The Beginning of Good-Bye

Two weeks ago, Andrew and I made a trip down to Phnom Penh, with Declan in tow. It's a long, bumpy, stressful drive - eight hours or more over potholes and sections of missing concrete alongside reckless taxi drivers. Which is why I haven't been down since our trip last November.

Andrew had meetings and trainings, while I had coffee dates and dinners planned with friends. Some of them I hadn't seen since last year, before the baby, and I knew this would probably be the last time we'd meet before I fly back to America.

So even though we don't leave for another eleven weeks (but who's counting?), the good byes have already started.

I really don't like saying good bye. I hate the idea that it may be years - or never - til I see someone again. I always feel a bit at a loss of what to say. How do you sum up the friendship of someone into a few words that will tell them how much they mean to you, without turning sappy or too emotional?

I was tempted to lie and say, no worries, we'll come to Phnom Penh again! Although I have zero desire to make the trip one more time with a howling baby. But at least I could avoid the painful good bye in person.

Good byes are said far too frequently in the expat community. People return home for a year's break, or for good; or they move to a new job in a new country or continent. We message each other or catch up on Facebook. And once in a while, someone will stop by and say hello.

A group of Poipet expats from two years ago - none of whom still live in Poipet.

But most of the time, good-byes are for good. You share the unique experience of life in a place like Poipet, a deep, soul-shaking, transformative experience. And after a year or two, they are no longer a vibrant part of your life.

So I'm wrestling with what it means to say good bye well. How to be intentional about making memories, to have a plan to leave Poipet well. Because one thing we've read about transitioning back to our home culture is that the arrival will be rocky if the departure wasn't done carefully.

And good byes aren't always for ever. Twelve years ago, when I first visited Thailand and met a young Thai Christian man named Byrd, I had no idea that he and his wife would be supporting us during our wait in Bangkok to have our baby and introducing us to the hosts who would drive us to the hospital when that time came.

This past weekend, Andrew and I spontaneously decided to drive to a neighboring city to visit one of the Samaritan's Purse staff and his family. It's something we've talked about doing for months, but never seemed to find the time. But Thursday, we made up our minds and arranged a lunch date. And Saturday morning, we went. It wasn't the ideal time. We'd just gotten back from a road trip that previous Monday. I was tired and would have liked a day to rest at home. But it ended up being absolutely the right thing to do.

There's never an ideal time to say good bye or make time for relationships. Something will always be begging for more attention; excuses can always be found. But when you realize your days are numbered, it motivates you to get it done - even if it's not perfect.

So that's my hope - that in the next eleven weeks, I will take advantage of every chance to love people, make memories, and say good bye well.

What about you? Have you ever experienced transition and goodbyes, maybe leaving for college or moving to another city for a job? Any tips to share?
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a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together with in a larger society

Poipet Christmas Party 2012

A few months ago, two of our closest friends living in Poipet left for new jobs in different countries. We were incredibly sad to see them go, although happy they were going to jobs that were exactly what they'd been praying for - one to another Southeast Asian nation and the other to the Middle East to work with refugees. Saying goodbye to them got me thinking about community - about how it differs from community in the USA, what makes it work, and the challenges we often face in developing healthy relationships with other foreigners and with nationals. (also included are awesome photos of our community here in Poipet from last year's Christmas party - so many of them have already left in the past 6 months!)

I feel that I am a part of several communities, and sometimes balancing them all can be tricky. In Poipet, we are part of the expat community (expat is the fancy word for someone living outside their home country). We also could describe ourselves as being part of the development community, whose primarily role here in Cambodia is advancing the development of the country through our health and water programs. This sets us apart from expats who work here in the diplomatic or business sectors. We are also a part of the Christian community, albeit a more unique part of it. We also are members of the Kansas City community and our church community there as well, but it feels like we are increasingly distant from those groups.

More Poipet Christmas! Our "community of ladies"

Community here in Poipet is a fragile thing. Last year, in a span of a few months, seven expats and one family all left for a year or permanently - leaving a huge gap in our community. When someone moves here, one of the first questions asked by both Khmers and by foreigners is, How long are you staying? Because that is often an indicator of how much we invest in relationships with them. It shouldn't be that way; I should be interested in supporting and encouraging everyone here, regardless of how long they intend to be here. But unfortunately, people come and go so often that it can be emotionally taxing to spend time getting to know someone, only to say goodbye a few weeks or a month later.

On the flip side, the expats who do stick around often develop deep bonds. In my experiences living overseas, I definitely feel that many of the friendships developed over a year or two in a foreign country are much stronger than ones I have back home. Partly I think it's because there are only a few people to spend time with who speak your language and understand you. In America, if I didn't really like someone or "click" with them, I just didn't hang out with them; there were plenty of other people to spend time with. But here, you discover that the deeper traits of faith and shared struggles in living in a foreign country are much more important than similar personalities and likes/dislikes.

It can also be a struggle to balance relationships - a balance of expat friendships vs. Khmer friendships; spending time emailing and Skyping friends and family back home vs. spending time with people here in Cambodia. Some expats have few Cambodian friends and are only interested in spending time with others who speak like them, eat like them, live like them. Others spend so much time with nationals, they have an incredibly difficult time maintaining friendships with people back home or other foreigners in their city. I definitely have far more close expat friends than Khmer friends, unfortunately. Although we are here to work with Cambodians, I have struggled lately to find other Cambodians I can connect with. I blame it on language, that I'm not anywhere fluent enough to have meaningful conversations with Cambodians. But if that is what is really holding me back, then I should be willing to invest time and hard work in learning the language, regardless of how difficult it is.

