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The Golden Rule: Nary Mao

by Anna Teeter

Love your neighbor as yourself—a phrase I’ve heard over, and over, and over. It’s right there in the Bible. Jesus says it’s the most important thing out of those 613 laws: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and also, just like the first, love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

Before coming to Cambodia, I thought my hospitality was up to par. I was always sure to make a home-cooked meal when people came over, or at least offer to pay for the pizza. I had a rule about never showing up to a person’s house empty handed, even if it meant picking up some chips and salsa. If a friend needed something, I would be empathetic and meet their need in ways I was able.  Yes, I thought I was pretty good at loving my neighbor – until I met Nary, my host mom in Cambodia and manager of the byTavi workshop.

Nary became my go to example of loving my neighbor as myself. She didn’t just incorporate other people and their needs as she went about her life; she made other people’s needs the driving force in her life. She didn’t just “meet their need in ways she was able.” She went way above and beyond.

I first noticed it when I arrived at my new host home for the summer. I had been in Cambodia for five days when I was dropped off at her house in Takhmau, a small village south of Phnom Penh. Like any person dropped off at a stranger’s house for two months in a foreign country, I was anxious and excited.

But I didn’t arrive as a stranger to her. I arrived as her neighbor—the person she was with at the time who had a need—and she loved to love me. From the very beginning, Nary treated me like her daughter. She made sure I had everything I could possibly want and more. She arranged a Coke at every meal (yes, including breakfast) and dressed me in clothes she had made-to-fit by Cambodian hands. Both my finger and toenails were always perfectly polished, decorated with glitter, and never went more than a week sporting the same color. I can assure you I have never painted my houseguest’s nails.

APT-89She worked hard to teach me Khmer, pointing out different objects and saying the Khmer word for it, and arranged two-hour Khmer lessons with her niece every night, along with a Khmer dance lesson. During my time here, Nary learned how to make spaghetti, crepes, and mashed potatoes after contacting two different people she knew and asking what kind of food Americans like.  She went through far more effort than I ever have to prepare a meal for a guest.

Because of her exceptional cooking skills and her warmth in the community, people now always ask Nary to help cook when they have guests over or when they are sick—if she doesn’t offer in the first place. The main room in Nary’s house is filled with pictures of foreign people she has hosted in the past.

At first, I thought she was just magically hospitable. But after getting to know Nary and watching her interact with the byTavi employees and the people in her village, I realized that she was not treating me like her daughter because I lived with her. She was treating me like her daughter because that is how she treats everyone. She loves her neighbors, both literal and figurative ones.

She loves her poorer neighbors with rice deliveries, she loves stroke victims with wheelchairs, she loves fire victims with cash donations, and she loves her employees with fair and compassionate leadership.

At the workshop, if an employee has a question, they ask Nary. If it is time to get their paycheck, they find Nary. If they need a hug or a smile because they are having a bad day, they look for Nary.

She truly delights in loving her neighbor—whether that’s the American girl living in her house, the family who needs rice two doors down, or her own byTavi employees—and she loves them both at and above their needs, exactly as she would care for herself, maybe even better than herself.

Although I will try my best, I don’t know if my love, care and hospitality will be magically improved after spending time with Nary, but I can say one thing: I’ll never look at “the golden rule” the same way again.