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Opening Up: Accompaniment, Vulnerability, and a Brutal Back Rub

I haven't been able to move for two days. My legs shake when I try to hold myself up, my head feels like it is being squeezed in a compress. I've over-consumed Advils and Airbornes, forced myself into drinking healthy amounts of water (something I so often don't do around here). I'm sick. I refuse to go see the doctor. I insist it can't be that bad. Over dinner, I insist it will go away on its own and that I just need sleep. But as I barely manage to lift a spoonful of rice to my mouth, my host mother snaps. "I think it's time for some Khmer traditional medicine."

Warily, I accept, totally unaware of the experience to come. Turns out getting naked and letting a Khmer woman scrape the crap out of your body with a metal coin is a pretty good time for a lesson in vulnerability.

The after-effects of my first foray into Khmer traditional medcine. All blood and bruises.

During my time in Cambodia, one of my most special relationships has been with my host mother Lai Heak. She's 35, a mother to two hilarious girls, incredibley poignant, perceptive, and smart as a whip. If you had asked me about her before that night in early January, I would have said we were close. Friends, definitely. While we washed the dishes or worked on our cross-stitching projects, we would sit and talk about everything: friendships, loneliness, struggles, frustrations. And yet as I laid in my bed that evening, every inch of me hanging out, the stirring stench of menthol wafting through the air as Lai Heak ground Tiger Balm deep into my skin, it was not my nakedness that made me feel exposed. It was a question. "How are you, Jessica, really?"

My ever-insightful, deeply compassionate host mother and best friend, Lai Heak.

Before coming to Cambodia, I was prepped in the fact that developing relationships would be paramount to my experience this year. The ELCA Global Missions team makes generous use of the word "accompaniment" to describe the philosophy of our mission work. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: meet people where they're at - where ever they're at - and walk with them on the journey, where ever they're headed. And if and when God comes up in that journey, awesome. It's a philosophy that hones in on the idea that God is present in relationship, and that it is in this connection that the divine is readily found. So that's where I've put focus this year: in relationship. I explore people's hobbies and passions, laugh at jokes, ask hard questions. I make it a point to put my phone down and look people in the eye, say yes to opportunity, greet everyone like they're an old friend. And many people have become just that. And yet there are still moments - when I'm talking on the phone or walking with a visitor, or laying on a bed naked and bloody and bruised - where someone looks me dead in the eye and asks, "but how are you?" and I flounder. Sometimes it feels that despite being here and asking others to put themselves on the line so deeply for my own sense of self worth, for my own pride in having developed "relationships", I have learned nothing about being vulnerable myself. Don't get me wrong - I walk the walk, talk the talk. I know how to discuss struggle, how to verbalize the hardships I should be feeling in my community: "Well, you know, life here is beautiful but I can't pretend it's without struggles. There's no way someone can sit in a community like this day in and out and not feel the pain of the people I live with. There is a hardship amidst the joy, a perseverance, a desperation. And as an outsider that eats at you - there is guilt and desire to do and frustration at one's lack of ability to create effective change. You share moments that are awesome and fun and open your eyes to the humanity of your fellow man, but your eyes are also opened to their unmet needs and the ways the world has let them down. It's a constant inner turmoil between the pain and the passion of my people here."

And this talk satiates people. Sometimes people even applaud me for being real with them, thank me for my vulnerability.

Realities of daily life in my host family's home community in Kandal province.

