Mid-year musings #10: Kids settling in and parenting

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Dad!!! Don’t melt with me

A fair bit of the blog, so far, has been devoted to how I’ve been experiencing settling into Cambodia. In this post, I’m going to try and give a sense of how our kids might be experiencing settling in, based on my interactions with them.

Tantrums in our house have come to be affectionately known as ‘melts’ (our Frozen Fever family noticed children melting onto the floor like Olaf). A classic line came, when in response to me getting down and trantrumming with him, indignantly Joelly retorted ‘Dad, don’t melt with me!’ While hilarious, his words had a prophetic effect. As they say, ‘from the mouth of babes…’

One of our observations from the year is that each child settles in at different rates from the other and in different ways. While one is making more friends yet, at the same time, feels negative towards the country, another is feeling more positive about the country despite being limited as they develop their friendships. Their different personalities plus their different life experiences (even with similar experiences as a family) all affect the way they settle in. Their age and how much they remember and miss Australia certainly is a big factor in how they settle in.

As parents, we’ve made guesses about how each would settle in. In one situation we were proved well and truly wrong. We allowed time for one of our children to settle into a new activity and yet they were fine. But another, in that same activity, didn’t settle as easily as we thought and so thankfully we’d allowed space to help them settle, even if that space was allocated for our initial prediction.

A second observation surrounds the constant tension we feel when figuring out when to push for Khmer standards in their behaviour over differing Aussie standards. One example is concerning the responsibilities given to the eldest child. Do we follow Khmer suit, or Aussie? This is made all the harder when things aren’t going so well. Another example is in the amount that our children speak out. Our kids seem much more vocal about their dislikes than locals–given the difference in cultures between Australia and Cambodia. Do we try and quieten them down so as not to offend or allow them to speak their mind? Do we make them eat their food when out so as not to cause offence or do we try and work these issues with those who we dine with? One thing that I must remember is that they are settling in when much more is out of their control–much more is forced on them without a say. How would I react in that situation?

A third observation has occurred recently, having been on location 9 months. There is now less excitement (totally normal and expected) about our new home. Added is a tiredness/homesickness that has started to come out loud and clear, particularly for one child but definitely with aspects occurring for the other two. Sometimes I wonder whether their homesickness sometimes comes out in their anger outbursts. But it could also just be a recent learned response from their parents. Joelly’s words above hold profound truth. Whats needed is for me NOT to melt when they melt. On the positive side, listening has been a main form of caring and a really helpful one at that, particularly when the melts come.

As we help our children settle, I was reminded (from friends here on location) about our mission preparation training we had. We were asked to think about our goals for our children. This was a really helpful exercise. Our ultimate goal is that our kids will love Jesus, because he has first loved them. An outflow of that goal is that we want Cambodians to know and love Jesus as well. What difference does that make for our smaller goals of living in Cambodia? While we would love for our children to learn the language and make lots of local friends, our goal is actually different from that. Our goal is that they would love Cambodian people, even if language and local friends are not a central part. Re-verbalising this goal changes how we think about caring for them and makes us check our agendas, particularly our fitting-in-culturally agenda. It helps us to soften our approach when needed (a constant lesson I need to learn).

Mid-year musing #9: Language update

Below is another visual representation of where my language is up to since the last update .

First he blah blah for breakfast, then after blah blah blah he arrived at work. He told blah blah blah blah. Good work not enough but still need to have help with selling. At the market he bought fruit and veges he thought blah blah blah and so he could only get 1 mango as they were expensive and he wanted an ice cream. He didn’t like the veges and so he went and played soccer with his friends blah blah blah blah blah (by this stage I’m lost and so I get less and less) blah blah home blah blah blah family, brothers and sisters, friends blah dinner, sleep blah blah blah.

So where is my language learning up to now? Earlier this year I passed an exam which identified me at the level of being able to get the main topic of a conversation. I now feel I have more ability in getting the main idea, whereas before I was more just hearing connecting phrases (and, so, then, but etc). However, I’m still left guessing from context and other cues about what is actually being said about that topic. This is a start. The task now is to grow in my listening ability which includes using other listening tactics more, like listening for emotion and body language, to guess what is being said about a topic. You could sum up my listening abilities currently as an educated guess. Picture me having a 3 year old’s vocabulary and listening ability and you’ll have me pinned.

What this means for conversation is that I have the foundations set. I feel much more confident with fairly mundane questions and answers about myself and others (family info, where I live in Phnom Penh and how long I’ve been here). What’s next is taking those educated guesses and exposing myself to lots of conversations. Only, the trick is not to go for perfect understanding, but more … going for the gist, the vibe, the mabo.

