Reflections on One Year in Cambodia

October 6, 2018 marks one year of living in Cambodia.  Ironically, when I hit my one year Cambo-versary I wasn’t even in Cambodia.  I was in northern Vietnam with two kick ass girlfriends riding motorcycles on a five day ride.  Cambodia had a huge national holiday that week, Pchum Ben.  When Cambodians pay their respects to their ancestors up to seven generations (think great-great-great-great grandparents).  It’s also a specific Cambodian Buddhist practice where monks chant for 24 hours to open the gates of hell for 15 days.

My friend, Stefanie and I had time off from work and language school so we figured we would make the most out out of the time off and met up with one of my American, backpacking friend, Katie.  It was great to get outside the city, see limestone cliffs, jungles that looked like they came straight out of Jurassic Park, and laugh so much.

Stefanie, myself, Katie in Vietnam.

I also got some much needed “seat time” in prayer with God.  Reflecting over my first year, Cambodia and seeking wisdom for the upcoming year.  I found a great list of questions to reflect on a year and wanted to share some of the best ones with you:

The most important goal that I achieved this year was:

First day of work during my first week in Cambodia.

Moving to Cambodia.  This is a goal / dream / something I have been working on since I got back from my tourist trip to Cambodia back in 2014.  It took a lot of hard work.  Being open to letting God do what He wanted in my life.  Finding a NGO that needed marketing skills and was willing to sponsor my visa to move and work here.  Fundraising to make this dream a reality.  Doing a kitchen remodel and getting my home ready to be rented out in a year.  Then landing here wasn’t at all what I expected, so there was a process of adjusting expectations to meet the current realities of my life and some grieving that came along with that.  Now, I’m at a place, where I know that God has called me to Cambodia.  I understand more of how I can use my skill set to help those in need here in Cambodia.

My biggest relationship accomplishment was:

Friends from Level 1 Language School.

I recently saw a meme that said, “Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s.”  Yet, this is something that I feel like I’ve been super blessed to have received while here in Cambodia.  If I’m completely honest, for the most part most of my friends here in Cambodia have come from connections tied to the Everitts who spent 24 years here as missionaries.  But I also managed to make friends through language school, Chab Dai (an anti-human trafficking network), helping out at motorcycle races and through the local beer community.  When I landed here I knew no one and after struggling to find connections during my first few months, I settled back into my naturally extroverted personality and I definitely have some award winning friends who have opened their hearts and homes to me.  (Edit:  I read this blog post outloud to my roommate before posting it and she exclaimed, “are you going to talk about your kick ass roommate?”  Yes, Amanda.  Thank you for being kick ass.  And for our weird sing songs that have words in common while I motodop you around town being two white girls singing Justin Bieber at the top of our lungs.  Thank you.)

These are the skills I acquired this year:

Khmer alphabet practice.

Here is an unending list:  I learned how to speak Khmer.  I’m learning how to read and write Khmer.  I learned how to ride a motorcycle in the city (and avoid cows in the countryside).  I can carry a five gallon jug of water on my motorcycle back to my house without dropping it.  I can also carry another person on the back of my moto during rush hour and am confident we’ll be safe.  I perfected using charades as a basic form of communication.  I can tie a Khmer swimsuit.  I can sleep through funerals, weddings, someone who thinks serenading the neighborhood with his karaoke machine at 2AM is a good idea or thunder/lighting storms.  I learned how to protect Bullet from all the aggressive street dogs.  I learned how to take care of brand new puppies.  How to move via tuk-tuk and what to look for when searching for a new place to live.  How to cook on a gas stove top, like I’m camping every day of my life.  I learned how to make an entirely new friend group at the age of 31 that crosses different nationalities, languages and religions.  Learned how to pray without stopping.  Learned more than I can ever imagine about trusting God and His provision in my life.

An obstacle or a challenge that I overcame this year:

From home 3 of 4 during my first year in Cambodia.

