2021 a reflection

I’ve already written a summary of 2021. That post goes through some of the major events that happened and also has a lot of pretty pictures. It has been quite the year! This one is the long read version. This post is more about the nitty-gritty, heart, mind and soul stuff.

Joys and blessings

This year had quite a lot of big moments. I got engaged and then I got married. These were also massive joys (also, in their own ways massive challenges, but I’ll get onto that). The fact that both things managed to happen in such a year of uncertainty was a massive blessing. My relationship with Kristi and the massive amounts of laughter that it generally involves has been very important this year. Also, how our families blessed us in our decision to get married here without them. Both sets of parents, before us even having decided on a Cambodian wedding, contacted us and said that they would accepting of that decision were we to choose it. (I say accepting, because I acknowledge it did take some personal sacrifice to say that. They’d have rather us been able to do it with them there, but they understood why we would make that choice.) This meant the eventual decision to do it that way was much easier.

I think relationships have been some of the biggest sources of joy (and challenges) this year. There have been so many times of joy that have involved hospitality, trips, joining with others. Of course, Vitou and his family have been massive contributors, as well as the LEC teachers. We had some really beautiful contributions to our wedding. We asked friends and family around the world to send in videos and prayers to be shown during the service. I knew there were a few tears watching them! The amount of people that watched our wedding and sent in photos and interacted was a massive encouragement too. We felt truly blessed by the fact that people were joining from all across the world to watch Kristi and I start our lives together. We need to recognise Dawne and Taara. Dawne was surrogate mom to Kristi during the wedding preparations. I know Dawne’s heart broke for Kristi not being able to have her mom here, but also it also broke for Kristi’s mom. Dawne, I know, was a blessing to them both. Kristi had someone to help and guide her. Kristi’s mom could be reassured that someone was there for Kristi. Dawne and Taara joined forces to help decorate our house beautifully for the wedding. So many people commented on how beautiful it was.

I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Kristi’s family. We’ve never actually met in person so everything is online. Kristi’s parents and brother are hilarious, so I can see where her sense of humour fits in.

Just living in Cambodia is a blessing. At least once a week, but usually more (sometimes once a day), Kristi and I will say together, “We live in Cambodia.” It’s been four and a half years of living here and I’m still shocked and surprised about the fact I get to live here. I just love taking it all in.

Finding our first marital home that ticked all the boxes was amazing. Kristi and I wrote a list of what we would like in the house: two bedrooms (or space to escape from each other), air con in the main bedroom, close to a scenic outdoor space, safe area, some appliances, practical for inviting people over, relatively cheap. God gave us everything on our list and more. When we thought ‘close to a scenic outdoor space’ we thought maybe a 10-20 minute drive. It’s a 30 second walk to the lake. We actually have two rooms with air con. We have enough space to comfortably host small gatherings. For the meantime, and our first year together, it’s pretty much perfect.

Other notable blessings include

  • honeymoon in Kratie
  • seeing Irrawaddy dolphins in the wild
  • going to the Zoo
  • getting an oven
  • fitting out our house
  • having a full-sized oven where we can cook food, bake and even roast turkeys
  • Cambodia week challenge
  • the beauty of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

Challenges

I would overall say that 2021 was a good year for us. But that was not without difficulties; we’re still in the midst of a pandemic for a start. However, I know that my challenges have not been comparable to some of the tragic circumstances many have faced as a result of COVID-19.

I returned to Cambodia in January, and at that point the country was still COVID-19 free. Towards the end of February, the first community outbreak had been announced. A group of Chinese, let’s say, entertainers had been flown in privately to Phnom Penh. It was arranged that they would leave the hotel quarantine before the two weeks. Because of the nature of their entertainment, social distancing was impossible to maintain, and it seems they entertained quite a few rich businessmen. Unfortunately, this was how the outbreak started. By April, the first lockdown was imposed.

Now, if you thought your government’s announcements were last minute, you might be shocked at how Cambodia does it. The first city-wide lockdown was announced after 11pm, to start at midnight the same night. Many people went to bed and woke up in a lockdown. (This was the same for when they started using just neighbourhood lock-downs. Many people woke up to find their street had been blocked off in the night and there were police at the end of it.) So, these lockdowns were somewhat challenging in normal circumstances.

I would say I have never experienced real culture shock, but the lockdown was the closest to it. I’d also never been homesick until that time. Cambodian culture and British culture are in some ways completely different. These differences are amplified during difficult situations. Furthermore, when you are stressed, it is very difficult to shut off your ingrained cultural way of thinking. One of the reason cultures exist is to help us navigate situations and provide frameworks to process unfamiliar scenarios. When the way you are processing a stressful, unfamiliar situation is the complete opposite of the way those around you are doing it, it gets ugly. You also get ugly.

British values involve structure and rules. Rules and structure are there to make sure everyone knows what is happening, there is little room for ambiguity and we see rules as things that keep us safe and secure. If we don’t fully the rules, people get hurt. So, when I was told I could not meet anyone, I didn’t. I followed the rules and spent most my days in a small, windowless bedroom.

In Cambodia, security is found in social networks and family ties. Let’s say that this resulted in different approaches to the lockdowns. I was living with Cambodians at the time, so the difference was a daily reality. The family was mingling with neighbours, family members were dropping by (they do just live just around the corner). People were still playing volleyball together. The interactions were only happening within a network of their community so was somewhat limited. But, unfortunately, each person in your network has their own network. And those networks link to other networks, and so on. So it seemed to defy the whole point of a lockdown and more over, make sure that any spread was concentrated upon those that are closest to you.

