No-longer New: #12 Another language reality check

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Which book am I currently reading?

It’s funny to think of how your dreams or thoughts change when faced with the bare reality. Last post I mentioned that I had to change my language plan within the first week. Why?

When I first began thinking about preparing to teach from the Old Testament (OT), my mind had gone to things I would do to prepare. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I could read through the Pentateuch in Khmer to prepare’. Hah! As I got closer to preparation time and saw my actual ability in Khmer, my early dreams morphed. So I thought, “Maybe instead I could just read through a summary book of the class I’m teaching and then just read a couple of the more important passages from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible)”. Hhhmmm.

Then came day 1 of that plan. Bomp-bom (think two thumbs down). Not so much. Even this plan was well beyond my ability in Khmer.

So my plan changed again. Now I’m reading a kids Bible! The sentence structure and vocabulary are much closer to my reading level. I also skim read an easy Bible  translation in Khmer. But that’s usually after reading the kids Bible first. After this, I summarise a Bible story in my own words. This makes it comprehensible input, while developing the vocab I’ll need for the subject I plan to teach. What I aim to do with these summaries is practice saying them, then recording them. Then I will get a local to make their own summary of that same bible story. The result is that I’ll have two recordings of the same story. I’ll take from the local retelling some helpful phrases and add them to my summary. Thus improving my ability, bit by bit, to tell a story in Khmer.

So this early reality check on my language learning plan helped me tweak my language learning and lesson prep goals in order to tailor it more to the new situation–me understanding my actual language abilities and what I need to do to develop them. I just keep saying to myself flexibility is the key to success at the moment.

 

No-longer New: #11. Success through flexibility

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There’s a difference between achieving a goal for the first time and achieving that same goal multiple times. The second or third time you set out to achieve a goal, you have a precedent, past experience, to help guide your planning and goal setting. You’ve given it a go once and then the second or third time you can tweak or modify the plan in order to achieve the goal. Seeking to achieve a goal for the first time is slightly different. There’s more unknowns and you don’t really have experience or a precedent to follow.

I was chatting with a good friend (a mentor) about my aim of teaching in Khmer later this year. He urged me to see success in a different way. Success was not so much about whether I achieved the goal or not. Success, in this case, is about the flexibility of my plan. With so many unknowns surrounding this plan and goal, the best plan was going to be one that was supremely adaptable. Adaptability is key, because success would come via flexibility.

In later attempts I will have more idea of capabilities and what is required. But on this first time round it’s about giving it a go and adjusting as I go. Aim, fire, readjust and fire again. Give one plan a go. If it doesn’t seem to be working, tweak it or make a new plan.

So, how quickly did I need to readjust? The first day. I had to be flexible on the first day of a new plan. I had somewhat planned out three months of language learning. I started day one, and by the end of the day (with the help of a local) I had realised that this plan wasn’t going to work. Good idea. Nice in principle. But not going to happen.

So the plan changed. And because of the advice that I’d been given, I was more okay with it. So I’ve readjusted and shot again. This time, with a new plan, I got a little closer to the target. That is, the plan I’ve made is working, so far. So what was wrong with the first plan? Why didn’t it work? That’s for next time. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

No-longer New: #10. My independent language learning

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It’s all Khmer to me???

One of the things I love about independent language learning is that on ‘home days’ (learning at home rather than in the classroom) I get to wear what I want, what’s comfortable. At school, I wore more culturally appropriate clothing; long sleeves and long pants. This stage of learning reminds me of when I was studying for my Masters in Theology in Australia, though that time was winter and I was wearing my jumper and uggies (read sweater and ugg boots). Still wearing comfortable, but in a different way.

My last post hopefully gave you a general sense of the changes in my language learning. This posts delves into some of that detail of my independent language learning to give you a better sense of the changes.

Planning:

So what will this next phase look like? Well, it won’t be full time classroom (3hrs a day, 5 days a week). Instead, the first step is to set up some goals. These goals will then help direct how I set up my time. The more concrete these goals are the better. This is because the more specific these goals are, the easier it will be to plan steps needed to reach the goal. This in turn will mean that each step has clarity, helping me to execute each step and get feedback on how I’m tracking. On an aside, in chatting with a mentor of mine back in Australia, success in this sort of plan will include the plan’s flexibility. Because I’m diving into new waters, a good plan won’t be one where I know if the goal is achievable from the outset. A good plan at the moment is one that adapts to new situations, even if those changes occur weekly.

