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's Re-Entry Blog Challenge

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Holding on to Hope

I often tell people, "Life in Cambodia is a lot like life anywhere.  There are good days and there are bad days."  The extremes do tend to be higher and lower.  The good is a grand new adventure and the bad is often wrapped in completely baffling cultural norms that do not translate into an immigrant's lived experience,  the norms with which I have grown-up.  But, there are always those hopes for the future that pull me out of the lows and frustrations and seemingly irremediable challenges.  In the words of Law and Order, these are their stories...

Deaf National Football Team

Challenge: The organization where I work, the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme, has the vision statement: Deaf people are accepted, respected and included as equal in all aspects of Cambodian society.  While we strive to make that a reality, we face many challenges.  The largest of which is that for years our deaf community and Cambodians who are deaf have had huge limitations on their access to everything, including education.  Therefore, often times, hearing people are the ones leading the efforts (the problem here being that us hearing folks will never be the best ones to lead efforts for deaf people because the deaf people are best at leading efforts for themselves).

Hope: This past year, a group of deaf community members formed the first Deaf National Football Team.  They took the initiative, and despite many challenges, they made it happen and competed in the ASEAN Deaf Football Championship.  They did not win any grand trophy, but they showed to their community that even in a culture that often seems to tell people who are deaf that they can't, YES, WE CAN!

Road clean-up

Challenge: Cambodia struggles with waste management.  I have biked through mini-wind cyclones of plastic bags more times than I care to remember.  My unfounded perspective is that in the past, Cambodians would wrap things from the market in banana leaves (those you theoretically would just throw in the street).  The "new technology" of plastic bags took over long before the new waste management systems came in to being.  Many people honestly do not understand anything about environmental protection. *There are many, many, many other issues going on here as well but keep in mind it is not just people hating the environment.

Hope: The Deaf Community Center where I work, has done multiple workshops and events on recycling and protecting the environment.  They also did a road clean-up last year.  While these one time events are undone within a few days, some of those involved have mentioned it changing their perspectives on throwing trash in the street.  And, it definitely turned heads when a group of deaf people were coming through to clean-up the mess left by others.


Challenge: When all we see all day, every day, is the same thing, the same perspectives, the same ways of working, we tend to believe that is the only way.  But, when we are immersed in a different approach, we start to see there are multiple paths that all lead to great outcomes.  No one way is the only way.

Hope: Many of my friends and colleagues here save their money for travel or try to find ways to travel, even if just to neighboring Thailand.  Last year, a group of us went to Vietnam on holiday.  It was an amazing experience for me because of the constant, did-you-see-that moments from my colleagues.  Some of the Cambodians I know that are starting to travel come from very simple backgrounds but do everything they can to expand their horizons and learn new perspectives.


Challenge: There are many factors from governmental to cultural to historical that face my lovely home of Cambodia but...


 ...Youth, like my lovely colleague pictured above, bring me so much hope.  This colleague of mine is one of the most selfless people I know, in any country.  She is highly intuitive and uses that to help meet the needs of those around her.  She does not care much about the material and status symbols in life, rather she focuses on how to help those around her be their best selves.  She also strives to improve herself constantly but with the end goal of better being able to meet the many needs of those in her society.  She has to struggle with walking the many fine lines of culture, power, hierarchy, and role that exist here but she doesn't mind the struggle if it is for a greater good.  And, she is not alone, I have met many youth who share her passion and really dump their hearts into the service of others.  In twenty years, these will be the leaders of businesses, government, churches, and communities (or so I dare to hope).



These little ones lead me to hope.  Even if things seem bleak, they are the ones inheriting this world and so regardless of the country where we reside, I think it is important to continue to hope and not get discouraged as a model for them.  The young ones have an amazing way of not getting caught up in the chaos and appreciating that tomorrow will come brighter than today, if we just keep striving for that future.  These little smiles are always a sign of hope to me and just five minutes with one of them gives me the energy to keep on keeping on.

This post is part of Blogging Abroad's 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week four: Change and Hope.


Monday, January 23, 2017

To Be, or to do: that is the question.

She wildly swings her hips, trying to catch the bamboo hoop with each evolution. The more she swings the more recklessly the hoop catapults to the ground. "See, I can't do it," she signs to me. "Try again, but use very small motions." I respond. She tries again and this time the hoop stays around her waist, gracefully swaying, until she decided to stop, letting it fall rhythmically to the ground. While I watched, I couldn't help but think, how much hula hooping is like the challenges I went through coming to a being culture from my doing motherland.

Those who know me will know that I am a chronic-doer. I am rarely not overbooked.

My approach to life:

Give your all.
Attempt to take a time of giving less.

A random two days in my life.  And, yes, it is color coordinated by area of my life.

How does this contrast with the norms of Cambodia?
A recent conversation I had with a friend demonstrates the contrast well.  This friend and I were talking about a potential trip to another province for a weekend away.

Karen: "What about date x (four months in advance)?"
Friend (looks at me like I am loopy):  "We'll see when it gets closer."
Karen (an ignorant foreigner): "But, if it is not on my schedule now, it will not happen because I am already booking that far out."
Friend (rolls his eyes and laughs)
Karen (with semi-feigned exasperation): "Why is it that Cambodians can't plan in advance?"
(Note: I have known him for three years and so I know this question will not offend him.  I would never ask something that directly of a stranger in a culture not my own but he and I have a relationship of straight shooting questions).
Friend:"Why would we? If you are free, you are free. If you are busy, than you can't have that experience. If the time comes and you don't have the money, you just don't do it."

