Mid year musings #2: Oblivious to errors


In person, our tuktuk driver has a wonderful smile. For a photo, I’m not sure whether this smile is of happiness or awkwardness (or both).

Is he happy about this picture or not? I read somewhere (or have heard it) that a smile in Cambodia can mean many things–happiness, embarrassment, hurt or anger. Which one is this? I’m not sure. I’m potentially oblivious to doing the wrong thing.

Every now and then I become aware of, or I’m made aware of, my ignorance regarding my misdemeanours. It dawns on me that I’m making mistakes without being aware of most of them. In your home culture you have more of a sense of what is right and wrong and how to behave appropriately. In a new culture you don’t have that same awareness. You can easily fool yourself that you’re fitting in, when in reality you completely stand out by the errors you unwittingly make. Added to this is that in some places people won’t always pull you up when you’re doing the ‘wrong’ thing. The result is that you can end up doing many wrong things without being aware of it. Some of these wrong things are harmless and are just laughed off as ‘stupid foreigner’. Some wrongs can be more harmful, yet are still hidden from you (often through smiles that say more than you know).

This brings me to a second point. In moving to Cambodia we’ve moved to a culture that his high context (as opposed to Australia which is more a ‘low context’ culture). In a high context culture, like Cambodia, communication occurs as much through non-verbal communication as it does through verbal communication. In other words, its not just what you say or how you say it, but also what is not said that is just as important. You are looking for communication clues that come from body language or from the context of the communication (location, occasion, etc). In contrast, low context cultures like Australia communicate predominately through verbal communication and so less is communicated through body language or context (though that is still important).

What all this means is that not only are we navigating a new language system, we are also trying to learn how to pick up cues from what is not said. Picking up these non-verbal cues may help give us insight into the times when we do something wrong, particularly while our language abilities are still in infancy.

In the end my lack of awareness concerning the mistakes I make is just another aspect of ambiguity tolerance. But our hosts also need to be gracious and use ambiguity tolerance with us as well, until we realise or are shown our foibles. My hope is that this is creating in me more of a sense of humility, that many of my ‘sins’1 are being covered over.


  1. I actually think this aspect of culture learning is a great analogy for the Christian life. That is, in the early days we sin in tonnes of different ways that we are completely ignorant about. As we grow as Christians, it is through being confronted with God’s Word are shown just how sinful we are–the true extent of our mistakes and failures. As we see our sin more clearly we come to see God’s grace to us in Jesus death more and more deeply. My sins are not just those that I see or know. I’m am sinning constantly and much more deeply than I can know, yet Jesus death has paid for all these unintentional sins as well. 

Mid year musings #1: Mid-year reset

Bus without number

One way the year has started again for us mid-year: starting a new school year in August

One of the weird things about our year this year is that in August (now) we’re starting the new year. The year has reset halfway through. We’ve been here for six months and yet school is starting again after the summer break. We’ve had a big long break to help us make it through this next year. If we were in Australia we’d be in the dark of winter longing for the summer sun and the end of the year break.

So in my head we’re kind of in that mid-year ‘you’ve just gotta make it to the end of the year’ mindset. But actually we’re six months in and we’re starting again. We’ve had our summer break and we’ve got twelve months ahead of us. I need to change my mindset as I prepare for the year ahead and think ‘new year starting now’.

This realisation came home to me as we went on holidays to Thailand. It was suggested in our training to take a good break from language and the country, if you can, around the six to nine month mark. This can be the time of culture shock and homesickness. And even if you’re not in culture shock or homesick, you’ve still spent the last six months settling in. So we did. We took a break. And the break was much needed and very helpful in that regard; our newness tiredness had taken its toll.

But the holiday (unintentionally) served another purpose. It helped to get us ready for the new year in the middle of the year. So although this is the ‘mid year musings’ blog series, it’s actually in another way a ‘new year’ series.

Settling in: Still settling in


Feed the birds, mboan a bag. Mboan, mboan, mboan a bag. A family day out playing in the park in front of the palace

Hopefully this series has given you some sense of what our time has been like in Cambodia so far. It hasn’t been Cambodia-details rich, but hopefully sense rich. That is, hopefully it’s given you a sense of the ups and downs of settling in here–the joys and challenges. The joys have come from the new and also the not so new. The joys have even come from and through the challenges, amidst our indecision, our comparisons and our confusion. Some of these challenges recede in importance as our language improves, though the journey is slow.

We don’t feel new anymore. If you think about it on a scale, there are tourists, expats and locals. We’ve definitely moved on from tourist and we’re in the heart of expat land as we seek to improve our language through the ups and downs of language learning. We’re not out of the “honeymoon phase”, just yet. But we may be soon.

Following the great advice we were given during our missionary training in Melbourne, we are taking a break from language learning and Cambodia and heading to a nearby country for some much needed R&R. Stay tuned in August for a new blog series on our time in Cambodia.

For a heads up on when that series starts, sign up to receive an email alert by clicking the ‘Follow’ button on the right side of our blog home page.