Aiming at different skills:

The way I’ll work out the goals is basing them on developing and strengthening skills that I’ll need in order to be able to teach in Khmer. So these goals will cover all modalities: listening, reading, writing and speaking. In terms of speaking there are two basic types of speaking (and tied very closely to that, listening) that I want to work on: presentational and conversational. In one you have more control, the other being more dynamic, and so each requiring different skills. So on the first I’ll need to work on clarity and precision and on the latter adaptability and reactivity. In terms of reading and writing, I’ll be aiming at building my vocabulary surrounding biblical terminology and themes. While I’m aiming for my reading to enhance my vocab and so also my speaking and listening ability, I’m conscious that I need to work on Khmer conversations in order to not end up sounding just like a book. In order to execute this plan I aim to be around the Bible school (in an informal way) more over the coming months in order to use this context as the location of building these skills and reaching my language goals.

Targeted and random language learning:

Flowing out of the independent language learning seminar was a strong emphasis on what I’ll call targeted language learning. The key in this sort of learning is what’s called comprehensible input. That is, you aim to learn one or two new things from a piece of text or conversation where you already know a significant amount of the material. That way you’re not being flooded with all this new stuff that you are unable to use. Instead, you aim to learn one or two new things. Then take those one or two new things and use them in other ways, to build understanding through using them, to remember them and make them more familiar. What this requires is a good amount of preparation. Tutoring sessions, in this manner, will require a good amount of preparation. Which means that if I want to do 3-5 hours of tutoring a week, I’m easily spending that amount of time in preparation or follow up. What this means is that if I was doing 15 hours at language school, I can’t expect to do the same amount given that I’ve got the prep to do as well. The exciting thing is that I get to direct how this goes. I’m looking forward to some more self-direction. I valued it when I did my masters and so I’m looking forward to it now in this different context.

The other sort of language learning is what I’ll call random. In this model, I’m aiming not only to practice and become more fluent in what I know. But I’m also aiming to glean new things as I come across them in different situations, where I haven’t prepared. I see this occurring around lunches, during sport, in casual conversations. I’ll learn just by being there, rather than by being prepared. So as well as planning and setting goals, part of my language learning time will be planning just to be there, immersing in a different way.

 

 

 

 

No-longer New: #9. Next steps language wise

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This is a mix of present teachers and students at a games day where we had our graduation from the school. Some fun Khmer games were played that day

Having completed all 8 modules of Khmer at my language school, my language learning now shifts gears (this post builds on my last post about where my language is up to). In order to look forward, a brief look back.

What G2K has given me:

I think their name, Gateway 2 Khmer, sums up their role. They help prepare students to delve deeper into the Khmer language and culture. So in that way they’re a gate. What they’ve given me is what I would call the skeleton of Khmer language. I’ve got the basics and some structure. But a skeleton on its own doesn’t move far. Now I need to go and add some meat or flesh so that this body can move. Plenty more work to be done, obviously. But it will build on the work that G2K helped to set up. They’ve given me a great foundation in the Khmer language.

Not only have they given me a great foundation, but they’ve also prepared me to continue to learn more Khmer post-school. As part of the 8th module in the language course we did a two day seminar on independent language learning, thinking about life post-G2K.

Life post-G2K:

So now my language learning shifts from classroom based learning to independent or more field based learning. I’m excited about this next phase. Part of the brilliance of G2K is they’ve given a broad language entry into various different subjects regarding Khmer life. What I’m looking forward to now is taking that broad base and adding some depth. This depth won’t be across the board, impossible, but will be focused on particular topics—such as delving into biblical Khmer (vocab that I’m only just embarking on).

However, it’s not just about learning new; it’s also about practising old. I’m excited about the chance to use what I’ve learned. One of the phrases that they drill into us in language learning is ‘learn a little, use a lot’. I’m looking forward to this second half of the equation, even as I continue to learn more. Thus, I’ll be making opportunities just to have normal conversations on a more regular basis and going for more fluency.

