Digital dep #13: The 2mth crazies

While the photo is anything but crazy, we took some time away to prepare for what is described below.

Missionary friends of ours (Arthur and Tamie Davis) have shared with us quite wisely that 2 months out from a transition (a move overseas for us) there is a change in dynamics. Craziness happens. Parents and children are both more stressed, easily agitated and so not functioning well. This change in functioning is both a grieving of leaving as well as an excitement about the next. This change in functioning is often combined with not sleeping as well and increased workload in preparations. Also people want to see you and you want to see people before you leave. The result is that this time is pretty crazy. In terms of my goals for my work, I need to learn to halve them and give myself and my family grace in this time.

As I reflect, part of the stress comes from pressure. The finality of the transition (compared to another year of more of the same) adds pressure to the now (the time just before leaving), both in terms of leaving well but also in terms (particularly for me and my personality) wanting to do too much in and with the time left. While at the same time, my head is more in imagining zone about our time in Cambodia, further taking any leftover brain space from preparations to leave. Pressure feels like it captures this period in a really visceral way, where our body is affected by this transition time. I’ve noticed myself being a bit more physically jittery (symptoms like heart racing at random times). My physio brain knows that muscle twitches like this further add to physical tiredness along with everything else.

This two month period is mirrored on arrival and so it helps me to set my expectations right for once we get there. We want to reconnect. There’s the reconnection of admin and all those start up jobs in a new place (or in a place you haven’t been to for a while). There’s the reconnection of relationships. When you first go to a new place, relationships from your home culture provide support while you build new relationships in your new location. This time, while relationships from Australia are closer given the time we’ve spent here, we’ve got good relationships that we head back to in Cambodia and so there is a sorting out how to give time to relationships in both locations; staying in touch with family and friends as you slowly disconnect and re-settling into the supportive relationship network that we have there.

Digital dep #12: Comparing digital dep to regular dep

In some ways we’ve had two different deputation experiences this time in Australia. We’ve had the face-to-face church visit and the digital church visit. As I reflect on what the digital church visit is like, you’ll hopefully get a sense of how it was different for us compared to face-to-face.

On the positives of digital deputation, a zoom or similar format allows both spouses to be able to attend instead of one having to stay home with the kids. Further, zoom provides an interesting format for seminars or Q&A, where people can write their questions. I think we got onto a good format when we had someone fielding the questions and then asking us, like a host. The now normality of zoom or team catch ups means that there can be many meetings without having to travel and that are easily organised. This is helpful when partner churches are a fair distance and enables conversations without travel. It even allows you to be in two places at once, with a pre-recorded sermon for two different churches. The other thing we found about the digital side of things is that signing up for prayer letters online is easier, as people are already on the device and can sign up while the session is on (especially if you allow extra time for this).

On the other side, the negative, it is easy to get zoom exhaustion, feeling “zoomed out”. Over the screen, there is much more energy required for various reasons that is different from when you’re in person. There’s less feedback and you’re always feeling ‘on’. Basically you pour a lot more energy in and don’t get it back in the same way. The technology can be distracting, when there are sound or video issues, or the device is low on battery. The other thing we missed was the chats that occur before and after events, which are much easier to do as you’re milling in person, than milling online. Night zoom seminars means that you’re on screens till late and its harder than Bible study till late because of the screen lighting. Digitally we can’t see as many people as we could in person so we miss out on encouragement and those without technology miss out too. This also occurs because you have to keep things much shorter online as people can only handle so much on a screen, so our sharing is condensed.

With those positives and negatives, I hope next deputation we’ll be able to do it all in person. Though I’m thankful for the technology that enabled digital deputation, in the place of what would have been nothing during COVID. We certainly couldn’t have done this 10 years ago.

Digital dep #11: Language update

This is the soap I’m currently watching to ‘learn’ Khmer.

It might seem strange that I’m giving an update on where my language is up to while here in Australia at the end of 2020. But actually my language ability has changed, or at least that’s the theory. So a quick summary of where I was up to, then my deputation language learning plan and the results (or hoped for results).

Where I was up to when we returned to Australia at the end of 2019 (feels so long ago now): On arriving in Cambodia for the first time with no Khmer in January 2017, my aim was to attempt to teach the Bible in Khmer, but I was unsure of the timeline. I thought maybe a year of learning Khmer would get me to basic conversations. My first term of learning Khmer involved 1 year of full time language school, then independent language learning till I began teaching at the end 2018. This pace of language learning was only possible with Sam’s help. In that sense I don’t consider my skills an individual but team achievement. In fact, this also includes the support of the wider CMS partnership who has freed me up to focus solely on learning Khmer.

