The Kingdom of Cambodia according to Karen

by Karen Bortvedt

Each year, the Maryknoll mission class must pick a theme. We, the Class of 2014, selected “Immerse Yourself as Jesus Did,” based on a quote from Pope Francis. While my initial immersion in the waters of this new life in Cambodia occurred almost six months ago, I spent the last month going a little further from my shore of “normal life” and diving deeper into the day to day of Cambodia. Amazing how that first step was the hardest part of the dive and the great sea of life in Koh Roka soon became my new normal.

Ministry of Presence

If you had asked me one month ago, why are you going to Koh Roka for a month? I would have told you, I am going to practice my language skills (that was the easy answer). By that measure, I am a huge failure. I feel I understand less now than when I came. I have realized this is partially because when I first arrived people spoke slowly, we had basic conversations, and folks spoke clearly. As I became a regular presence, conversation speed increased and my ability to understand did not match that speed.

My whole presence was a bit hard to grasp, at times, but that was the point. Many days, I did not ‘accomplish’ much by the USA standards. No metrics were taken, no measurable outcomes can be charted, nor was there even a “to do” list from which tasks could be removed. I was simply present.

Sometimes, I would help the Grandmas sweep the fallen leaves up for burning. Sometimes, I would help prepare the food. Sometimes, I would help with English assignments. Sometimes, I would just sit around and watch videos on someone’s computer and we would talk about the different things happening – usually, they were set in the Western World and I would explain various things like department store window displays. For some, it struck them that I would choose to come live in Koh Roka for a month – or even that I would come to live in Cambodia.

All of these small moments, were just about being here. I have the opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, while many in this village do not have much opportunity to encounter the world outside a few kilometers from their homes. I was that opportunity – as are the many visitors that have come before me and the many visitors that will come after me. This was hard for me to wrap my head around fully, as I am a rubrics, metrics, and list kind of person, but there were moments shared with the community that I said, “Ohhh, this is what it means to just be present.”

The Name’s Karen, They Call Me ‘Cher

‘Cher is short for teacher–I quickly learned to respond to ‘Cher, and, while walking through the village, would often hear ‘Cher!’ shouted with great enthusiasm. While in Koh Roka, I taught English to various adults and youth but consistently worked with the children. These kiddos ranged from ages 2-11; each day my class ranged from 6-26 students, grades 0-4. Every day teaching was an adventure. We covered letters, numbers, body parts, colors, and many other topics. I had a core of around 12 students that did come every day (with another 10-20 that rotated) and those children enthusiastically sang the songs and played the games I invented to practice vocabulary. For those who know me, you will know much of my life, I assumed I would be a teacher ‘when I grew up,’ so it was nice to get to be a teacher again and those kids will no doubt be much of what I miss most from Koh Roka.

Doing the "Hokey Pokey" in Koh Roka

Doing the “Hokey Pokey” in Koh Roka

What Does the Fox Say?

No one knows… But, did you know, animals speak different languages in different countries? Little known fact. For example, in Cambodia, ducks don’t say quack they say kep. Cows say maa. Pigs say ooo, ooo, ooo (similar to the US noise for a monkey). Dogs say Woo (“f” sound doesn’t exist and is impossible for Khmer folks to say). Birds don’t chirp they jeep. And, my personal favorite, chickens don’t cluck, they say tuck-a-tot.

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