This time last year I didn’t think I would be starting a new blog series from Australia. We had planned to be back in Cambodia by now. COVID has changed many things for many people. As a result, we’re still in Australia. But we’re aiming at returning to Cambodia in January.
COVID also changed our time here. While we were able to visit all our partner churches, over half of our church visits were done digitally. We were flying by the seat of our pants with this digital deputation as churches were coming to terms with what church looked like in these crazy times. One week, I couldn’t have told you what Zoom was. A month later I used it almost daily.
One consequence for us is that we didn’t get to share with as many people as we would have liked about our time in Cambodia. Further, even when we did share, we didn’t have the same opportunity that you would normally have to go a bit deeper when you are face to face.
To try and remedy that lack of connection, this blog series will cover some of the things we shared about in our church visits. It will also help us consolidate our thoughts as we gear up for our second term in Cambodia early next year.
We’re looking forward to catching up with many of you in person this home assignment in Australia. In order to assist us I would love it if you could share questions that you may ask us in person, prior to us meeting in person. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask us these questions in person. But if I’ve thought about these questions and have a few answers prepared pre-conversation I’m likely to give a better answer.
My thought is also to blog a few FAQ, not to detract from being asked these in person, but so that we can go deeper together in our experience of Cambodia as we share about our time there. This is essentially a strategy to strengthen our partnership together.
Questions about anything, welcome. Questions about family life, about language, about Cambodia, about anything else related.
So without further adieu, I’ve loved to hear any questions you may have from our first term in Cambodia. Send them to me anyway; comments below, an email, facebook or other.
This is not a Jenny Craig or Subway ad. Nor is this a weight loss ad expounding the benefits of living in Cambodia for weight reduction. The raised hands are a language win celebration, not a weight win celebration. Notice I’ve lost some hair too.
I’ve had numerous Cambodians and foreigners remark on my weight and how I’m looking good. For some foreigners this is an expression of thankfulness that I seem to be doing well in a hostile climate. For Cambodians, it’s more complicated and so I’ll save my remarks for below. All the more so because they can smell a kilo change up or down like a bloodhound.
What’s the reality? In the first year of living in Cambodia, I dropped nearly 12kg. Partially this was through riding a bike daily in what can only be described as a sauna on the coolest of days. But a fair bit of my weight loss that first year was through sickness, new diet, new place, new bugs. The heat also stifled my appetite. Not to mention those lovely power cuts. One night in a power cut I was standing above my daughter at 10pm fanning her to sleep and I could feel the sweat dripping off me as I just stood there.
So when people comment positively on my weight, in some ways I appreciate it. But there’s more to the story. Cambodia is a place where it is easy to both lose weight and gain it or constantly be in a state of flux, weight wise. For me I’ve made the most of this situation. My tennis background and many afternoons running around in the summer sun have prepared me in a way that I didn’t realise until I got here. Remarks on how I look good are welcomed, to be sure. But when these remarks are made with the assumption that my time in Cambodia must have been a breeze, that’s when I internally react. I haven’t just spent my whole time at the gym. The trick is how to share with others just how hard it has been.
I come from a very supportive organisation. Exercise is a priority, for relieving stress and preventing brain farts (doing something stupid) that come from being in a constantly stressful environment. Like troops working out in a compound while at war, exercise is a vital part of living safely cross culturally. Thus one of the reasons I exercise is as part of my mental health plan, to reduce the risk of doing something stupid from all the stress of living here. The reality is that even after journalling and exercise and trying to be smart, there is still an underlying stress that doesn’t get removed until we go out of country. So I exercise to make sure we leave Cambodia for good reasons, not brain explosions.
For the sake of honesty, there is a little bit of vanity that plays into my exercise routine as well. But this is a minor, rather than major driver.
That’s the reason for my exercise routine (mostly mental health). The result is that I get a lot of comments, particularly from my Khmer friends. They are often just trying to be encouraging. Remarks on weight for them is not a taboo subject. It’s more like chatting about the weather. Also, their weight scale is sometimes the opposite of us. Cambodia and other Asian countries often see weight gain as a good thing because it’s a sign of wealth. So I wonder when they see a missionary arrive and lose and lot of weight what they think about that. They certainly have no problems mentioning it. Weight is definitely not taboo (neither is age and how much you earn). So if I come here and lose weight, I wonder if they associate that with wealth or not. There is also a growing understanding of health and the importance of exercise, but this is certainly in its infancy.
So when I lose weight they comment. I anticipate gaining weight in Australia and so I’m prepping myself for the comments of how I have gained weight when I return to Cambodia; “Oh brother, your face is fatter than before.”
Hope this gives you glimpse of what it’s like to think about weight as a missionary in Cambodia.
Living in Cambodia as a foreigner is like living with two personalities. It’s like living as a king and pauper at the same time.
