If I focus on the bookshelf, I will forget I’m in Cambodia.
By squinting just a bit, so that my field of vision narrows to exclude the servers and the mention of “lok lak beef” on the specials board, I can believe I have fallen twelve hours and thousands of miles backwards into the Bible Belt from which I came.
They are all there, the novels I checked out of my church library when I was in junior high. They have pastel covers and plots that usually involve trusting God to overcome some difficulty. (Being single is often, but not always, the difficulty.)
God was everywhere when I was growing up. One Valentine’s Day when I was in high school, he made his way into my locker in the form of a heart made of red construction paper. A particularly zealous student had placed it there, with a verse from I John scrawled across the front in black marker: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacifice for our sins.”
Ten years later, I have traded my conventional North American existence for life in Cambodia, yet I am reminded of this heart while staring at this bookshelf in a café called “Eden.” I remember how thin the paper was, and how my eye caught on the absence of “r” in “sacrifice.”
The books have been brought here and left here by missionaries, the majority of whom pass through the city in three-month terms, returning to their North American churches with tans and slideshows of the people they’ve helped.
I don’t search for these missionaries, but I find them anyway. Hours after arriving in the city, I meet a woman whose name I immediately forget, though I remember the details of our conversation and recount them to friends.
She says she’s a missionary, without any dressed-up language or attempts to soften the edges that get drawn around the word. She teaches English but she is not a teacher, she reaches out to Cambodians but she is not an outreach worker, she is here because God led her here to tell Cambodians about him, and that is that.
She asks what brought me to Battambang, this little-known city a few hours from the Thai border. I tell her it was love. I had a fling with the city six months ago and now want to see if we can make a relationship work.
Her eyes widen slightly, a subtle but distinct sign of her surprise. Though she believes God is interested in Cambodians’ salvation, she can’t quite believe anyone being interested in their country. As though Jesus would have stopped by for long enough to convert everyone but wouldn’t have wanted to take a motorbike ride in the countryside.
I know what to do to make her re-evaluate me and find me familiar rather than strange, what to say to get her to warmly invite me for coffee. I have the key, the password to enter into the club where God’s name is invoked in cross-legged circles, a grown-up duck-duck-goose where the goose reveals something deeply personal for which murmured prayers are then raised.
But I don’t say it. I resent that it is necessary to clarify my religious beliefs before I will be invited for coffee.
Besides, I don’t want to have coffee with people to whom it is unimaginable that I would choose to be here. I want to have beer with people who understand why I am mesmerized by a place where coconut trees line dirt roads, where lush rice paddies stretch to the horizon, and where the ocean glows with the movement of phosphorescent fish.
I find them, other expats who don’t mention God when discussing their reasons for being here. They are more welcoming than the missionaries. But most welcoming of all is Seavyi, a Cambodian man with mischief in his eyes. He finds me a house, takes me to get a bike, and teases me incessantly.
One evening, Seavyi and I sit beside a quiet street in Battambang, the book I’m reading on the table in the space between us. He flips through it and sees that I’m using a piece of garbage as a bookmark. He scowls. “I could make a better one.”
And so he does, taking a Cambodian bill worth about twelve cents and folding it into a heart. With my thumbs I try to smooth its wrinkles and memorize its imperfect shape.
It is a strange thing to feel foreign to those with whom I have much in common. Like the missionaries, I think God brought me here. Just as he opened Adam up to give a rib to Eve, I think he opened me up to give me this strange new heart that beats for this place. CAM-bo DI-ah, it murmurs, the last beat a soft sigh and an earnest prayer.
When I next see Seavyi, I consider telling him how much I appreciate the bookmark.
But giving voice to its meaning is difficult, so I don’t say anything.
Instead, I wrap my gratitude like gossamer around the paper heart, which is worn by the touch of those who have carried it before me. I carefully tuck its delicate shape between the pages of a novel, where it marks my place.
There it quietly reminds me both that God led me here and that I don’t need this boldly announced across a meticulously traced heart. I prefer it inscribed across a misshapen one, a private message written in ink only I can read.