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Familiar Job, New Environment: Megan in Cambodia

Hi! My name is Megan Sarian and I serve as Content Manager on the OMF (U.S.) Communications team.* As a writer, I’m passionate about capturing stories that deepen people’s understanding of God’s work in East Asia. After years of developing this content from my office in Littleton, Colorado, I have the opportunity to go to Cambodia to see and hear stories firsthand. I’ll be chronicling my journey in this blog post series. Thanks for joining me!

Part 1: Excited, Curious, Apprehensive

If 27 hours of travel weren’t enough to indicate that I had landed on the other side of the world, the tuk-tuk ride home from the airport was.

My traveling companions and I jumped into a motorized cart with opposing benches that might comfortably fit several people, but into which we shoved four passengers and multiple bags of luggage as we made our way to the OMF headquarters in Phnom Penh. At 11 p.m., I couldn’t see much, but the muggy air, Khmer signage and roar of the tuk-tuk motor gave me a lot to process.

I felt excited, curious, and a bit apprehensive.

I had come to Cambodia to collect stories of the work God is doing here, peering through the lenses of both OMF workers and the local community to do so.

With my first days in Cambodia behind me, I can say I’m thrilled to be doing the communications work I love from the field. At the same time, I’m still curious about what the remainder of this experience will look like. How will I fare doing a familiar job in a completely new and at times disorienting environment?

In Part 2 of this series, Megan talks about her first missions trip with OMF and the questions it raised for her about future short-term missions experiences.

Part 2: Facing Internal and External Challenges

When I prepared to go on my first short-term mission trip to Southeast Asia eight years ago, an OMF staff person told my team the story of a short-term worker who had a breakdown on her trip because she just couldn’t handle the curtains in her room. I don’t recall why the curtains devastated her, but this real-life incident illustrated the unexpected emotional challenges we might face in a culture we’ve never been to before. I thought the example was helpful, but also unnerving.

Would going overseas transform me into a person I couldn’t recognize? I’ve never felt much affected by curtains one way or another but would they suddenly make or break my sanity? Would any sense of strength or maturity I had worked hard to develop in the States just evaporate in the face of new food, surroundings and people?

What I found out when I finally stepped foot in Asia for my first Serve Asia opportunity was that I didn’t suddenly have an issue with curtains, but struggles I had in America remained, only they became more difficult to confront and manage.

I had always struggled to lead confidently, but now I carried responsibility for a group of people who all had more experience with Asia and missions than me. I had always struggled to make quick decisions, but now my decisions had a foreign context surrounding them, and my choices would impact my whole team, not just myself.

So I faced internal struggles, but, of course, my new environment required some adjustments as well. I wasn’t used to wearing long sleeves and long skirts in 90-degree weather with stifling humidity. I also wasn’t used to the prevalence of coconut milk in my diet, or navigating public transportation anywhere, much less in a foreign country.

God’s Presence in Daily Interactions

Despite these necessary modifications, both internally and externally, memories of the hard stuff or the challenging transitions don’t dominate my memory. My prominent recollections are of the palpable sense of Jesus’ presence I felt among the urban poor. I remember the hospitality of the strangers we met. I recall the woman who welcomed us into her small one-room home and laid out a spread of fruits she had just picked up at the market that morning. Imprinted on my memory are the questions we asked our new Muslim friends about God and how they said they followed him, but couldn’t be sure he had ever truly forgiven them.

I’ve changed a lot since that trip. Additionally, the purpose of my travels are different this time around. But I’m still curious about the things that will be hard, and the things that will feel more familiar and comforting than I anticipate.

What will my “curtain crisis” look like in Cambodia—a place I have never visited before? Will I even have one? Will it come in the beginning of my trip when everything is new, or will it come toward the end, when the repetition of certain discomforts or unfamiliarity breaks me down at an unexpected moment?

And in what ways will I see God at work here? In what moments will his presence breakthrough? What kinds of scenes will unveil the Lord’s desires for this place or stir in me a longing for God’s kingdom to come?

In Part 3, Megan explores the expectations she had going into her trip to Cambodia and how they’ve measured up to reality.

Part 3: Expectations vs. Reality, and What’s Good About the Gap

Since arriving in Cambodia, I’ve been asked how my expectations for this trip match reality. The question brings to mind those memes where a glamorous image is set next to the comical play-by-play of someone’s actual life.

