A Funeral in Cambodia

This story starts a few weeks ago, when Saury, one of our team members I have worked with for the past few months, rushed to the hospital with her mom.

A lot gets lost in translation, but I was told Saury’s mother had “blood in her brain”. An aneurysm?  A stroke? I’m not sure, but bottom line is the hospital sent her mother home to die. Nothing else could be done, they said.

Last Monday we went to Saury’s house to see her and her mom. Her mother appeared comatose. They had moved her bed frame outside into the shade with a few fans blowing on her. There was no mattress, just the wooden frame and a few pillows. Her mother couldn’t eat, drink, talk, blink, move. Nothing. All that moved was her chest and stomach as she seemed to be gasping for air. An oxygen tank was propped against the side of the house in the dirt, with a plastic hose running to her nostrils. An IV in her arm ran up to a bag of liquid hanging from the rafters above her head. Neighbors had gathered and were sitting around in plastic chairs, clucking and softly talking. Saury’s aunt sat on the bed, adjusting the pillows every few moments and swatting away mosquitoes or the scrawny chickens that were running around in the dirt and would sometimes hop onto the bed frame.

We had come to pray. The team looked at me to lead. I wish I could accurately describe what it felt like to look at this dying woman and then be expected to lead in prayer. For what? A miracle? A peaceful departure? What could one possibly say under these circumstances? As horrible as it sounds, I was thinking- why me? Why was I the one here, the one they were looking to? Why couldn’t it have been some giant of the faith, a spiritual leader, a guru, or at least a trained chaplain? What could I possibly say as we watched this woman’s chest heaving for air while her sister waved the scrawny chickens off the bed and back into the dirt?

I prayed. I felt guilty. I felt incompetent. Prayer was the only thing I could offer, and to be perfectly honest, it felt weak.

A week later, and we got the call that Saury’s mother had passed away.

We were invited to her cremation this morning. I spent last night heart broken for Saury and googling what is appropriate for Cambodian funerals. If praying for a dying woman made me feel out of my element, going to a rural Cambodian cremation ceremony made me feel even more so.

We drove up to the dirt road leading to Saury’s house this morning. It had rained heavily the night before, and the mud was still drying. Hundreds of people were already there, the majority wearing some kind of white clothes. High school children were there, with black pants and skirts and white button ups. They were part of the procession.

We walked through the crowd of white shirts and white scarves to the house. The bed frame was still outside, but empty and pushed against the wall. A tent had been erected next to the house, circus rainbow colors on top and mats in a myriad of colors underneath for the family to kneel and pray on. There was the wooden coffin, flowers, and Buddhist priests chanting. The crowd milled about. All the children held sticks of incense in their hands, not yet lit. The sticks were bound together with a small bill of money and even two or three pieces of candy. Older people sat in chairs, little children played with their incense sticks.

I saw Saury. She was dressed all in white, with a white veil over her head, a bit like what you see in the painting of the Virgin Mary. Her mother was dead. You could feel the sadness radiating off of her. She seemed dazed, and never took her eyes off the coffin.

There were prayers, and flowers were passed around to the crowd as they lifted the coffin onto a pavilion of sorts. The procession began, with the students in front, then the pavilion being rolled down the road, and the crowd behind. Flowers and fake money were dropped along the road as the procession made its way down the main road to the Buddhist temple one kilometer away. We walked slowly. Mostly quietly, but there was still chatter from the large crowd as we made our way down the road.

We walked through an ornate gate into the courtyard of the Buddhist temple. The temple had a small cremation oven next to the main temple, with a tall smoke tower reaching into the sky. The family circled the crematorium several times, and then they opened the coffin for the family and the crowd to say their last goodbyes.

I stood with my other team members and watched. Almost everyone on the team had grown up together since childhood. They had tears in their eyes as they watched the final goodbyes.

I stood next to one of the other girls on the team. Her own mother had passed away just a few years ago when she was a senior in high school. As she watched her friend’s mother’s body be placed in the crematorium, all of her own memories came flooding back. All I could do was hug her.

As the body was put in, Saury walked a few paces away from the building. She was shaking but crying silently. She had taken off the white skirt and white veil from the ceremony, and was now just a girl who had lost her mom. Two of the other girls from the team went to comfort her.

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Two of the girls comfort Saury (middle) a few steps away from the crematorium.

I’m not writing this story for the sensation of it, or even just as a look into culture. I’m writing it because sometimes you just have to write things down when you don’t know what else to do or say.

I don’t know when, or if, Saury will come back to be a part of the team. I don’t know what comes next in the grieving process here, or what expectations from the culture or the family will be on her shoulders.

