This post is about our experience of being delayed in returning to Cambodia due to COVID; the confessions of a stranded missionary. Below describes the rollercoaster of feelings that we felt particularly in the heart of the pandemic lockdown earlier this year. This is not where I’m at presently, but more an insight into what I went through.
Most people during the COVID-19 pandemic this year have experienced various amounts of panic and grief. As I reflect, there is definitely overlap in what we were feeling as stranded missionaries compared with those who are permanently in Australia and probably some differences too. What stands out to me is the complexity of grief. There was the loss as plans were changed (our flights back to Cambodia in July were cancelled). There was loss of certainty (not just when would we go back to Cambodia, but could we?), loss of space (the inability to travel), loss of privacy for some (having more people stuck at home), loss of connection and loneliness (for us this was both here in Australia as well as the delay in seeing friends in Cambodia). There was also anticipatory grief (not having stable plans). There was the loss that we felt of missing things in Australia that we would have been able to do had it not been for COVID (visiting family, friends, and partner churches in person). This loss is heightened for us given we are back for a specific amount of time. Strangely, this last loss feels at odds with all those other losses. In a sense we were grieving not being able to return while simultaneously grieving in a sense of not yet ready to return as well.
What I found over this time was a wrestling backwards and forwards with these feelings of grief combined with a sense of acceptance as I worked through all this stuff. On reflection, the grief over uncertainty only really exposed an uncertainty that is always there. COVID just removed the mask of certainty that we try to create. Grief and panic is tiring. I needed to give myself and others grace. Term 3 here in Australia (July-Sept) has given us that. We’ve had a time of stability and rest.
Where am I up to now? I’m now ready to return to Cambodia.
This is my understanding of the Cambodian church from my short time there. I checked it with a close Khmer Christian friend:
The Cambodian church began through French missionaries. While there was some growth of the Cambodian church before the Khmer Rouge, surprisingly, post-Khmer Rouge has seen an exponential growth in the Cambodian church. The main reason for this surprise is that the Khmer Rouge targeted and killed those with an education. This included a lot of church leaders. Since the Khmer Rouge ended (nearly 30 years ago), the then small church has grown rapidly to be now about 3% of the 16 million people living in Buddhist Cambodia. A lot of this growth has come through the Pentecostal denomination. This growth is quick, particularly when you compare it with other countries in the region where the church is not growing as quickly. One possible reason for this growth is the openness that Cambodia has shown to outsiders, given its need for assistance following the civil war. However, with quick growth in the church comes two problems; division and false teaching. One senior leader also sees a real need arising because many Khmer Christians don’t have much sense of what it means to be a committed follower of Jesus.
These are some of the issues that the Cambodian church faces. This is further compounded by the need for educated leadership. Cambodia’s young population (around 50% under the age of 22), combined with the leadership vacuum created by the war, has affected society and the church. Also, the average level of education in Cambodia also provides further challenges for leaders and churches.
To read more about the Khmer rouge, a series I wrote on Cambodia before we left is available here, here, here, here, and here.
There is a truth to the title that I didn’t realise before I moved to Cambodia. Pre-arriving in Cambodia I was all about learning the local language and helping locals to engage with theology in their own ‘heart’ language. Then any speaking I did with them would be helping both of us as I was learning the language and they were engaging in theology in a language that they are proficient in. So I would try in as many contexts to speak in Khmer, rather than in English. And, to a certain degree, I haven’t changed this view. Learning Khmer is extremely helpful for me and others. What has happened is that, instead of changing this view about learning language, I’ve enriched it, or added to it, even nuanced it.
My view now is all of the above AND for a few people I’m going to speak English with them. For these few people it is actually selfish for me to learn their language. They should be the ones learning language. They need to improve their English.
The reason English is important, and I didn’t see this before, is that for Christians in Cambodia at the moment to progress in theological education they need to do that further study in English. Not only do they need sufficient English to progress, but they need theological English (which might as well be another language). The reason is simple. There are not enough theological resources in Khmer to sustain a Masters level degree or higher. The point could be argued for Bachelor degrees as well, but that’s a whole kettle of fish that I don’t know if I want to get into right now (though I would love to engage this point).