Settling in: #9. Corks not in Cambodia

Part of our experience of settling into Cambodia has included the experience of those not in Cambodia; those in Australia who are settling in to no longer having us there. This post below is from my parents and gives another perspective on the whole settling in, a settling without. Having left home many years ago, I returned–a boomerang child–but this time with a family. We lived with my parents for two years before coming here to Cambodia. Below are some of their thoughts post us leaving:

Cork Parents

What’s it like to now have them all disappear from our everyday lives and for us to no longer be busy with the activities that were part of having them around us?

At first it seems surreal, like they are just away for a few days and will soon be running around with us again. I even came in one night and was about to tell my husband to turn the TV down so he didn’t wake the children. It doesn’t seem necessary to put away toys and left over clothes “because the children might need them”.  And then there’s a few tears as we realize the distance that now separates us.

There are also thoughts about how they are all going. Have they been able to settle in ok? Are they able to get around safely and perform the normal routines of life in a safe manner? Can they maintain their health in very different circumstances? How will the children manage such a big cultural shift? Are they feeling alone in a new place where communication is in a language they don’t yet know?

So how does our faith in God speak to us in these circumstances? We know that the best place for our children and grandchildren to be is doing what God wants them to do. We feel blessed that they are following God’s guidance for their lives. We know that God loves them and watches over them way more than we do. Our children and grandchildren are in a better place than many others that live comfortable lives but don’t know God. This of course doesn’t mean that what they are doing is easy. So we pray that our children and grandchildren will be given the strength they need to keep doing His will.


Children and grandchildren boarding the plane, January 2017


Settling in: #8. Language ability update

Below is a visual representation of what I heard when someone is speaking to me in Khmer about a month ago:

Blah blah blah blah blah BUT… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ME… blah blah blah blah SO… blah blah blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah DAY… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

Have you figured out what the above paragraph is about??? Me either.

A month later (now) it’s more like this:

Blah FATHER blah blah blah BUT… blah DEAD blah EXCITED blah blah MONEY blah ME… blah JESUS blah blah SO… blah SAD blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah GOD blah blah blah DAY… blah blah LOVE blah blah (I THINK HE SAID TEACH) blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

So its been about four months of full time language learning. Where are we up to? Well, in one sense, “not far” is the short and obvious answer. But in another sense, we’re exactly where we should be in learning the language. I’ve just started learning the Khmer alphabet a few weeks ago. Our language learning centre has emphasised listening and speaking first, to enter into the language and culture more verbally through conversation–speaking and listening. This approach is in contrast to a method that begins more through books–reading and writing. Neither is necessarily more right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.1 One strength of this method is that we are both often complimented on our pronunciation.

Our language classes have been working at growing our capacity to speak and to listen. So what does that look like? With speaking, we’ve gone from no ability to being able to ask simple questions in order to get to know people. And recently we’ve been able to ask simple requests from our house helper and tuttuk driver, or even say thank you for particular jobs that our house helper is doing.

This has made a huge difference. For one, the other day I understood when our house helper asked to come in early and finish early because she wanted to go somewhere. I worked out the next day that it was to a family wedding. So there are improvements in our langauge, of which I couldn’t have done that even a month ago. With our tuktuk driver, we can organize pickup and drop off times in person and on the phone, as well as interact in little conversations about how we are going.

An example of our listening ability is to a sermon in church. I’ve gone from no word recognition to understanding about 1 in every 20-30 words and probably more now. Unfortunately, they are mostly just connecting words like ‘but’ or ‘I’ or other simple words that don’t really give the sense of what is being said (like the above visual representation). But even this is a cool win. There are many times when our house helper or someone similar mistakes how much language we have and go off into a very long winded and fast description… and I’m left just nodding saying ‘Yes’ (‘baht’ for boys, ‘ja’ for girls) though I have no idea what she said. Hopefully, it’s nothing too important…

At our language school we’re at the level of ‘survival Khmer’ or just above–enough Khmer to get around Cambodia doing basic tasks. By early next year I am hoping to be able to have moderately deep conversations, delving further into relationships. As far as writing and reading, my best guess is that our language centre emphasised speaking and listening first so that we could be growing that skill while we do the long and arduous task of learning the alphabet and putting those letters into words. So while reading and writing will come later this year, that hasn’t stalled us communicating and building our vocabulary from verbal means.

One encouragement we have had in learning Khmer is that many of our Cambodian friends are surprised with how well we are doing learning Khmer. The context in Cambodia is that many foreigners pick up only a little Khmer or none at all (even after many years of living here). Our efforts in learning Khmer are often appreciated by those we meet.

  1. I think one of the advantages going into a language orally is that you are more dependent on people in your host country guiding you. I feel like this is a more ‘bodily’ entrance into a culture as opposed to a more intellectual approach that you might get through books. With books you are more the guide. But with people it is much more obvious who the guide is. Hopefully the end result is that we not only can speak Khmer, but we develop similar mannerisms and habits to really inhabit Khmer culture. But who knows? 

