That weird missionary

Look at me! I’m not even holding my fingers the right way.

One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.

Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.

Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.

Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”

Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.

So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.

Transition and awareness

As we come closer to coming home for a decent time, one thing that changes is how we look at life in Cambodia. Life in some ways doesn’t change. Cambodia doesn’t change. But the way we view it changes.

I remember early on in our time here in Cambodia, I was taking a tuktuk home and I was just overwhelmed by all the “new” I was experiencing. That tuktuk ride I stuck my head in a book to limit the new. Fast forward to a week ago, I noticed myself thinking about how we wouldn’t be around for a while and how we’d gotten used to life here. As a result of that thought, as I rode on my bike, I was looking at all the things, thinking about how I wouldn’t see them for a while. What had once caused me to hide was now something that I could handle, I was trying to take it all in.

Because of transition, my view on things had changed. If we’d just stayed on here without a break, I would not have noticed the same things. But, with the upcoming flight, my perspective had changed, my awareness of Cambodian life was different in the face of transition. In transition we are given the gift of reflection, and we are also given the gift of awareness; a similar awareness found when we reflect on the passage or speed of time in general.

One area that this awareness particularly impinges on is around friendships. Missionary friendships are in some ways different from friendships in home countries. What unites us is often a similar purpose, even if we are from different organisations or backgrounds. This unity often leads to friendships becoming closer quicker than they would elsewhere. But part of the pain of transitions is the awareness of relationships that have gotten close quickly in a context of fluid relationships; where people come and go more than they do in other places. This same awareness will come to us again in the opposite direction as we return from Australia to Cambodia. But right now, transition heightens my awareness in Cambodia (even as my head moves toward Australia).

The gift of transition

How cute is this picture?

One of the things I associate with transition is hassle. There’s the packing up. There’s the stress. There’s the actual transition. And then there’s the time once you arrive where it’s just slow in setting up and settling in. To those of us (like me) who are focused around efficiency, transition feels anything but efficient. Now of course transitions for missionaries are much more efficient than they used to be; spending 6 months on a boat travelling from one destination to another. With flights, transition is now much more compact, but still feels hard. The stress at either end is tiring. So it’s easy to see why the prospect of transition feels daunting.

However, I came across this other idea (not sure how). Not only that transition as a hassle, but transition as gift. The gift comes if you use it properly. Transition provides a neat boundary that normal day to day life doesn’t necessarily have. There is a clear beginning and end on a regular basis (like from term to term). The value of this clear boundary is the ability to wrap up one season with reflection. With this first term in Cambodia coming to an end there is an up-coming transition. I’m able to think back about the last three years and reflect on it. This helps me to learn from my time, but also helps me to transition as I get closure on what has occurred. When I’ve done this reflection before a holiday (like last year before our Chiang Mai time) it has also helped me to rest on that holiday having sorted through some issues before seeking down-time. So I find my rest is better having reflected.

For this next transition from Cambodia to Australia, while there will be some rest, there will be tough parts as we say goodbyes, settle in to a familiar, but in other ways unfamiliar place (given the changes that have occurred to us in this last three years). So reflecting well on what has been, this first term in Cambodia, will help me transition better. In that sense transitions provide a unique gift to us in terms of providing us with obvious points to reflect and think about what has gone before and what lies ahead.

How to transition poorly

Disclaimer: this is an ironic post highlighting the difficulty of transition. It paints a fairly bleak situation and expresses my tendencies but not the reality. I write this as a reminder to myself of my tendencies in order to try to counteract them in this really significant time. It is a reminder to give myself and my family time and grace as we face this significant change.

This is my guide to transitioning poorly. It is not exhaustive, nor ordered in any particular way. There may be overlapping themes coming through that express the personality of the author.

