In my teaching at the Bible School, while there have been some good Khmer theology resources produced, one remains my favourite. J.I Packer’s ‘Concise Theology’ has been translated by the current Principal of Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS). It remains my favourite text as I teach my theology subjects. At present I would call it the gold standard for Khmer theology. It has helped me learn Khmer more, particularly theological Khmer, and provides a great resource that my students and I read and discuss together in my theology classes.
For those who are podcast listeners and want an indepth history of Cambodia to listen to, particularly in relation to the Khmer Rouge, then I can’t recommend enough Lachlan Peter’s podcast, Shadows of Utopia. This podcast is worth the listen.
I’ve heard it said that missionaries often find it hard to feel at home and yet quite weirdly can feel at home in airports. Not that airports aren’t stressful, but with the sheer amount of time spent in airports, you can feel more at home in them.
Now don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean that missionaries always do airports well. In fact, more time in airports probably just means more opportunities for stories. Stories like arriving at an airport 12 hours too early and with no sleep and no money, needing to walk around the airport, staying upright in-order to just stay awake.
Or arriving in Cambodia for the first time and handing over $2000 and our passports in the vague hope that we would get visas, that were thankfully granted a week later (that was a long wait).
Or the time you arrive in Cambodia and leave the airport having forgotten one of your five suitcases.
Or the time you arrive in a regional airport in Australia after 30 hours of flying, arriving with a tantrumming three year old and you get asked if this is his first time flying as to the reason for his meltdown (he’d already flown close to 10x in his life). He was just exhausted and over it with all the flying. This is also not to mention the amount of times we have all slept at the airport as we await connections.
Or the time you felt like a cast member from ‘Home Alone 2’ and need to mad dash across an international airport because you’ve been sitting at the wrong gate. That’s a $5000 mistake that I would have regretted. Now, as a result, I check the tickets much more closely now.
Despite all this experience and how familiar all airports feel, there is nothing better than leaving the airport having finished the trip.
In January it was six years since we first arrived in Cambodia. I’m about to start my seventh semester of teaching at the Bible school (PPBS). It’s the first year I’ll be able to teach the same subjects a second time and I’m looking forward to tweaking content rather than weekly content creation for the first time. Its also the first time I’m teaching without a translator in class. Look at me with my big boy pants on.
I remember speaking to a missionary at Summer School (CMS’s annual conference) and he was talking about the missionary timeline. He said something like this. First term just aim to survive. Don’t die. Stay married. Second term aim to make a list of all the things you might want to do. Third term address the first point on that list. What was useful about this observation was keeping my expectations realistic about the slowness and patience required in mission work. This has been a helpful frame that has proved true from experience so far.
There has also been a change in how I serve here in Cambodia. In the beginning it was very individually based. Though going to a language school, language learning is essentially something that you do yourself. You set your goals and work towards them. When I started teaching it was a similar phenomenon. I would set the syllabus and the content would come from there. Over the last year or so, as my proficiency in Khmer and teaching in Khmer has improved, I’ve taken on more responsibility at the school in a different way. Being involved in a more administrative capacity has meant that that essentially individual feature of the last five years has morphed to a more team or group approach at work. In essence working more as a team is just a different mode from primarily on your own at your own pace. This has been a change that has really only occurred in this second term.
It’ll be interesting to see what change(s) occur as we finish out this second term and look to our third.
This post follows on from the previous post about where I’m up to in my language learning with a wider reflection on the things that assist us as we learn a new language.
One of the things that has struck me as I continue to develop my Khmer language skills is the number of supports it takes to learn a language. It takes a whole village, or a village of institutions, for me to be where I am now in Khmer language ability.
Firstly, a vital institution for language learning is the CMS fellowship, with both its priority on long term mission and the importance it places in learning the local language in order to be able to stay long term. Added to this is all those churches and individuals who support us through CMS to enable us to devote good time to language learning.
Secondly, there is the language school that I attended, G2K (Gateway to Khmer). This second institution gave me the foundation I needed to begin learning Khmer and continue learning Khmer in years to come. This school provided me with all the basics for speaking, listening, reading and writing Khmer as well as setting me up to continue learning Khmer once I had finished their program. It is the most well rounded language learning institution in Cambodia at present. It’s classroom model is invaluable.
