Karen spent several years serving the Deaf community in Cambodia. Here, she describes the humor and friendships she discovered there — and how the experience widened her concept of family.
After college, and a brief time in the “real world,” I was longing for a job where I didn’t feel my call to service, faith, and community had to be kept separate from where I received a paycheck. So for three-and-a-half years, I served as a missionary (we use the word “missioner”) in Cambodia.
The word “missionary” carries some heavy baggage, for sure. You might think of someone living in a rural area, in a hut, without running water or electricity. Or you might think of the crusades and religion being forced upon indigenous people. Some would call to mind those saints who served as Catholic ambassadors to far-off lands.
For me, being a missioner calls to mind the faces of a family I never knew I had, and the bridges we built between us.
I arrived in Phnom Penh as a hearing woman from the United States with the hope of learning a new culture and language, and ideally doing something useful. The community that welcomed me was centered at the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme. This new family included both hearing and Deaf individuals who work alongside the more than 51,000 deaf people in Cambodia, striving to ensure they are accepted, respected, and included as equals in all aspects of society. Some had lived the realities of growing up deaf in Cambodia, through war and unrest, without access to education, employment, or many other aspects of life those from my “home” would take for granted. Though I was hearing and from a different culture, we ended up walking part of our journeys together.
When I arrived, most of the rest of the staff I was joining was attending a training. One of the few folks present in the office was the woman who worked as the cleaner — I’ll call her Raneth.
Raneth was one of our deaf staff members, and though I barely knew any Cambodian Sign Language (CSL), she would always smile and walk by my desk to check on me. I had been given a book of basic CSL and spent a lot of my time trying to learn how to say something — anything — to talk to my new colleague (my formal lessons would not start until the staff returned). In an attempt to make friends, I would stop Raneth when she walked by and ask her to sign a word I was having trouble understanding from the 2-D images in the book. Though at times she couldn’t read the Khmer word, nor recognize the illustration, we would stumble along. She would sign and I would use a ridiculous combination of charades, photos, and terrible written Khmer words to communicate.
She was my first teacher and throughout the three years I worked there, she would often come by my desk just to chat about life. I got to know her daughter and became her unofficial auntie. Sometimes, when Raneth would have to work but her daughter didn’t have school, she would join her mom at our office. I had a dual screen set up and very soon my new niece claimed the larger one as her own to do her “work.” This consisted largely of watching videos on YouTube — specifically, songs from Disney movies. Sometimes we would also color, play with Playdoh, or practice writing letters and numbers.
I will always remember the time when she came and sat on half my chair with me. She kept saying in Khmer, “I want to watch vitigo.” My Khmer was pretty strong, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what “vitigo” meant. I put on some of the usual favorite videos and even asked two different hearing, Cambodian colleagues what she was saying, with no luck.
She didn’t have a sign for the video she wanted, so her mom couldn’t serve as my interpreter, either. She gave up on me after a while — something that I am sure others had wanted to do when I just didn’t understand them — and I pulled out coloring sheets. She immediately pointed to one with Elsa from the movie Frozen and said, “VITIGO!”
Also known as “Let it go.” All along, she had been speaking MY language — I just didn’t understand.
Raneth and her daughter led a very different life from my own. Raneth was one of many children and became deaf after a childhood accident. Her parents struggled with economic poverty their entire lives and both passed away at a relatively young age because of complications from illnesses that would have been manageable in my country. Yet, despite these differences, Raneth and her daughter became my family. We celebrated some holidays together and we have continued to stay in contact, despite the distance.
While my work helped me meet many other Deaf Cambodians and share life with them, that special relationship with Raneth and her daughter continues to echo in my heart. The true impact of this “mission” work on both of us was those exchanges, sharing daily life together — the “vitigo” moments where we were both speaking the same language and didn’t even realize it.
A friend of mine in Washington, D.C. gave me a card before I left for Cambodia that said, “Your heart will never be whole again, but that is the price you pay for knowing and loving people in more than one place.” It is a price that I would choose to pay again and again because the returns on that investment are never-ending.