Re-adjusting my expectations once I arrived in Cambodia.  I landed HARD in Cambodia.  It became very apparent once I landed here that things that were promised to me weren’t going to happen and expectations of what I was here to do had changed without being communicated at all to me.  That was a really tough realization for me.  I felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me.  I questioned God’s calling, everything that had lead me to arriving in Cambodia, you name it – I doubted it.  No wonder so many missionaries quit after their first year!  I totally understand why now.  On top of that, I have such a high expectation of myself and thus of others around me, I felt really hurt by those I believed were put in my story to help, support and guide me in how to do life here in Cambodia and those people let me down.  I was crushed and unsure of what to do to untangle myself from this messy web.  Luckily, God brought some amazing friends and mentors into my story to help pick up the slack that had been left by those around me and these friends helped me process and untangle myself (and it I’m being 100% honest, put me back together – both in terms of my spirit and my self worth).

This year, I learned the following about myself:

Mermaiding in the Mekong.

A wise friend once told me, “You don’t come to Cambodia to find yourself, a lot of people end up lost here.”  I think that is true, I’ve seen a lot of expats from all over the world that just end up “stuck” in Cambodia.  I think Cambodia is a place, people come to escape – something.  It’s tailored to that individual.  But you put that in the context of how innately spiritual this place is, it gets really complicated fast.  I believe the majority of people don’t even realize it – foreign or expat.  I think some of the spiritual warfare I experienced in landing here was just Satan messing with me.  “Just what exactly are you made of, Forstrom?”  I found myself asking God a lot this summer, “Why did I have to go through all this to get here.  Here feels exactly like who I was back in Portland, just in a different location.”  And I’m choosing to believe that God allowed this to happen so I would really know my own strength, His strength in me and the power of community, in being humble in asking for help and admitting when I’m losing it.  Only to reflect back on the hard months this year and remind myself, I did the best I could, I took the high road, maintained my character and learned a lot from this experience.  God is just as sovereign here as He is in America, North Korea, or Switzerland.  He is just as sovereign in my heart as He was back when I lived in Oregon.  I’m still the mermaid-loving, laugh so hard I have to pee, motorcycle riding, Jesus follower, who believes in loving big, a good craft beer, and that the Holy Spirit is full of whimsy and adventure.  That God has called me to this place, to make an impact and always point towards His goodness.  Cambodia is where I’m supposed to be.

The most fun I had all year was:

First motocross race in Kirirom.

This had to be camping in Kirirom, with the Welch Family, for several different reasons.  First of all, camping is something I love to do and so it gave me a sense of “normalcy” I had been missing in my life. Plus, Kirirom is the only place in Cambodia I’ve been cold and seen pine trees.  I also got to bring Bullet so he got some much needed “off-leash” time.  This was the first time, where I got to do something that was a major mix of nationalities.  Typically, I do some stuff with my expat friends and other stuff with my Khmer friends.  Motocross opened my eyes to a whole new world of doing things together with both groups of friends.  I also had the opportunity to practice a ton of Khmer with my friend, Ven, who drove Bullet and I up to Kirirom as he spoke about as much English and I do Khmer.  It also strengthened my commitment to the Prayer Circle Team, as I got to know even more of their members who were there either participating in the race or helping out with the race.  Finally, it gave me the opportunity to witness God working in a community of people who know about the sex industry here in Cambodia, but have radically different views about it.  I was able to witness how God is using so many different lives in a way to encourage people to be thoughtful and respectful while discussing hard to talk about topics.  Also, did I mention, I got to camp and be in pine trees!

My best memory of the year was:

Kirk and Kelsey getting hitched!

Watching my brother get married.  Being able to fly home and be a bridesmaid and stand with all our family and friends to watch him and Kelsey get married was amazing.  It was such a blast and definitely one of the best days of my life ever – not just this year.  While I was home for two weeks, most of which was a jetlagged blur, it was great to be 100% focused on an awesome wedding weekend.  Kirk and Kelsey made their wedding super special, with loving touches – way too many jokes (is there such a thing?), hugs and close family and friends.

Jenna’s First Cambodian Apartment (1 of 4).

The books I read this year were:

I wrote a whole blog post about this.  You can see the list here.

