Culture Clash in Cambodia

As the plane soared above O’Hare Airport, the elevation change reflected the rapid change in my life situation. I was raised in small-town America, the child of a country church pastor, and very comfortable with my deep south Bible-belt social sphere. Until I married Forrest McPhail, I had never been on an airplane, and until missionary deputation, I had never been west of the Mississippi River, much less outside of the U.S.A. To complicate my naivety, my doctor advised me not to accompany Forrest on the survey trip to Cambodia, since I was seven months pregnant with our first baby at the time. Now, on my third flight ever, I was moving half-way around the world to a place I had only seen in pictures.

Of course, the starlit glow of deputation had fairly convinced me that people everywhere were wowed by our sacrifice and commitment. The appreciative natives would doubtless dance around rejoicing once they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ we were bringing to them. I had prepared myself by reading missionary biographies, so I was ready to give it all, live in a hut, and eat rice and stir-fry at every meal. The complications of the 21st century were all completely outside my box.

We descended from the clouds into steamy Pochentong Airport, where the senior missionary we would work with during language school met us. His remedy for a 12-hour time change was to keep us busy until evening, so our first stop was the bank to set up our monthly wire transfers. I was stunned when I met another missionary wife at the bank wearing a tie-dyed shirt! I expected a sarong and a checkered headscarf! From there it just got worse. By the end of the month, I bought a refrigerator and a washing machine, and life was looking more modern all the time.

Between language school, caring for our baby, and learning how to live with a house helper, we kept fairly busy and happy for the first few months. One big surprise for us was that the senior missionary would be relegating teaching responsibilities to Forrest and me after just seven months of language training. Their family was due for furlough, and the only other family had joined the team just two months before us. The rookies were it!

Trials began to escalate. Our home flooded three times, twice above the electrical outlets, so we decided to move to higher ground, literally. We took a second-floor apartment. Our first landlady was less than happy, and so was less than kind. My house helper was acting more like she was in charge of me, instead of the other way around, and she also began looking to us to take care of her financial crises, which came quite regularly. An attempted coup took place in the city, and the gunshots disturbed me greatly… After that, I could not tell if I was hearing fireworks or firearms until Forrest would comfort me (of course he could differentiate!). Worst of all, we began to understand the Khmer language, so we could hear the less-than-kind comments about the “long-noses” or “frenchies,” as they call us. It seems we were not as popular as I had expected, and we began to sense this from church members as well!

Naivety was crumbling, but I was building some strong walls of resentment in its place. The beautiful smiles of the Cambodians I met began to look sinister. Forrest told me he felt like a walking dollar bill, because of the way folks asked us for money all the time, especially if we wanted to tell them about Jesus. I had my pocket picked at market once, got price-gouged often, and experienced lewd remarks from the male population when I went out. I began to retreat into my home and garner my needed emotional support from my husband, daughter, teammates, and e-mail.

At this crucial point, God would not let me be. My husband disappointed my expectations, our toddler hit a most awful tantrum stage, teammates got busy with their own families, and e-mails from family never came when I needed them. My Sunday school class of 60-75 children ranging in age from three to twelve years was stressful, especially since my only assistant was my mischievous two-year-old. My carefully prepared lessons often came apart at the seams as I was distracted by snickers and echoes of my mispronunciations.

I began to struggle with unreasonable fear at night. I would wake in terror that I could not shake, pull the sheet over my head along with a pillow, and tremble for hours. I knew oppression was a possibility, but looking back, I think adjusting to a place where I simply could not make things work like they always had led to anxiety that erupted in this way.

One morning, the sound of footsteps rushing past our landing alerted me to the fact that a missionary colleague was looking for our teammate. The man’s wife had been hurt badly in a hit-and-run accident nearby and needed medical expertise. The missionary community rallied in a wonderful way to get medical help, but our friend died. Their family had been staying in our church building as they prepared to leave for furlough the day of the accident. I was thankful to have heard our friend’s testimony at supper a couple of nights previously. She told us of her great contentment with God’s working in her own life and in her relationships with her husband and children. Never had I known someone to show such peace before great tragedy. How I wanted that!

Finally, my bruised heart and thwarted will were ready to receive the feast God was preparing for me. God led my husband to a passage in Mark where Jesus was experiencing a difficult time, humanly speaking, in His ministry. In chapter 6, Jesus receives the news of the violent death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. We read in verse 31 that the Lord and his disciples were so busy at that point that they could not even eat. They decided to leave by boat for needed rest in a quiet place. But the people saw them, and they ran and met them at their destination!

Jesus knew their hearts, their motives, and their thoughts. Many of the people wanted whatever they could get from Jesus. Others had a thirst to see the supernatural. Unredeemed humanity is not lovely, no matter what country it resides in. And yet, He was moved with compassion. I began to understand that what I needed most was Christ’s love for these Cambodian people—an unwavering love that is not based on the loveliness of the loved ones. Forrest and I began to pray for God to give us that love, and He began to work in us.

For me, though, that was not the only issue. None of the comforts that had eased my spirit at other points in my life were helping. Many of the pleasures I had enjoyed were not even available now! No libraries, malls, or phone conversations. I had a gorgeous dream once that I was in a big department store where everything had price tags (Phnom Penh was still backwards then), and I shopped for hours! Comfort foods were gone too. I was shut up, like many campers feel when they go for a week of summer camp. But, like at camp, I was better prepared to hear God speak.

I prayed that God would give me a hunger for Him and I began to read His Word. The more I read, the hungrier I got! Jesus Christ fulfills every longing that I felt then or will ever feel! I was craving things of the world without even realizing it, because I was dissatisfied and anxious without them. Hope sprang up in my heart that God would be all in all for me, come what may. It felt like a conversion experience, and my Bible was suddenly a personal letter for Jennifer-the-new-missionary-in-Cambodia.

If I had known what would await me on the other side of the globe, I doubt I would have so glibly fielded questions at our display table in the church lobbies of America. In fact, I think I would have left the task to someone better prepared. But now I would not trade my life for any other—not because of the adventure and romance of our calling, but because God has pushed and prodded me out complacency and into joy.

Written by Jennifer McPhail. This article was published in the Spring 2010 edition of The Beautiful Spirit magazine.
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