 

No-longer New: #8. Language update

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This is a shot from the role play I wrote as part of a in-class presentation that I gave in Khmer.

Where am I up to after a year and a bit of language, after 40 weeks of full time language school? The short answer is: I’ve come a long way, but I’ve got an even longer way to go. A more specific question is what’s changed in this last 6 months on from my last update?

Conversations:

Arriving in Cambodia early last year, I had almost no Khmer. Now I’m attempting conversations in Khmer and these conversations are moving beyond the basic fact finding questions of personal data (age, family, work etc). Though I still need to learn much more vocab, I’m finding now that I’m using strategies to keep conversations going, even without having the vocab. This is one major difference between my conversational abilities now and even 5 months ago. 5 months ago, once I asked a quick question and got a quick answer, it was hard to move beyond that point. Sometimes we were just left awkwardly standing there, like one of those scenes everyone fears at a party when the conversation dies. Now with a bit more language what I’m finding is that I have more topics to turn to in general chit chat. A break through in shooting-the-breeze came recently. I’d been struggling to work out what to talk about when I meet up with a friend, beyond the personal data that I’d found out first time I meet with someone. It came as an off hand remark in a seminar, but I’ve found it really helpful. Easy go-to topics in Cambodia are “where have you been?” Or “where are you going?” Through to “have you eaten?” Or “how are family members (either where are they or how are they doing)?” This has given me a couple of topics that I can use as I seek to build my conversational skills.

Content:

The result of my language learning so far is that in general day to day life I can function doing simple tasks and having simple conversations in Khmer, conveying some information and understanding some things as well. What this means is that I’m understanding more content on a regular basis. In a recent update, I shared that more often than not I got a sense of the topic that Khmers were talking to me about. Now I don’t just get a sense of the general topic, but I get a sense of the general point they are making about that topic. I’m understanding more conversational content. I still miss many of the details, but I get the general topic and the general point about that topic.

This doesn’t always occur across the board in every conversation and it can often vary based on how quickly Khmer is being spoken (often in conversation it seems to go at machine gun rate) as well as other factors (like background noise and the topic of conversation). But more often than not I’m understanding a decent amount of content. Some of this improvement in understanding more content has come through practice (having similar conversations), some through increased vocab (in my vocab app I have about 2000 words) and some has come through an ability to use questions and responses to check I’ve understood or hear that they’ve understood me.

Confidence:

6 months ago I was hoping to improve my conversation abilities and fluency. And looking back even in the last 6 months I’ve seen that happen. The result is that I’m trying to put myself in more and more situations where I need to use my Khmer and I’ve got more confidence — not confidence to get it right, but confidence just to give it a go and learn something. That’s how I would summarise my conversation ability: confidence to have a go. The result is that I get to practice what I do know and in each conversation I have the chance to learn something new to add to my language arsenal.

One story before I move to reading and writing. Sam and I recently looked at one of my first videos where I tried a bit of Khmer (it was in the first month of arriving here). One of the ways I can see improvement in my Khmer is that as I listen to it again, I cringe. While I gave it a good crack for only being here 1 month, I can now see how my pronunciation was wrong and I can see how I’ve improved in this last year. I’m sure there will be more of that happening as I continue to look back.

In terms of reading and writing, I’m feeling much more comfortable writing and even writing small paragraphs of text. My vocab and reading ability will help improve my writing beyond this, but I’m happy with where my writing is up to. As I finished up with my language school, we were encouraged to keep up our writing if we wanted to keep it. Like a lot of skills, if you don’t use it you lose it. So this is my goal. But more about that in the next post. In terms of reading, while I’m progressing, one of the main difficulties is that my vocab is holding me back. As I add more words to the mix, I think this will help free up my reading. And in this next stage, as you’ll see in the next post, there will be more opportunities for reading.

