Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I wanna see you be brave!

One of my co-workers explaining the schedule on International Women's Day

Who are we meant to serve? This question resounds in my heart as I hear the readings today and reflect back on the past 3.5 years of my life. When I left my home to travel to Cambodia in January 2014, a 57 hour adventure that is a tale for another time, I didn't know what I would be doing in Cambodia. I didn't know anyone in Cambodia. I, honestly, knew very little about Cambodia. I just felt a strong pull to go. One of the most common misconceptions about my work has been that I was there to work with Catholics or work to convert more Catholics. 
For context, Cambodia is about 97% Buddhist and most folks are happy to remain as such. For that reason, I think the first reading really struck me.  It says, "Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." 

God's call, when I went to Cambodia, was just that: strive to do what is right and just for all people. It was not for me to decide who would be the beneficiary of my love or to set out some kind of requirement. All I could do was be a good example, live a life that demonstrated what I believe it means to be a good Catholic and if others chose to follow, maybe they would choose to live their lives in a similar way. 

Credit: C. Dittmeier

One of my co-workers in particular comes to mind when I think about the effect we can have on those around us, usually without even knowing. My personal approach to work is to do whatever needs to be done and to try to meet needs I see arise but my passion is to help others to reach their full potential in whatever passion they choose to follow.  For much of my time at my ministry, I thought this one co-worker was an undervalued asset in our organization. She had worked in various roles and excelled at any project she was given but was confined within the hierarchy of the society that said her job title was not that of great power. However, whenever it came to speaking out for the rights of our Deaf staff or ensuring they were included in decisions, she would step up to the plate, even if it meant compromising her own relationships with other hearing staff members.

I didn't realize how much she had been watching me for the entire time I had been working there until about the last year of my ministry.  The moment for me that stands out was when we had an incident with another staff member and she came to me asking how best to handle the situation. She was visibly shaking at the prospect of having to discuss this with the higher-ups in our organization and we talked through her well-formulated plan.

At one point, I asked her if she wanted me to get involved and, although it would have made her life much easier in that moment, she looked me square in the eye and without any quiver in her voice said, "No. I need to be brave. You will not be here in the future and I need to practice being brave now while you are here to support me."
For me, this moment is one of the most profound of my experience in Cambodia. Had you asked me, "What is it that you do in Cambodia? Or, who do you serve?" I would have rattled off my normal elevator pitch, "I manage communications for the Deaf Development Programme, which has six different projects striving to ensure deaf Cambodians are accepted, respected and included as equals in all aspects of Cambodian Society. I specifically handle social media, the website, volunteers and visitors. I serve the Deaf Community" But, in that moment with my colleague, I realized that was not the only group I was meant to serve. 
Like Jesus in the gospel today, encountering the woman of great faith who showed him his ministry was for more than just a select few, I realized that I was not just the communications manager, I was building the capacity of our staff not only through direct actions likes trainings but also as they observed how I lived my ministry. 
Credit: C. Dittmeier
I think the actions of Jesus and the message of the first reading are a great reminder for all of us. We are not the ones who decide who is worthy or who should be helped. All we can do is live each day of our lives in a way that helps others to live through their own faith, to shine with their own light, to be brave. We can either help rub off some of their rough edges and polish them or we can tarnish their natural glow.

 Who are you meant to serve?

This is an adaption of a 'church talk' presented in Allentown, PA on behalf of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the thoughts and perspectives expressed are those of Karen Bortvedt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Walking on Water

I am a fearful person. I'm scared of spiders, snakes, heights, anything moving fast, large animals, anything unpredictable. I sit with my back to walls if at all possible. The first time I flew on a plane, I left a farewell letter to my friends and family in case I didn't make it back. It was a flight from Oregon to California... You get the picture, things scare me. 

My very best scared face...

When I signed-up to be a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, I definitely had to put some of my fears behind me and step out of the boat just as Peter did in the gospel today. What if something happened at home? How would I communicate not yet knowing the language? Would I be able to do something that was actually useful? What if I didn't like the food? And, the tarantulas, oh the tarantulas.