Those popular memes serve to express some kind of sadness, or at least an exasperated sigh, about the disparity between our dreams and real life. But for me, the contrast has been something to celebrate in Cambodia.

There are three areas that have unfolded differently than I anticipated. These are my reflections about why the gap is actually a great thing.

Food

Expectation: I will frolic up and down busy streets, stopping at food stalls to sample interesting local snacks. How adventurous I will be! How at home I will feel among the locals! I won’t even miss American food.

Reality: I’m enjoying many aspects of Cambodian culture, but I haven’t adapted to Cambodian cuisine like I had hoped.

When I visited Thailand last September, I practically bragged about how much I loved the food. And while I do enjoy Khmer dishes (often some combination of rice, vegetables and meat), I don’t crave it. Instead, I gravitate toward Western comfort food.

What’s good about the gap: This unmet expectation challenges my self-image. No longer the easy-going, adaptable missionary, I have to grapple with a new identity: someone who struggles with basic elements of cross-cultural living and depends on familiar pleasures.

This wrestling increases my compassion for people from other cultures who have to adapt to my American way of life. It also challenges me to put my self-worth in the Lord instead of how naturally gifted I am at crossing cultural boundary lines.

Interviews

Expectation: I will sit on the floor of a bamboo hut, intensely scribbling notes on a pad of paper. I’ll lean in as a Cambodian person shares their story (which I will understand completely, having become fluent in Khmer).

Reality: Okay, maybe I didn’t expect to learn Khmer within a month, but I did think I’d be more self-sufficient than I am.

I’ve become acutely aware of my dependence on long-term workers. To conduct interviews, I borrow from the trust they’ve built with each person, as well as their language proficiency and familiarity with local customs. Without the groundwork they’ve laid, my willingness to listen, while a good starting point, wouldn’t produce much fruit.

(Side note: I use the Voice Memo app on my iPhone to record interviews. I may not look like a real journalist, but I’m saving on ink and hand cramps.)

What’s good about the gap: Watching missionaries nurture local friendships reminds me that shortcuts don’t exist when it comes to (successful) missions work. Investment pays off.

My reliance on long-term workers also deepens my appreciation for the body of Christ. While self-sufficiency feels good on a personal level, it’s a useless model for the church. With a team of 65 people from roughly 20 countries, my colleagues in Cambodia provide such a beautiful example of the global church building God’s kingdom together.

Getting Around

Expectation: I will aimlessly wander around Cambodia. I will surely get lost and not be able to understand anyone who attempts to help me. Somehow, I’ll end up in Vietnam, but I’ll deal.

Reality: Cambodia has ride-hailing apps like PassApp and Grab. They work almost exactly like Uber: I set my pickup and drop-off location and at the end, I know exactly how much I owe. With Cambodia’s apps, I get the added benefit of the tuk-tuk option (which is more fun for shorter distances, in addition to being cheaper).

A SIM card allows me to access the Internet at all times, so I not only find rides easy to arrange, but I can also Google the quickest walking route to the nearest grocery store.

What’s good about the gap: This time, “what’s good” probably doesn’t require explanation. I do want to visit Vietnam at some point, but not so spontaneously.

I will add that, while we can lament Western influences or “modern advancements” in other cultures to an extent, it doesn’t hurt to appreciate things that make missionaries’ lives easier. In other words, YAY for minimizing cultural stressors. I’m grateful that not haggling with tuk-tuk drivers has freed up some of my energy for other challenges – like acclimating to Cambodia’s year-round hot and humid weather!

God’s Grace Is Enough

These three points don’t make for a comprehensive list, but they provide a glimpse into some lessons I’ve been thankful to learn through unmet expectations in Cambodia.

After many conversations with long-term workers, I’ve found that these lessons aren’t limited to short-term workers. But thankfully, neither is the grace and love of our God. He will never shield us from challenges we will be better off from having experienced.

And that is a really good thing.

Interested in meeting some of the Cambodian Christians Megan met? Read Nee’s story by clicking here

*Note from the Editor: In 2020 Megan moved to Cambodia to work with the OMF Cambodian team there. Updated June 15, 201

megan sarianAuthor Bio

Megan has been working in communications for almost 10 years. Currently serving as Content Manager for OMF (U.S.), she enjoys writing, editing and over-thinking everything word-related. When not in the office, Megan spends her spare time cycling, thrift shopping, exploring her city and drinking coffee with (or without) friends.