In January I’ll be headed to Cambodia for roughly ten days as part of the required intercultural immersion aspect of Western Theological Seminary’s curriculum. I’m pumped. But it’s a country I know very little about; let’s be honest (really, don’t hold this ignorance against me), when the choices for the trip were announced I initially confused Cambodia with Cameroon. I thought I was going to Africa. It was embarrassing, especially for someone whose shower curtain is a map of the world. I mean, I brush my teeth and study the world! So usually I pride myself on my geographical prowess, but I’ve been knocked down to size. I’ll not utter another geographical fact for days. I don’t deserve the satisfaction.

Anyways, I thought it might be interesting to write about the trip for this blog in two parts, the first now, roughly a month and a half before we depart, and the second after we return in January. This first installment will include my expectations for the trip, the seminary’s intention in requiring the course, and the like, while the second part will be more of an after-the-fact overview—you know, travel writing proper. If anything, it will be good for me to cement my thoughts in writing so when the trip blows me away, I’ll have the physical evidence. Plus, the alternative would be live-tweeting the whole ordeal, and while that could be fun, it would also be terrible. So, yeah.

The intercultural immersion experience at WTS is a cool thing. Every MDiv student has to participate in order to graduate, and the goal of the program is twofold: first, to immerse students in a culture alien to their own, to taste different tastes, smell different smells, and see different sights. Obviously, our respective cultures radically shape our respective realities, and this trip is meant to broaden horizons. And second, the program intends for us to wrestle with how Christianity settles into a particular culture. This is a delicate process—Christianity, thanks to our flawed hands, has too often advanced without regard for the people or society it advances upon. So instead of asking how we can impose our own cultured Christianity on a people, the question now is what a distinctly Cambodian Christianity looks like. Or, even better, what it means to be a Christian in Cambodia.

I expect I’ll come back with more questions on what it means to be a Christian in the United States, too. Watching another culture take Christianity seriously has the potential to transform how we act Christian in the US, where there isn’t nearly as much cultural currency to lose. I love that question: What does it mean to take Christianity seriously? It’s one for us all to ask.

That framework helps guide the trip from the seminary’s point of view. But it’s hard for me to come up with expectations otherwise—I’ve never been to Southeast Asia (again, I’m not headed to Africa, I get that now), I know little about Cambodia in general, and the trip itinerary has yet to be fully developed. I do know this though: the country was ravaged by the dictatorship of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge for much of the 20th century. Still, I don’t want to see the country only through that lens and pat the heads of those with a very real and very traumatic past. Tragedy is an extremely personal and experiential reality; I desperately don’t want to trivialize that by assuming the Cambodian identity consists entirely of its dark past. I hope to listen.

I’ll close part one with a few stray observations/thoughts:

1) The flight from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea is somewhere between 13-14 hours. Are you kidding me? Some days I’m not even awake that long. Good thing I’ll have the movie screen right in front of my face, and hopefully I’ll find a few shows I can marathon. On the other hand, once on a flight home from Israel I was watching Crazy Heart and a rather prolonged Jeff Bridges-Maggie Gyllenhaal sex scene caught the attention of my stranger seat-buddies and they didn’t talk to me for the rest of the trip. So maybe I’ll just do Sudoku.

2) We have a group of 9 traveling: 8 students and 1 professor. The group dynamic, of course, will be huge in shaping the atmosphere of our trip. I’m not worried.

3) It’s hard for me to hold on to expectations. In a way, I struggled to write this because I don’t like to pressure new experiences with overwhelming expectations. It’s not good to ignore those either, though, and therefore here we are. And here we go.

1 Comment

  1. Elaine Schnabel

    I don’t know if you’ve been given a booklist or anything, but before I went to Cambodia I read Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and found it really helped me get a handle on the enormity of what the Khmer Rouge did. If you’ve the time it’s worth it.


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