The road to Cambodia
By Peter and Beth Hwang, cross cultural workers with OMF
I first encountered Cambodia (Kam-pu-chia) as a 24 year old when I went as the sole European on a short-term mission team. Before we left, I learnt to pronounce a few words such as ‘Juam reap sua’ (hello) and, ‘Bong-keun neu eh na?’ (where is the bathroom?), albeit rather poorly. I knew a few tips, such as needing to dress modestly and always wear mosquito repellent, but that was about it. Yet once there, it didn’t take me long at all to begin observing both the far-reaching effects of the Khmer Rouge era, and the innocence and simplicity of the Khmer people.
Kampuchia was a world unlike anything I had ever experienced. At times, it was incredibly confronting, as I wrestled to mesh the poverty I was surrounded by with the wealth and excess of life in New Zealand (and that was when I was living on a tight budget by NZ standards). At times it was soul-nourishing as we watched children laughing and playing for ages with a homemade hacky sack, or when the team would start playing a song we’d taught at school, only for 30+ students to suddenly appear and join in with big grins on their faces.
There was the strong desire of students to learn and the dreams of future careers, coupled with the harsh realities of the poverty and corruption in society. This was illustrated by things like some students not being able to eat lunch, and one teacher rarely turning up to teach because he was busy working a second job to earn enough money to provide for his family. There were the child beggars, who we later learnt are often deliberately kept out of school because their begging brings in more money than their parents can. This means that giving to them actually harms rather than helps them. The stark contrast in culture really hit home when some of our talented team members gave a music concert at the request of the provincial governor, and we learnt about how people arrived in order of their status. Everyone else knew the concert would actually start 30-60 minutes later than the advertised time and arrived in the culturally prescribed order from lowest to highest status. The concert only got underway when the governor and senior officials finally arrived.
This culture that was so different to my own was confusing and overwhelming at times, but it still got under my skin (as it has for many missionaries I’ve since met) and I have never been the same. Now married, and with a husband who cannot forget the Khmer children he saw at the border when we visited just prior to our wedding, I am very slowly beginning to get a deeper understanding of elements of the Khmer culture. Some of it rich and beautiful, and some of it complex and ugly.
The Cambodia I experienced 15 years ago as a naive first-timer with rose-coloured glasses may be very different for me from the Kampuchia I look forward to finally returning to next year after all these years of waiting, but to God it is much the same. As a foreigner and a newbie, my desires to be immediately involved in God’s transforming, liberating work in Kampuchia may start out strong, but I hope like Hudson Taylor, I will be able to come in as a humble learner, asking God if He might, in small, everyday ways, do His work through an imperfect and all too human me.