Not only did this flexible attitude towards the lockdown rules frustrate me, it also left me feeling deeply uneasy and unsettled. Rules provide safety in my British thinking. The rules were being broken, thus it was unsafe. Furthermore, it really highlighted my foreigner status in Cambodia. I was obviously very different, not just in the way I looked but in how I thought and lived, and I’m not going to lie, it made me pretty sad and sometimes angry. It emphasised my rootlessness. I am no longer rooted in the U.K. The roots in Cambodia are only borrowed. I have no place to call my own. Those that can understand my birth culture were miles away and dealing with their own lockdown. But they would not be able to understand the conflict and frustrations of my situation. Those in Cambodia could not understand how the lockdown had left me alienated and alone. I did feel quite severed from the world and the relationships with those both far and away. The resulting frustration and anger bubbled up into a text-based argument with Vitou. I will be honest: I was not nice. He did not deserve to become the scapegoat for how I felt, but he did. We quickly made up but I still recognise how badly I dealt with what I was feeling and I was surprised about how much judgemental, self-righteous, cruel and bitter nastiness bubbled up and out from inside me. It definitely left me very humbled.

Also, during this, we were trying to arrange a wedding in Cambodia. All our plans had to come to a halt and the processes we had tried to start needed to wait, or started again. Planning this wedding was particularly hard because, as far as we know, no one had tried to plan an online wedding in Cambodia between two foreigners during a pandemic before. We, therefore, learnt some interesting facts:

  • You can only get married in Cambodia if at least one of the partners is Cambodian (we learnt this when we were already pretty far into the process).
  • Unless you are a homosexual couple, then your embassy may be able to provide the service (but again, this may only extend to couples where one partner is Cambodian).
  • It is illegal to get married in Cambodia if you are impotent (except possibly at your embassy as long as you are homosexual).
  • Two foreigners can get married in other countries, such as Thailand, China and Indonesia.
  • You can get married online in Utah, and you don’t even have to be a Mormon.
  • This online marriage service is very popular with Israelis.

Of course, one of the hardest things was trying to arrange a wedding with no family members. It was particularly hard for Kristi, as the bride’s family is often a lot more involved. Kristi didn’t have her mom to go dress shopping with (Dawne stepped into this role). Also, Kristi’s dad couldn’t walk her down the aisle. This caused a few tears.

Communicating with friends and family was hard to do. There were are few frustrations that they didn’t feel like they knew what was going on. The problem was, no one did. But when you don’t know what is happening, it’s easy to feel like you’re being left out in the dark. This meant that I had to be really clear about communications and trying to make sure everyone felt included.

Communication back home was a theme that continued into the second half of 2021. In part, it was because of the intensity of the June/July wedding communications. There was quite a lot going on and a lot of communication happening. But in August, I think I was a bit exhausted with all the communication I had done. It also seemed that after the wedding was finished, a lot of communication was met with a wall of silence. This first produced some anxiety that I had offended people or let them down in someway, so they were not communicating back. It also produced quite a bit of heartache. Despite evidence to the contrary, it became hard to shake the feeling that no one from the U.K. cared about me. I had to come off social media and actually stop communicating with those back at home for a while, because I had quite a few sleepless nights as a result of these feelings.

Other challenges include

  • cockroaches and rats
  • ill health and injuries

Growth

This is more about personal growth, but being married to a woman from the hospitality state, has meant I’ve grown in girth somewhat.

I’ve set myself personal challenges, some of which I did really well with, some of which didn’t really happen. I set myself a challenge to get up early everyday for a month and that mostly happened. Then, the next month was a challenge pray everyday for Cambodia. That was actually a real gift and I loved doing it.

I’ve grown spiritually, with a deeper understanding of God’s everyday presence in my life. I recognise that more and more as the year unfolds. I always cognitively knew about the benefits of prayer and Bible reading, but it’s becoming more of a lived experience in my life. My theology has definitely deepened as a result.

Also, continuing in my masters degree has definitely deepened my understanding of the gospel and mission. Furthermore, with the impending role of branch leader, I’ve been developing and reflecting on leadership and what it means.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and actually Myers-Briggs has been quite helpful in that. I usually buck against personality type things and take them tongue-in-cheek. (Kristi is a fan of enneagram so I will often talk about her being a typical 9 for very arbitrary reasons to wind her up.)

There are various books that have been real eye-openers to me. These are all available on Kindle (at least if you live in the UK).

  • Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology by Jung Young Lee
  • Live No Lies by John Mark Comer
  • The Way of the Shepherd by Dr Kevin Leman and Bill Pentak

Into 2022

2022 sounds weird doesn’t it? There’s going to be even further changes at the beginning of the year. Two of the major things are my MA and my job. I’ll be doing various MA modules (with a lot of essays due, all amounting to about 18,000 words) as well as starting my dissertation. The research for this dissertation will happen in Khmer, which is somewhat daunting. However, I imagine my language skills will grow massively during that time. I don’t have to hand it in until 2023, though. Also, I’ve coerced Vitou to help me.

Becoming branch leader will be quite a time consuming job, especially as it is in addition to my roles as New Members Supervisor and Language Learning Supervisor.

I definitely know next year will be another year of massive personal growth. I’ve been growing in setting boundaries, and I will probably have to continue in this manner. But for now, before I get into 2022, it might do me good to have a bit of a rest.