This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (this is the last scheduled post, though is appears some emails have not come through. If you tried to contact me and didn’t hear back, please try again).
Today’s What I Learned post comes from Whitney Conard, writing about pregnancy in Cambodia. As a fellow expat who has been pregnant, scared about being pregnant, and given birth in a foreign country, I can relate to so much about this essay.
A year ago this month, I did something I swore I’d never do in Cambodia: I got pregnant. And now I can’t imagine a better ending to the story of our three years here.
In 2011, my husband and I moved to Cambodia to work with a non-government organization. We both agreed that Cambodia seemed like a good choice for long-term work and starting a family. My husband eventually signed contracts for three years.
But when we arrived in our new hometown of Poipet, a dusty, crowded, sprawling border town on the edge of Cambodia, I quickly decided having children here was the last thing I wanted.
Staying home with a baby – the only choice since there weren’t any viable childcare options – sounded isolating. There were no other young expat couples having babies. And I couldn’t imagine giving up my work as a nurse to stay home with a baby. I was afraid I’d be shut away from a life I found rewarding.
Every day, someone asked me when I was having a baby. I laughingly replied, “Next year’; always, next year. And people began to ask me, are you ever going to have children? Are you on birth control? Is something wrong?
I found it difficult to explain to them I was afraid to have a child here. I feared what it meant for my identity. I thought if the child got sick, I wouldn’t be able to give him the care he needed. The closest international-standard hospital was two hours away.
However, living here changed me. Slowly but surely, the culture broke down my resistance. God showed me that my hesitations to have a child here were based on fear. My husband and I realized becoming parents would give us better insight into Cambodian culture and help us understand the people around us. I knew it would be difficult, but we thought, why not give it a try? And less than two months after that, I was pregnant.
Pregnancy changed everything about how Cambodians related to me. They no longer saw me as a white stranger who wore different clothes and had a funny accent. They saw me as a fellow woman, who had a life growing inside of her, who was experiencing the same morning sickness, the aching back, and the fatigue they all felt as they bore children.
My pregnancy gave me a new way to connect with Cambodian women. Old Cambodian women would stop me on the street and ask me how many months along I was. They placed their hands lovingly on my stomach, eyes shining with memories of their own pregnancies. They too had experienced the pain and terror of the birth, and the unspeakably beautiful joy of holding their children in their arms.
Several of my neighbors and friends were also pregnant at the same time, and it gave us something new to talk about. I learned new Khmer words for nausea, babies, and pregnancy. It was fascinating to see how differently we dealt with the changes our bodies and emotions went through.
One month, I taught a newborn care class with a friend and a few of her neighbors. We talked about traditional Cambodian postnatal practices, like lying on a bed over a fire to heal the body after birth (called ‘ang pleung’ or ‘roasting’) and drinking rice wine. I encouraged them to find healthy ways of doing traditions that were meaningful to them.
In turn, they gave me tips on how to stay healthy – what foods to eat and what to avoid. They scolded me when they saw me carrying a package of water bottles, saying it was too heavy, despite the fact I was barely four months pregnant. They coddled me and made sure I rested – a new experience for this type-A overachiever.
My Khmer friends started wearing baggy floral shirts long before they started showing, while I continued wearing my regular t-shirts and stretchy pants into my third trimester. They reproached me for wearing “tight clothes”, saying it was bad for the baby. The other pregnant women watched me walking briskly up and down our dirt road every evening. They were shocked when I told them it was ok to exercise, even good.
After we gave birth in February 2014, our new son created even more opportunities for relationships with our neighbors. We compare our baby’s sizes, and they laugh at how bald my blue-eyed baby is. Our “aunties” watch the baby and fuss over him like he’s one of their own grandchildren.
I still feel like an outsider much of the time. Yet having a baby here has broken down barriers between Cambodians and myself. We learned from each other, as we became pregnant, then new mothers.
The love for our children bound us together in ways that went beyond culture. Maybe they expressed it in different ways, with traditions I don’t understand. But I know these traditions were done out of a love for their children and a desire for restored harmony with their own bodies and their community.
It made me realize how much I share in common with the women here, despite our differences – a valuable lesson I’m thankful for.
Whitney Conard is a tea-drinking, extroverted book nerd and travel junkie who loves Jesus. She hails from Kansas City, USA and lives in Poipet, Cambodia with her husband and son. You can find her blogging about faith, family, and life abroad at http://www.journey-mercies.com.