We had all kinds of training about being the hands and feet of Christ to those where we served, but, for me, it was far more often I who looked up and saw the hand of Christ reaching out in the form of one of my Cambodian friends and colleagues. They are the ones with the great faith constantly telling me, it will be ok or muy muy (which means one by one). Some of them had lived through genocide, all had lived through war, not having food was a reality they had experienced yet they had built a resiliency that was astounding and a faith that could move mountains.

One of my colleagues in particularly comes to mind when I think about great faith. Sandra was a person of little significance in Cambodian Society. She is a deaf woman with very limited formal education. She had grown up with the odds against her. Her father passed away when she was young, because of that her mother could no longer support all of the children and ended up surrendering them to an orphanage so she knew they would not die of starvation and would be safe, not living on the streets. Sandra also had become deaf in a childhood accident so she had no way to attend school, because no one knew sign language and she couldn't hear the teacher. Sandra eventually got connected with a deaf school, though dropped out because the instruction was so poor. After being separated from her mother for years, they were reunited. She also got connected to the Deaf Development Programme where I worked. And, now she supports many of her siblings and her mother. Needless to say, Sandra didn't have it easy but she was the most fearless individual I think I have ever met.

Often times, when I was worried about something that was probably trivial, Sandra would be the one saying, "Oh, here is how we will solve that problem." And, she didn't just reach out and help me to walk on rough waters. A huge part of her daily work was to travel to more remote parts of Cambodia looking for deaf people who had never had the opportunity to attend school. Many of the families we encountered didn't even know the possibilities for their child. They felt that individual's full potential was to plant rice and tend the cows – maybe if they were lucky they could arrange to marry them off but it was unlikely.

One of our amazing outreach workers
When we met many of these deaf individuals, they would hide in fear or try to get away from the attention but Sandra would literally reach out an arm to them. She would use gestures to indicate that she too was deaf. She would try to get them to come sit with her and look through photos of the work we were doing. For many, you would see the connection on their face as they began to understand Sandra was another person who engaged with the world through her eyes not her ears. Many of these individuals would go on to attend basic education with us, receive job training, and start to earn their own livelihood.

For me, Sandra is a real life version of the hands of Christ reaching out to those who are brave enough to step out of the boat. She has no doubt changed dozens of lives for the better with her fortitude, my life included. For all of us, I think we can choose to be the comforting hand to those around us, to serve those both near and far and help them to have the faith they need to perform outstanding feats. We must all reflect, daily, who we will be in this gospel story.  Are we being called to step out of that boat that is our comfort zone?  Or, are we being called to reach out our arms to someone else struggling to walk on water?

This is an adaption of a 'church talk' presented in Shillington, PA on behalf of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the thoughts and perspectives expressed are those of Karen Bortvedt.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Deaf Development Programme Tour Guides

As she starts to tell her story, she is visibly shaking. Her signing hands quiver and the words come in bursts. She shares about how she became deaf after choking on a guava leaf as a toddler. She then jumps to a past job she had. Just as quickly she moves on to another thought, completely out of any kind of chronological order. And, then signs, I am finished. Nervously swaying back and forth and looking directly at me for some kind of permission that she can sit down, her cheeks flushed and head slightly bowing down revealing how uncomfortable she is with this whole experience.

Myra was one of the women I worked with while living in Cambodia and her story came to my mind while listening to the gospel reading today about the transfiguration [Mt 17:1-9]. We all find ourselves transformed at different points in our life and just as with Jesus, we have to go down, off the mountain where that experience happened and return to every day life. If you keep reading in Matthew, immediately after this experience, Jesus is back in his life of ministry. He is healing a child and those he encounters, outside the two that went up to the mountain with him, know nothing about the transfiguration. They continue to see him as the same person but an irreversible change has occurred.

As I return from living overseas, I can relate to what that experience is like of returning to the world changed, though many around me see me as the same person. For the past 3.5 years, I lived, worked, played, and shared in the Cambodian Community, specifically the Cambodian Deaf community. People like Myra, changed my life.