The scariest thing I went through this year was:

When I first landed in Cambodia, my housing situation wasn’t the best.  While it looked great from the outside, it was an open style house, which meant dust from the dirt road, mosquitos and my neighbor who burned his trash all came into my bedroom.  There was nothing I could do to stop it.  I literally blew through eight weeks of inhaler medicine (for my asthma) in three weeks.  I was miserable at work, tried to get ahold of my sending agency for support and failed.  There were nights it would pour down rain so hard and could have clean the apartment air, but I was so weak I couldn’t unlock the front door to get the fresh air inside.  (I also panicked that if there was a house fire, I would be caught in it).  There is no 911 here in Cambodia and even if there was, I didn’t know how to use my new calling company well enough to make a phone call from my phone, I didn’t know how to get ahold of anyone, I didn’t have internet and I knew it wasn’t safe to walk at night to the team house – even if I could find it or have the energy to make it there.  I was so afraid.  It got so bad that I thought about running to the neighbors and asking them to call a hospital and thought about being medevaced to Bangkok.  The only thing that kept me sane during these few weeks of panic attack / asthma attacks was the mantra, “God didn’t call you all the way across the world only for you to die before you do anything.”  I think this is a good example of what a spiritual attack looks like.  It’s both physical and psychological.  And plays to one’s specific fears – for me being choked and dying alone.  It took all the energy I had to find a new apartment to get myself into a physically healthier spot to avoid any more health scares.

The nicest thing someone did for me this year was:

Snap from Beckie about Bullet while we were apart.

I struggled with finding the ONE nicest thing someone did for me, it’s a tie, in my book.  The first one, was Beckie agreeing to watch Bullet for a month while I was in training in Thailand, that actually turned into three months due to some visa issues on my end.  She never signed up for that and she single handedly took care of her dog, Danner and Bullet.  As stressed out as I was landing in Cambodia and adjusting my expectations, knowing that Bullet was being so well cared for was definitely helping put my mind at ease.  Beckie even sent me daily messages of encouragement from Bullet.  They always brought a smile to my face and made me feel connected to him even when we were literally on other sides of the planet.

Lisa and I modeling in front of the bathroom 😉

The second thing, was having Lisa Everitt respond to an email chain that was started by my pastor at Oaks Parish, went to Josh Butler at Imago Dei which was then passed along as a connection to Lisa, who lived in Cambodia.  Little did I know, Lisa would become a huge part of my life here in Cambodia and if it wasn’t for her friendship – AND – mentorship, I would have moved back to Oregon months ago.  I’m so thankful she responded to the email, was opened to meeting with me and more importantly open to sharing all her friends, connections, insights to Cambodia with me.  I’ll be forever grateful to her.  Even though Lisa (and her hubby, Dave) recently moved back to the States, but the cool thing is – they moved to Portland, Oregon so they are basically stuck having me as a friend forever!

A new food/dish I tried this year was:

Favorite breakfast meal: baj sac cruk.

Oh man!  I tried so many new dishes this year.  My favorite being my go to breakfast option: baj sac cruk, which is rice, pork and either a fried duck egg or scrambled egg with spring onion.  Then you mix the whole thing up with pickled vegetables.  It’s amazing!  Other food items, I tried included: frog, balut (hard boiled fermented duck egg), chicken feet, Vietnamese egg crepes, custard apples, a ton of vegetables I can’t pronounce.  Various combinations of proteins and noodles together in a bowl as well as various shaved ice desserts with sugared fruits and vegetables mixed in.  The list goes on and on.  I even managed to figure out how to make Bullet his meals here in Cambodia to save money!

Here’s one adventure I had this year:

Bullet trapped in the Singapore airport and handling it quite well.

My mom says, “It’s never an adventure unless at one point you wished you were home.”  I’m realizing “home” is a pretty opened ended definition for myself.  It gets hard to answer the question, “Where are you from?”  Let’s see, I was born outside of Boston, raised in Oregon, I live in Phnom Penh, near the Russian Market.  My parents moved back to the East Coast so my mail goes there now, but I still own a house in Oregon…

All that being said, the only time I REALLY, REALLY wished I was “home” and I’ll be honest, I would have taken either home – Phnom Penh or Portland, was when Beckie, Bullet and I got stuck in the Singapore Airport after our flight to Cambodia refused to let Bullet on the plane.  Even though we had all our documents AND Bullet had just got 17 hour from San Francisco to Singapore without eating or going the bathroom.  I know traveling is hard, but this pushed me to almost being near tears.  I was so worried that we’d have to fly back to the United States or that Beckie would never get to see Cambodia or that Bullet was going to have a dog melt down and then we’d never get on a plane again.  But, Bullet kept his cool and Beckie helped me stay sane and we ended up on a later flight and made it to Cambodia all in one piece.

