A time of reflection

No one would be surprised if I was to say that 2020 has been hard. Of course, it has been — we’ve all been in the midst of a global pandemic. And as I have seen the devastating impact this virus has had around the world — on societies, economies, the lives of individuals as they see their loved ones’ or their own health diminish — it’s been tempting to dismiss my problems as insignificant. I’ve been healthy, protected in Cambodia and by my youth from the worst and, for the most part, financially stable enough not to fear what would happen next.

But, as the end of 2020 comes towards us, and as I have more opportunity to reflect, I have realised various things. I have lived 2020 (and even, to some extent, the end of 2019) in survival mode. Yes, there has been so much joy and things to be grateful for. But, I have felt, for the most part, as if I have been lurching from one crisis or difficulty to the next. I also need to be able to be okay with living with feelings of grief, disappointment and frustration. Sometimes too quickly, I will brush those feelings off, as if I don’t deserve to be experiencing them, because, of course, someone has it far worst than me.

In my new MA course, we are being encouraged to reflect. I thought I would write a post about my experiences of 2020, as a way to perhaps get them out my head and maybe to process them a bit better. This may be a bit of a long one, so perhaps grab a cup of tea, coffee or comforting drink and take a seat.


I started 2020 already exhausted. In 2019, I had taken on a new subject: iGCSE drama. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I also took on responsibilities with the school play and continued with my language studies in the evenings. Furthermore, that semester, the Ministry of Education in Cambodia demanded that the school submit a ridiculous amount of paperwork, including every scheme of work within the school. Fortunately, the English department only needed to make a few adjustments, but I spent quite a bit of time helping the Khmer teacher with his. (He had to produce schemes from preschool to grade 10 all by himself.) I also decided that I should move house. So, I found a new place and in the last few weeks of December, I packed up all my belonging and found a new fridge, stove, washing machine and bed. Just writing all that out was exhausting enough, so I’m not surprised I was a little tired.

Removing shrines and Chinese good luck charms from the house

I did, however, take some time for thinking and reflecting at the end of 2019. By this, I mean I set some goals for 2020 and picked some verses that would be the guiding principles, so to speak, for the next twelve months. It became quickly evident in 2020, that the two Bible verses I had chosen at the start of the year were perfectly appropriate — if not a little bit too appropriate. The first was this, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” ‭‭(Proverbs‬ ‭16:9‬) I had also chosen this passage to help guide me throughout:

“Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”

Proverbs 4:25-27

In hindsight, it seems almost funny that they were the ones that I had picked. Little did we know, as December 2019 rolled into January 2020, how these verses would prove themselves true and also, exceptionally difficult to live out.

Even as 2020 started, other difficulties needed solving. There was an issue with the drama course that provided me with a lot of stress (but also an excuse to skip sports day). Another challenge was that a colleague wanted some help with another class. In the end, we decided to split the and for me to take one half. This did mean that I had the fullest timetable of any member of staff working on the Phnom Penh campus. However, this seemed to be just another somewhat stressful but otherwise normal teaching year and nowhere near as intense as other contexts I had worked in.

Day-to-day life was pretty normal. All except when Kristi, my girlfriend, decided she needed to go to hospital. Vitou took his tuk tuk and picked up Kristi and two of her housemates; I drove on my motorbike behind them. It was apparent that she was in a large amount of pain. Her housemates and I, being as supportive as we are, were guessing what it was. We thought either it was possibly a surprise pregnancy conceived through immaculate conception or appendicitis or really bad gas. She arrived at the hospital early evening. She was scanned, prodded and poked for a number of hours. It wasn’t until about midnight when the diagnosis of a painful gut infection came through. (We all guessed wrong.) She was given a prescription for pain killers and antibiotics and we were allowed to go. By the time everything was signed and paid, it was about 1 am until we all left. All of us (except Kristi, of course) were in work the next morning; our colleagues were very sympathetic. However, teaching is one of those jobs where it is often easier just to go in and do it, rather than having to make cover plans and pick it all up the next day.