The danger at this stage is that I’ll want to work out each little bit that I don’t understand. While clarity is a good thing to have, stopping at each point that I don’t understand will slow conversations down to the point of non-existence. That is, if I get so fixated on one detail I’ll actually miss the chance of experiencing conversations. One fellow language learner, who is a few modules ahead, affirmed this ‘guessing’ over ‘stopping’ approach. What I miss in trying to understand every new word is the bigger picture–the forest gets lost for the trees. So I need a bit more ambiguity tolerance required here as I listen.

Last time felt that my listening was far worse than my speaking. That may be the case. What I think is far more likely is that I probably had an over-inflated sense of my speaking ability. What I feel like now is that I’m starting to get to the point where I understand more when I listen, but now don’t have the words or ability to express similarly to what I am hearing. So that’s where my listening and speaking is up to.

But wait… there’s more now… I’m not just listening and speaking.

I’ve also started to learn the alphabet and some basic reading rules. The trickiness is that learning new reading rules for a new alphabet is like a double whammy. It’s not like I’m just learning a new maths equation that I can apply to a number system (1,2,3…etc) that I know so well. It’s like trying to learn a new rule for a completely different number system that is still quite new to me–so which order do ថ​តេរតសដថងសង​ go in? My brain is doubly strained. First I’m trying to remember the new rule and then trying to apply it to a system that is not familiar either. Weak consonants follow strong consonants, but which ones are the weak ones again and which are the strong?

On a more positive language note, I’ve been noticing that as I use more Khmer phrases at home, my kids are picking some of these up. They can ask for things in Khmer and describe their preferences. But far above anything else, my kids all love to say ‘no’ to me in Khmer. Another positive is that my pronunciation seems to be improving. A friend of mine commented on my clear pronunciation (a product of our school). On the family side, my kids are no longer pulling me up on saying the number ‘one’ incorrectly–within two weeks of us arriving in Cambodia they knew that I was mispronouncing ‘one’. So either I’ve improved in my pronunciation or they’ve given up correcting me. Both are possibilities.

What I’m looking forward to about the next few modules is working at increasing my fluency in both reading and conversations. Part of this will come through practice–in a sense doing what I can do now, but slightly better and slightly faster. It feels like these first four modules have given me the basics and now its time to build on them.

Another thing that has happened in my current module at language school is that the teachers have phased out the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Not completely, as I’m sure I’ll still use it in some way. But now we are being taught new words in Khmer script, rather than using the IPA. This means I rely heavily on remembering the Khmer script.

Finally, my Khmer will improve as I build my Khmer word vocabulary. I currently have about 1000 words in my vocab that are usable. I’m back at the daily ANKI1 slog (which I love). I remember someone saying, somewhere, that to read a newspaper in a foreign language you need about 2000-3000 words. This is what I’m aiming for by the end of the year or by the beginning of next year.

So that’s roughly where I’m up to. The result of all this is that I’m really enjoying the interactions I’m able to have with locals as I build relationships and seek to point them towards Christ in not only my actions, but also in my Khmer.

 


  1. A language learning app that I thoroughly recommend. 

Mid-year musings #8: The benefits of our language school

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Sam ready to do a role play about a farmer during language class

In thinking about writing this post I had imagined writing about how our language school, G2K (Gateway to Khmer), was the best language school in town! As I got closer, I realised I couldn’t do that as I don’t know objectively whether it is. G2K has had many good reviews. And I’ve found my time there really helpful. But I can’t say it’s the best place in town as I haven’t experienced all the other places. So instead what I’ll do in this post is outline three of the distinctive aspects of this language school.

I wanted to check my facts, so I went to the director, the lady who basically got the school up and running. In my conversation with her there were three things that stood out. The first thing was the stress placed on pronunciation.[1] One of her reasons for this was that Khmer people are not used to having people try to speak their language (see the last paragraph of this earlier post). This means they won’t really be listening for my ‘bad’ Khmer like we might listen for bad English from someone who has just moved to Australia. What they’ll probably assume is that I don’t speak Khmer and so be trying to listen for my English. Foreigners attempting to speak Khmer to locals are often told “I don’t speak English,” leaving both people a bit confused. The director and I didn’t really spend long on the reasons for this situation, but more just noted that it is like this. Good pronunciation becomes more important in this context.

The way G2K have approached attaining good pronunciation is through the system called IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It is an alphabet of all the sounds found in languages internationally. The kind of funny thing is that we came to learn Khmer and we’ve kind of had to learn two languages. IPA, then Khmer. On my bad days, it feels like this. But the value of IPA is that it is a tool that helps move my Aussie English pronunciation slightly closer to Khmer pronunciation. IPA won’t get me all the way to sounding Khmer, but it does help (particularly in the early stages). The benefits that I have found of IPA is that it gives me a way to try and fix the problems I have in pronouncing things more Aussie English than Khmer. I think it would be a lot harder to move my pronunciation without this tool.

