I blog about theology. History. Sometimes politics. I don’t really talk about me. That’s not because I don’t like talking about me. I love the sound of my own voice, my own stories, my own jokes. However, church history or the Bible is a lot more interesting, and important, than me. So, I don’t waste the time writing about myself.
However, today was very meaningful to me, because it was not about me–it was about my wife. Inspiring me is the fact that today, my wife became a US citizen. For me, this is probably the greatest event in my wife’s life I will get to witness until, Lord willing, she gives birth. So, today I am going to blog about something else–the story of my wife and the blessings we have shared throughout the years.
My wife was born (probably) on July 27, 1988. I say “probably” because Cambodians are culturally not obsessed with birthdays. In fact, they are really not all that concerned about baby girls either. She only was named months after she was born, a name that roughly translates to “younger sibling” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. A fitting name for a baby that for months had no name to be called by–fitting due to its lack of proper thought, given the fact that she was the firstborn child.
I won’t opine about every detail of what it is like growing up in Cambodia during the UN occupation. Sometimes you have food, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can afford class, sometimes you get beat by the teachers because you did not bring them the customary bribe to teach you. Sometimes your parents show you love, sometimes they feed your brothers and not you that evening. You grow up eating duck eggs, bugs, and snakes. At your grandma’s house there is no electricity, so you shower with rain water that is stored in a cistern. Your father tells you stories of growing up with one oil lamp, and when the guests were over he could not study that night because he was in the dark. Cows, bikes, and motorcycles navigate through the streets without the benefit of traffic lights. Nothing is refrigerated, but nothing is thrown out. When you are a kid, it does not have to make sense. It is the only reality you know.
Certain things about an upbringing stick with you and are only used by God a lot later. Without being Freud and diving into every aspect of my wife’s subconscious, perhaps the most impactful part of her childhood was how she was told to conceive of her self-image.
In Cambodia, everyone is dark-skinned (presuming they are Khmer and not Vietnamese or Chinese.) However, among the dark-skinned there are subtle differences in skin tone that take on an inordinate amount of importance. In America, such categorical statements are considered offensive. This is not so in Cambodia. The first time I was there, literally the first question everyone would ask me, a blond haired blue-eyed white man, was, “Why did you marry someone so dark?” The implication of the question was clear: how can someone who is light-skinned white man find a dark-skinned Khmer woman attractive?
There are two ways to interpret questions such as these, if you were to be in my wife’s position. The first interpretation is that these Cambodians were making a general observation about the skin tone of the Khmer people in general. The other is that they are pointing you out as especially dark in complexion, and thereby physically undesirable.
The latter inference is particularly disturbing to my wife, because when she grew up her mother would complain to her about her dark skin being ugly, and her brother’s “lighter” skin being desirable. Strangers would ask if she was the household servant, which is a reference to her skin color as all household servants come from the countryside where their skin is darker to due labor outdoors. So, my wife felt ugly, undesirable, rejected, and unloved.
Meanwhile, grinding poverty put within my wife a hunger for something more than food–a way out. It is hard for Americans to imagine that being able to go to America is the equivalent to hitting the lottery. We have so many immigrants here they literally just walk over the border at will. But, Cambodia is very far from America. There are no borders that can be jumped with the help of some coyotes and $15,000. The Pacific Ocean is a pretty insurmountable barrier–the only way to get over legitimately is to be sponsored by a family member in the US (which she does not have.) The other way in is to be smuggled over as a slave. (For the record, my wife would not even know how to find a smuggler anyway, and being that smugglers are, you know, smugglers, you have a better chance of being drugged and turned into a prostitute than getting the opportunity to work in a sweatshop in California to work off your debt.) So, my wife put her schoolgirl hopes into studying English and getting a scholarship to study somewhere (Singapore, Australia, Japan, USA, etcetera). It didn’t matter where, just anywhere but Cambodia.
I am not exactly sure what kind of student my wife was. By her grades, and not her family’s connections, she had the honor of going to the most prestigious high school in her whole country. She ranked between second and fourth best student in her class. However, she felt that she did not do well on tests that she took to compete for foreign scholarships.