Around that time, it was becoming evident that something was happening in China that had the potential to affect all of us. In Cambodia, this was particularly scary. There were direct flights between Wuhan and Phnom Penh. If Cambodia did get struck by the disease, it could have a devastating impact. The difficulties in providing adequate healthcare for the country would mean that many people would potentially die and the damage to the healthcare system, especially as doctors and healthcare workers were particularly vulnerable, could last decades. It felt very much that we were just waiting for it to come. There were even suspicions that it had already been in Cambodia since December because a particularly virulent seasonal flu had been making its way around schools. (Later, we would learn that COVID-19 is often asymptomatic among children; so it became apparent that what we saw was something else.)

February was set to be a busy month for me. There was the school camp, then I would immediately fly out to Taiwan for some safeguarding training. Both of these were quickly cancelled. It was simultaneously disappointing and a relief. I was glad that I could reclaim those two weeks back as normal and gain more time to sort out my drama class. We did put on some other activities for the students and try to create a slightly more “fun” week in place of camp, which was actually quite nice.

I think it was shortly after that the first detected COVID-19 positive case entered the country. This was via Sihanoukville, a city that has (or perhaps rather did have) a very large Chinese population. This seemed to be dealt with efficiently but also confirmed the suspicion that infected people could easily be boarding planes to Cambodia. Rumours and fears escalated. Life didn’t change too much. We were more wary about cafes and restaurants. Although not the law, almost everyone wore masks. Temperature checks and handwashing stations were put in place at hairdressers, supermarkets and malls. Screens were put in front of tills to protect the shop staff.

Then a case had been detected in Siem Reap, the tourist city to the north of the country. They had been touring the city for a few days, so had potentially been shedding viruses all over the place. He was isolated and questioned, those he had been in contact with were traced, tested and, in some cases, isolated. Schools, some entertainment venues such as karaoke bars and cinemas were all closed in the city. Churches also closed shortly afterwards. It was quick, decisive, but we once again feared the worst.

Somewhere in among all this, other things were happening around the world. Italy was becoming the centre of the coronavirus and other countries were recognising their first cases. As French, British and US tourists were still moving around South East Asia, westerners became one of the main sources of imported cases into Cambodia and neighbouring countries. Suddenly, the ex-pats we being viewed with suspicion and there was a distinct coldness growing towards us.

Two international school teachers returned to Phnom Penh from training in Thailand, only to have been diagnosed with coronavirus. Suddenly, all the schools across the country, including HOPE school where I worked, were shut. Cinemas, gyms, karaoke venues were shut too. There was a staff meeting and we had two non-teaching days to change our curriculum into distance-learning friendly. There were still a lot of unanswered questions about exams, which was causing a lot of anxiety for staff and students alike. A decision was made to withdraw most students from the iGCSE exams except for students that would need the qualifications for the future (which, given how the results system played out, was wise).

Then a “banned’ list came out: a list of nationalities that could no longer enter Cambodia included French and American, but thankfully not British (and, somewhat unusually, Chinese). China has a massive hold on the Cambodian economy, and I can assume that due to the British investment in the garment industry it was given a pass. However, new countries were being added to the list, so I assumed the UK would make it on there given the sudden rise in cases.

Then, all around me, people started going home. Nearly all the HOPE staff from Australia and New Zealand went to their passport countries, as well as a few from other nationalities. Over 15 members of staff left Cambodia. Some left knowing they would not return, so there were a few tearful goodbyes. (Before we go on, I do not want others to think that I’m casting judgement on those that made different decisions to me. The situation was complex and impacted each family or person differently. There was a myriad of factors to each person’s decision; I can only tell you mine.)

Of course, there were questions as to whether I would return to the UK. For me, the answer was a clear no. First, the UK was in lockdown. There was little point in going home to stay in one house 24 hours a day, while I enjoyed freedom in Cambodia. But the main factor was this, it was hard enough watching the terrible consequences of coronavirus in the UK. (Being a distant observer can be a really hard position to be in.) I knew that if I was in the UK having to watch the same happen to Cambodia, it would be heartbreaking. Furthermore, my Cambodian friends around me did not have the choice to jump on a plane, so I didn’t want to take this choice either. I don’t think I could have gone to the UK in the early days of coronavirus and leave Vitou and his family to sort out everything with the house and deal with any problems alone. God, I strongly believe, called me to Cambodia. I wasn’t given any caveats or exceptions to the case. So I would see out my time at HOPE school and return to the UK in the summer as planned.