But if I was really being honest with people, like if someone asked me what I think about all day, how I process what I witness here, and I decided that my most vulnerable self was ACTUALLY worth indulging in, it'd probably yell something like this: "Well, I spend a pretty decent amount of time naming all the spiders in my room and then pinching myself because I coexist with them so peacefully. And, yeah, my neighbor went to the hospital yesterday because of inadequate nutrition and couldn't afford to stay there, but I spent as much time worrying about the fact that my host father had changed the wifi password before he left to drive her and didn't tell me what he changed it to before he left. And, I mean, I really wish I could go dye my hair, but that would seem frivolous to my community who live on a dollar or two a day, so that's out. I'd rather be finishing my cross stiching project than teaching yet another class, even if the students are literally begging me for my time. I know I should be deeply troubled by the fact that my neighbors don't have electricity or running water, but I spend more time trying to figure out how to ration the one bag of Doritos my mom brought me and figuring out short cuts on my laundry out of laziness, not empathy. And I should be pissed that my students are coming to school without shoes, but I am really sick of trying to slip my Chacos on and off constantly in this barefoot culture. I obsess far too much about how the cellulite on my thighs waxes and wanes, and not enough about the fact that my fat is a direct product of some solid childhood nutrition most of my friends here didn't get. And mostly I spend the most time being pissed at myself for not being more pissed about all things I should be pissed off about here." When it comes down to it, my deepest self is still pretty despicable, pretty selfish. I feel a lot of shame in the fact that I spend so much time obsessing in my head over things that are so ordinary, so normal, so STUPID compared to the incredible challenges present in my host community. And while I care - care DEEPLY - about those issues, sometimes I can't help caring about myself a little bit too. So when Lai Heak asked that question, "How are you, really?", I didn't want to tell her the truth.

Sanna gets it. Sometimes the pressure is just too darn much.

The thing about accompaniment is that it's a two-person deal. You can't just meet someone where they're at and walk with them. They have to walk with you too as you go on your own journey. This is really easy to forget, though. Sometimes it's easier on ourselves to get wrapped up in our savior complex, our desire to help others, and we thus forget to ask for help ourselves. But we're all broken. We're all in need of the saving grace God offers in relationship. We just have to give in to being vulnerable. So, for whatever reason (maybe the fact that was sick and out of my mind, maybe the fact that I was already as exposed as a person can be), as Lai Heak dug the coin across my back, I needed to be honest. I told her everything, mentally preparing myself for some serious judgement. And you know what? She LAUGHED. Which made me sit up at look her, really look at her. Her soft smile, and heavy eyes, her nose puckered the way it does when she's excited. And she started in on her own list of terribly and wonderfully selfish thoughts: hair cuts and love and babies and eating problems and body insecurities and deep, burning desires to live within walking distance of a bakery. We just talked. WE talked. Together. My insecurities stacked on top of hers. We laughed and cried and scraped away all our vulnerability. Somewhere, between all the feelings, menthol, and scratches, something holy was present. And I was instantly healed.

A few more awesome relationships: my 10-year-old sister Suzan and I at a resort in Phnom Penh for the Lutheran Church of Cambodia's annual retreat.

A few more awesome relationships: My 6-year-old host sister Susanna and I getting cheesy during a church picnic.

A few more awesome relationships: Sreyleak , Sarann, SoPhouen and I attend a free Khmer concert in Kampong Chhnang City.

A few more awesome relationships: My co-worker Dara and I leading a missionary group on a tour of our province's floating Vietnamese communities.

A few more awesome relationships: My coworker, friend, and "second-mother" Muntar and I gather rice during December's harvest.

A few more awesome relationships: My CambodiYEAH YAGMs, loving life on a group vacation to Sihanoukville.

***For the record, coining, as it is commonly called, is a very common traditional medicinal practice in parts of Southeast Asia and China. The practice, in which blood is brought to the skin via vigorous scraping (normally by a metal coin - hence the name), is believed to heal a number of illnesses and symptoms, including sore muscles, headaches, colds, fevers, and other more severe illnesses. The treatment has come under criticism in recent years, especially in its widespread use among immigrant communities in the United States whose defense of the practice is characterized by some as a defense of abuse. Some scientific research of the practice claims that the treatment is at best effective solely as a placebo, maybe with mild benefits from muscle massage. Still, many traditional communities swear by the practice, and all I know is that I felt amazing afterwards.***

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