Only 3 of us in this photo are still in Poipet!

But as I reflect on all these different facets of community, I'm reminded that, as a follower of Jesus, I'm not called to just spend time with people who make me feel comfortable and good about myself. Whether in Kansas City or Cambodia, my natural tendency is to drift into superficial relationships with people just like me. If all my friends are white, Western-born, English-speaking, well-educated Christians, what does that say about my beliefs about Jesus? How can I profess to follow a Savior who dramatically entered the world to disciple and redeem those who were dramatically UNlike him in every way - both in form and sinfulness - and welcome them into his family?

Relationships here on earth will never be perfect or even easy. We're all sinners with messy lives who are made into new people only by the grace of God. But learning to live in community and relate to other sinners is part of becoming who Jesus is, both as individuals and as the Church. The passage below from Ephesians speaks of Jews and Gentiles, but I think it also applies to all sorts of groups at opposing ends of the social spectrum - be it expats and Khmers, Christians and Buddhists, those living overseas and those living in their hometown. Christ has created a new Body out of different communities for his glory and for the good of the world.

14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.

-Ephesians 2:14-18

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Back to Cambodia

Our home leave is over and we are back in Cambodia, enjoying cheap Thai food, 90-degree weather, and warm Khmer phrases.

Our four weeks back in America were really wonderful - lots of time spent catching up with friends over coffee and enjoying the fall weather. Cambodia is beautiful, but it doesn't have trees this color!

My (Whitney's) family took another trip to Branson, which we did last year as well during our home leave. Branson was never a big vacation spot for us growing up, but the past few years, it's become our default destination because of its overwhelming number of cheap accommodations and family activities.   This was the first time in several years all of our family was together on vacation. Since my brother and I have both left home (and I have a habit of leaving the country frequently), it can be difficult to arrange a time for us all to get together. But this year, we did it!

Yup, we are definitely back in America.

Eating out with my family - their first time at an Indian restaurant

And of course, spending quality time with this family member

We landed back in Thailand for a night last week then traveled back home. I'm always thankful when our luggage arrives intact and we don't have any major flight delays or misses. It will be another year before we are back in the USA. It seems like a long time - and it is - but we're hoping for another year of great work, seeing God work in people's lives, and more adventures in Cambodia. 

Yup, definitely back in Cambodia!

Saying Goodbye

My American friends weren't the only ones I had to say goodbye to this month.

Over the past month, I had the opportunity to become close to a very special girl; we'll call her Polly. My friend Gretchen wrote a beautiful post about her on her blog a few weeks back. She is someone Dr. Rusty has been caring for over the past several years, through many painful and life-threatening illnesses. Recently, she was admitted to the local hospital for severe anemia and an incredibly painful lupus flare. We recruited people to donate blood for her. There is no national blood bank here. Friends and families who have matching blood types have to volunteer to give blood for patients, and normally it is given straight the patient while still warm in the bag.

When Dr Rusty and his family left, Polly was doing ok, and we were hoping to send her home within the week. However, when I visited her in the hospital last Friday, she had rapidly declined, and I knew immediately that she didn't have long.

The feeling of inadequacy and the inability to do anything to help is so strong. I know that if we were in the United States, there would be an equipped intensive care unit, specialists, and plenty of medicine to make her better. But she was born in Cambodia, functionally orphaned at a young age, crippled with illness, and now dying in a rural hospital with absolutely zero hope for recovery, outside of God.

So I began to pray - that God would relieve her suffering. Whether through death or miraculous healing, I honestly didn't care. I just wanted Polly to know healing. 

So last Sunday, while in church, I wasn't surprised to get the call that she had passed. We rushed to the hospital immediately, and I comforted her wailing sister as best I could through my own tears. Funerals are held very quickly here. That afternoon, we drove to her home and sat with her family through a Christian service. Andrew drove the truck with a makeshift coffin in the back down a rough dirt road. They covered her body with logs and lit it on fire, burning away every physical trace of her existence within 8 hours of her death.

Why does suffering exist? I could give so many academic and theological reasons. But when I ask, why did she, specifically, have to suffer? In my work in the emergency department, I asked that question almost every day. Why did that car have to pull out at that exact moment the boy was riding his bicycle past? Why did that child slip and fall, hitting her head at just the right angle to cause a fatal bleed? I can rationalize the intentional violence or neglectful parents - sin turned at its worst towards the innocent. But it's the seemingly random assignment of illness and accidental deaths that leave me bewildered and without answers.

I know God has a reason, but that it's beyond my understanding right now. I have faith that one day, I'll know the answer. Or maybe I'll get to heaven and realize it doesn't matter any more. But I've decided that, while I may not know the answer to Why?, at least I have an idea of what to do about it.

And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
Matthew 25:40

Bon Voyage!

Andrew and I want to thank you all who came to our Bon Voyage party and really made our last day in Kansas City a phenomenal day, getting to see almost all of our favorite people! I even got a motorcycle ride from my brother Parker, which was pretty sweet.

Unfortunately, I was too busy catching up with everyone and stuffing my face to take photos, so I thought I'd share a photo from our last Conard party, for my birthday. Kevin (Andrew's brother) bought me a mustache. I've always wanted one...

Andrew and I woke up after getting four very good hours of sleep, grabbed our bags and were driven to the airport by my parents, Doug and Gail. We're now waiting to load onto the plane to fly to Charlotte, North Carolina via Cincinnati. When we arrive, we will pick up a rental car and drive two hours to Boone, North Carolina.

We love you all and will keep you updated!

P.S. - For those of you having comment problems, I have fixed the settings - so your comments should show up now!