Given the need for English skills to progress in theological education, rather than just seeking to speak Khmer with my fellow Khmer colleagues at the Bible School, I should be using some of my time to help them improve their English. Now this is not an easy swap, English for Khmer, because they have an important role in developing my theological Khmer. However, there is a mutual need that I didn’t see before. They need theological English from a native English speaker and I need theological Khmer from a native Khmer speaker. To just work in Khmer with them all the time would be selfish. There is a mutuality in learning language that I knew in principle from missiology, but needed to expand my approach to others learning Khmer.
This needs further qualifying. While I want to speak with them in English, my thought is that this is best done one to one. In group settings at the Bible school I think speaking in Khmer gives them the power and ability to interact in a language that they are comfortable with rather than in a second language which is harder. So in group settings I prefer Khmer. In one on one relationships with a few, English.
I wrote previously about the missionary as bridge between two places (or two cultures). I stand by this description. But I want to add another metaphor. The bridge metaphor captures our in-betweenness. When I think about our relationship with locals, the metaphor changes. And I can’t decide. Am I a goalie or the coach? The description of goalie and coach resonate with how I see myself as a missionary.
A missionary like a soccer (or hockey) goalie is not up the front pushing play forward and scoring goals. They’re not making the new developments happen. They’re more like the back stop. To even mix metaphors, we could say we deal with the tricky things in the expression “let that one go through to the keeper” (yes I realise that’s for cricket). A soccer goalie has different resources. They can use their hands. We come with a different perspective and different training. However, a goalie is limited. Outside the box they are just like any other player. In fact it’s better for them to not leave too much. This “contained to a box” feeling echoes my ability to travel round. I’m not as useful on the go as I am in my one spot. You could say that a goalie has limited mobility (in a ministry or vocation perspective, not just physical mobility) and that’s how I see my experience. Further a goalie has a different perspective on the action and is able to lead and direct, but not as coach or captain. The goalies main job is to stop goals. This could be described as a defensive stance or protective and again this resonates with what I’m doing in Cambodia. There are many things about a goalie that resonate with my missiology.
But coach also resonates in a different but similar way. A coach has a specific role that is different from the team. They can’t make the players play, they are an assistant to the players. A coach, when they are at their best, is neither doing too little or too much in how they lead, direct or manage the team. And their very inability to get too involved in the actual play feels like a helpful way to look at mission from one perspective. And in the end the glory often (and rightly so) goes to the players. The coach is valuable, but they have their limitations.
The emphasis on limitations helps me to find my spot as a missionary (whether as a goalie missionary or coach missionary) and it speaks to the vulnerable mission thoughts that I’ve mentioned at other places (here, here and here).
When we were living in Cambodia, what did we miss the most from Australia? Of course family and friends is what we missed the most. Close to this was the beauty of Australia. But on a more trivial nature I missed the cold. I joke that in my time back in Australia I’m going to freeze my body temp to 10 degrees Celsius and then spend the next term in Cambodia thawing in the humidity. Though I don’t think the freezing would last that long. I missed the cold so much, I wrote a poem about it.
I also missed driving. We weren’t ready to drive in Cambodia when we first arrived. But having driven for almost 20 years, it was a skill that I missed every now and then. The other thing I missed I never would have thought I would miss until I did. That is communicating with ease. Learning a new language is hard. Using that new language is hard. I did improve in the three years that we were there. And yet still, communicating takes so much work and is fraught with so many issues. Now of course we have issues with communicating in our own language all the time. There are frequent miscommunications. But there are a bunch of interactions that are just simple and easy. Hello! How are you? Can I please have ….? (when at a store). Imagine those simple interactions being hard. They were. Or to order something and not be sure what will come out. One time I tried to order 3 eggs, and 9 eggs came out. Some friends affectionately call me ‘Craigy nine eggs’ now as a result. When even simple conversations are tricky, you miss communicating with ease. This is even without going into all the shared culture that you have with people from your home culture as I spoke about last post.