Settling in: #7. Language learning is like tennis


Wing: the place I pay my bills in Cambodia (unless I’m late and then I have to go an hour into town). BTW I now can read WING in Khmer.

Maybe God had a better plan than me when he put tennis in my background. Not maybe, definitely. I’ve found a few similarities between playing tennis and learning a new language in a new culture.

Firstly, learning in a new culture is like learning a complex skill in sport. You don’t pick up a tennis racquet and hit a serve straight away. You break down the skill into parts and work at each little bit. It feels a bit weird doing each part, but once you get good at the little bits you add a few of them together like building blocks until you work your way to the full serve. Learning a new language and learning how to function in a new society are similar. We learn to do more complex jobs based on learning simple jobs and adding them together. So now I can pay a bill–ON MY OWN–because of four smaller parts of this more complex skill. NOW I can ride a bike in a new country. NOW I know where to go to pay the bill. NOW I know how to use money in Cambodia (Go figure… 4000 Riel to each US Dollar). And NOW I’m familiar with the process for paying the bill at the shop (Wing). Put it all together and though it’s not the most complex job, I certainly couldn’t have managed it by myself in the first week.

The other way learning in a new culture is like tennis is those good and bad days for no apparent reason. In tennis you have those days where you can’t miss a ball. You hit all the lines. You’re in the sweet spot. The next day… You can’t hit a backhand. Your ball toss is all over the place. You just don’t have it. What’s changed? Often nothing. What’s the difference? Who knows? It’s just the ups and downs of playing sport.

It feels the same with language learning. Some days you come to class and your pronunciation is spot on. You remember all your vocab and you’re able to form questions with relative ease. The next day… You get pulled up for saying everything slightly wrong. Words are just lost in your brain somewhere… and don’t even get me started on trying to put a question together! What’s changed? Nothing! What’s the difference? Who knows?! It’s just the ups and downs of language learning.

The pay-off in all this skill building and up-down days is that one day you get to play a real a game of tennis–all the skills come together. The joy of all those hard days and training comes in a game well played. This is what we’re aiming for with language learning.

The bigger picture however, is that we’re not just language learning, we’re discovering a new world (Thanks MILL for that insight). That is, we’re not just doing language learning for itself, but as a means to enter into a new world. This bigger picture of participating in a new world helps put those down (and even up) days in perspective.

Settling in: #6. Ambiguity tolerance


What does this sign mean? I have no idea, despite using the road everyday. This is me exercising some ambiguity tolerance. (BTW my confused face looks a lot like my undecided face)

I remember hearing the phrase “ambiguity tolerance” in training down in Melbourne. Then, on the first day of language class here in Cambodia, our teacher shared that good language learners are those who have ambiguity tolerance (or who work on having good ambiguity tolerance). That is, there’s much that we don’t know. But if we stop to try to understand every single detail before acting–or speaking, in the case of language learning–then we won’t get very far without being constantly frustrated.

I think what this looks like in a new culture is that we’re acting or speaking without knowing the full extent of what we are doing or saying. For example, in just using our favourite and usual tuktuk driver are we being loyal to him or showing an unhealthy favouritism in a collective culture? We’re just never really sure what our actions are saying or the effect they are having on others.

Now, this is actually how we ALL live, all the time, whether overseas or not. But this fact is highlighted more in a place where you know very little about the culture. Sometimes I do well at tolerating ambiguity. At these times, ambiguity tolerance enables me to relax, given I’m not going to have all the info I need before making decisions. At other times, the ambiguity is harder to deal with. Here’s one example:

My tuktuk driver said something to me and I had no idea what he said. He’d been driving us most places, most days for close to a month. We were seeing each other a lot; some days I would be in the tuktuk for 3 hours. I had started speaking in very poor beginner Khmer to him. He often said things to me that I didn’t understand, but I usually nod to be polite (a fairly usual pattern for us here in Cambodia). This particular day was a Friday and I didn’t think too much of it.

Anyway, the following Monday, one of his tuktuk driver friends showed up instead of him. I thought, ‘he must have just wanted a day off or had something to do’. A few days went by and the friend kept coming, not our usual tuktuk driver. I started to wonder whether he’d told me something important on that Friday. Was he displeased with us? Were we paying him enough? Was he going to come back? Did we have conflict I was unaware of? I wasn’t being tolerant to this ambiguity, and it was affecting my tolerance in other areas of life here.

I didn’t realise how much the ambiguity was affecting me until the 4th day when the tuktuk driver was late coming to pick us up. I started to hope. My regular tuktuk driver was often late, but his friend was always early. When I heard the tuktuk driver come down the street late, I was hoping it would be him (one of those times when you’re happy someone is late). And it was. My friend was back! I was so happy. I was happy because he was back. But I was also happy because the ambiguity of that situation was resolved. Unfortunately I couldn’t really tell him why I was happy.

This is just a small example of ambiguity tolerance. But this is one of the main ongoing lessons of living here so far. To survive in a new place, I’ll need to grow my ambiguity tolerance.