Christmas in Cambodia has been educational and surprisingly sweet. Starting with Thanksgiving, when all my co-workers and random Cambodians I would chat with, all asked about Black Friday instead of Thanksgiving. And then as Christmas neared they asked about Santa and presents…this made me question what exactly is it “the West” seems to project as “Christmas?” More than that, it made me realize how I celebrate the holiday and what it really means to me. I love buying my loved ones that “just right” gift. I love decorating my house and seeing all the decorations around town. I love all the parties with friends and family. I love bundling up in the cold weather outside and flannel jammies inside. I love the movies and songs. I love my mom & sister’s annual “Christmas Walk” around Philly. And I love mom’s Christmas Eve dinner and opening presents with the family Christmas morning. But are these all the things that make Christmas or just traditions I associate with it? I immediately thought of the movie “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown asks “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Then, taking from another classic, I remembered the Whos didn’t let the Grinch stealing all their symbols of Christmas stop them from celebrating…and who am I to argue with Who logic? I mean in primarily Buddhist and tropical climate Cambodia, can they not celebrate Christmas because it doesn’t get cold and there aren’t decorations everywhere? Of course not! None of that stuff really matters.
So here I am in Cambodia. I can’t act like it’s not hard being far from home. I thought I’d be fine, but as Christmas day nears I realize how much I do wish I could be home with them. I also realized this will be my first Christmas ever not spent with my family. No matter where I moved to (from Cleveland to Spain) I’ve always spent Christmas with my family. But it’s becoming an awesome way to celebrate like a Who and learn to embrace the true spirit of the season.
This isn’t to say I haven’t done anything to celebrate the way I traditionally have. I had some lovely decorations arrive in a care package and found an adorably ridiculous tree and decorated my apartment. My roommate and I hosted a few Christmas gatherings, including mulled wine, spiked hot cocoa, and cookie decorating. I’ve also received some lovely packages from home with tokens of love and I went to a WONDERFUL combined churches Christmas service this past Sunday. A bunch of churches around Phnom Penh came together and hosted a beautiful service. I loved seeing churches from all different denominations come together and celebrate the holiday, again showing none of the traditional stuff really matters.
But I’ve also been learning from the Cambodian Christians I’ve met, better ways of celebrating the holiday. They don’t get caught up in big dinners or gratuitous amounts of gifts or twinkling lights or staring out the window for snow or Santa – they all see it as a day to celebrate the birth of Christ and to give back by volunteering in various ways that show those in need what the gift of Christ actually looks like. (I sure wish I’d had this revelation before I planned my trip to Burma over the holidays in an attempt to hide from being away from my family)
Regardless of where I am though, I’ll be celebrating and remembering the gift given to the world (including just little me) on this night we celebrate. Jesus really is the gift that keeps on giving. His peace, His saving light, and His unwavering love is always there. As a dear friend wrote in a card she sent me “No matter where you are in the world, God sent His son for you.” In this I find my rest and love talking to Cambodians about Christmas (like when they ask me why we celebrate and who Santa is). This is something that carries all year long, especially in the work I’m doing here. This gift is specifically for the lost, the oppressed, the forgotten, the hurt, the lonely, the abused, and this gift is given all year.
So instead of being sad, I’m choosing to use this year as a chance to really celebrate in an unfiltered pure way the only reason for the holiday. In this truth I tear up at the meaning of Oh Holy Night. In this truth I am still able to celebrate the Joy to the World, even if I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'” – Linus “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (aka Luke 2:8-14)
My apologies for the long silence. I had a visitor (my good friend “MoMo” ) for almost 2 weeks, we traveled to Thailand, I came back and had one of the best Thanksgivings ever, and have been elbows deep at work. Here’s a quick recap:
Thailand…well that’s a trip best told through pictures.
First we flew down to Phuket to check out the famous southern Thai beaches. MoMo and I rented motos to explore the area, spent a day on the beach, and spent a day island hoping. The rock formations were amazing and I always feel at peace near/in water.
Then we headed up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for the lantern festival. We met up with some IJM Thailand folks and they were amazing hosts. We all went to the festival together. Standing in the middle of tens of thousands of glowing lanterns floating up into the air, each carrying prayers, wishes, and hopes was just dreamlike. The next day we went elephant riding and got to bathe them, and feed them. My obsession with elephants continues, ha! We explored Chiang Mai the following day and went to Bua Tong Waterfall (aka the “Sticky Falls”). Limestone deposits make the waterfall walk able. We climbed up and down the waterfalls and it was one of the coolest experiences of my life. The water so cool and SO clean, I couldn’t help but take a sip…yum! We also visited the IJM office and I got to hear about the case work they’re doing there (citizenship rights for the hill tribes & child sexual abuse). I had met the legal fellow at our IJM orientation in June, so it was fun to hear how he was settling in and swap stories.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Cambodia. We did a quick 24 stop in Siem Reap so MoMo could see Angkor Wat and then took the bus back to Phnom Penh. It was a whirlwind, but so fun! I can’t wait to go back to Chiang Mai and actually leave the Bangkok airport to actually check that city out sometime soon.
Just a few days later it was Thanksgiving. I actually wasn’t up for celebrating this year. When MoMo left it was harder than I had expected. It was a reality check that she got to go home, and I didn’t. I realized I was only about half way through my time in Cambodia and started thinking of all the things I gave up and was missing, in order to be here. This also coincided with feeling a bit useless at work. The past few weeks I was “busy” but mainly doing menial tasks and very support driven/administrative things. While trying to remind myself every little bit I did was a part of the big picture and trying to stay humble, I felt like an athlete warming the bench. Needless to say, all this brought me way down. While chatting with my mom on Thanksgiving eve I told her I wasn’t feeling up to joining my coworkers for Thanksgiving dinner. She sternly told me (like the true mama bear she is) I would be attending that dinner and I would be celebrating Thanksgiving this year. I did as I was told and I’m SO glad I did. It ended up being one of the best Thanksgivings ever. There were 22 people, kids, adults, fellow coworkers, every possible type of dish you could imagine. Growing up an immigrant family in the US I haven’t had many BIG Thanksgiving dinners, since we didn’t have any other family around, so this year was even more awesome because I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting. For a few hours, I felt like I was at home in the US surrounded by love and the feeling of belonging. I went home that night remembering that wherever I am, God will always provide comfort when I most need it, in the most unexpected way and remind me I’m where He wants (even if it doesn’t look like it). I Skyped into dinner with my family the next morning (hurray for 12 hour time zone difference). It was so great to chat with them and see the dinner they were having and laugh with them, like I was right there at the table with them. That day at work a pile of work landed on my plate, thrusting me back into the game and all was right in my world again. It’s been a busy few weeks since then. We are working on finalizing something huge here at our office and I can’t wait to share it with you!
This year I’m thankful for fun adventures, amazingly compassionate friends who can love me through tough times, the opens door and hearts of people I’ve met here in Cambodia, my lovely coworkers, my funny crazy strong family, and piles of work 🙂 And in big news, I’m SUPER thankful for reaching my fundraising goal!! I am now fully funded to stay in Cambodia for my full year! Thank you to ALL my supporters!