One day there was another test and her friend advised her to take it. She asked her father to drive her to the test in their new, used car. He was too busy. Being a classic Cambodian male, he was rarely home and was busier being at the bar every night. He felt that it would be better if she focused on becoming a beautician like her mother. Sure, every once in a while, he would get whimsical and remind my wife that if she works hard enough she can change her stars. However, this was not one of those moments.
So, my wife was able to hitch a ride on her friend’s motorbike and take the test. She did pretty good on it, but she was not confident she would be chosen. However, not long afterwards she was contacted with the news that she was selected for the scholarship. She had the highest math score and she sounded confident during the interview–these things earned her the selection.
Congratulations, you’re going to school in Costa Rica! So what its thousands of miles away from a first-world country!…at least it is not Cambodia.
So, my wife studied in Costa Rica for a couple of years. She was devastated that all the other girls seemed to be able to find boyfriends so easily. My wife reached out to a man she had a crush on, but she was rejected. Another boy online later rejected her. Finally, she did get a boyfriend but she felt that he had a wondering eye. Though he never had a physical affair, nor did he make any explicit overtures to other women, she felt that he had betrayed her. It thrust her into a deep depression.
Who can love this little, dark, lonely Cambodian woman? She would pray to the moon, but the moon did not hear her. My wife then turned to Buddha, but likewise he was blind, deaf, and dumb. During this time friends she made in Costa Rica, scholars from Africa, invited her to a baptist church. She felt a peace when she was there. Praying to this new God did not improve her grades, as she had hoped, but He was starting to gain her trust.
So, fast forward two years. My wife has attained a scholarship to the United States. Expecting that the streets are metaphorically paved with gold, instead she found that Schenectady, New York is a cold, poor, and dirty place. The United States had a few surprises. Autumn was unthinkably beautiful–leaves don’t change colors like that in Cambodia. The winter was unimaginably cold. Costa Rica’s climate was essentially the same as Cambodia’s, so she figured America would be the same. My wife had no idea how to dress in the NY cold and would remember being confused as to how dress warmer (a simple skill that we take for granted). She would find out, but it would take time.
My wife experienced the same feelings of rejection and depression in the United States, but at least was the recipient of hospitality from local Christians. Looking for answers, she turned to the Scriptures. She did not much understand the Gospel of John, and Romans was not much better, but when she read Romans 10:9 she knew that it was true. My wife called on the Lord and was converted at 20 years of age.
Repenting of sins and learning more about God, my wife was like any typical convert–thinking about Jesus all day. When she was approached by a boy who wanted to take her out on a date, she rejected his overtures because he was not a Christian. She desired obedience to His revealed will, but she still felt very lonely. She prayed all day for God to provide a Christian husband. Little did she know that God would soon be answering this prayer.
I cannot believe I am going into all this detail, I must be a mad man. I promise there is a point to all of this! Let me give a little background on myself so as to help bring this story up to speed. I had been a Christian at this point for a few years. Not very well-learned, but impressive with words and zealous, I lived a very disciplined life and led a Bible Study at a Lutheran church. I had no desire for marriage, simply because 1 Cor 7 extolled the betterness of celibacy. My hero, Augustine, was celibate. Celibacy was a spiritual gift that God had given me since the day preceding my conversion. I saw no need to marry as I felt that I was in control of my desires.
One thing that nagged me was that I knew that though physically I had control, I felt that emotionally I still had a desire for female companionship. Praying to God for guidance on this, I looked for a sign to convert to Catholicism and pursue being a monk or a priest. God did not answer these prayers. Then, the day I was baptized, I met a beautiful woman. I did not think much of it at the time, as I felt I would never see her again. Odd circumstances aligned and I was encouraged to date her, and not remembering whether I resolved at this point to look for a wife or if I was convinced by a friend/my hormones I had a change of mind. Whichever it was, we dated, it did not last, and I moved on. I later joined ChristianMingle.com because in the suburbs there are not a lot of Christian women my age, and this way I met several Christian women. I never felt any profound connection with any of them, which in retrospect is disappointing as I have grown in Christian maturity I feel a greater closeness with all people that my Savior has died for.
My wife came to the same conclusion (that is, the realization of the difficulty of finding Christian spouses) and joined the same website. However, no one expressed interest in her. I, at this point, was ready to retry celibacy (for the wrong reasons, for I had made a hasty oath.) As part of this oath, I would conclude communications with the last two woman I saw. One of these women would be my future wife.
