Saturday, April 28, 2012

Encountering Teachers We Aren’t Expecting: Lessons from Pahn

I want to tell you about Pahn. He has taught me two valuable lessons at Palm Tree.

LESSON 1: What we are designed for

My fist visit to Palm Tree was with my sister, Taylor, in 2008. It was our first day at the orphanage. Palm Tree was hard to find because it was tucked away in a hidden alley. We paid our tuk-tuk driver and walked through the big blue iron gates. A young boy stood at the entrance grinning. I could tell he had some kind of disability. Without hesitation, he walked over to Taylor with his arms wide open. Taylor, smiling back, bent down to give him a hug. A hug, however, was not enough. While clinging onto her with his hands, he slowly lifted his feet off the ground and into her. What a welcome…

I later came to discover that this little boy’s name was Pahn. He had never seen us before, nor did he have any knowledge of our coming to Palm Tree. None of that mattered though. We were older, strangers, and obviously foreigners, but he didn’t care. To Pahn, we were an opportunity to love. A chance to feel, to connect, to play. Nothing else mattered. It’s as if I saw all of mankind’s potential in that moment. What would this world look like if we were like Pahn? If we could look through the trivial differences in the world and realize we are all the same? I think if you boil it down, Pahn is right; that we were all designed for love and connection.

LESSON 2: Have a smile that stops the wheels

Pahn is doing much better mentally. He speaks and understands a little more Khmer, and travels outside the gates to a special school everyday. He has taken on more responsibilities too, like cleaning. He plays well with the other kids and everyone seems to enjoy his company.

I’ve been particularly enjoying Pahn’s presence during my second stay here. I feel like he understands me more. He walks up to me wearing a deep smile when I’m sitting on the steps and stares into my eyes. He sometimes playfully brings his eyebrow low and frowns, but always follows it with another laugh and smile. Then he sits down next to me and we sit together. He doesn’t talk; he doesn’t want anything from me. We just sit. I feel like there are few people that cause your insides to stir when they smile at you, or perhaps stop the wheels of your head for just a moment. Pahn’s smile can do that, can truly bring you joy. He puts something behind them. 

I’m going to try that more. My smiles are usually just an automatic reaction to someone I’ve made eye contact with. Queued by societal prescription, I do it to avoid any awkwardness. I’m going to try and be more like Pahn, to put something behind my eyes. I often forget they are windows to the soul. But it’s more than that too. I’m going to try and put something behind my words instead of just chatting. To say, “Screw awkwardness!” I want to take time and be here right now. I want to stop time with a look and a smile, and connect like Pahn does.

You never know how lessons will come to you, or who your teacher will be. God teaches us through unpredictable and unorthodox ways. Maybe it’s his way of humbling us when we think we figured out how things work. These are the lessons I’ve learned from a young, Cambodian boy with a disability; invaluable lessons he will never know he gave me. Thanks, Pahn.


“If I speak with the tongues

of men and of angels, 

but do not have love, 
I have become a noisy gong 
                                                       or a clanging cymbal.”
1 Corinthians 13:1

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Matter of Inches

Three inches… about the size of your finger. Well, at least mine. Not that three inches is the rule of thumb for all hands (pun intended). We don’t often find significance in that little of space, especially in a society that often glorifies size or distance (trucks, fish, houses, mountains, how far our morning run is, etc.). I used to play football. I know what its like to weigh importance in how much you can lift. “The more the better” is a motto that underlies American socialization, and becomes ingrained into our philosophies. I don’t think this is holistically good or bad, but it is hard to get away from. And emphasis on one thing always shifts our attention away from something else. 
I’ve taken to driving a motorcycle here in Phnom Penh, whose crowded streets move more like a river of moto-bikes with cars sprinkled here and there. Traffic is fluid, always spontaneous and congested... and exciting! Cars pull in front of you and motos are keen on taking unexpected turns and detours. In the moments where I’m only inches away from the moto next to me, however, there is nothing more important than those inches. All of a sudden, a matter of inches becomes my whole world.
Life, and time, seem to move differently here. Life happens at a closer distance whether you are driving on the street or walking through the crowded markets. Bumping into people and ducking under tarps is simply how life functions. People pack onto a single moto, sometimes up to 4 at a time! The kids at the orphanage sleep close to each other in beds, on tables, or huddled on the floor under mosquito nets. Wherever we go, I usually have a kid on my hand hanging close by my side. The distance in which I interact with Cambodian life has taught me a lot recently.
I love wide open spaces (not referring to the song). The horizon stretched out before you, the clean, crisp air and the silence that holds you. But I’m forced to interact with people at a much closer distance on several levels. Physically, mentally, emotionally. And for me recently, life has been about finding God in the small moments. An “inch” can be something as small as my response to a child after an exhausted day. Even as small as my tone, something so stinging and influential that often goes unnoticed. It could be a simple conversation on the steps, or even a single word. The hard part is this: you never know! You never know which small moments matter, and what the “right” response is. There is no way to tell which “inch” will be the one that grows into something bigger, something they will remember. I will most likely never know if these small moments surmount to anything, but I remember my dad’s words:
“Its not up to me to know what happens later on down the road. I’m called to plant the seed regardless.”
I recently finished reading the Upanishads, the spiritual texts and wisdoms of Hinduism, while sitting on the third story of the orphanage overlooking the city as the sun set behind me and storm clouds rolled in over the horizon in front of me. A verse from the Atma Upanishad read:
The supreme [God], adored in the scriptures,
Can be realized through the path of yoga.
Subtler than the banyan seed, subtler
Than the tiniest grain, even subtler
Than the hundred-thousandth part of hair,
This [God] cannot be grasped, cannot be seen. [Eawswaran, 286]
Beautiful words that recognize that God is found in the subtle things that often go unnoticed in our lives. That though God cannot be “grasped” or “seen,” maybe he draws us close enough to where we can touch something. Close enough to be realized. And this realization is discovered within the little moments of life. A raindrop, a conversation, a tone, a single word. Yes, even within a matter of inches… those small moments that can make all the difference.