Whatever happens, if you’re reading this, send up a prayer for Saury. She could use it.

Thanks,

Jenni

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A Wednesday in Cambodia

I woke up at 5:45 in the morning to the sound of rain falling in sheets- a sort of soft roar that drowned out even the wind chimes hanging below my balcony. It was an unusual rain- Cambodia is still in the dry season, just beginning to emerge into the hot season. The real rainy season won’t hit until May or June, they tell me.

Class with my team was cancelled as they were dealing with some flooding in the first floor of their house. I had flashbacks to Peru, where we needed buckets or brooms to sweep out the monsoons. I say a quick prayer of thanks that I now live on the second floor and try to do a yoga video with the volume blasting over the rain. I finally turn off the video and sit smiling for a minute at how amazing life is, before I realize how uncomfortable it is to sit crossed legged in a meditative position and I should really stretch out my hips and why do yogis sit cross legged anyway? The rain is beautiful. Guess yoga and meditation really do take practice. I send up another prayer of thanks for the silly things.

The rain eventually slowed to the point where you could hear the patter of individual drops. I grabbed my bike and rode through muddy slick streets to the market, where the shop ladies recognize my face but still laugh at me for not knowing Khmer. I overpaid a shopkeeper for my vegetables by two dollars and she was kind enough to give me my money back. Everyone stares, but most people smile. I’m just a crazy white lady shopping in a rainstorm while everyone else is waiting under shelter.

I rode over to the team to check on them. Some of our books had gotten soaked, but overall no harm done. Except for the hard drive. The portable hard drive containing everything we have worked on for our English teaching videos had been in a backpack, on the floor, in the rain.

It is quite possible we lost everything. Before I panic, we are letting it dry. Fingers crossed.

I came home with my groceries. The rain started up again and I was soaked by the time I got home, but happy. Riding a bicycle around a small Cambodian town in the morning rain was one of those things that had never been specifically on my bucket list, but now that it happened? I recommend it to everyone.

I showered and got ready to cook. Cooking is a bit of an event for me. I try to cook one meal that will last me the whole week that hopefully won’t kill me. This requires wearing a dress and sometimes lipstick, for no reason at all except I’m so bad in the kitchen I have to turn it into a sort of acting exercise. Maybe I can fool myself by playing the part of a put-together house frau who has zero likelihood of burning the house down. Lipstick equals fire safety.

So far so good- chicken with lime and cilantro on the stove, rice and vegetables in the rice cooker. I’m nailing this.

Then, but of course, five minutes after the rice cooker has just started working its magic, the power goes out.

I give up on the chicken and the uncooked rice and the soggy vegetables and I decide to eat Nutella out of the jar with a spoon and a hard boiled egg. I stay in my dress and decide to sit down and read Anna Karenina, to stay with my classy and productive vibe even with no electricity.

I of course end up online, watching my cell phone battery dwindle and wondering when the power will come back on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying my Russian Lit, but power outages make me antsy. I’m always half waiting for it to come back on and have a hard time focusing on the merits of Russian peasantry methods of farming. I like Levin, though. He’s a solid dude. Mixed feelings on Anna. Vronsky’s a mess-

The power came back on ten hours later, in case you were wondering.

I went back to the team in the afternoon to finally have class. We sang some English karaoke and even played Just Dance. They gave English presentations and my teacher heart was totally happy. I put together a 1 minute teaser video for the teachers as we wait for our official classes to start next month.

I come back home only to see that the power is still off and now my bike is missing. Gone. I shake my head and go inside. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it except hope someone borrowed it and would soon return it. I hear that happens here.

I work out. In the Cambodian heat with no power to turn on the air con or even a fan, I’m literally slipping in my own sweat on the floor. I love it. Way better than cooking in a dress, this is my happy place.

An hour workout, and my bike is back outside. Yup, someone must have borrowed it. Cambodia. The question now is do I buy a lock, or do I stay in my neighbor’s good graces by letting them use it? Culture questions of the day.

I spend a lovely evening with another expat teacher named Terry, who reminds me how strong women can be. We eat papaya salad and chicken from an open air restaurant on the street corner. Life is good.

I would consider today a slow day, with the exception of being minorly panicked about the soaked hard drive. But it’s 11:30pm, the power came back on, and I was finally able to finish cooking my rice and get to Levin’s wedding (Spoiler!) Tomorrow is back to classes, making videos, teaching English, and eating that chicken that hopefully didn’t go bad from sitting out all day.

