The Adventures, mishaps and lessons learned in Chelsey’s YAGM year.
YAGM – Chelsey Johnson from Christ Lutheran in Cottonwood.
It’s something I was expecting in my YAGM year. Time to reflect, slow down from hectic schedules, and just “be”.
However, it’s not a word I would use to describe my last two months in Cambodia.
Since my September update, I have moved into my living community at the Lutheran Church of Cambodia’s Rainbow Hostel and started working at the Life With Dignity head office in Phnom Penh (and last week taught my first English class at the Phnom Penh Bible School).
I attended a consultative workshop with LWD and my YAGM cohort at Siem Reap in September, learning more about LWD’s work in capacity building related to small business, agriculture, disaster relief and response, and climate change adaptation.
I completed 72 hours of Khmer language training… and there’s still so much to learn!
I traveled to the province of Kampong Cham to volunteer at a children’s camp, learning new songs and dances with the cutest kiddos. Breathing in the countryside air surrounded by the most beautiful rice and lotus fields was also a gift of my time there.
I worked in Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces, visiting multiple villages and interviewing families to see first hand the work LWD is doing in Cambodia. Let me tell you, they are changing lives.
I’ve been in awe, mile after mile, of the beauty in Cambodia’s countryside, a view that is not a familiar for me living in the buzz of the city.
I’ve been approached for conversations about religion, politics, and race in the US, Cambodia, and around the world.
I biked in rush hour traffic – and survived!
And more rice.
And felt an incredible sense of peace. The work I am doing has challenged me to grow personally and professionally, affirmed many of my passions, and filled my heart with purpose. Though there have been moments of struggle in adjusting to a new home and culture, there have also been moments in which I feel such a deep sense of peace, of knowing this is the place I am supposed to be this year, the thing I am supposed to be doing, and the community I am supposed to know.
I haven’t experienced much stillness.
But, I’m not sure I’m cut out for stillness. Life doesn’t seem to stop. Rather, I think I am finding a new rhythm. I have managed to slow down enough to catch moments of beauty and life, moments of patience from my new community in times I haven’t even given patience to myself, and moments of generosity in food, spirit, and love.
Below, I’ve included excerpts from my journal I’ve been keeping to give you an idea of some of these moments in my new pace of life.
Thank you for your continued support and prayers. I think of you all daily, and have at times been moved to tears in knowing that I have such a wonderful community investing in my time here, believing in me, and encouraging me along the way.
I am so thankful for you.
September 13 – Palace Tour
“Walking around the palace grounds, I was struck by the pure colors of everything in sight – the fresh green gardens, crisp yellow rooflines, red shutters, and emerald borders… The two-named pagoda was one of my favorite parts; it’s called the Silver Pagoda by tourists, because the floor is made of silver tiles. They were mostly covered with protective carpets, but I could still feel the silver seams and coolness beneath my feet. The other name of the wat is Emerald Pagoda – this is the more local title, based on the wooden altar and emerald Buddha casting in the center of the temple space. It was beautiful – and as our guide explained the relevance of thousands of Buddha figurines, she dutifully bowed to pay respect…”
September 21 – Friend from Language School
“I had a moment at school this week with a member of the staff. He’s tall and thin, skin wrinkled, and carries his head with a slight nodding. He greets us at the door everyday with a cheerful “Joom Ruep Sua!” and a chuckle. He often attempts to speak Khmai with us, but rushes into sentences we can’t understand. He knows a few words of English, and somewhere between the mix, we catch an idea of what he’s saying. When he sees the excitement of understanding on our faces, he laughs with joy.
On Monday, my friend Abbi and I had some free time between class and lunch, and found ourselves in conversation with this man. He was reading a book and passed it off to us – the text, at first glance was English, and at second glance, I realized was the Bible. I didn’t think he could read in English, but he enthusiastically pointed to the start of John. Abbi began to read, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”
Our friend broke into laughter, repeating, “In the beginning, in the beginning.” Then, in Khmai, began to recite from memory words that felt like the first verse of John. As I listened, I could fell the man’s faith in his words, his excitement, and his smile. I pointed to the top of the page to the verse and book. “John,” I said, and understanding that I was asking for the Khmer name, he replied, “Johan.” We went back and forth, finding out the names of the 4 gospels in Khmer. I couldn’t help but to find myself smiling along with him.
“Christian, Christian,” he said, pointing to himself. I reached out and asked him, first in Khmai then English, how long he had been a Christian. This man was old enough to have survived the Khmer Rouge regime, it was likely he was a convert resulting from mission work in Cambodia in the 1990s.
“One thousand, nine hundred, ninety eight,” he said. I smiled, knowing he had joined the faith in a time when thousands of Cambodians were beginning to know my sweet Jesus. The joy in his face recalling his new Christian identity touched parts of my soul.
October 8 – Rain
It’s raining on this Sunday morning. The thunder started in the provinces, echoing through the city hours ago. I could hear it getting closer, and the rain falling miles away, until it was roarously pouring on my own roof. The raindrops are loud and heavy – and I want nothing more than to sit here listening for hours. Today, even the locals are enjoying the rain. From my window, I can see them watching. I want to capture this moment, the view of the city, and the ease it brings my being.
First They Killed My Father
Before traveling to Cambodia, I read the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. I was struck by the power of the story; it’s heartbreaking, honest, and offered important contextual understanding as I entered life in Cambodia.
The book was recently adapted to a film, and a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch the movie in a theater in Phnom Penh with a Cambodian audience. Sitting in the crowd, I wondered how many of the seats were filled with people affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. I’ve been told that most people over the age of 40 have some first-hand experience from that time, and many of those stories have been shared with younger generations.
It’s important to know that First They Killed My Father is not the only story of the Khmer Rouge regime, nor of Cambodia. But, it is a story that many Cambodians can relate to and a story that provides a unique perspective into a tragedy that is still impacting Cambodia today.
It is also a story my family and friends at home can access. The film is now available on Netflix, and in my opinion, takes time for the viewer to understand some of the geo-political background that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge ideology and genocide.
There are numerous books (like, A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival by John Tully) and resources (like the Phnom Penh Post) available to learn more about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, and the current political climate. But, if you’ve got 2 hrs and 16 minutes, First They Killed My Father is a good place to start.
P.S. Your favorite Chelsey in Cambodia will appreciate you taking the time to watch – and would love to hear your thoughts on the film!
Want to keep up with my time in Cambodia between newsletters? Check out my blog at chasingchelsey.wordpress.com, or search #chasingchelsey on Instagram.
I’d also love to be in touch via email, if you have any questions or just want to share life! firstname.lastname@example.org