Myra was one of the cleaners at the organization where I worked.Within Cambodian society, which is very hierarchical, she was an unimportant person. As a deaf woman, with a low level job, she was not supposed to be in front of a room of people. One of my roles while in Cambodia was to receive any guests that came to our project and explain to them the work we did to help deaf Cambodians to be accepted, respected and included as equals in society.

"Respect" - one of the goals in the Deaf Development Programme's mission statement

In Cambodian society, I was the educated one who could talk with other foreigners to share this story. For me, this was an uncomfortable role. Why should I tell that story when we had 20 staff members who were deaf Cambodians and had lived that reality? Because of my discomfort, I started a tour group with any deaf staff members who were interested to welcome visitors. This is their story and they have the voice to share it, even if they themselves didn't yet know how or believe it at the time. I met with them to help improve their public speaking skills and provide them with the 'numbers' they would need be our tour guides.

I insisted that the cleaners be a part of the tour guide team, if for no other reason than they had the most flexible schedules. This was not a fully altruistic action, we had visitors popping up all the time and sometime interrupting my other work. If there was a team of people that could share the responsibility of tours, I suddenly had more time to focus on other things. Plus, it meant this structure would continue after I left. Myra definitely had started to own that identity that she was not someone who should be in front of the room, even to tell her own story. A story that only she could truly tell. That became the new objective. Confidence.

As we continued our practices, Myra was one of the staff members I saw grow the most. Others would encourage her, provide support if she forgot a detail of our programs, and, possibly more importantly, the visitors from other countries, with more education, lighter skin, more 'power' who came to learn about our project were transfixed by her tale and the many challenges she had overcome. By the time I left Cambodia, about two years after I started this tour group, Myra was often the first to volunteer when groups were coming. She was always eager to tell her own story and connect, even with people who did not use the same sign language as she did.

Deaf Tour Guides introduce themselves to visitors

Transformations like this, for me, are what mission work is all about. I saw a woman who barely lived to adulthood embrace her own personal power and stand up to share her experience. She would confidently tell those who came how her father attempted to smother her after she lost her hearing because he thought she would just be a burden. Yet, she survives and strives for a better life for herself and her own daughter.

I have been incredibly blessed to meet many, many Myras in my time in Cambodia. I have gone through this amazing change seeing the resiliency of the human person and now return to the United States a different person, but the ministry does not stop there.

I think the transfiguration can be a calling to each of us. We all have moments, or witness the moments of others, or if lucky help bring about moments for others where we truly see that we are blessed and beloved children of God. While we all can't move overseas, or even live among the most isolated in our own country. We all have time, treasure, and talent we can share. What will we do when we come off that mountain?

This is an adaption of a 'church talk' presented in Pewamo, Michigan on behalf of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, the thoughts and perspectives expressed are those of Karen Bortvedt.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Traumatic Grocery Store Experiences

Courtesy of Maria

Grocery stores.  These seem to be a common trigger for many people returning to the USA from overseas.  I have been asked numerous times if going into the grocery store made me cry, or have panic attacks, or go and start rocking in the corner next to the discount bin.  It is mentioned in most of the re-entry literature as something to avoid or approach with great awareness.  The number of options and variety are supposed to be overwhelming and a clear indication of the privilege we experience here that many will never enjoy.  While I do not disagree with these statements, and acknowledge for some this is a trigger, my traumatic grocery store experience was a little different.  This is not to say that I do not really miss my market ladies, like my produce lady pictured above.  This Auntie would always greet me with such enthusiasm, asked about my recent travels, let me know what produce was good, showed concern for my weight loss.  She also had tears in her eyes when I told her I was moving back to my country and I didn't know when I would be back.  Needless to say, not exactly the huge, big-box grocery store experience most of us have in the USA.