The irony in all this is that it became slowly apparent Cambodia was one of the safest and easiest places to be. There were no community cases of transmission; the reduction in flights and the banned list was doing its job. My initial cynicism gave way to pride in this little country. I had initially thought that the number of cases was being woefully under-reported, due to a lack of testing or media spin. However, as life continued to trundle on as normal, with no flooded hospitals (I visited two in that time and they were empty), no mass graves, no horror stories from NGO workers in the province, it was obvious I had been wrong. Whether the government had been remarkably effective or the mask-wearing culture had helped or there was protection given by proactive neighbouring countries or it was just dumb luck, Cambodia has so far escaped. (There’s a news article analysing reasons here.) Humble Cambodia, it seemed has succeeded where many wealthy and powerful countries hadn’t.

In the months of April to June, there were various daily stresses and struggles: online teaching, rats and bed bugs. The bed bugs were really frustrating and meant sleepless nights and I even slept on the sofa for a month. In the UK, we have managed, for the most part, to put barriers between us and nature. But, in Cambodia, they often find a way in.

A rather large lizard invaded my study.

My plans were still loosely to return to the UK in June, then fly back to Cambodia in September. However, two things changed these plans. First, the Cambodian government announced that any foreigner would have to pay a $3000 deposit upon arrival into the country, as well as providing evidence for medical insurance and a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before arrival. The deposit would pay for two further tests, as well as any costs resulting from potential quarantine. You would have to quarantine if anyone on your plane tested positive for COVID-19. This deposit was, at that moment, prohibitively expensive. The second reason is that my mum received a medical diagnosis that meant her immune system would be potentially compromised by any treatment. I didn’t want my travel plans to create any risk of infection for my mum while this was the case.

So, in line with the aforementioned verse about plans, God was definitely establishing my steps. My previous plans had to go and I had to really rely on God for this next stage. There were a lot of prayers: for my mum’s health, for flight plans and the money for the potential deposit. Another issue that needed sorting was my visa. The new plan was now to leave towards the end of September, but my visa expired in August. This meant there was a whole month where I would be in the country illegally. I thought I had a simple solution up my sleeve, but that solution did not work out how I had hoped. There was another issue: I had no real plan of what I was going to do once I was back in Cambodia.

I set up a zoom prayer meeting and was blessed by those that attended with heartfelt, honest and caring prayers. I also spent time with Vitou praying. We actually prayed about the deposit concerns, and that exact time I received an email about a donation. (I don’t know who it is, but if it is you, thank you.) Then, the Lord definitely guided my steps. When I first arrived in Cambodia all the way back in 2016, I studied at a school called LEC. As I had some time spare, I thought I could take some lessons with them again and also perhaps ask about a visa. A conversation with one of the lead teachers sorted both the visa problem but also what I might do returning to the country. They asked if I could help run an English club. What a generous answer to prayer!

So, tickets were booked, visa plans were sorted and I was trundling on with my Khmer lessons. The time at LEC was a real time of blessing. I just love hanging around with Khmer people and getting to know them more. Moreover, it was a time to talk about Christianity in Khmer. That can be a bit tricky (the religious vocabulary is different from everyday vocabulary – they have different words for parts of the body or simple verbs if a deity is doing it). But it was exciting nonetheless.

I had made it onto both a course to become a full-time missionary and an MA. These involved various hurdles throughout the year: a 9-hour interview process for the course and a 1,500-word essay for the MA. (You can read the essay here.) I was so pleased to get onto these courses. The documentation was coming in and I had a lot of pre-reading to do. It seemed a lot but it seemed manageable. However, when I compared both the timetables, there were a lot of clashes in the timings, many of which I’m still trying to navigate! The difficulty in this is that I hate feeling like a nuisance and also hate seeming flaky or disorganised. There was also the conference for the Cambodia team coming up, which provided further clashes. Fortunately, zoom and recordings meant that I could negotiate some of these problems. These worries were also balanced by the sense of purpose they provided. Getting this far was also an answer to prayers.