The following pictures speak to the “Cambodian distance” I’ve experienced.

“It took a while for you to find Me, 
But I was hiding in the lime tree.
Above the city in the rain cloud.
I poked a hole and watched it drain out.”
- Trevor Hall, The Lime Tree (Unity Album)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Memory of Taing Heng

I woke up at 7:15 to a surprisingly quiet morning. There were no sounds of kids playing outside or lively chatter on the other side of the door. What a treat! I thought. I got dressed and opened the door. I smelled an unusual aroma as I stepped out. Smoke. No, incense…
Taing Heng (Dong Heng), one of the older Palm Tree kids, had died. He was living in Siem Reap and was on his way to pick up his little sister from work on his moto. He was almost there when he turned the corner and got hit by a bus. His neck was broken. There was no chance of survival. He was 24 years old. 
Taing Heng wearing his hat hanging out with friends

Days like this help me understand the saying “heavy heart.” It truly feels heavier than other days, as if sadness, held in the heart, literally weighs more. It’s as if you can feel gravity’s pull more on days like these.
Taing Heng was one of my favorite Palm Tree kids. I first met him in 2007 when I was in Vietnam on my Semester at Sea Voyage. He came and performed a Khmer dance on the ship. He was always smiling and had a contagious sense of humor around Palm Tree. His constant laughing and joking made me laugh loud and often. I was looking forward to seeing him return after the Khmer New Year. He was the one you went to if you needed something done, or simply just needed a favor... and now he's gone.
We lit incense that morning and held them as we prayed silently together. The smell of sweet smoke filled the air, and though we had no walls or priests or alters, we made a temple with our presence. One by one we placed the incense in the small pagoda-like box. Stopped our busy world to remember the important things lost.
It’s a sad irony that I learned of his death on Easter morning, a day that is suppose to be a celebration of life over death. A day of resurrection. But what seems to be a double-dose of Good Friday is still Easter for me. If I can make sense of anything between Easter and Taing Heng, it’s the hope that death isn’t the end. It’s a part of life that everyone must partake, a transition that for Taing Heng came too early in our eyes.
I’m not justifying what happened. I’m not pretending to understand it, to reason my way out of this sad reality because I don’t understand. It just happened. But I’m thankful for his life. During our silent prayers I thanked him for sharing it with me and making my life more joyful.
In memory of you, Taing Heng. Your presence will always be at Palm Tree… and with me.

Srey Art praying for her friend
TH on the far right. Our first meeting on SAS in 2007

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Christian Among Buddhists

The Khmer New Year is near, a valued holiday among the Cambodian people. They gather around family back in the provinces and celebrate with a week of dancing, singing, feasting, and throwing water and baby powder on each other. It’s the year of the Dragon.
I’m told that about 60% of the population is Buddhist, the remaining 40% agnostic, relativists, or simply no avowal, and just a sprinkling of Christians. I respect Buddhism and find valuable teachings to be found within the tradition and its people. At the same time, my Christian faith is a living reality for me rather than a private preference. It’s a delicate balance of respect and understanding with conviction and truth. I try to share my faith rather than impose it.
I read my Bible on the steps of the orphanage every morning, occasionally enjoying a conversation about faith with an older student or staff member. The Easter holiday has led me to reflect more on the cross over the past few days. I try to wrap my mind around the dialectical complexity held within that divine moment: life in death, beauty in atrocity, strength in weakness, wholeness in brokenness. It’s perplexing, really. An all-powerful God could have revealed his message to mankind any way he wanted. This means that for some reason, the cross was chosen for a reason over all other options.

