No-Longer New: #16. Yet still settling in

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A year ago, having lived in Cambodia for 6 months, I could say that both we had settled in, but that we were still settling in. I chuckle to myself. Now a year later, it still rings true. Settled, and still settling in. Even with the kids we say the same thing.

I was talking with a good friend of mine (he has come up a few times before). He compared our first term of mission to having 3 back-to-back first years. Generally, in a new job, the first year is hardest, the second slightly easier and the third, you get the picture. He remarked that our first 3-year-term will be like having three first years in a row. Sure, there are things that are easier. We’re not completely new, and so newness tiredness isn’t quite as taxing as it was last year. But because in another sense we are still new, we’re still expending a decent amount of emotional energy. This perspective helps explain our experience so far, of which we were prepared well for in training. First term, survive, second term start to get some momentum, third term things are clicking along nicely. Helps makes sense of this second year, anyway.

I was speaking with a missionary friend who has lived here in Cambodia for around 12 years. She said that it was around the 6 year mark that she noticed that she wasn’t expending all that emotional energy that is the common experience in those first years. This is also a helpful perspective as we continue along. So after a year and a half we’re settled and still settling. Like this time last year, we’re taking a break from Cambodia (language and culture learning) to rest and refresh ourselves for a new school year for all of us, the kids at school, Sam at language school and myself, teaching at the Bible School.

 

No Longer New: #15. Mission and self-awareness

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Is mission a catalyst for growing in self-awareness? Or was I just self-deluded before coming to Cambodia and this last season just so happens to have involved a growth in self-awareness? I guess the question underlying these two questions is: is a growing self-awareness incidental to the missionary or essential?

This is the question I keep asking myself here in Cambodia. We prepared for this case in our training. Over the past year and half I feel like I’ve have come to understand more about myself, as my expectations turned into experience. Obviously there’s still much more to learn–long way to go there, Craig. But, there is a saying that as you leave your home culture you learn more about it. So in learning about my home culture I learn more about myself; my tendencies, loves, etc. There is a sense in which we forget some of our home culture as we move to a new place. As we encounter a new culture, we lose touch with some of our first culture, such that there is a forgetting. We have less of those day to day experiences that get bound up with our home culture. But in another sense in encountering the new, you learn about the old because the new asks questions of the old, that the old doesn’t always ask of itself. So in this sense, self-awareness seems to come from the interaction of two cultures in one person. So in this sense, growing self-awareness seems essential to life as a missionary.

But in another way, maybe growth in self-awareness is more incidental to mission. That is, the growing self-awareness that I’ve experienced has come from being pushed to our limits. And this can happen in our home culture or a new one. As we are pushed beyond our boundaries (our abilities as a person), we learn where those limits are and so learn more about ourselves. In those extreme times we find the clash between our loves and abilities and our context or circumstances can show us more of who we are. This is not always a pretty picture or particularly uplifting. But it’s helpful nonetheless.

The safe answer is probably that it’s both incidental and essential. Growing self-awareness seems to be part and parcel with mission. I say ‘seems to be’ because I’m not convinced that it is guaranteed. Just like wisdom is not guaranteed with age, so self-awareness is not guaranteed on mission. The combination of a new culture and being pushed to our limits both play a part in our growing self-awareness. As missionaries, we are on display to the new culture, but we are on display to ourselves as well. The picture above captures our ‘on displayness’.

No-longer New: #14. Set and forget

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy, daily, in Cambodia is my cold brew coffee. You make it the night before then BAMMM, first thing next morning, coffee to go. I set it the night before and then essentially forget it.

Last post I mentioned that I had underestimated the change from language learning in a classroom to language learning independently. In the classroom, you don’t really need to think about the future, you just come for the day as the teacher has thought about the future for you. As you learn independently you need to think about the future in order to know what to do today. The problem is, when you think too much about the future it can get stressful. What I need to do is set my language plans and forget, kinda like my cold brew coffee.

In the seminar for learning a language independently that G2K held for their students, they talk about the importance of planning in learning a language. On the one hand you need to be flexible as you learn a language, living with much ambiguity, being able to laugh at yourself and be okay with failing. By complete contrast you also need to PLAN. Insert overused motivational quote ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. Anyway, planning is important.

The reason I bring up planning is that in the first few weeks of beginning to learn Khmer independently I needed to do some thinking about my plan, my goals–sort out where I would like to be. Now as I mentioned earlier, on needing to be flexible, I just needed to have a stab at where I wanted to be in order to make some goals and make a plan around those goals. Just give planning a go. In the early days of making this plan, I was doing more planning than doing. What I found was that I was getting more stressed than I needed to be in the early days. I was living too much in the future and not enough now (actually, Sam can tell you this is a common issue for me). Given that I was six months out from my goal of teaching, if I stayed as stressed as I did in those early days then I would burn to a crisp pretty quickly.

It was after chatting with a friend that I realised that I just needed to get it over with and set some goals. They didn’t need to be perfect.1  I needed to set and forget (somewhat forget anyway). Rather than stress about whether it was right, I needed to stop thinking about the future too much and start doing. As I did this, some of that early days stress melted away. Sometimes encountering the beast is easier than worrying about encountering the beast. So, what I’ve learnt from this planning is; to plan. Don’t stress over it too much. Then give it a go. And as I keep saying to myself, over and over again, BE FLEXIBLE.


  1.  One of the things I’ve learnt about productivity is that 80% is a good point to aim for first time round. You’ll never get anything 100% right, so don’t aim for it. Get a plan to 80% and then give it a go. As an even further aside, creativity (got this from a TED talk) comes when you start early, give it a break and then come back to it near the due date (giving time for good simmering). 

No-longer New: #13. Clunky transition

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Not time for driving lessons just yet

In my last two posts I had overestimated my language abilities as I made my language plan. What’s also become clear is that I’ve also underestimated the change that has recently occurred in my language learning. That is, I had assumed that because I was continuing in language learning (transitioning from classroom to independent language learning) that it would be a fairly smooth transition. Well, was I wrong (again).

Instead of being a smooth transition, it has felt like the gear change of a 16 yr old first learning to drive stick (drive a manual car). A clunky beginning. I had underestimated the discontinuity between classroom and independent learning.

In one, you turn up and the teacher has prepared the content and there are others who are in the same boat as you. Both of these are helpful for motivation. There is also clarity because the teacher is the one guiding you.

In independent learning, you have prepare the lesson. There is no-one else when motivation is low and you are the ‘expert’ guiding yourself. I actually quite like learning on my own. I loved it when I was completing my Masters in Theology. But I had become used to classroom learning again. And so it’s taken me a while to get into the groove of doing it myself. What I had thought was going to be a ‘productive May’, has turned into a ‘sorting things out for the first time May’. It’s all good. I just hadn’t anticipated the clunkiness. It kind of feels like I’ve started a new job, even though I’m doing the same thing; language learning.

The result of this learning is that what the next (almost) 6 months looks like. It’s two lots of 2 month language learning blocks with a break in the middle. Initially, I had thought these would be fairly identical–language learning and lesson prep. But because it’s going to take a while to get into the groove of this new dynamic of language learning, the first block will look different from the second block. Once I get a groove, the later months will look different from the first. As I say this now, it makes complete sense. But as I was initially planning, I hadn’t factored in the clunkiness of the gear change.

There was another reason I found the first few weeks of independent language learning stressful. More on that next post.

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.