The second aspect of the school that I want to mention is the focus on levels. You have may seen us posting pics of us passing our exams on Facebook (FB LINK). Each level runs for 5 weeks (full time, 3 hours day/5 days a week). At the end is an exam. The underlying structure is the ACTFL scale, a scale set up to measure communicative competency (how well you can listen, speak, read and write). The value of this scale is that it gives you a concrete sense of how you are improving and it provides a way for teachers to teach in order to help you to reach the next stage. While every system has its benefits, what I’ve found helpful here is that teachers are better equipped to try and teach me at a level that is just beyond where I am currently at. This enables the classroom to be consolidating the learning that I have already done, while pushing me slightly out of my comfort zone in order to help me progress. This is particularly valuable in terms of listening. Sometimes when I tell locals that I can speak Khmer, in their excitement, they prattle on in Khmer at 100 kilometres an hour and I’m left standing there like that dog on the dashboard, nodding their head, but nothing is going in. What the classroom provides is opportunities for me to practice my listening by giving me listening texts that are just beyond what I can cope with. They have the vocab I am familiar with, but push me forwards, either by speeding things up or by adding in words or phrases that I am about to learn.

The third aspect of the school that I wanted to mention is their aim to get us speaking polite Khmer. What some people find hard is that polite Khmer is not always used, such as in the market, just like we might use more slang in our English conversations than formal, essay type language. And yet G2K aim at polite. If we only learn street-talk and find ourselves in a formal setting, we can do a fair bit of damage socially by being less formal than we ought. Whereas no damage is done if we are more polite than we need to be. So G2K teach us polite Khmer and then it is our job to slowly, and with help from friends and others, work out when to speak less formally.

The focus on pronunciation, teaching at levels and teaching polite Khmer are three aspects of our language school that we’ve found helpful.

[1] I remember another missionary stressing the prime importance of pronunciation in the early stages of learning another language.

 

Mid year musings #6: Why I ride…

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Ready to take my Cambodia training wheels off.

There are lots of mundane reasons for riding a bike. I ride for fitness (good fitness in constant humid heat). I ride because I can combine transport and fitness. I ride because it’s greener (not that I’m the greatest green warrior, but I try where I can). I ride because it’s cheaper (almost free, except for bike repairs and upkeep).

While not taking away from the goodness of those reasons above, below are three less obvious reasons for why we have chosen a bike over a car at the moment. [A disclaimer: In this post, I’m not trying to be prescriptive on how people should function overseas. I’m more just trying to be descriptive of our experience so far.]

Firstly, I ride as part of our family mission strategy. The phrase that I keep coming back to is ‘go slow’. The idea of ‘going slow’ seems to flow from our aim of being ‘vulnerable‘ on location. What does this mean? Riding helps explain this idea. Riding a bike means I go slower. Yes, riding is quicker than walking or running. But when I ride I go slower than a moto (think scooter), tuktuk or car.1 But I’m not really referring to my actual speed on a bike when I use the phrase ‘go slow’, more to my ability to do things. With a bike, and by inference a tuktuk for family transport, I’m able to do less than I would with a car. In a car its much easier to zip from here to there and do a few things, carry many things and many people. But with a bike I’ve gotta build up the motivation to ride in the heat using precious energy. I can then only carry myself and a small load if its an errand. In a nutshell I can do less with a bike than I can with a car. And so in this sense, life with a bike is slower than life with a car–it’s a form of ‘going slow’. The fact that we can do less on a bike helps us think through what things are important as we don’t have the ability to do as much as we would if we had a car. In a time when its easy to be busy, a car enables more of this busy-ness. However a bike slows the pace of life down (somewhat).

Secondly, as I ride I do less, but I also see more. I see Cambodia in a different way. I see the landscape differently on a bike than when I cruise on past in a car. And I see the people differently. I can interact with locals at the traffic lights and I have many conversations surrounding the fact that I ride a lot of places. I also have more Khmer interactions without a car. Instead of hopping straight into a car when we want to go somewhere, I need to interact in Khmer in order to get somewhere and get back if I’m taking more than just myself or running an errand that can’t fit in my backpack. So I see more and different things on my bike than I would when driving. When riding a bike, ‘going slow’, I see a different Cambodia.

Thirdly, I ride because in some ways its easier. Transport is a status symbol, especially in Cambodia. The bigger and more expensive the means of transport, the more important you are deemed to be. And the more money you are thought to have. Riding a bike … well that’s not even as expensive as a moto. For one, I’m less likely to be blamed for accidents, as people will see me on a bike and maybe take pity. They’ll probably also assume that I’m not rolling in it either. In that sense there are less complications from bike accidents than there are for other forms of transport. Plus I can do much less damage with my bike than I could with a moto or car. So, accident wise, a bike is much less complicated.