Wednesday win.

Inspiration Breaks: The Best Form of Procrastination

I moved to Cambodia to work on a super exciting project- one that combines education, skill training, positivity, literacy, and impact all together.

Now it’s go time, and the vision- this huge, ginormous, nebula of a vision- needs to be broken down into doable steps.

Breaking things down into doable steps is a learning process. One of the best life lessons I ever learned was to write 5 doable goals on a sticky note every morning, written in a way where you can accomplish it in one day. For example, don’t write “grade papers.” Write “grade 10 essays”. (Shoutout to Webster University RA Training for this life lesson!)

The other life lesson is to know yourself and what you need. In Jenni world, it looks something like this:

Cambodian coffee got me all hyped up.

I wish I could have lunch with Oprah and Maya Angelou (RIP) but this podcast is pretty close. Does it count as procrastination if it’s inspirational? Side note: Read a great article a few years back about purposefully reading books or devouring media from people whose backgrounds are different from your own. This is a great Black History Month challenge that can carry over all year. Anyway, this made me happy cry, feel the feels, and get inspired enough to keep working.

Dance breaks and working out put me back in my happy “I can do all things” vibe.

On that note, probably the most important thing I can do is finish the rest of that verse:

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13

I’m thankful to be working on a project that consistently pulls me out of my comfort zone to remind me to get my strength from a source bigger than myself. There’s a lot of sources of strength out there, but going to the source of love may be my best decision of the day.

Upcoming:

  • Teacher Training Conference once a week for the next 4 weeks
  • Video-making training and implementation for educational videos
  • Website content
  • More caffeine, more podcasts, more dance breaks.

Here’s to everyone else all over the world who feels a little freaked out outside their comfort bubble right now. You’re not alone, and you will be great. Big hugs!

Cheers,

Jenni

When Life Hands You Lemonade, Drink Up!

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade where Harrison Ford’s character has to “take a step of faith” and cross a seemingly impossible chasm. Call me dramatic, but that’s exactly what I felt when I rolled my suitcases out of my Shanghai apartment this past July. I felt as if I was stepping out into thin air, that I had totally lost my mind to leave a place I loved. I felt that by stepping out of that apartment and leaving China, I was about to fall with no one to catch me. I felt foolish, unsure, and terrified of the unknown.

There was a six month waiting period in the States before I started my new path in Cambodia. I had taken one step and felt solid ground, but I still couldn’t see what was next. The waiting time seemed to augment my fears. What would Cambodia be like? Would I find a place to live? Would I be lonely? Would I be happy?

Last week, it was time for the next step of faith. I rolled out those same suitcases and made my way to the airport. I said goodbye to my family, still not knowing what it would be like on the other side of this journey. I braced myself for the fall. I prepared for the worst, fully expecting to have a hard time, expecting to be unhappy, to grin and bear it (told you I was dramatic, but hey, the unknown is scary!)

I expected lemons. But lo and behold, God poured me a swimming pool sized glass of lemonade.

Within five minutes of entering the city, the most beautiful apartment I could imagine opened up for a fraction of the price. (It has hot water! And a WASHING MACHINE!) This may not mean much to some of you, but to me, it meant the world. I missed my old apartment so much, and here was a place that was so much more than I ever could have asked for.

I was afraid of being lonely. God gave me family and friends. I was worried about the team I needed to train. The team is beyond awesome. I was worried that I would be unhappy, and yet I’ve been brimming with more joy this week than I have felt in a long time.

Half of me is still expecting the shoe to drop. I keep checking the sky just in case the heavens remember I don’t deserve any of this and send a few lightening bolts down to put me in my place. But the other half of me recognizes all this as a little love note, a soft kiss on the cheek, a voice gently whispering, “See? I told you not to worry.”

Matthew 6:25-27New International Version (NIV)

Do Not Worry

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

Below is a short video of my new place, my new life, and a quick hello from my new friends 🙂 Thank you to every single person who has sent me encouraging words, hugs, prayers, and positivity. I have no doubt hard times will come again, but until then, I’m going to drink this lemonade up and shout THANK YOU at the top of my lungs!

Much love,

Jenni

All You Need is Love

My biggest goal since I was ten years old was to make a difference. To leave my mark. To make the world a better place.

I’m now 9 days away from my flight to Cambodia, to begin my part of an awesome work in education there. Though my role is small, the sheer size of this project may be the biggest difference or mark on the world I’ve ever gotten to do.

But on this New Years and days away from beginning something that lines up with my childhood dreams, I realize there’s been a shift somewhere deep inside of me. Instead of “difference”, my word has slowly been changing to “love”.

