come from the Christian church. Cambodia will find its true freedom through local Christians and foreign missionaries working together to spread the Good News.

The Gospel is pervasive, and it penetrates every crack, every dark place of a society. The Gospel brings true freedom as it brings people under the, very undemocratic, rule of Christ. This is a very realizable goal for Cambodia. Western style humanistic democracy will be one of its greatest obstacles, even more so, I’d say, than a brutal dictatorship would be.

My prayer for Cambodia will continue to be that Jesus takes this nation as His own, and that Cambodia will worship Him alone and not fall for any false gods introduced from the west disguising themselves as freedom, or equality, or prosperity, or whatever.

Who Will Save?~Added Note

image

The above picture, and others like it, is what I’m seeing floating around Facebook now.

In my last post I asked, “Who will save Cambodia?” And of course, being a Christian, my answer is God through His Son will save Cambodia. I also made mention of how we ought not to look to politicians or activists for some kind of political salvation.

It’s interesting how the apostle Paul was not an activist. He lived in a dictatorship and slavery was normal. But Paul never made it his mission to abolish slavery or incite change in the government. It wasn’t because Paul didn’t care about those things. Paul understood that the reason that our societies are such a mess is because we live in the darkness of sin.

As Christians, we need to think the same way in regards to our own societies. The gospel of Jesus Christ is what will transform whole nations. The political situation will be healed after a nation has embraced that gospel.

Paul and the other apostles were not activists and they never entered politics, but, because they stayed true to the gospel, they changed the world.

Anyways, that’s just a quick added note to my last post.

Who Will Save Cambodia?

Sam Rainsy, photo source: rfa.org
**Sam Rainsy, photo source: rfa.org**

We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.

When Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia from exile he said, “I have come to rescue the country!”*

His party did not win and Hun Sen still has majority power (although greatly reduced**). But this is okay, because Sam Rainsy is not the savior of Cambodia.

Is Hun Sen a good guy? Well, click here to read for yourself. But I am personally happy with the election results.

If you study Cambodia’s history you will see that ever since the fall of the Khmer empire this small country has always seemed to be in the middle of someone else’s conflicts–Vietnam and Thailand, France and Thailand, the USA and Vietnam, the USA and China. And then there was that whole Khmer Rouge thing. As a result, Cambodia has not enjoyed any kind of lasting stability for hundreds of years.

For the last fifteen years or so Cambodia has had some measure of stability, more than its had in a long time. Older Cambodians support Hun Sen because they remember well the Khmer Rouge days and they are very happy with where the country is at now, and they credit this to Hun Sen as he is the one who’s been in power for the last three decades. Younger Cambodians have no memory of the Khmer Rouge days as they were born afterwards. They only see Hun Sen as a brutish thug who needs to be replaced quickly.

But at this time an abrupt radical change in the Cambodian government would only bring more instability, and most likely more violence. Those of us who are Christians know and trust who is really in charge. And in trusting God we can be patient and not foolishly rush into a humanistic kind of radicalism which sees political figures (and the UN, and the USA) as saviors.

What about Hun Sen? God will judge Hun Sen. And as the Gospel spreads, and the Cambodian people are shown the light of the truth, the condition of the government will follow what the people believe.

“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
1 Timothy 2:1-4

*Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy Returns to Cambodia

**Hun Sen’s Ruling Party Claims Victory

Further reading: Time to Stop the Rhetoric; Survey of Cambodian Public Opinion; Cambodia Strives for Credible Election