There were some things that I did get at the supermarket and not the market, because sometimes you just need pasta and peanut butter (generally not together).  In Cambodian supermarkets, which exist in the big cities, there are dozens more employees than I think we would say are necessary to have working at any given time.  For that reason, sometimes, an employee will follow you around the store, not necessarily asking if you need help  (they don't need to, their stalker like tracking of your every move implies that they are there to help).  Sometimes, they outright ignore you and may even block the pasta shelf, oblivious to the fact that perhaps they should not get in the way of paying customers.  Either way, there are lots of them around, which was often commented on as a point of frustration by other ex-pats, or business majors.  So, on a recent trip to the local store, you can imagine my disbelief at not one lone employee aimlessly wandering the store lest a newly repatriated lady can't find the Lactaid.  For those who have never shopped with me, I am an 'on-a-mission' shopper.  I regularly enter and ask where things are without trying to find them because it just simplifies the process, plus it gives someone else the joy that comes with being helpful and offers the opportunity for human interaction. 

But, here, my employee tracking skills are a bit off.  I spotted a gentleman wearing what appeared to be a store uniform and cautiously approached trying to see if it was the uniform for that store.  And, here is where the traumatic re-entry part comes and why I think our official re-entry week should have included a photo slide show of uniforms associated with major chain stores in the areas where we are going to be living.  Think about it.  If you shop regularly at Target, Safeway, or any other store and are a somewhat observant person, you know the uniform of those employees (maybe subconsciously). After almost four years outside those norms, I have no idea.  The store's logo is red, so I figured a red shirt could be their uniform.

My new friend looked up and apparently saw the inquisitive, somewhat confused look on my face (likely my tongue was hanging out of my mouth as tends to happen when I am deeply contemplating something) to which he responded, "You don't have to act all scared of me.  I'm just anutha brutha doing his thing." At this point, my face turned as red as his shirt and I tried to explain I was not at all scared of him.  I was just trying to figure out if he worked there because I was trying to find the Lactaid.  He, though apparently thinking I was not only nuts but also a terrified racist, then proceeded to try to help me find the Lactaid despite the fact he did not even work in the store.

Since, I felt asking for a selfie with this man would have only furthered my oddball status, I instead give you some photos of my other favorite market people from Cambodia, who actually work at the stands in which they are pictured helping me.  My fruit lady who would always throw in extra fruit, just because, and who I heard give me better prices than the locals on at least one occasion.  And, my banana lady who was my first market friend when I arrived in 2014.  Here's to figuring out how to get by when you don't fit (and hopefully not offending anyone too much in the process)!

Courtesy of Maria

Courtesy of Maria

Monday, June 5, 2017

Realities of Re-Entry

My human blankets
Often times returning to your own culture is more difficult than adjusting to a new culture.  If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me in the last six months, I would be a very wealthy lady.  But, there is definitely great wisdom and truth to that statement. When I went overseas, I did my best to observe, try to understand, suspend judgement.  For some reason, coming home, I feel like I have more of a right to be critical of 'my own' culture, which in reality is fairly far from my actual personal beliefs.

What are some of my experiences so far that I find most striking? Here are three!

Living attached to an electronic

Sure, that happens around the world and it happened in Cambodia as well but I did not notice it to the extreme it exists here.  It is a no wonder our mental health issues in this country are soaring.  The only connection we have is to a device, and not one nearly as cute as R2D2.  I have now traveled on the T in Boston, the Subway in NY, and the Metro in DC.  Each one is the same.  On most trains, every single person either has in head phones or is staring at a screen, or both.  I have now been asked for directions in every city I have visited and I honestly think it is simply because I look approachable and don't have an electronic in front of my face.  I also do the unthinkable - smile and say hello to people I pass on the sidewalk. GASP! REBEL!

For your humor, here is my favorite 'directions' story...  I was traveling from Jersey City to Brooklyn to meet a friend.  This time, I, too, was relying on the google map directions on my phone but once on the right train, you can be fairly certain it will arrive at the correct destination.  A few stops away from my destination, a woman approached me and asked if I knew if the train went to K-something or other station.  I said, "I'm not sure." But did the exact thing I find depressing and pulled out my phone to check and let her know she was heading in the right direction.  We then continued chatting and I asked her where she was from (usually when one asks for directions, they are visiting the area).  Her reply, "Brooklyn."