While I”ve always prided myself on my confidence, my fearlessness, my adventurous spirit and boldness (I’m good at self-compliments, I know) those qualities, sad to say, have taken a beating. I thought they would increase even more with age and time, but I didn’t count on the collection of scars over the years. I didn’t think about the experiences that can build up during one’s lifetime that teach one to fear, to draw back from the hot stove, to lock doors both literally and figuratively and build walls. I didn’t realize hurt could accumulate, or flinching could become second nature. I’ve suddenly found these things to be true and it makes me feel a weight of sadness I never thought I could experience. I didn’t account for the fact that life could sometimes be hard, and getting back on the horse really does get more difficult after each fall.

I know that all sounds a bit dramatic and of course comes with the caveat that many people have gone through far, far worse than me, but this has been my experience the last year or two. My optimism, shockingly, is not a limitless well. That fact surprised me.

So, enter love. It has taken me this long doing things through my own strength until I got hit just hard enough to look around and ask for help. 2017 stripped me down from my accomplishments, my pride, the “differences” I thought I had been making. 2017 sat me in a corner in a quiet place and whispered, “you can’t do it all on your own.”

I strive, a lot. I am a classic A type personality, goal-oriented, focused, hedgehog of an individual. I look back on my life and I’m left with one question:

What would all of this look like if I had honestly, truly, without question believed that I was already loved?

Big question. No answer. The tricky word there is “already”- without my striving, my checklist of goals, my efforts. But as I get ready to head into this new challenging phase of my life, with my wounds, lack of self-confidence, and fears- this is my new focus. Making a difference would be great. But if I can spend this year, and the next, and the next- however long it takes- until I can grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” Ephesians 3:18- well, that would be a worthy endeavor.I’m not there yet. I have moments, but what a life that will be when that is my daily truth. To grasp the “already” in the phrase “I am already loved.”

I am already loved. Bring it on, 2018. This is the phrase I’m fighting for.

I Couldn’t Say No, So I Said Yes: Cambodia Arise

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I looked through the one room schoolhouse window where a group of elementary students sat at their desks doing work. There was no floor, and the students were working with mud up to their ankles.  The metaphor wasn’t lost on me as I pondered how these students could possibly rise up from this level of educational poverty.

It was summer 2017, just a few months ago, and it was my first visit to Cambodia after wrapping up my last 4 years as a teacher in Shanghai, China. I was here to take a look at my possible future job. Having just left a metropolis of 28 million people and a classroom of students capable of running the world, now: all I could see was mud.

Where does one start when there aren’t even floors?

The vision presented to me was undeniably enticing. Mark Geppert of South East Asia Prayer Center (SEAPC) had invited me here to join a bigger cause. The vision? Train 3,000 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers across a rural province of Cambodia in the English skills necessary to take back to their classrooms and influence a total of 127,000 students.

Impact? Mind blowing.

Salary? $0.

Working conditions? I looked back at that mud floor. Maybe “undeniably enticing” was too strong of a description in the face of this reality.

There was no way I could say yes to this.

I also knew, deep inside myself, that I couldn’t say no, either.

The next two months involved being jobless and living at my parents’ house in Phoenix, Arizona- contemplating my life choices. I had worked in poverty before, for two years in Iquitos, Peru. I vividly remembered killing tarantulas and not having enough change one day to buy my fried rice for breakfast. I also vividly remembered my most recent lifestyle in Shanghai,  overlooking the fancy cityscape from my highrise apartment window with a glass of expensive wine in my hand- not a spider to be seen.  I had a lovely salary, phenomenal students, hobbies and city living galore- was I really ready for this pendulum swing back to a difficult life?

And then I realized: sometimes I’m just asking the wrong questions. How about this question: Do my difficulties even hold a candle to students learning ankle deep in mud in a language that Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer as a learning option?

I couldn’t say no any longer. So, I said my yes- in a long message to Mark full of fears, caveats, and reservations. But there it was. A yes.

I’ll be spending the next two months developing plans and curriculum before arriving in Cambodia mid January of 2018. I’ll be there for about two years (possibly longer) developing an English program to train 3,000 teachers in basic English skills- slowly but surely opening the door to opportunities and contact with our globalized world.

I’m opening a Razoo page (a version of Go Fund Me) that has more information and opportunities to give. I’ll be posting a lot more here on this blog, as I swing between insanely electrifying excitement and totally freaking out.

This is just the beginning of the story. Please go to 5 Loves: English Education for Cambodiafor more information.