Other prayers were being answered thick and fast. The bed bug problem was solved! (The rats continued to be an issue but they only keep to the bottom floor.) My mum’s hospital treatment turned out to be relatively simple and straightforward. Therefore, the risks to her immune system were mitigated. Kristi had left for the US, and God helped her manage with her fear of flying. Also, we didn’t find it difficult keeping in touch with the 12 hour time difference. So for July, despite exhausting myself with doing too much, life was going well.

Then a heatwave hit the UK. For those who were healthy, it was just a bit of a sweaty nuisance or a time of relaxing in the sun. For my elderly granddad, it was a major health risk. He collapsed on a Monday in August. Then he collapsed again the following day. He was admitted into hospital. A weak heart, dehydration, which led to kidney failure all resulted in him becoming critically ill. There was nearly a week of sleeplessness nights and waiting for bad news. It finally came on the Sunday. The nurses told us it was a peaceful death; he went so silently that despite his room being the closest to the nurses’ station, they didn’t notice it had happened until one of their regular checks on him.

Due to coronavirus, the funeral was online. This meant that I could actually watch it. It’s bizarre that, in some ways, the pandemic has brought us together or at least taught us the value of real connection over a superficial connection. One touching thing was that, despite the time difference meaning that the funeral was in the evening, Vitou sat by my side throughout it all even though he was clearly very tired himself.

It was quickly coming to the day I would fly out to the UK. I still had a Khmer assessment to do, where I wrote a short sermon to be delivered (which you can read, in English or Khmer, here). Then I had to sort all my belongings, pack for the conference in Kampong Thom whilst also packing for the UK. With a lot of help and encouragement from Vitou, the first weeks of September went easily. The time of the conference (although having to do various things with the MA and WEC course in the evening) was great. After that finished, I had a few days with my Khmer family. We just hung out and enjoyed each others company.

At the airport, it was weird to think that this was the last part of my Cambodian adventure for 2020. (I have now booked my flights back to Cambodia. I arrive on 31st December at about 10 pm, ready to start 2021 there.)


Arriving back in the UK, although busy, has allowed some space just to think of the last 9 months. There are some various themes that I have observed.

My stress response

I did not do well in following the advice in one of my chosen passages, especially when under stress.

“Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.”

Proverbs 4:25-27

I do, perhaps, fix my gaze, but maybe not on the right things. I focus on getting the task done and keeping a stiff-upper-lip. I fail to focus where it counts, though. Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us where our focus should be.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

In times of trouble, our faith is more important than ever. Questions around suffering and the constant disappointments, griefs and struggles can make it easy to lose hope. However, by looking towards Jesus and to His promises, we can be encouraged.

Community

It’s often cited that it is the quality of your social network that determines longevity (as well as plenty of naps, I’m led to believe). I have been so thankful for the community I’ve had around me: Kristi, the HOPE school community, family and friends accessible via Zoom and Skype. Then, of course, I am grateful for my Cambodian family. If anyone told me that 2020 was going to involve a global pandemic, I might have changed my mind about moving in with Vitou’s family. But I’m glad that the information wasn’t available as it would have been the wrong choice. The love and care I have received from them have been a colossal blessing.

God’s goodness

Despite all the ups and downs, God’s goodness has prevailed throughout. Prayers have been answered and I know the people who have supported me are God-given. There’s a definite awareness within the missionary community that those around us were brought there for that time and place. We often don’t know the extent of it or God’s purposes in it. But if you have been one of those people around me, supporting me, I am sure that would be one of the reasons God placed you where you are. So I am grateful to you and grateful to God.

Psalm 23 is an amazing remind of how God’s goodness follows us despite being surrounded by death, attacks and enemies (in this case, in the form of a virus).

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

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