The third institution that has helped me develop my Khmer has been the Bible School where I teach, Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS). The opportunity to begin teaching in Khmer with the help of a translator has meant that all those skills that I picked up when I was full time language learning I was able to continue to hone as I taught. Beginning with teaching the Old Testament I was able to pick up a whole lot of new Christian Khmer vocabulary that would serve as a wonderful foundation for now as I teach theology. The school relationships that I have built have also provided a rich help in my Khmer both with time to practice and assistance with learning new words and concepts in Khmer.
Finally, most importantly, the institution of my family has provided me with the stability to live in Cambodia and learn Khmer in different ways. It is these relationships (including my extended family and how they formed me as a person and language learner) that continue to play a part in my language development.
God has been at work through this village of institutions to help me to learn and grow in my ability to communicate in Khmer.
Since my last language update, a lot has changed, a lot of time under the bridge. I get the question now, more than I used to: Are you fluent? My answer: Enough. Maybe you could call it functional fluency. When I speak to new Khmer people and they comment on my Khmer, my answer is usually ‘some days enough, some days not enough’. I can enter a conversation with a Khmer person now and most days I can understand what they are trying to communicate with varying degrees of clarity concerning details. I don’t feel nervous talking in Khmer anymore. Five years of language investment and I’m reaching the stage where I am generally comfortable communicating in Khmer. Do I still get lost when two Khmer people are speaking to each other? Absolutely. Are there times when I need to use English because I don’t understand? Yup. But these times are becoming less and less.
In the classroom my need for a translator is diminishing. Since January I’ve started to teach without a translator present. I say to people that the quality of my content that I can deliver would go from an 80% with a translator to a 70% without one. I would be missing some insights and descriptive clarity, but I can get the most important points across now.
One thing I have noticed. When I began teaching I couldn’t really read technical Khmer language so I used to write my own notes in Khmer and get them checked and then use that. Since returning I have moved to a situation where I write my notes in English then get a translator to translate it into Khmer for me. My reading ability means that I can use their translation in a way that I couldn’t in the beginning. As a result my reading of Khmer has improved while my typing of Khmer has slowed and become more tricky.
The way I look at my learning of Khmer up till now is that my language learning has been an investment that I now get to reap the rewards. I can go deeper relationally. I can go deeper in my ability to communicate and I don’t get a headache from using Khmer too much like I used to. I still get tired after using Khmer. I still get lost when using Khmer. But I’m content with my ability while all the while still seeking to improve. Improvement at present is particularly around listening to Khmer sermons to flood myself with input language times where I’m just getting more and more used to local phrases and ways of expressing things.
Returning to Cambodia, while we’ve come so far in language and culture, there is still tonnes to learn. The depth that I have been inculturated into the western society of Aussie life reveals just how much I am skimming the surface in Cambodia, even after five or six years. Whether it be the ease of using English over Khmer, through to being able to draw on numerous Australian or western cultural references that are just second nature and natural to me, versus knowing very little cultural references in Cambodia. I can’t even conceive of being able to riff off cultural depth by making up the phrase ‘We don’t need no edu-ma-cation’ (Pink Floyd and Homer mash up) in Cambodia, like I’m able to do from the West. Nevertheless, we press on with cultural observations.
In driving a car now, I am understanding Cambodian roads to a greater degree. Turning left, the equivalent of turning right in Australia, has its own rhythms. In Australia you wait for a gap and then speed across to the other side of the road. You’re picking the gap. In Cambodia you do the opposite. Instead of speeding out, generally you slowly drive forward and when you get the recognition that oncoming traffic is slowing down for you, you pull directly in front of them and then proceed to go slowly as you cross onto the side that you want to travel. You’re less picking the gap and more making the gap. This sort of slowly does it approach fits the way life is done here. You go slow at first and ten once you have made a gap you can speed up. In Australia, you just go fast from the word ‘go’.
One thing I noticed recently was I was happy for my kids to watch Aussie ads. Normally I feel like ads in Australia are a waste of time. They’re the filler between the good bits of whatever show or event I’m watching. Given the little Aussie content we get here in Cambodia, I found myself enjoying some Aussie ads with my kids. It gives us a window back into Aussie culture and society. Now, in some ways it is a fake view. But its also illuminating. Showing what Aussies love, what they want to be or have. While digging into the culture here, in some ways we lose some of our Aussie culture, or maybe just put it on hold.
Yes COVID changed our life here in Cambodia when we arrived. But with COVID having less impact on society at present, our life here is still very different from our first term (2017-2019). In our first term we came to an unknown place with an unknown language and so our way of life was unknown and needed to be figured out, almost from scratch.