I tossed up as to whether to write this post, mostly because I wanted to watch what I say on this public forum. So I’m going to talk more generally about the topic. The two revelations that I share in no way should be taken as my support of korruptshun, nor do they diminish the horror that korruptshun creates. They are more me understanding more fully this phenomenon. As an aside, I’ve decided not to write the full word, not because I’m worried, but better safer than sorry. I’m sure a sophisticated search could find this post (not that there is anything really controversial in what I’m saying here). BTW if you’re still confused by my misspelled topic for today, try saying it aloud, it’s spelt phonetically.
My first revelation is that I think there is a grey area in relation to korruptshun than I had previously thought. Say I have to get some documents through an agency. To speed it along I give more than the expected amount. In this sense those with money are treated ‘better’ than those ‘without’. Before, if I had come across this scenario I would have called this an example of korruptshun. And I still might. My thoughts are still being worked out on this topic. But two things that I now know that make it more complicated than the simple example I just gave. The first complicating factor is in relation to a similar practice in Australia. If I want a package to be delivered faster, I pay more than the usual amount. It’s called the ‘express’ rate. And so again, those with money are treated ‘better’ than those without. Now this we all accept and just call fast tracking. And the fact that it is standardised and transparent does eliminate some of the greyness surrounding this topic. The second complicating factor is that in Australia so many of our processes occur outside of relationship. Think of how many things we can do without interacting with people. I can order a product, have it delivered and not have any contact with any person in that transaction. While this is a fringe example, it’s still possible. Contrast that impersonal transaction with the relational nature of Cambodian life. Nearly everything is done in the context of relationships. And we all know that relationships are messy. They are not clinical like a formal procedure. And this helps me to see some more of the grey area in relation to korruptshun. Further, understanding the relational nature of life in Cambodia makes more sense of the bargaining that we see happen and that I fail miserably at.
My second revelation is much briefer. When we think about korruptshun and poverty, we often see that the two go together. I think my first reaction is to say that korruptshun creates poverty. And I think there is truth to that. And yet I think the converse is also true as well, and I don’t often think of it in this way. That is, korruptshun arises in conditions of poverty. Proverbs 30 has a saying-slash-prayer where sage asks for neither opulence or poverty and the reason for not wanting poverty is that as a result he will steal. Again, this doesn’t remove the responsibility we have in each of our circumstances (including poverty). But it does highlight a valuable point: poverty creates korruptshun, just as korruptshun creates poverty.
My thoughts are still evolving on this topic. Would love to hear what you think, both on where you think I’ve missed it or on thoughts that came to you from reading this.
This is not the first time I’ve got this hand hold wrong. I think I have photographic evidence another time as well. Do you know what it stands for? Its not the standard V shape that you make with your 2nd and 3rd finger. Its not a symbol for money like I originally thought it was (and like my hand hold assumes). It is, as far as I know, a symbol for love: a heart. Contextually, it makes sense: a wedding.
I don’t think I realised how little culture I knew til I was back in a culture I knew well. Granted, I knew that it would take years to learn some culture and I’d still be only scratching the surface. But you don’t realise the storehouse of culture that we imbibe from our home culture. Decades of exposure, compared to a shallow immersion in Khmer culture.
In my home country I understand clothing trends: jean styles moving from bell-bottoms to bleached to straight to tight to so-ripped-there-is-barely-any-jean-material-left. I’m not even a fashion expert, and I know that basic transition. I would have no idea of the current clothing trends in Cambodia or where they have been or where they are going in Cambodia. I feel the lack of culture even more in relation to movies and songs. Being back in Australia and being able to reference lines from movies we share in common like “I’ll be back” or “How’s the serenity” without a strange look of “What did you just say?” Or being able to start a line and not need to finish it, like, “From little things ….”
Does this make me feel despondent, the shallow nature of my cultural understanding in Cambodia? Nah. Does that mean I just feel like giving up? Nah. Two things. I appreciate more my Australian culture and the depth that I have there. And I look forward to days, not when I can know all the cultural references made in a conversation down to the last proverb, but when I can share some of them with my Cambodian friends. The beauty of sharing a joke together. It seems to me that culture is a form of sharing.
Warning: This is a more abstract reflection on being a missionary
Before leaving for Cambodia I did a brief seminar on my thoughts on immersion and connection as a missionary as a sort of thought experiment of what it would be like to be a missionary in a new place, seeking to get to know (immersion) while also being known in another place (connection). Towards the end of my first 3 year term in Cambodia I wrote a post summing up my thoughts in this regard.