Very aware of how much money we have as westerners as we ride past kids working instead of going to school, or when the street sweeper is so glad for your empty cans. In our daily life we are confronted with how much we have and how little others have. Why do we feel frustrated at losing 50 cents when really we can handle it? There are so many here with so little. Even the growing middle class here has a vastly reduced spending power compared to us Westerners. Our daily experience shows us a reality that is harder to see living in Australia. That is, our wealth.
Yet, in that same breath, we are living off less than we did in Australia. We are able to do less here than we would in Australia. We hear from friends and family and all that they are doing. So, while we are confronted with our wealth, we also are conflicted with memories and experiences of having more in Australia.
This perspective, living with both lots of money and with less, is a blessing because it’s a challenge. Particularly, this is seen in killing the unnecessary want to have more and more or to acquire the new and better things that I find myself more easily seduced by back in Australia. When others around me don’t have as much, it helps me to not want as much either. I’m able to see more clearly the ridiculousness and lie of materialism. So the blessing of living in Cambodia is that it rightly forces me to think through what we have and what we value.
I know that it will be hard to keep this perspective in our return. I hope I can, to some extent. But this perspective has been strengthened by living in a place with less. Leaving a place of less, and heading to a place of more, will make it harder to be challenged in this same way.
One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.
Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.
Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.
Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”
Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.
So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.
As we come closer to coming home for a decent time, one thing that changes is how we look at life in Cambodia. Life in some ways doesn’t change. Cambodia doesn’t change. But the way we view it changes.
I remember early on in our time here in Cambodia, I was taking a tuktuk home and I was just overwhelmed by all the “new” I was experiencing. That tuktuk ride I stuck my head in a book to limit the new. Fast forward to a week ago, I noticed myself thinking about how we wouldn’t be around for a while and how we’d gotten used to life here. As a result of that thought, as I rode on my bike, I was looking at all the things, thinking about how I wouldn’t see them for a while. What had once caused me to hide was now something that I could handle, I was trying to take it all in.
Because of transition, my view on things had changed. If we’d just stayed on here without a break, I would not have noticed the same things. But, with the upcoming flight, my perspective had changed, my awareness of Cambodian life was different in the face of transition. In transition we are given the gift of reflection, and we are also given the gift of awareness; a similar awareness found when we reflect on the passage or speed of time in general.
One area that this awareness particularly impinges on is around friendships. Missionary friendships are in some ways different from friendships in home countries. What unites us is often a similar purpose, even if we are from different organisations or backgrounds. This unity often leads to friendships becoming closer quicker than they would elsewhere. But part of the pain of transitions is the awareness of relationships that have gotten close quickly in a context of fluid relationships; where people come and go more than they do in other places. This same awareness will come to us again in the opposite direction as we return from Australia to Cambodia. But right now, transition heightens my awareness in Cambodia (even as my head moves toward Australia).
One of the things I associate with transition is hassle. There’s the packing up. There’s the stress. There’s the actual transition. And then there’s the time once you arrive where it’s just slow in setting up and settling in. To those of us (like me) who are focused around efficiency, transition feels anything but efficient. Now of course transitions for missionaries are much more efficient than they used to be; spending 6 months on a boat travelling from one destination to another. With flights, transition is now much more compact, but still feels hard. The stress at either end is tiring. So it’s easy to see why the prospect of transition feels daunting.
However, I came across this other idea (not sure how). Not only that transition as a hassle, but transition as gift. The gift comes if you use it properly. Transition provides a neat boundary that normal day to day life doesn’t necessarily have. There is a clear beginning and end on a regular basis (like from term to term). The value of this clear boundary is the ability to wrap up one season with reflection. With this first term in Cambodia coming to an end there is an up-coming transition. I’m able to think back about the last three years and reflect on it. This helps me to learn from my time, but also helps me to transition as I get closure on what has occurred. When I’ve done this reflection before a holiday (like last year before our Chiang Mai time) it has also helped me to rest on that holiday having sorted through some issues before seeking down-time. So I find my rest is better having reflected.
For this next transition from Cambodia to Australia, while there will be some rest, there will be tough parts as we say goodbyes, settle in to a familiar, but in other ways unfamiliar place (given the changes that have occurred to us in this last three years). So reflecting well on what has been, this first term in Cambodia, will help me transition better. In that sense transitions provide a unique gift to us in terms of providing us with obvious points to reflect and think about what has gone before and what lies ahead.
Disclaimer: this is an ironic post highlighting the difficulty of transition. It paints a fairly bleak situation and expresses my tendencies but not the reality. I write this as a reminder to myself of my tendencies in order to try to counteract them in this really significant time. It is a reminder to give myself and my family time and grace as we face this significant change.
This is my guide to transitioning poorly. It is not exhaustive, nor ordered in any particular way. There may be overlapping themes coming through that express the personality of the author.
Get preoccupied with the details of moving countries, ensuring that this consumes all your thoughts, your emotional energy and depletes you of resources to care for yourself and your family.
Turn the grief that you feel in saying goodbye into anger that is easily released on those closest to you.
Fail to see that grief, stress and moving country is going to sap you of energy and so fill your diary full, just to spite yourself.