No-longer New: #7. A ‘Corks not in Cambodia’ visit to Cambodia

 

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Most of the posts on this blog come from my point of view as we settle into our life in Cambodia. One of the things I enjoy adding to this blog are other opinions, or other points of view. ‘Corks not in Cambodia’ posts provide some of that diversity in reflection. So while this post comes in the middle of one series about our life a year on, in another sense this post follows on from two previous posts concerning the experience of one Cork from afar. But this post, instead of being from afar, is about a ‘Cork not in Cambodia’ coming close. Having moved from saying goodbye and experiencing the first year as a grandparent with grandchildren overseas, this post moves to the first visit, the first reunion of parent and child, grandparent and grandchild. My mum, a Cork not in Cambodia, came to Cambodia for a visit. Below are her reflections on this first visit1 having returned back to Australia:

In December it was finally time for our long awaited trip to Cambodia. I arrived at the airport and travelled by tuk-tuk through Phnom Penh. It was then that my first reaction to Cambodia began – a feeling of being overwhelmed by the cultural differences around me. Every sense was assailed by the alternate lifestyle and conditions that prevail, and that speak of a totally different experience of life. The material wealth that supports our living in Australia doesn’t exist in Cambodia. Standards like those required by our governments on our living conditions, aren’t in place. Living areas and daily activities are not organized into orderly and logical regions like our communities are. The differences challenged my understanding about what I saw and thought.

My reaction to the cultural difference was modified by being able to join with our own familiar family. They were the buffer against the unfamiliarity and strangeness.  But this in turn highlighted the isolation that they must experience being separated by language and culture from the place they live in. And the balance they need to work at – keeping the parts of our culture that are important for their family, and blending this with local patterns.

Alongside the experience of cultural difference was the great excitement to see our son, daughter in law and grandchildren.  It was so lovely to be with them again and share a family holiday time, and to slip back into our comfortable relationships. I do wonder how it will be as the children grow older and their memories of Australia and the people there become more distant.

It was also amazing to see how much our son, daughter in law, and grandchildren, have achieved in one short year. Their familiar and automatic responses to the circumstances they are in spoke of hard work in settling into a different culture. And their language interactions were amazing and entertaining.

Of course our holiday finally came to an end and it was time to leave. It was hard to leave knowing the distance that would separate us again, and knowing that we are too far away to be of much practical support.  There were no words that I could find to bring comfort to a sad grandchild as we said goodbye. Sometimes big goals have big costs.

But we look forward to our next trip to Cambodia; being able to see our Cambodian family again, and build on our first experience.

 

 

 


  1. It’ll be interesting in the future to contrast this first visit with later visits and how they are the same and different. 

No-longer New: #6. When culture shock isn’t shocking

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On a Skype call last year, after an hour of pouring out my heart, I hear these words from a close friend, ‘I think you’re in culture shock’. ‘Huh… that’s interesting’, I reply.

Two surprises came from those words.

The first surprise concerned my experience of culture shock; not so much that I was experiencing culture shock (I was prepared for that) but by the way it was manifest in me. I wasn’t so much shocked by my culture shock, but more surprised by the way I experienced it. The back story to this conversation was that I was emotionally empty and needed a break after a big first year as a missionary. I’d been prepared for experiencing culture shock through our wonderful training with our sending organisation, CMS. But I was still surprised when it hit. Not because I thought my friend was wrong, but because I think I had been expecting culture shock to feel different or to manifest itself in a different way.

I think my idea of culture shock was the reaction or experience of physical repulsion to a different thing (or event, or experience) in a new culture. I expected feelings of being angry at locals, repulsed over something or feeling like I was trapped in this new place. But my culture shock was for different reasons and so it manifest itself in a different way from what I had been expecting.

My guess is that there is a whole spectrum of how culture shock can manifest itself. I feel like the classic example is of physical repulsion to some aspect of the new place. For me, I didn’t really have any of that. For me, culture shock was more about running so fast and so hard for so long (a whole year, look at me talk as though I’ve been on location for yonks) that I was just worn out. I wasn’t repulsed by the new place, I was just exhausted from experiencing all the new and different aspects. That was my culture shock; exhaustion rather than repulsion.

My second surprise was my reaction to my diagnosis of culture shock. In some ways, I wasn’t shocked that I was in culture shock. It made complete sense. And the result of rightly recognising culture shock for me was a reduction in my culture shock. For me, the simple naming of culture shock helped to reduce its impact. I feel like this is the case for many hard experiences. We name something and its power is reduced. Not only this, but in a funny way my experiencing culture shock assured me. Instead of sending me into further stress, ‘Ohh no… I’m experiencing culture shock, what am I going to do?’ What this meant was that I was on the right path. The way I was feeling wasn’t because I was doing something massively wrong. It’s just a normal experience of missionary work. So in a funny way naming my culture shock assured me that I was normal and that what I was doing was normal. As a result, the diagnosis of culture shock also helped give me clues and ideas of what to do in order to manage the shock. The naming of culture shock was thus the first step and precipitated further steps.