She and I exchanged long letters before meeting. We were so young and stupid. Goodhearted, yes, we desired obedience to God. Most of our questions were probing in this regard. We did not know much doctrine. We both agreed if we dated, that it would be physically chaste and serve the purposes for courtship in marriage. These emails had a profound effect. My wife would write in her private diary that she fell in love with me by reading the emails. I was much more detached and had not fallen in love until months later.
We were also so poor then. My wife was a student with a full scholarship, but this did not include money for food over the summer. She had remitted too much money too soon from her job, which meant that she literally could only eat ramen noodles (which, for a Cambodian, still is not that bad.) I too was very poor, with a new business that did not pay me, and I had stingy/ascetic mindset to boot. I would visit my wife on Saturday nights, sleep with her in her bed, and leave on Sunday. The process repeated every week other than when there were snow storms. We would miss each other greatly during these times.
During the summer, my wife lived in an unconditioned building that was so hot rice would spoil and the refrigerator (which we found abandoned in a hallway, we could not afford a fridge) could not keep food cold. When I visited, we would “break into” an academic building and sleep on an academic office’s couch. As you may guess, the academic building had air conditioning. One night I woke up on one of these couches and my wife was fanning me. I have since asked her why she did this when I was sleeping. She told me that she was essentially captivated by how handsome I was and her love for me–she wanted to enjoy looking at me and felt compassion for the fact that I was so hot before I fell asleep.
The sleeping situation was ill-conceived and our behavior not always appropriate, though not explicitly sexual. An older woman in my wife’s church took an interest in us, and invited us to stay in her home (built in the 1700s) and sleep in separate bedrooms. It was warmed by a wood stove and unbelievably cold in the winters. To me it was like a time machine. For my wife, it was just an example of how uncomfortable her tough life always was. I love that old house. The stars were bright there and it was so quiet in the countryside. During the day, we were able to walk to a little country candy store and a nearby lake. It was peaceful and simple.
The old lady was an old-school, frugal WASP who would microwave an egg and give a cup of orange juice for breakfast. It was very hospitable, though lacking in flavor and pretense. I very much miss those breakfasts.
I remember eating with her at her college. My wife was already older than the average college student and I was simply just old. Being an “international student,” my wife was always at college before Freshman Orientation. I remember being 26 years old and seeing a bunch of wide-eyed Freshmen walking into the cafeteria, wondering what their futures had in store. I chuckled to myself, thinking that my opportunity to witness this first hand had disappeared years before.
My wife had very few good clothes. I remember her struggling to piece together a few cheap things that we bought at Kohl’s to look presentable at interviews, which I think she pulled it off well. Maybe I should have invested in an interview suit for her sooner. Old, frugal habits die hard for one, and two, I wore a shop uniform six days a week, even when I drove home. I guess I did not think about suits.
I used to love calling my wife every single night before I went to sleep (I would call in the mornings and she would pick up just to hear my voice only to afterwards collapse back in bed). We would pray together, often me listening to her pray and falling to sleep hearing her soothing voice. I also noticed some subtle changes in my wife over the phone. Her voicemail on her “burner” initially had a thick Cambodian accent, and every year the message grew more confident-sounding and Americanized.
My wife had to learn to drive. I told her, “If you are going to live in America, you need to drive, this is a big country.” We practiced every Sunday morning before church at the local newspaper’s parking lot. She did not know how to let go of the wheel and allowing the vehicle to straighten itself out. My wife was stubborn, an attitude that probably made her persistent in getting her scholarship, but I must say only made it harder for her to acquire the necessary driving skills! Nonetheless she learned, and is in fact a cautious, capable driver. My frugality adjusted. I started complaining a little less if my wife bought a soda. The night we were engaged we went to an all-you-can-eat buffet for $12 a person–before that, my wife was not sure if my proposal was a joke. Spending $30 at the buffet showed I was serious. We were changing, if only just a little.
So my wife and I courted for a little more than two years. When we met she was 21 and I was 24. I proposed to my wife because I wanted to make sure we can get married during her graduation in order to increase the probability that he parents can get visas to visit for the wedding (this did not work out). Now, she was 23 and I was 27. The marriage was beautiful.
