Life as an envoy

Life as an envoy

Meet Anne Mette Jürgensen, the envoy for Danmission in Cambodia, where she is working on dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, and educating priests and Bible school students.

Why did you decide to move to a foreign country to work?

When my husband Ernst and I decided to move abroad, Ernst had been employed for a number of years in a Red Cross Asylum Centre. That meant that he – and the rest of the family – was meeting individuals from other countries, cultures and religions, which we all found interesting and rewarding. We talked about living abroad for a few years and then, when I read an ad from Danmission looking for envoys, we became interested. We realised that Ernst could use his management experience from his multicultural job, and I could use my knowledge and experience from my job as theologian and priest. We were looking for new challenges, and wanted to use our gifts and knowledge to the benefit of others.

What considerations or reservations did you have prior to taking up your new job and starting a new life in a foreign country?

Before I decided to leave Denmark, I had concerns regarding the consequences for my family, and particularly whether it was a good idea to bring two teenagers aged 12 and 17 years to live in a foreign country. It was one thing to take responsibility for myself, my life and job in Cambodia, but something completely different to take a decision that would affect my children’s lives in a profound way.

To me, Cambodia was the great unknown; I had never been to Asia before but, after just a year, we decided that we were going to stay for a long time, and so far it has been 10 years. Our children’s lives have been affected in a fundamental way; they are global citizens and our grandchildren even more so. Our daughter now lives in Malmö, Sweden with her Nigerian husband and their son, and our son lives in Singapore with his Singaporean wife and their daughter.

What does it mean for you to work and live abroad as a delegate?

Being an envoy has multiple meanings. For example, it means being sent to another part of the world, not Denmark. Every Christian is an envoy in my opinion, at home or abroad, with a message from God, a message of God’s love. However, as a Danmission employee, being an envoy specifically means being deployed abroad. This of course affects our lives as we are not talking about being deployed to Flensburg, Germany or Malmö, Sweden, but to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is more or less on the other side of the world. When you live in Cambodia, it is of course Denmark that is on the other side of the world, and that is just one of the interesting things about being an envoy: your perspective changes.

Limits become important in so many ways because you are not only confronting and crossing geographical borders but also your own personal and cultural limits. We now live in a foreign country that has a fundamentally different culture, a different language and which has, for most Danes, a different religion, i.e. Buddhism. For me, personally, it has been very rewarding to cross international borders, to try new things and to meet a completely different world in which individuals understand themselves and live their lives differently to how we do at home. This in itself, however, can also be limiting at times, because other cultures have other, sometimes narrower, behavioural norms.

One of the first nights in Phnom Penh after arriving in August 2005 stands out particularly clearly in my memory. Ernst and I had decided to go for an evening walk around our new home town of Phnom Penh, as we had done so often before at home in Denmark. There are no long summer nights on these latitudes, and darkness falls at 6 pm more or less all year round. The city was therefore exciting for me, but also dark, big and unknown. I wanted to take Ernst’s hand, and walk hand in hand, as we had done at home. However, Ernst knew better, and had read up more on the cultural rules than I had. Ernst explained to me that, in Cambodia, men and women do not touch each other in public, married or not. Walking hand in hand was therefore considered inappropriate. Being new to Cambodia, I did not want to do anything inappropriate, and ended up walking next to my husband of 17 years without holding his hand. This was of course not difficult but it was no fun either! Since then we have learned more about local customs and culture, and about the “dispensations” Cambodians allow for foreigners. Cambodians understand that foreigners come from other parts of the world, and follow other traditions and customs, some more peculiar than others, and some of which are tolerated and allowed, like holding hand in public for instance.

This situation also says a lot about the two most important rules of our lives as envoys: companionship and limits. Walking hand in hand is a symbol of companionship, and even though I do not walk hand in hand with Cambodians, I have had many companionships with Cambodians during the more than 10 years I have lived in Cambodia. I have particularly met young Christian Cambodians through my work, first as teacher in a Bible school, and then as manager of a re-education program for young Cambodian priests.

In many ways, a generation or two is missing in Cambodia. This became very clear to us when we first visited neighbouring Vietnam. In Vietnam, there were many Vietnamese of our age (born 1963) as well as locals older than us. We were struck by the fact that we were simply not used to meeting, or even seeing, middle aged and elderly people in Cambodia. Vietnam has experienced war, serious wars, but Cambodia experienced war as well as genocide. Several Cambodian generations were simply lost, and today more than half of the Cambodian population is under 25 years of age. Throughout the 1980s, Cambodia was immensely poor, and the health and education systems had to be built from scratch.

Many of the young Cambodians I have met on my way have lost a lot, a father, a mother or both, a sister or a brother. In addition, even though they are often brought up in a family, the families are often characterised by abuse and violence. Post-war societies produce post-war families. This is where the personal companionship comes into the picture, because all young people need someone to share their burden, responsibilities, joys and sorrows, crisis and choices with, preferably someone from an older generation. In addition, Cambodian society is undergoing rapid change as Cambodians from rural areas migrate to the cities looking for better jobs or education. But how can a poor rice farmer in the provinces advise his son or daughter about the various educational opportunities, or about the quality of the education at the many universities in Phnom Penh?

An envoy from Danmission cannot replace a Cambodian parent or tutor but, at the same time, a foreigner can make a difference. Despite all the cultural differences a Dane can be present, can join you on a walk, not only when life is troublesome, like when you lose a loved one, or when you feel neglected, or when important decisions are made, but when happiness is shared, for instance when a newborn baby arrives.

With all due respect for our tasks of teaching and management here in Cambodia, the essence of our duties as envoys – as far as I am concerned – is to build personal relations. Without personal relations, education and management simply have no meaning, and will become a frame without content. It is through the personal relations that the message of love becomes trustworthy and present. Having said that, I would also like to add that love is about crossing borders, reaching out to other people and  expressing clear limits. Love is about walking together but also about making very clear what can be accepted and what cannot. It can be minor things or major things that exceed your limits in a negative way, such as for instance an unpleasant tone in a conversation, or someone suggesting a new undemocratic structure to our work here, which is unacceptable.

”Contact is a meeting between two surfaces,” as the Danish theologian Bent Falk put it very clearly. So if we do not show up and make our limits clear, it becomes difficult to find common ground and to express our limits. That is why an envoy’s life is about two things for me: companionship and limits.