No-longer New: #5. Trying not to whinge

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When I look back at our first year in Cambodia, a word that I often find myself coming back to in describing our experience is ‘hard’. Our first year on location was hard. Quite a normal experience for a first year missionary, really. But what I struggle with is how to convey this sentiment without it feeling like I’m just having a good old whinge. I’m not despondent. I’m not looking for massive amounts of sympathy. I’m not even wanting to wish the hardness away (completely). It was just hard.

But it wasn’t only hard. There were wonderful things from last year. Many things that I’m thankful for occurred in the midst of this hard year or maybe even because of this hard year. So I’m not using the word ‘hard’ in a completely negative sense. Many of the aspects of last year, while hard, have been good for me; maybe like eating vegetables. You don’t like eating your greens at first, but you know you should have them. So you eat. After a while, you actually grow to love eating vegetables. Or maybe its like learning a new skill. At first it’s just a lot of hard work, but after a while it’s not as hard and you soon learn to love it, sometimes to the point of obsession or automation (not realising that it’s hard).

So last year was hard. But it wasn’t ‘bad’ hard. I’m not trying to have a whinge. How was last year? It was good hard.

No-longer New: #4. Expectation vs. experience

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Setting up expectations

One of the things that CMS (Church Missionary Society) did in preparation for sending us to Cambodia is to help us construct helpful expectations for our time serving on location. Having never been to Cambodia, we constructed our initial expectations of what our life might be like based on glimpses of Cambodia that we had access to in Australia. These initial experiences came from things like meeting Cambodians in Melbourne, discussions with other missionaries already in Cambodia, through to what we learnt about Cambodia from books, lectures and other resources. CMS helped us combine these introductory experiences with some planning and preparation in order to put together some expectations for what it might be like to live in Cambodia.1 These expectations served as a foundation for our experience of Cambodia.

Moving from expectations to experience

After a year of now experiencing Cambodia, I’m able to look back and contrast some of my expectations with my experience. Some of my expectations matched my experience. We were stressed, lost and it took time to start to feel settled here in Cambodia. Expecting these things helped me survive these experiences. Good expectations assist our experience. 

But even the best of expectations will miss the mark. While I expected to be stressed, the experience of stress was much greater than I ever could have expected. No surprises here. Expectations will never match our experience. For example, the experience of bullying is always different from our expectation of being bullied. Our experience of parenthood is always different from our expectations about parenthood. Experience is the full bodied expression of what our expectations are only a glimpse of.

The nature of expectations

Four things I’m learning about expectations.

Firstly, our expectations will always be a mix of on the mark and completely missing it. Some expectations will match our experience and some won’t (whether by exceeding it, failing to meet it or just being completely wrong). But even the best expectations will still fall short of matching completely the experience.

Secondly, I’m learning that experience sheds light on expectations, particularly implicit expectations. As we experience something, we have the opportunity to learn. We are able to reflect on how well our explicit expectations matched the experience. But also, the experience sheds light on some of those expectations that were less explicit. Experiencing stress in Cambodia, a new country and culture, is an opportunity for me to see what I was expecting even if I wasn’t aware I was expecting it. Experience highlights implicit expectations that we could never have predicted, even with the best preparation.

Thirdly, expectations combined with experience provide a learning cycle that can give way to new expectations. The hope is that we are able to refine earlier expectations and take these refined expectations into our new experiences. While these new expectations will never match the new experience, the aim is that we will become better at expecting, to the point where our expectations more approximate the experience.

Fourthly, wrong expectations aren’t necessarily a problem. Put another way, perfect expectations is not the goal. In fact, sometimes I don’t think its about right or wrong expectations necessarily, it seems to be more about how tightly we hold those expectations. There’s a freedom in this. The pressure is off to always set up expectations that are exact, but rather to be ready to let our expectations be moulded and changed based on the experience. Further, this can be said for those who repeatedly have high expectations as well as those who consistently have low expectations (though I know which way I normally tend to lean). So no matter whether we aim too high or aim too low, sometimes it’s about how we hold expectations. Are you in danger of squeezing too tightly? I know I am. I need to hold expectations loosely enough to be useful in experience without strangling the life out of experience.