The result was after 4mths I could hear conjunctions and some words. After 8mths I could guess the topic of conversation. After 1 year I was not close to basic conversations like I thought. After 14mths I could get the main point of conversation, but interactions were often minimal, because it’s hard to keep asking friends the basic questions, like their age (even though this is not taboo in Cambodia). My skills moved on to seeking out more conversation with how’s the weather questions in the middle of my second year of learning Khmer.

However, I needed to move to teaching preparation by this stage, so learning Khmer came through making teaching materials for teaching the Old Testament. Two quick reflections on learning Khmer. The first is a more general reflection. To learn language well you need to set up situations where you have comprehensible input. That is, you are familiar with a specific context or text up to about 80% of the words. That 20% left over is the new stuff that you want to add into your repertoire. This is hard work finding situations of comprehensible input, but makes learning possible. The second reflection relates to the language resources in Cambodia. I went to an excellent language school. However, when compared with Mandarin or Arabic, Khmer doesn’t have the language resources like these languages because it doesn’t have the speakers (20 million or so compared with billions or whatever number it is). This makes Khmer language resources trickier to come by.

By the end of our first term, I was teaching the OT in Khmer; a quicker timeline than we had thought. On reflection, teaching in Khmer was a brilliant way to help me learn Khmer. This post gives you a sense of where I was up to as I began teaching.

On return to Australia at the end of 2019 we intentionally had a break from Khmer. The rationale being that just like athletes need to rest from sport, so language learners need to rest from language. There is even scientific support (I think) that in the same way that when an athlete rests from their sport, their muscle memory gets a chance to move a particular skill into a more automatic region of the brain, this same benefit occurs in language learners. So my hope was that resting from Khmer would help to make it more automatic when I pick it up again. Of course there will be rustiness, but the second time you learn a skill you learn it quicker.

With our extended stay in Australia I’ve returned to Khmer through vocab cards (ANKI is the best) and through Khmer soaps. Soap operas provide great comprehensible input as I shared above and it means that I can do my language learning by watching YouTube.

My plan for our second term serving in Cambodia is that I want to build on 1st term skills by improving my listening and my ability to use local phrases and expressions, not just the Khmenglish of my 1st term. Having said that my assumption is I’ll always carry around some Khmenglish, regardless of how ‘fluent’ I become.

Digital dep #10: Feelings between 1st and 2nd term

This post comes from the video that we did for Mission up Close with CMS in June. You can either watch it or read the summary below.

What’s it like preparing to go back to Cambodia for a second time, our second term? We were excited to be going to Cambodia for the first time and we’re excited to be returning for a second time. But the excitement is different. In the first term, there was so much new and ‘for the first time’ excitement. We didn’t know if they would let us in on arrival. We had little local knowledge and even less language. Thankfully we had some great support from other CMS families. There was uncertainty about how long it would take us to pick up Khmer, or when it would be best to start teaching at the Bible school. So the excitement of the first term was the excitement of all the new. There was a lot of tiredness related to the new too.

Second time around, there is excitement. But it’s the excitement of the familiar. Returning and being able to have decent conversations in Khmer, getting to a greater relational depth and understanding of the culture. Returning to good friends and to an area that we know well now. And on the flip side looking forward to returning and not having the major start up in language learning that we had in the first term. Enjoying the wins of improving in a language that we already have some skills in (though rusty at the moment). As I say in the video, learning in a less intense way.

Sometimes the familiar gets a bad wrap, particularly as we long for the new or the unfamiliar. And yet, sometimes it’s through the familiar that we find the truly new; coming to a deeper understanding (and so ‘new’) of what we already know. As a tourist, yes, you see lots of new places. As you stay in one ‘new’ place longer, it becomes new in a way that you never could know if it wasn’t familiar. You could say there’s more new in the familiar than there is in the new. For me the excitement of the familiar over the excitement of the ‘new’ is my preference at the moment.

Digital dep #9: Missionary corona grief

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.


Digital dep #8: The Cambodian church

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.

Digital dep #7: Learning local language is selfish

My translator. I have much Khmer to learn from him as he does English from me.

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.

What do you think?

Digital dep #6: Am I goalie or am I a coach?

Clare loved playing goalie in hockey.

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).

Digital dep #5: What did we miss the most?

Two out of three: driving and wearing a hoodie. Hard to show communicating with ease in a pic.

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.

Digital dep #4: Two revelations on korruptshun

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.