Assume that your family will not feel the same things as you and that you will all be fine. Children’s extra disobedience in this time is not a symptom of them feeling tired, grief, or anxiety themselves.
Also assume that if your child/children don’t say anything, this means they are coping fine with the big change ahead. Full steam ahead then. You have no issues to deal with.
Anger is the best way to deal with what you are feeling (regardless of whether it is stress or grief or anxiety). In fact get angry very quickly. This is always the best solution.
Say yes to more responsibilities in this time, because you can manage it 😉
Don’t waste time sitting, thinking, processing and reflecting. Give yourself more fully to more insignificant jobs that will make you feel better immediately and help you push deeper down those stronger, tricky feelings to deal with.
Disconnect from friendships early. Don’t get too close, it only hurts more when you leave.
Do you have any tips for transitioning poorly? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a monopoly on transitioning poorly. Comment below so we can share the wealth of knowledge and all transition more poorly.
When we arrived in Cambodia, almost 3 years ago, my head was ready to dive into life here. As we went along and got half-way through our first 3-year term, I knew roughly when we would be heading back to Australia (late 2019). Six months out from going back to Australia for our first home assignment, I noticed a change in how much I was thinking about Australia (more than in the last 2 years). This thinking has only increased 3 months out, and even now with under 2 months to go it has further escalated. In order to finish well, my mentor suggested not counting days until I was a month out. This has been a good move, helping to keep my head here.
So where am I up to? With each week as we get closer to moving back to Australia for half a year or so, two things happen. The first is my excitement for returning home grows. I start thinking about it more and so it occupies more of my time. Not that I’m sitting around just thinking about Australia all the time. I’ve still got plenty of stuff here to do, but there is more head-space devoted to Australia now than there was even a few months ago. I picture catching up with family and friends, visiting familiar places and doing things that I would normally do in Australia (more time outside is a big one).
The second thing that happens, as we get closer to heading back, is grief. This grief is different from my son, who has now spent more of his life in Cambodia than Australia. Most of what he knows is Cambodia. For him to leave is different from me who has spent only a small portion of my life here in Cambodia. However, I still experience grief as I consider heading back. There is grief about saying good-bye, even to those that we will see again in 7 months. There is more grief for those we are saying good-bye to for good (as they return home to a different country). There is also the grief of just not doing things that we enjoy here together (getting local drinks like ទឹកអំពៅ, our being part of our neighbourhood or going to places that our family is now familiar with).
CMS prepares us for this by setting out the guideline that the first term on location should be three years. They encourage us to stay the whole time, without returning, so that we will feel settled here in Cambodia, before we return to Australia. This helps us to want to return to Cambodia for our second term (particularly with kids in mind). All I can say is that it has been gold advice for us. Cambodia is now known to us (with plenty more to know). So while we are excited for returning to Australia and to things known, we are also leaving Cambodia which is now known as well.
Grief and excitement are what we’re feeling as we prepare for another transition. Suffice it to say that it’s very easy to underestimate the tiredness that follows feeling all these things as we prepare to leave (not unlike the newness tiredness we felt in the beginning).
We made it! I made it through my first year of teaching OT in Khmer. My students made it after suffering through my poor Khmer in order to understand God’s Word better (treasure in a jar of clay). They have managed to decipher meaning from my poor pronunciation. One time I was talking about sin, ‘the enemy within’, and they all heard about some sort of animal inside us. Other times I called the disciples horses instead of students (the vowels are similar). And I know the word for help can often sound like a very rude word if pronounced slightly wrong. Basically, my students were doing a lot of interpretation just to sit through my classes in Khmer. But I’m confident they were able to learn things too, not just struggle with my pronunciation.
As a teacher, I was constantly learning too. My students, whom I love dearly, helped me to learn. Some of their teaching was ‘brutally’ honest. One student remarked in a conversation, ‘Teacher, you sound like Google translate’. It was just an honest assessment and I needed thick skin in order to receive.
I have also learnt a lot this past year about teaching from my mistakes. I learnt on day 1 that while you can have good things to teach, there is a right and a wrong time to teach that stuff. Day 1 is not the day to give an overview of the history of OT theology. Important as it is, probably better a mid-semester topic so I don’t scare too many away on the first day.
There were also easier lessons to learn. One time I looked over at my translator waiting for him to translate and he looked back at me weirdly. Then it dawned on me; I’d been speaking in Khmer and hadn’t realised it and was wanting him to translate for me, but he didn’t need to at that point. The Khmer was coming to me so easily I had not realised I was speaking in my non-native tongue. So there were times where I learnt that my Khmer was better than I thought it was (a nice lesson to learn sometimes, particularly in the context of often learning that your language is not as good as you think).
One capstone of the year was a random conversation over lunch near the end of second semester. Some students asked me a question about a story from 1 Kings (some of the content from our classes). We were able to have a discussion together about this question for a decent amount of time.
To survive the first year of teaching the OT in Khmer was my major goal of this year. To converse in Khmer about a biblical topic was the cherry on top.