  1. Get preoccupied with the details of moving countries, ensuring that this consumes all your thoughts, your emotional energy and depletes you of resources to care for yourself and your family.
  2. Turn the grief that you feel in saying goodbye into anger that is easily released on those closest to you.
  3. Fail to see that grief, stress and moving country is going to sap you of energy and so fill your diary full, just to spite yourself.
  4. Assume that your family will not feel the same things as you and that you will all be fine. Children’s extra disobedience in this time is not a symptom of them feeling tired, grief, or anxiety themselves.
  5. Also assume that if your child/children don’t say anything, this means they are coping fine with the big change ahead. Full steam ahead then. You have no issues to deal with.
  6. Anger is the best way to deal with what you are feeling (regardless of whether it is stress or grief or anxiety). In fact get angry very quickly. This is always the best solution.
  7. Say yes to more responsibilities in this time, because you can manage it ๐Ÿ˜‰
  8. Don’t waste time sitting, thinking, processing and reflecting. Give yourself more fully to more insignificant jobs that will make you feel better immediately and help you push deeper down those stronger, tricky feelings to deal with.
  9. Disconnect from friendships early. Don’t get too close, it only hurts more when you leave.

Do you have any tips for transitioning poorly? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a monopoly on transitioning poorly. Comment below so we can share the wealth of knowledge and all transition more poorly.

Transition feelings

A view of the Cambodian skyline from the Mekong.

When we arrived in Cambodia, almost 3 years ago, my head was ready to dive into life here. As we went along and got half-way through our first 3-year term, I knew roughly when we would be heading back to Australia (late 2019). Six months out from going back to Australia for our first home assignment, I noticed a change in how much I was thinking about Australia (more than in the last 2 years). This thinking has only increased 3 months out, and even now with under 2 months to go it has further escalated. In order to finish well, my mentor suggested not counting days until I was a month out. This has been a good move, helping to keep my head here.

So where am I up to? With each week as we get closer to moving back to Australia for half a year or so, two things happen. The first is my excitement for returning home grows. I start thinking about it more and so it occupies more of my time. Not that I’m sitting around just thinking about Australia all the time. I’ve still got plenty of stuff here to do, but there is more head-space devoted to Australia now than there was even a few months ago. I picture catching up with family and friends, visiting familiar places and doing things that I would normally do in Australia (more time outside is a big one).

The second thing that happens, as we get closer to heading back, is grief. This grief is different from my son, who has now spent more of his life in Cambodia than Australia. Most of what he knows is Cambodia. For him to leave is different from me who has spent only a small portion of my life here in Cambodia. However, I still experience grief as I consider heading back. There is grief about saying good-bye, even to those that we will see again in 7 months. There is more grief for those we are saying good-bye to for good (as they return home to a different country). There is also the grief of just not doing things that we enjoy here together (getting local drinks like แž‘แžนแž€แžขแŸ†แž–แŸ…, our being part of our neighbourhood or going to places that our family is now familiar with).

CMS prepares us for this by setting out the guideline that the first term on location should be three years. They encourage us to stay the whole time, without returning, so that we will feel settled here in Cambodia, before we return to Australia. This helps us to want to return to Cambodia for our second term (particularly with kids in mind). All I can say is that it has been gold advice for us. Cambodia is now known to us (with plenty more to know). So while we are excited for returning to Australia and to things known, we are also leaving Cambodia which is now known as well.

Grief and excitement are what we’re feeling as we prepare for another transition. Suffice it to say that it’s very easy to underestimate the tiredness that follows feeling all these things as we prepare to leave (not unlike the newness tiredness we felt in the beginning).

First year teaching: #5. ‘We’ made it.

We made it! I made it through my first year of teaching OT in Khmer. My students made it after suffering through my poor Khmer in order to understand God’s Word better (treasure in a jar of clay). They have managed to decipher meaning from my poor pronunciation. One time I was talking about sin, ‘the enemy within’, and they all heard about some sort of animal inside us. Other times I called the disciples horses instead of students (the vowels are similar). And I know the word for help can often sound like a very rude word if pronounced slightly wrong. Basically, my students were doing a lot of interpretation just to sit through my classes in Khmer. But I’m confident they were able to learn things too, not just struggle with my pronunciation.

As a teacher, I was constantly learning too. My students, whom I love dearly, helped me to learn. Some of their teaching was ‘brutally’ honest. One student remarked in a conversation, ‘Teacher, you sound like Google translate’. It was just an honest assessment and I needed thick skin in order to receive.

I have also learnt a lot this past year about teaching from my mistakes. I learnt on day 1 that while you can have good things to teach, there is a right and a wrong time to teach that stuff. Day 1 is not the day to give an overview of the history of OT theology. Important as it is, probably better a mid-semester topic so I don’t scare too many away on the first day.

