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.
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.
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.