So in light of Good Friday and Easter, what does the cross mean to a 24 year-old Christian living in Cambodia in 2012? A Christian among Buddhists?
In all my limited understanding:
The cross is not a “get out of jail free” card. Its not something that just covers up our mistakes and justifies us before God. Jesus bore the weight of our sins to show that the Divine way is to bind oneself to humanity. It’s an invitation to share in the sufferings of the oppressed and join in the celebrations of just victories. To only take away a “salvation ticket” from the cross, to me, misses the point of the most beautiful moment in human history.
That when no one understood his parables, or his logic, or his sermons about the Kingdom of God, he took a frustrated and exhausted breath and said: “Fine… I’ll show you.” Its Jesus’ last and most important message to humanity spoken without a word: That when mankind is broken and desperate at the bottom of the dismal abyss, the only thing that can save us is love.
As Dean Brackely said, “[Jesus] will not be the conquering warrior-savior that people long for, and vote for, in every age. His role will be different. As servant of Yahweh, he will confront evil with the naked weapon of truth… and suffer the terrible consequences.” [The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, 78]
The more I come to understand Jesus, the less I worry about doctrine or ideology and the more I learn how to love better. To continue trying to embrace a Divine presence that enables us to respond to the pain, hate, and fear in the world with a fierce love.
So in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that I’m a Christian among Buddhists, because whatever your avowal, I think we can always do for a little more grace towards each other. 
Celebrating the Khmer New Year
Playing a traditional New Year game
Buddhist monk at a pagoda

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Timex Seed: A Hope for Sophy's Education

Sophy (So-pee) has grown into his head finally, which is a relief because I didn’t know if his twig-like body could hold up that dome for much longer. His top-heavy proportion made him a cartwheel expert though. He owned the roll, and I always laughed when I saw him cartwheel randomly as he walked. I hadn’t seen him cartwheel since I had been back so I asked him if he knew how by showing him. He gave me a sly smirk I couldn’t decode right before springing into a full front handspring with an effortless landing. I then understood the smirk to mean: “please…"

Sophy was one of my favorite kids on my last visit, and its great to be with him again. He is small and has a surprisingly deep and raspy voice. He is one of the only kids who is not forced to go to school because he has an unfortunate case of fetal alcohol syndrome. He is 13 years old, but looks about 6. Not too long ago he attempted to jump off the second story of the school because he was upset about something. The director ran over and caught him before he fell. But I’m told that things are getting a little better for him. He used to leave the orphanage during the day and walk around the city, sometimes for the entire day only to return at night. But now he stays at Palm Tree during the day. He still doesn’t go to class, even despite the gifts left behind by previous volunteers to reward his attendance.

I watched him play while Phearon told me these stories. He has always been a joyful and quick-minded kid in my eyes. It seems harmless now, but I imagine what will become of him when he grows older. No education doesn’t give him a future, and comprehending this while I watch him play turns a story about an uneducated boy into a reality. Imagine for a second your own child in the same situation, or a niece or nephew. Scary, huh? “He has no idea how important his education is,” I respond out loud, but it’s mostly a response to my own thoughts rather than the conversation.

I had a great time hanging out with Sophy the other night. We laughed a lot while he did push-ups next to me under the lamps. He has taken a particular interest in my indiglo watch. He likes how it glows at night, and pushes the button during the day only to clasp his hands around it to view it in his own hand-held darkness.

“You give?” He asked as he pointed to himself.

I laughed out loud. “No, I don’t think so.”
“When you leave? Me, watch?” 

I thought for a second. “Tell you what. If you go to school while I’m here, its yours when I leave.”

“Yay!!” He yelled in his deep, raspy voice with hands held high.

Nita and I were teaching class the next day when a head poked through the door and looked at us. It was Sophy. “Come in!” Nita said. She gave him a word-search and a pen like the other children. He not only stayed for the whole class, but was eager to participate in the scavenger hunt and was constantly raising his hand to answer questions. I helped him with his homework at the end of class and upon walking out he turned to Nita and asked in Khmer if he could come back.

It hasn’t been easy to get him to come to class over the past weeks though. He goes through frequent mood swings and sometimes leaves class completely when he’s upset. We’ve been studying outside my door at night though and I can only hope it continues. The outcome seems rocky, something written in sand rather than stone, but I’ve discovered the decision is his.

I really like my watch, but it seems like such a small price to pay if it leads to his education. Even if he stops attending when I leave, two months is better than nothing. Funny how a watch can be a seed. I hope I leave for home with a bare wrist on May 16th.
Sophy taking an exam.
Working on classwork.
Just being silly..