This time we returned to a known place, a known role and a language that we had begun to know. When we first arrived we were going to a Khmer church, our kids were going to a Khmer International school. Now our kids attend an international school for missionary kids and we go to an English speaking international church. When we first arrived 6 years ago, we would call a tuk-tuk driver if we wanted to go anywhere. Now we use an app, similar to Uber for tuk-tuks. When we first arrived I would go to the ATM every week to get out cash. We are not cashless yet, but now we are close to 50% cashless transactions and now have banking apps on our phones (which we didn’t have 6 years ago in Australia). When we first arrived we had to weather blackouts. Now we have a generator to assist in those times. When we first arrived, I rode a bicycle for 3 years. Now I ride a moto and can’t picture Cambodia without me using one, it’s so convenient. When we first arrived, driving was out of the question for us. Now we use a car more than we use a tuk-tuk.
Life in Cambodia looks substantially different when you compare our first and second terms, COVID changes aside.
In my last post I summarised 17 months worth of life into 300 words concerning our extended home assignment in Australia. COVID affected both our home assignment and our return. We got our visas in February, and booked flights for April. We eventually returned to Cambodia to be greeted with COVID tests and hotel quarantine. Packing 40kgs of snacks was a vital move to help our family survive. But hotel quarantine wasn’t even our biggest challenge in returning. We returned to a city-wide lockdown and weren’t able to reconnect with friends. In our absence some friends had left and others were preparing to leave. We were returning and grieving.
Arrival also meant online-everything. Online schooling for Sam and the kids, online teaching for me and online churching for us as a family. If we had thought hotel quarantine was hard, this was harder in different ways. It was too much. After a month of trying life in Cambodia again, we as a family hit rock bottom. It was less re-entry stress and more pandemic stress. We couldn’t go on in this same fashion. We stripped everything back to the bone. With the support of CMS, our mindset was that even if we didn’t do any ministry for the year, but managed to weather this COVID storm, then our presence in Cambodia for years after would be worth this year of bunkering down and surviving.
As 2021 progressed, week by week and as restrictions lifted, we were able to gradually add more of normal Cambodian life and ministry back into our routines. By the end of 2021 we had returned to more normal functioning in life and ministry, all while wearing masks. Though, like everyone else, we were still a bit shell-shocked.
I remember going to a hotel in mid-2021 for a quick family break and having quarantine flashbacks. Am I able to leave our room, really? In September 2022 we were able to visit Australia for a holiday. On our return to Cambodia it felt weird to be able to just walk out of the airport, rather than go through all the COVID rigmarole that our return in 2021 featured.
Our home assignment in 2020 had two unexpected challenges. Home assignment is hard enough without extra challenges (that’s why we call it an assignment, it’s not a holiday). Both these challenges related to COVID and they both involved waiting. COVID made life hard in general, this included our church visits in the first half of 2020. We went from meeting in person to meeting online in a split second. Talk about whiplash. Then came the difficult news when our June flights to Cambodia were canceled.
Our first challenge was how to proceed. With the help of CMS we came to the plan of staying in Australia for the rest of 2020. This gave our family stability amongst a lot of unknowns, especially that our children could finish the academic year in Australia. We were in a season of waiting and while it was hard to wait, there was harder to come.
This harder news came at the end of 2020 in December. Our next challenge was that our visa wasn’t approved, so we had to cancel our January flights to Cambodia. That was rough. What was rougher was the unknown-ness of this second challenge. When flights were canceled the first time, we set a time to return. With visa uncertainty, would we ever get back to Cambodia? We were well aware that this has been the experience of some missionaries.
What I want to reflect on is that month of waiting and not knowing (late Dec until early Feb) was harder than the six months previously when we had set an arbitrary date to return. We were waiting and knowing. Waiting with knowledge is much easier than waiting without knowing. This is very much akin to Christian hope. We aren’t hopeful, as in whether we hope it will rain or not. We’re hopeful with more certainty. We’re certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re certain of Jesus’ promised return. Hope is waiting with knowing and that actually makes things easier than waiting and not knowing.
It’s been a while. Apart from our latest post, the post before that was one we did from Australia in 2020, before we knew our flights would be canceled, again. So what has been happening since then? This next series catches you up, not only on some of the details of our goings-on, but also adds in new cultural and missiological insights that we’ve picked up along the way. For those who receive our monthly updates, the beginning of this series will be a helpful reminder of our journey in recent years giving good context to where we are up to as well as going into details that we can’t always fit in our monthly updates. Hope you enjoy the ride.