There were also easier lessons to learn. One time I looked over at my translator waiting for him to translate and he looked back at me weirdly. Then it dawned on me; I’d been speaking in Khmer and hadn’t realised it and was wanting him to translate for me, but he didn’t need to at that point. The Khmer was coming to me so easily I had not realised I was speaking in my non-native tongue. So there were times where I learnt that my Khmer was better than I thought it was (a nice lesson to learn sometimes, particularly in the context of often learning that your language is not as good as you think).

One capstone of the year was a random conversation over lunch near the end of second semester. Some students asked me a question about a story from 1 Kings (some of the content from our classes). We were able to have a discussion together about this question for a decent amount of time.

To survive the first year of teaching the OT in Khmer was my major goal of this year. To converse in Khmer about a biblical topic was the cherry on top.

First year teaching: #4. Preparation process (during semester)

What a mess! My Khmer material in diagram.

My preparation looked drastically different for the Book of Kings (the picture above is a summary of the structure) as opposed to my preparation for Genesis. Prepping for my first class, on Genesis, I was going in to the classroom blind in some ways; I didn’t know my own Khmer abilities, or the students abilities, and so I guessed. Prepping for Kings (mid semester 2 as opposed to Genesis early semester 1) was a different story and the picture above captures the heart of the difference.

By the time of mid-semester 2 I had found my preparation stride. I knew more where the students were up to. I was more clear on my own abilities (strengths and weaknesses). Most importantly I’d found my prep stride. I was clearer on what I wanted from my teaching and from the students and so I was able to structure class time around that with a mix of what Chelsea Cooper (an actual teacher) shared with me (‘I do, we do, you do’ framework). Much of the many good ideas that I incorporated (like Chelsea’s above) have come from ‘actual’ teachers as I have sought their advice. There is even some modelling that I’ve taken from the language school that I learnt Khmer at.

So what did preparation look like for me mid first year teaching? Two lessons.

Firstly, early on I realised that rather than using dot points in English, translating them to Khmer and then filling them out in Khmer (the aim being to write more in a Khmer way). I realised I needed to make pretty full English notes and then translate them. That way I wasn’t trying to do two things at once; think of what to write and then thinking of how to say it in Khmer.

Secondly, pictures were my staple. Rather than powerpoint pictures, I’d draw them on the board, giving myself and my students a breather from my Khmer. The benefit of the pictures was that it helped the students to get a sense of a whole book. And in my prep the pictures were my way of getting sense of a book as well. So pictures (like the one above) became one central feature of the way I taught.

Along with learning how to prepare lessons, what I saw during semester was an efficiency improvement. I got quicker at prepping each lecture in the same way that in my first 3 years of ministry I got more efficient in writing sermons. For my teaching, I knew that I needed to have my English notes done by the Thursday or Friday before class the next Wednesday. Then there was translating, checking that translation, turning that translation into activities and handouts and then practising my notes. This efficiency was particularly noticeable in second semester, where first semester was just trying to find my way.

I have much more to learn about how to prep for classes, but this first year of teaching has laid a great foundation for further lessons that I need to learn about teaching.

Post script: I taught a seminar out in the province just last weekend. The pastors comment was a wonderful encouragement. He said “Your pronunciation is not clear. Your drawings are like a child has drawn them. But your teaching is very good.” This showed not only that he felt close enough to me that he could speak in such a direct way, but more that my prep learning had and is paying off in many different ways.

First year teaching: #3. The prep process (before I began)

There were so many unknowns as I started to prep for teaching. The big unknown was: would I be able to do it? Would I be able to teach the Old Testament in Khmer? The second big unknown was: how would I do it?

I began my teaching prep thinking I would read an OT book in Khmer to learn the vocabulary and help give me ideas for teaching. That plan soon changed. My new plan became; research in English, write notes in English, then translate those notes into Khmer.

My next big worry came about whether I would be able to read those Khmer notes. I had talked with some long term missionaries who said they prepared in English and translated on the go, rather than reading Khmer. I pushed ahead, partly because while I was learning new Khmer words as I went, the value of this plan was that I was using a level of Khmer that I could read. But also, from Bible college days, I remembered the phrase “writing is thinking”. So as I practised writing in Khmer, it also help me to think in Khmer as I prepared.