You are where you are with what you have and that is it. For those of you reading this, coming from a doer culture, this sounds crazy to us. Why don't you just plan? Make your reality? Make your future? But, this also leads to making a whole lot of stress... Something many of my Cambodian friends see clearly and find baffling.

Within a being culture, such as I have encountered in Cambodia, people know the word rest.  I joke with people here that I know rest (using the one of three words for know that means to have knowledge of something) but I don't know rest (using the word to know how to do something).  For me, 'rest' means I am not in the office and I have a break in time for my own projects - blogs, grocery shopping, making food, catching up with friends, exercise, showering, normal stuff.  My colleagues see it differently.  When talking with a Cambodian colleague about what I did on my days off, the colleague simply responded, "No wonder you always look so tired and old."

A few times in my life, I have been included in Cambodian 'rest' (because I knew the offer would come so I put it on my calendar months in advance and then when the invitation arrived one day before, I was already packed). For those friends, rest literally is doing nothing. Sitting and doing nothing. Maybe laying on the floor and doing nothing. Maybe talking with people, but doing nothing. It is very impressive to me, and something I should follow more for the good of my own mental health. 

This all brings up the big question, how do we reconcile these two ways of existing, that seem to clash, in a world where the different ways of being will continue to have more and more contact? And, this is where the hula hoop comes in (at least for me).

As a person who longs to do better at just being... I strive to follow the lead of my Khmer country-mates. To be OK without a schedule that goes out six months. To be OK with space in my life that can be empty or filled depending on the whim of life or the needs of those in my life. To be able to finally really know the word for rest. To be able to accept not everything must be means to an end. It is a balance of small but intentional movements that keep us spinning through life. If we try to do, do, do our erratic convulsing will send the whole thing plummeting to the ground (sooner or later). Likewise, if we just stand there, the hoop will never rise to full potential. But, if we do slowly and intentionally while also being present, we can keep on spinning indefinitely.

This post is part of Blogging Abroad's 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week three: Cultural Differences.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Debunking Five Myths about Cambodia

Myth: Cambodia?  That's in Latin America, right?
Um... Nope.  You are thinking of Colombia.  This was probably the most common confusion when I was moving to Cambodia.  Cambodia is actually in S.E. Asia nestled between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.  It is approximately the size of the US state of Missouri.

Myth: Cambodia = Khmer Rouge
That is the Khmer Rouge place, right?  If people know of Cambodia, often what they associate is the Khmer Rouge.  Yes, the Khmer Rouge did control the country from 1975 until 1979. A civil war continued within the country for years following and the 'Peace Agreements'  were not reached until 1991.  At that time, the country began to open up to western NGOs, business, etc.  Those years are still very present in the minds of many people and the rates of PTSD in the country are exceptionally high.  The Maryknoll Mental Health project, under the same umbrella organization with which I serve, has assisted in some studies of the topic and Cambodia has been highlighted as one of the few places third generation PTSD has been seen (this means the people who directly suffered the PTSD pass the tendencies on to the next generation who then pass it on to a third generation). While I have no expertise in this area, it seems the effects of this terrible regime are still felt today as many never received any treatment or techniques for processing.  That being said, Cambodia and Cambodian people are so much more than just these few years in their history. (Source: Cambodia's Curse; Three years of osmosis...)

Myth: Angkor Wat  is the only thing to see in Cambodia

First of all, Angkor Wat is just one ancient temple in a huge complex - plus many other scattered throughout the country of Cambodia.  Second, there are many, many other things to see and do in Cambodia, in Siem Reap alone you can also see an amazing circus, a cultural village, the floating village, night markets, and water falls.  Each different province has interesting sites to see from the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie to traditional dance performances at the national museum.  So, if you only see Angkor Wat or only see Siem Reap, you are missing out on all this tiny country has to offer.

Myth: It is so DANGEROUS!
You are 52.63% less likely to be murdered in Cambodia than in the USA according to  The most common crime in Cambodia is bag snatching.  It is a crime of opportunity and if you are cautious and aware, your chances are fairly low to be the victim of a bag snatching.  There is very little random violence. The biggest risks to your safety, in my opinion, are dehydration or traffic accidents.

Myth: What an underdeveloped place
When I moved to Cambodia, many people seemed to think I would be living in relative squalor.  In fact, I am blessed with a clothes washing machine, a one-shower hot water heater, running water, WiFi, electricity that works 99% of the time, an air condition unit I can use if I want to pay the high electricity bill, and so many other amenities that we take for granted in my home country.  Within walking distance, there are about a half-dozen pizza places and a burger joint or two.  Sure, there is a stinky ditch aka open sewer a few blocks from my house, but other than that and the air pollution, you could forget you are not in my home state of Oregon (if you are in the house...)  Outside the city many people live much as they have for centuries (with the exception of a fare number of smart phones) but it is possible for people to live to the same standards they had in their USA/Australia/European homes for a fraction of the price.  And, there are many local folks that are dedicating their lives to seeing improvements in the lives of their fellow-country(wo)men. 

So, don't let the 'underdevelopment' and danger deter you from paying us a visit and seeing all we have to offer!  Just make sure you don't get on a plane to Latin America...

This post is part of Blogging Abroad's 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.