There are plenty of times when I have been tempted to get a moto or car. And there still may be a point in the future where we do get one or the other. But for the moment I’m biking.


  1. Although I would argue that there are plenty of times in Phnom Penh traffic when I think that my bike riding is the quickest form of transport. 

Mid year musings #5: Decisions decrease

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Decisions made, now we can rest. (Only one is not actually resting. Who is it?)

I think we are past the initial set up and settling in period–that time with tonnes of choices. What we’ve moved onto is a time where we are living out those choices or living with the choices and their consequences (not necessarily a bad thing) that arose from the decisions we made when we first arrived. Some of these decisions were intentional and purposeful, like our go slow approach (see next weeks post) that flows from the idea of vulnerable mission. Some of the decisions seemed more to be related to circumstances, reacting to life, like Joel’s preschool closing down (originally chosen because of the Khmer influence he would receive there), and so us moving him to preschool at the girls school (with less Khmer input but other positives).

So we’re in a time of less choices, or a time of seeing how our first choices play out. Some of the angst around making those initial, and seemingly bigger, choices is gone. I read over some of my earlier journal entries from the beginning of this year and all of the questions that I raised for myself; some of them have been answered. Some of our wonderings that we had prior to coming to Cambodia have also been answered. So we are in Cambodia in a period that you could call ‘decision decrease’  instead of ‘decisions galore’.1 But as we look back we can get a glimpse of how God has been guiding us and answering prayer in different ways from what we had expected and also in ways that we had. He has been at work through our decisions.


  1. See first link above. 

Mid year musings #4: Missio saddle

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These families have been a massive part of our expat saddle, helping us to ride here in Cambodia.

Lots of people talk about the missionary or expat bubble.1 This post won’t really address the reality of this bubble or go into a detailed pro’s and con’s about it. On reflection, I certainly did fear the expat bubble before arriving in Cambodia. And I’m still aware of trying not to be consumed by only having relationships with foreigners. But there has been a surprising find for me.

The reality and possibility of the expat bubble remains. However, what I hadn’t expected was the expat saddle. The expat bubble can be constraining and all consuming. The expat saddle, on the other hand, assists me in riding the ‘horse’ of cross cultural life. I couldn’t have made these same inroads into the culture without the help of all the expats that I have come across. The expat saddle is a wonderful support as we progress to riding the ‘horse’ of cross cultural life bare back.2

My relationship with expats, my expat saddle, has far from inhibited my entry into a new culture; it has enabled it in many ways. Examples include simply giving advice, or more substantially by offering help (mainly in time) to set up bank accounts and help us settle in. And it can be bigger than that, like paving the way for us missios who stand on the shoulders of giants, enjoying wins that have come from the hard work over many years of missionary service. These wins are things like being freed up to do language learning for a longer time period, which we now enjoy. As missios we stand on the backs not only of the supporters, but also of missionaries past and present. It is a great reminder of how dependent we are on others.

In coming to Cambodia, one of the things I am learning more and more is how dependent I am. It’s the opposite of what seems to occur in the West, ‘forgotten dependence’. In the West we are so set on being ‘independent’ and we pride ourselves on our abilities and skills and all that we can achieve. The reality of dependence can easily get lost in our focus on our own activity. Remembering my dependence shapes the way I look at myself (limited and weak, rather than an all powerful superhero) and shapes the way I relate to others, particularly God. In humility I realise that I am not the answer to my own or others problems and that I rely on another for life, for everything.


  1. That place where, while in a foreign country, you only end up interacting with other foreigners in your own language. 
  2. I’ve only ridden a horse, like, 30 years ago and I think I fell off on the last day of horse camp. While I’m no expert, I’ve heard that riding bare back is much harder than riding with a saddle. 

Mid year musings #3: First time expert

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A dinner out in Cambodia with friends from a partner church

One of the refreshing things I’ve found about being in a new culture is that time when I become an expert in that culture. This first occurred when we had visitors. While I’m light years behind the cultural experience of a local and most expats have more experience than me, visitors provide that unique time when I get to be some-what of an expert. When visitors came, I was no longer the newest and most green. I was the experienced one, the expert (in a very limited sense).

Now this is not just about being proud about my new learning, or being able to put others down because they don’t know as much as me. The main reason that being an expert in a new culture is refreshing is because I’ve spent so much time learning from and relying on others. This has its own benefits (watch for the next post). But there is something nice about being able to share what you’ve learned with someone who is learning it for the first time, rather than with someone (a local) who has lived it their whole lives. Now I can share some of the insights I’ve learned, in a place where a lot of the time others have shared valuable cultural insights with me. It’s a nice change.

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