Now this is a recognized result of re-entry but my gosh, I could sleep constantly.  If I go out of the house for more than a few hours, I come home and need to just sleep it off.  I think I just find it all so overwhelming.  Yes, those of you who visited me can laugh at this, since Phnom Penh traffic was enough to overwhelm most but that was my normal. Here, just trying to make conversation with people is exhausting because I don't understand many of the cultural references or events they are discussing.  Plus, I can understand everything that is being said around me.  Before, it was easier to tune out.  I also tend to have a drastically different perspectives than most.  Again, I was definitely not fully a part of Cambodian culture, but I am no longer a part of the USA culture either.


People are so afraid.  This one is really hard to describe but in Cambodia, a country that has a government that does not protect the people, where my average friend suffers more traumatizing events in a week than most folks here suffer in a year, where the environment itself can be a daily enemy, where nothing is certain, people have either become desensitized or have just come to embrace it.  I wrote in a previous blog about how my friends there taught me to live through my fear instead of letting it dictate my life and my wish and prayer for this country is that we can learn to do the same.  That fear and worry can be used to fuel creativity and new solutions to old problems, but only if we can get past it enough to act.  As a wise man once said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Extra Credit
Here are a few other thoughts that have run through my head since returning, in no particular order:
1. "Did she forget to put on pants?" Your bum cheeks should not be hanging out of your shorts. Between working with religious folks and living in a relatively conservative culture, clothing wise, my jaw drops daily at the clothes people wear out of their homes.
2. "Um, no wonder food here is 3xs the cost of Cambodia.  These serving sizes are three times what you need to eat in one meal."
3. "Wow, Metro prices haven't increased in four years."
4. "I can breath."
5. I still can't stand close to the edge of sidewalks, someone might drive on them.
6. "Ooops."  There are traffic signals in this country and you are supposed to follow them.
7. "Doggy that won't give me rabies!"
8. "This country is freezing."
9. "This country is so diverse."
10. "There are signs that tell you where things are and label the streets... CRAZY!"
11. "Only 2.5 more months until I am supposed to feel like I belong here."

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Seeing a Shrink

You should see a counselor.  Get a therapist. (S)he needs a shrink.

Likely as you read those lines, you have some kind of gut reaction.  For many, counseling is so stigmatized that just reading those words causes us to want to change the subject.  I have long wondered why such a stigma?  Why do we feel we must be invincible and able to handle it all on our own, all the time?  We accept that we should see a dentist to keep our teeth in good shape, why not see someone to keep your mind and heart in good shape?  Those are harder to live without than teeth.

I became a full believer in counseling almost two years ago, thanks to Saint Kristina, as I call her.  I started going to Kristina because I felt every day a new mental health problem was walking up to my desk and my own well-being was suffering.  An obscene number of Cambodians have suffered some kind of major trauma and as an empathetic person, who has far to many conversations with people that start, "I don't usually tell people about this..." I was daily hearing of trauma.  From abuse (mental, physical, sexual, emotional), neglect, poverty, hunger, war to the ex-pat challenges of burn-out, compassion fatigue, culture shock, depression, I felt like I could barely keep my own head above water because of all the secondary emotional baggage being thrown my way -  there was no time to deal with my own issues.  My body was breaking down.  I was constantly exhausted, overwhelmed, and feared becoming that 'angry ex-pat' (if you have ever lived abroad, you will understand this.  Basically, it is someone who is so burnt-out and has lost most of their ability to interact positively with others.  They tend to be jaded, unhappy, stressed, and highly critical).  I had previously heard all counselors and social workers were required to see a counselor of their own and so I decided since I was counseling so many others, I needed to get my own counselor to keep myself from further breaking down.  This gave me my justifiable reason for taking care of myself.  You can psychoanalyze that later...