I was still concerned as to whether my plan would work out or not, so as I prepared I came up with a range of contingency plans. These plans ranged from my plan A teaching in Khmer using my own notes, plan B having a translator translate my notes and I use their notes, plan C (if I wasn’t keeping up) to prepare in English and be translated. These plans allowed flexibility; it could have meant a combination of me starting by teaching in Khmer, but if the workload got too much, switching to being translated in order to finish the content. You can tell that I wasn’t sure how it would go and so contingency plans allowed me to aim high while still having a back up plan.

More, later, on how my preparation process changed during semester.

First year teaching: #2. Add a dash of Khmer.

Being taught how to tie a Khmer dish of sticky rice and banana.

In the lead up to teaching at the Bible school there were days where I felt nervous about teaching in Khmer. Naturally. Partly this was because I was attempting to teach in Khmer after less than two years of language learning. And while I knew it would be really helpful for my Khmer it was also going to be painful as well.

One of the bits of advice that helped calm some of my nerves and continue on with teaching prep was this: “You’re not teaching Khmer, you’re teaching THE BIBLE in Khmer.” This advice was, in some ways, freeing for me. I didn’t need perfect pronunciation. The goal was for my students to grow in understanding the Bible. That could happen even if my pronunciation or use of Khmer phrases left a lot lacking. I needed to remember I’m teaching OT, not Khmer. Khmer, in this sense, is the instrument, not the goal. So even if I only had a few notes to play in Khmer, it was helpful to remember that a skilled musician only needs a few notes to play beautiful music.

In my repertoire was a decent ability to teach theology with a significant weakness in my Khmer. Having clarity on my abilities was helpful as I moved forward in my preparation. The way I visualised this, particularly on the days when I felt more nervous, was that I saw my teaching experience as a prop while my Khmer was in its infancy stages. I could rely on my ability to teach while I waited for my Khmer to improve. Two benefits that came from this thought process. The first is that it calmed some of my nerves when my mind would begin to run away with fears and anxieties. But secondly, and more on this in the next post, it helped shaped how I prepared for teaching and the content that I would use in teaching, including teaching methods.

First year teaching: #1. My non-teaching background?

Board game time on holidays

This series explores my experiences in my first year of teaching; my background leading up to teaching, my preparation, execution and reflection upon finishing.

The phrase “I am no teacher, nor the son of teacher” captures my feelings having found myself preparing to teach the Old Testament at a Bible School in Cambodia without any formal teaching qualifications. While I have much to learn on the teaching front, as I reflected (or at least steeled myself against the coming year of teaching), I realised that my background has provided me with multiple opportunities to exert or practice and refine some teaching skills.

I was explaining the rules of a board-game to someone and they remarked at how well I had explained the rules for them (whether I can play board games as well as I can teach is another matter). It wasn’t that I had taught them every single rule (people will know that details are not my forte). It was that I had captured the essence of the game and strategy in order to assist them beginning to learn and play the game. I feel like this shows some sort of aptitude for teaching.

I’ve heard it said that physio is 70% confidence and 30% skill. I can say that because in a past life, for a very short time, I worked as a physio (don’t get me started on the physio/chiro debate). An important part of being a physio is being able to build a rapport. But when I think more about what I did as a physio, I can see that at its heart are teaching skills. The essence of a lot of physiotherapy is to teach patients; teach patients about their condition and their recovery. Given that a big part of this recovery requires active participation by the patient, physiotherapy is about equipping a patient to help themselves recover. There is a teaching involved here.

As we were preparing for mission, I heard one missionary remark that preaching regularly in a church before teaching at a Bible School overseas was a great form of preparation. Being involved in ministry, from preaching regularly (to young and old) and receiving feedback along the way, to doing one-off talks, or attending camps with a series of talks, to leading small groups and their discussions, and even pursuing further study (with a thesis and so learning how to construct an extended argument), has provided various teaching opportunities in a variety of different formats. Further study in theology also enriched my teaching in terms of content. Ministry, in these senses, was a great preparation for teaching as it helped give me skills in content preparation (curriculum and weekly lessons) and delivery (communication skills). Examination skills were probably and still are one of my weaker areas that I need to grow.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of ways in which my background prepared me for teaching, even if it wasn’t with a formal teaching qualification.