This year I practiced self-care by:

Jenna’s first Cambodian motorcycle.

Aside from $8-$10/hour for non-sketchy massages.  The biggest contributor to myself care was buying my (small) moto, which gave me a basic sense of freedom, both it terms of financial freedom from paying for tuk-tuks everywhere on my poorly designed budget, but also a sense of independence that I was missing.  I’ve told a few friends that riding a motorcycle is a lot like skiing.  You pick a line, drop in and only pay attention to what is happening in front of you.  What is behind you (for the most part) is not your responsibility.  For those of you who have known me the longest know that, I feel the closests to God when I’m skiing.  So it was great to find something similar to that flow state here in Cambodia.  I stepped up my self care in a major way when I purchased my bigger motorcycle and committed to the Prayer Circle Cambodia team.  This has given me more ways to help out in various capacities as well as the ability to gear up and ride for a few hours while I process things happening both in my life but also in the lives of those around me.

My biggest time waster this year was:

Emotional Support Pup, Bullet, just doing his job. Keeping Mama sane.

Stressing out about things I could not control.  I look back at how much time I spent crying – both out loud and in prayer to God – about things I had no control over or things I couldn’t understand and it’s amazing how much of an emotional time suck that was.  I’m so thankful that chapter of my life is over.  Matthew 6:34 says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  I think I literally told God a few times, “Yes, but have you been to Cambodia and dealt with this exact problem before?”  Which just shows you how spent I was emotional stressing out.  Definitely looking forward to having less worry about things that were out of my control in year two and recognizing the signs that come along with that and putting into practice what I’ve learned in the middle of this to be healthier going forward.

What I am most grateful for this year is:

Oaks Parish friends while I was on home leave in July.

YOU!  I don’t even want this to come off as corny.  I knew I had amazing family and friends before I started this crazy adventure, but this year has made me truly see how extraordinary you are.  When I first was called to Cambodia, I thought I was going to do this all by myself.  You know, because I’m a strong-willed female, but God specifically spoke over me, that I needed a community to walk through this with.  This was confirmed by so many meetings I had while I was still in the States, friends thanking me for inviting them to journey with me and share my life and what God is doing here in Cambodia even if they had never been before.  This first year had some major highs and some major lows.  Even though I was a half a world away, I knew people were praying for me, rooting for me and checking in on me.  In that same vein, friends have reached out to me and shared some amazing highlights (babies!) and some major downers and asked me to walk along them in prayer and support.  It’s been a real humbling experience.  You guys have shown up in amazing ways, coming to visit in Cambodia, sending me notes of encouragement, finances, emails, Facebook messages and phone calls, seriously these things make my heart burst.  Thank you so much.

Here are three words that would sum up this year:

Gratitude, adventure, and protection.

Staff of Daughters heading to worship via motorbike. Nationalities: Cambodia, Germany, Denmark, Philippines and USA!

What I’m looking forward the most to for Year Two in Cambodia is:

Stefanie, myself, Srey Pov practicing for Prayer Circle Cambodia. #girlgang

There are so many things that I’m looking forward to in Year Two.  I better grasp of the language.  Right now, I’m at the point where I can sound out the letters and finally read signs around me.  I feel like I’ve recovered from a strange sense of amnesia and am starting to finally understand the world around me.  For example, there is this Khmer money place called “Wings”, which is like where you go to pay your utilities bills or send money to your family in the provinces.  Just this week, I realized the name is the character for “w” and the character for “ng” a literal translation of the English word and not the Khmer word for “wing” like on a bird.  I found the whole translation process fascinating.  I’m also really looking forward to more motorcycle rides and encouraging more female riders both in racing motocross and in joining the Prayer Circle Cambodia team.  Continuing to foster great relationships with my Khmer friends as well as my expat friends.  Finally, I’m most excited to get back to work serving those who need help the most here in Cambodia and helping the extraordinary team of amazing Khmer people who are interested in making their country even better.

Have any questions about my first year here in Cambodia?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I’ll make sure to answer.  I know it’s not the New Year yet, but as you are getting back into the new rhythm of fall, what are some ways you have been reflecting on life this year?

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