One of the surprises of first term was where we ended up on my made-up immersion/connection spectrum. In short: not as immersed as I thought. Now, as I reflect on that, I can see lots of reasons why. The main reason is captured in the missiology language of insider and outsider. I think the goal is to move towards being like an insider in a new culture (for us, Cambodia). What’s interesting is how far you can actually move towards being an insider. Of course, you can never be a true insider of a new culture, even if you’ve been there for yonks. There will always be a sort of distance.
But I don’t think that distance is wrong. In fact, in some ways, its necessary. One of the necessities of mission (exemplified in the CMS model of mission) is that we do it in partnership. We are sent. We are not lone rangers. We are part of a fellowship. That requires communication or connection. As you communicate, what you have to do is step back from experiencing in order to observe and document and describe. That distance is necessary in communicating with others, but it changes your stance toward the new culture. Again, not that distance is bad. We don’t say that a doctor should not have distance when they treat patients. In fact, some distance is necessary to be a good doctor. A good teacher has distance as they have to be able to see the whole in order to rightly teach the next step. Mission today requires more partner experience. We see this in the nature of mission communication. Not only is it prayer points that should be sent monthly, but videos, pictures, media that enables or assists partners, in some way, experiencing what the missionary experiences. In this sort of partnership model, there is a movement from the immersion of the missionary to the immersion of the partner.
As I think back to arriving in Cambodia, the thing that I was least prepared for was the dirtiness of the place. I was ready for the stifling heat even though I didn’t know how much it would sap you. I was ready for grind of language learning despite not fully realising how slow it would be. I don’t think I was prepared for the dirt. I knew it wouldn’t be a clean place, like more developed countries. But I was thinking it would be more like what rural Cambodia is currently. That is, mostly natural vegetation and beauty. And even though I’d been to cities in Asia before, the dirtiness of the place still caught me off guard the most. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia is a beautiful place. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is not. A close second to the surprise of dirt is the amount of rubbish that you find dumped everywhere.
I first saw the dirt when flying over the airport as we were about to land for the first time. We then experienced the dirt first hand when our house needed to be mopped twice daily just to stay clean. And we are not clean freaks. In Australia we mop much, much, much less. What I found intriguing on my bike rides to class was the shop owners watering the road just outside their house. I haven’t checked this, but I assume it’s to dampen the dirt so less dust comes into their shop.
I rode my bicycle every day in Cambodia. What this meant for me is that for the three years I rode a mountain bike. The quality of the roads goes hand in hand with the dirtiness and so rather than switching to a road or racing bike in the city, I ride mountain bike because there is still a need for it on many of the roads I ride on.
On reflection after our first term, the other thing that I least expected was how much language you can pick up. I thought that to be good at language meant being immersed in the culture and community; going to a local church, local school and living amongst locals. What surprised me is that we didn’t do this as much as we thought and yet I was able to make significant gains. This is partly because CMS frees us up to really learn language in the first term. But my thought had been that we would need to be ultra immersed. And true, that would help. But immersion in the way I thought it is not the be all and end all. In fact, the more I think about it, it was because we weren’t as immersed as I thought that enabled me to do as much language as I did.
Our video captures this aspect of surprise from our first term.
This time last year I didn’t think I would be starting a new blog series from Australia. We had planned to be back in Cambodia by now. COVID has changed many things for many people. As a result, we’re still in Australia. But we’re aiming at returning to Cambodia in January.
COVID also changed our time here. While we were able to visit all our partner churches, over half of our church visits were done digitally. We were flying by the seat of our pants with this digital deputation as churches were coming to terms with what church looked like in these crazy times. One week, I couldn’t have told you what Zoom was. A month later I used it almost daily.
One consequence for us is that we didn’t get to share with as many people as we would have liked about our time in Cambodia. Further, even when we did share, we didn’t have the same opportunity that you would normally have to go a bit deeper when you are face to face.
To try and remedy that lack of connection, this blog series will cover some of the things we shared about in our church visits. It will also help us consolidate our thoughts as we gear up for our second term in Cambodia early next year.