This lady sees a counselor

So, why write this now?   Over the past couple of years, I have become more and more outspoken about the benefits of counseling and I thought it was about time I put it on The Life and Love of Karen, since it is one of my loves.  I have watched many loved ones fight to overcome mental health challenges (some on their own) and if I can get just one more person to seek help so they can overcome their mental struggles and function to their highest potential that is an accomplishment. World Health Day, on April 7, was also dedicated to bringing awareness to depression, it will remain their focus for the year as it is seen as one of the leading health issues our world faces. If you happen upon this, and have thought of seeing a counselor but feel you are somehow admitting defeat if you do this, YOU ARE NOT!  You are just going to call in the back-up you need to face the next challenge life throws at your face.  It is definitely a huge part of why I have been able to make it to 30 without some kind of major crisis.

Counseling, I can truly say, has changed my life for the better.  I think of emotional baggage (grief, trauma, stress) like that toiletry with a slow leak in your suitcase.  If you don't take it out, it will just continue to slowly soil everything in your bag.  You can try to just put the lid on tighter but sooner or later the cabin pressure will change and the leak will continue.  If you just pass the bottle on to someone else, it will slowly leak into all of their garments.  BUT, if you hand it over to a counselor, they have the ability to help you actually deal with the problem, dumping it out, transforming it, cleaning it up, and making sure, even with the change in pressure, it does not, again, start seeping into your undies.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Looking back on the memories...

On my way in 2014...

Three years and four months later...

How many memories fit into three years and four months?  As I prepare to leave Cambodia, I am overwhelmed by all my recollections, and that overwhelm tends to leak out of my eyeballs.  All of the people, and places, and experiences that have shaped my existence over the past chapter of my life come flooding back each time I think of leaving.  Here are a few of my best memories:

Cambodian Weddings

I have been truly blessed to have many Cambodians take me in as one of their extended family.  This meant many chances to join weddings and other holiday activities.  These were definitely a highlight for me because it provided a window into a different world.  And, who doesn't love the chance to wear a ballroom gown?

Village People


My motherland, as I call it here, had too many good memories to count.  As I rode on the back of a moto to my village for the last time in the foreseeable future, I was thinking about how much I have changed since that first visit to decide if I wanted to do my language immersion there.  I remember being very nervous I was going to do something offensive (unknowingly).  I had no idea what was going on much of the time.  I was barely allowed to lift a finger to help with tasks.  On this last ride out, I could barely contain my excitement.  I spent the first few hours helping in the kitchen and catching up on all the latest news, where all my youth were going to school, family gossip, and observations of weather patterns.  I helped prepare for Palm Sunday mass and barely had a moment to chat with each of my friends.  These people for me are hospitality incarnate.  They are a model for what it means to welcome the stranger.
Photo Credit: JK Reimer

Deaf Day

Each year, we have a celebration in honor of International Week of the Deaf.  Usually between 200 to 400 people attend.  The events vary but it is so great to see our deaf community having the chance to connect with friends they may only see this one time each year.  All of these events also make me realize that I have been lucky enough to be welcomed into a second sub-culture in my time in Cambodia.  Regularly, I have been hanging out with friends and they start talking about 'hearing people.'  I have to remind them I am indeed hearing.  Each time this makes me realize how fully they have accepted me into their group.

Football (Soccer)

From my village to my work, football brings people together in amazing ways.  As a graduate of the University of Portland, go Pilots, I definitely have a love of football but have loved getting to learn to photograph it.  Having to try to anticipate, being at the right place at the right time, and clicking like mad has led to some pretty sweet shots, despite not having the best equipment for the job.  I think one of the reasons I so enjoy it is the ability to truly capture something in the moment. It reminds me that so much of life can be missed or the outcome changed in just the blink of an eye (or snap of the shutter).


Prior to arriving in Cambodia, I had done a wee bit of Spanish/English interpreting and took a translation and interpretation class in college but working at DDP, I had to develop that skill to a new level.  In high school, I considered going to college to be a sign language interpreter so I guess in someways I have had the chance to live out a dream.  Being in the position to help ensure another person has access to information in their language is truly a humbling experience and the many opportunities I have had to fill that need will stay with me for years to come.

This post is part of BloggingAbroad.org's Re-Entry Blog Challenge