Saturday, March 15, 2008


I said something important today. I know I did. I looked over my audience of about 100 high schoolers and realized, they were listening to me.
My engagement was another Friday morning chapel at Cambodia Adventist School. Public speaking really isn’t something I dread. I usually look forward to it. It doesn’t bother me to get up in front of people; especially if I know what I am saying is important, as was the case today. I knew what my topic would be two weeks ago after I felt impressed to share this message. I’ve spoken for chapel quite confidently at least once a month since I got here. But today, as I had opening prayer, I started shaking. My voice quivered as I realized I was about to say something that would either inspire or turn away. I opened my eyes from prayer and realized, this was it, I had to say something. So I did.
“I’ve prayed a lot about whether to speak about this or not and feel like I really need to. As you well know, I am from the United States. I have been living here for almost 7 months and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also noticed a few differences between Cambodia and the States.”
I went on to mention the lighter side of my experiences: how crazy the traffic is, the trash I hardly notice anymore, and the “lack of bubble” or personal space that Cambodians have. They were all laughing, really hard. They’ve been known to also keep laughing when the conversation turns serious, but this time they didn’t.
“So there are many differences. But I have to say, the hardest part about living in Cambodia, is how some people react to me. Yes, I know, I am white. I am a foreigner and I am reminded of it everyday. I came to a foreign country, so, of course, people may stare. Women often smile and little children boast one of their only-known English words, “Hello! Hello!” But some Cambodian men have made me feel so low, unimportant, filthy, and worthless, I have at many times, wanted to just go home.”
They were silent. They knew I was serious. I read them my journal entry from January 10th of this year. That was the morning that I was out for a walk and was grabbed at, touched, and cursed while I was alone with a Cambodian boy before the sun came up. I haven’t really healed from this experience and I knew it when, in front of my students and several teachers, I was unable to read it without crying.
But I finished the entry, “I hate that I feel resentful towards the very people I came here to help.” I went on to tell them about sexual assaults that have happened to other Western women I know. I could tell I was speaking news to some of them and yesterday’s news to others. Some of them peered back at me with mouths wide open, others with lips pursed shut. I was speaking to a split audience. Some of them know this is going on, but do nothing about it.
I was very careful to ensure that they understood, not all Cambodian men are creeps. And coming to school each day reminds me that I know fabulous Cambodian citizens who would never do such things and I thanked them for it.
“So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve decided that there is actually very little I can do, but so much you can. I am powerless here, you are powerful. This is your country. Are you ok with things the way they are? Do you like what people say about your country and what it stands for? I can’t say I am proud of everything about my country.”
I talked about problems in the States. We have rapes, assaults, murder, robberies, prostitution, pornography, school shootings, alcoholism, drugs, and on, and on. I wanted to makes sure they understood I was not attacking their country.
“This world is broken. Do you care to fix it? I’m sick and tired of hearing, “Well, that’s just the way it is in Cambodia!” Because what you are really saying is, “Well, you should expect to get sexually assaulted. You are a foreigner and that is how Cambodia treats foreigners.” No, it doesn’t have to be that way. What are you going to do to change it? You don’t have to be prime minister to do something. You just have to care enough to do it.”
I told them that, what the Great Commission says about going out and baptizing doesn’t mean the rest of us ‘non-pastors’ are off the hook. It means that we should take up the work closest to us and do what we know is right.
They heard me. I know they did. I had something important to say and I said it. It is the closest to “high” that non-drug users experience I suppose.
After closing prayer, I had an uncomfortable knot in my stomach when I realized that the less mature students of the group may be defensive and feel I was just ranting against their country. If that is true, they missed the point. Either way, I went and sort of hid in my classroom, as chapel is the last period of school on Fridays and they would all be going home soon. I didn’t want a bunch of insincere, uncomfortable “I’m sorry”s said out of awkwardness because of nothing else to say. They are Asian and don’t always express emotions so well.
Indeed, they went home and I did too. But this time, upon entering the street on my bicycle and getting the stares, the comments, and the kisses blown in my direction, they seemed to have less power over me. It seemed as though the burden was a little lighter. I felt less alone and more understood. Not by the people along the way, but by the students now making their way home, telling their parents about their day, and hopefully, thinking about what they just heard. More importantly, I hope they are thinking about how they, even Cambodian citizens who feel virtually invisible, can do something to change the world.
This may all be high hopes for such a simple message. Changing the world isn’t a revolutionary idea after all, but it is rarely mentioned on this corner of the globe. But for my attempts at changing the world, I can’t get the message across on my own. These kids are the only hope for this country. I’m just not sure they know it yet.


Kristina said...

Dear Heather,

I'm not just saying this...please write books someday, write articles; You have a knack for empathetic writing.

Thank you again for sharing.

Anonymous said...

seriously happpy for you
Praise the God above us