  1.  I’m thankful for this aspect of the training and I think they prepared us as well as I think is possible for a missionary sending organisation. 

No-longer New: #3. Visitors eyes

It was wonderful to have family come and visit us. We’ve had visitors before and that had its own joys. Family visitors provided different joys on top of friends visits. Family visits make the new place feel more like home as we make ‘family’ memories with our extended family in our current home. This certainly helps the settling in, but also helps family feel more connected with our new home. One of the ways that our family visit helped us was to see the way they reacted to life in Cambodia. Their reactions became a glimpse back to our reactions a year ago. The outcome of observing them is we get to remember what it was like to arrive in Cambodia for the first time and then reflect on the ways in which our life in Cambodia is no-longer new. ‘Oh, we don’t notice [blah blah blah] anymore.’ Below are some of the ways in which Cambodia is more normal1 to us now than it was a year ago.

‘Tuktuks are faster than I expected’ Getting used to Cambodian traffic, whether it be the speed of tuktuks, getting used to the general flow of traffic or the riding principles (principles rather than laws…) on Cambodian roads, takes some time to get used to. I remember the early days of riding around. The combination of not knowing the area or general principles of riding on Cambodian roads makes those early days hair-raising experiences. For me now, Cambodian roads (generally) are no problem. In fact I thrive on riding in Phnom Penh.

‘You take a stick when walking the dog, and its not to play fetch…’ The presence of dogs and cows on our streets is now for us common place. Many of the dogs in our neighbourhood are not locked away in their yards, but rather, they roam the streets near their home, often defending it as people walk past for exercise. These dogs do not like it when other dogs walk past. Hence the stick. Our neighbour (a 7 year old boy) had his granny visit and she commented on seeing cows on the road in nearby streets. Her grandson’s nonchalant reply reminded us of the normalcy of seeing cows on our roads. While I’ve seen many country roads covered in sheep, I’ve not seen many roads in Australia, certainly not in the city, covered with cows. For that you need to visit Cambodia.

‘You’re speaking in Khmer seems so natural’ My response, ‘Great, I’m glad it looks natural, because most days it feels anything but’. Learning a new language, one of the hard things is getting perspective on yourself to see how much you’ve learnt. Just like having kids and not being conscious of how much they are growing, so too with language. You can get so used to the normalcy of attempting a new language that you forget how weird it is to be able to do it, and jut how far you’ve come in such a short time.

‘Wasn’t expecting this much rubbish’ Not everywhere in Cambodia is flush with trash. There are many trash free zones and there are many other places where trash is well hidden. Yet there are so many places where it seems like trash is almost on display. Once I’d realised the extent of it, I think I’ve started seeing it less. Does it bother me? Not like other things do. While the amount of rubbish is unfortunate, for me it’s not a constant stressor. For me what is worse is that people have to live around it or in it. Honestly, the fact that I am not too phased by it says more about me. It probably reflects the distance that I have from it. I’m removed from having to deal with it and so it doesn’t affect me. Maybe it should affect me more?

‘Wealth and poverty live right next to each other’ This is not the post where I’ll dwell on the issue of poverty. There is much that could be and should be said on this topic. That said, like the rubbish issue, there are days when I notice it and days when I don’t. There are days when I clearly see the gap between the have’s and have nots and days where I’m oblivious. Days where I feel that gap more and days where I should feel that gap more. One of the challenges of living with poverty more in your face is that its easy to distance yourself as a coping mechanism. One of the privileges of living in this sort of environment is it gives you different eyes from the eyes I had in Australia. It changes you. Do I still want stuff? Of course. Do I want it as much? Maybe not as much as I did before moving here.

Family visitors helped us to be reminded of what we were like when we first moved here and gave us a glimpse at how things have changed for us since moving here. It was a real blessing.

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About hundred meters away on the other side of that far wall was a crowd of about double or triple this size all viewing Angkor Wat sunrise.

 

 


  1. By ‘normal’ I’m not making a value judgement on the place, but simply saying we are more used to life here.