My wife’s life, however, had hit an impasse. She had achieved her dream of being able to live in the United States. Her prayers for a Christian husband were answered. She knew God, a God that she never knew before. Now what? What was her life about?
She went to school for all these years, so she figured it was time to get a job. Siemens had invited her back for a position, and then surprisingly completely rescinded the offer. Then, no other company offered her a job. She did not have a work authorization now, so she had to wait for an updated one. Nowhere else to go, my wife went to work for my company.
Now, working for a small business is like living in hell. I was pretty used to it at this point, but my wife was not. Further, with the stress of trying to grow my business (my employees worked for too little and my wife was not getting good work, so I figured that I had to be the main bread winner and get the business booming) my anger at work not done well had often left my wife very depressed. We decided to close the business, and she went to work in a Dunkin Donuts and I was offered a job at another repair shop. These were dark times.
My wife had pretty much given up on getting work in engineering. She would tell me, “Maybe God brought me all the way here, to get an education, simply to be a mommy.” I told her this can be so, I was not sure what God’s will in this was.
However, things started turning around for us. I was bearing fruits of repentance and my attitude had markedly changed. This regained a lot of trust from my wife. She was offered a job as a structural-engineering intern. Then, an 18 year old kid started working at the repair shop I was then working in. His mother was the head of human resources at an engineering company literally minutes down the street. Suffice it to say my wife in 12 months went from working at Dunkin Donuts to making more money than she ever dreamed possible.
It has been nearly two years since then. All these years pass. Then, suddenly today, my wife became an American. It really was not that emotional to me until I started cleaning up the house when we got back.
I picked up a piece of paper–it was from USCIS. Immigrants are supposed to keep these, and all paperwork, sent to them from USCIS. They are held onto like we hold onto our driver’s licenses and social security cards. These papers were part of who my wife was and were indispensable to her. Now they are just garbage and worthless. My mind knew they no longer had a purpose, but I simply could not bring myself to throw this particular form out. At that moment, our last seven years together hit me like a ton of bricks.
So, the day is bittersweet for me. Sweet because I am happy for my wife, how far she had come (literally the other side of the world!), and to reflect on how much we matured together. Her growth was particularly poignant, as when we began courting she was a sophomore in college that did not know how to drive and was practically penniless.
But the day is also bitter. I long for the past, the simplicity, the days of such close passion, of wonder, of learning new things about each other and the differences between us due to our respective nations, cultures and languages. It is hard for me to see the change, not because it is bad, but because I loved my wife so much before she matured, just like I love her so much now. But, I can’t have both.
And this is the application: In this vale of tears, everything is bittersweet. All the good that we have is from God, but the good in this world is limited. He has put it in our hearts to appreciate the past. The newness of love, the appreciation of difference, the anticipation for the future–we loved all the blessings in these things. However, He has also given us years to grow closer, more committed, more secure, more similar, more knowledgeable of one another. These too are blessings, blessings we would not want rescinded.
But, at the final trump, we will be caught into the air and we will see out risen Lord, riding on a cloud. We will see Him face to face. All these blessings I just talked about, all being good, come from God, who is the Father of all good things. Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, so those of us in Christ will see unmitigated good. The good of our past which came from God, the good of our future that comes from Him–in Him they are combined, added to, and complete. My love for my wife and the blessings He has given us in the past and present will pale in comparison.
I cannot relive our past. The simple, wide-eyed wife of my youth is now more shrewd and seasoned. She has grown more Godly and wise. By God’s grace, she will mature and become increasingly beautiful in her humility and wisdom. I will love all of these different incarnations of my wife and will appreciate the blessings that each stage of her life has presented to me.
So, as I hold the old USCIS paperwork the sadness comes from leaving the past behind, knowing that it will never come back. It’s like the feeling we get from leaving our old house when we are moving to a better one. We are happy for the future, but desirous for the fond memories and blessings the old house had provided us. Even in a blessing, in this vale of tears, our good is mitigated. It is as if we have a sense that there is something not right–the world is good but something is lacking.
This is not so in heaven! I look forward to the day when my love for my wife and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ will be at its fullest, seeing the beginning from the end, will glory for eternity experiencing the love of God in which mankind was custom-built to enjoy.