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.
Part of our decision to stay in Australia till January rather than attempt to return earlier was to prepare ourselves for the long term in Cambodia, in view of the disruption that COVID has been. Part of our rationale was giving our family stability for a little bit. During that time of stability we (Sam and I) were able to use that time to ‘grow ourselves up’ (the title from a book by Jenny Brown that we both love) or more specifically, work on ourselves in different ways.
The result of that working was that during the Term 3 holidays I reflected that I was ready to return. We were both rested and had grown in self-awareness. Both of these will help us as we start back in our second time around in Cambodia, and help us stay in the long term. Below are some of the things we’ve done and the way we’ve found them helpful.
Resilience insights: I was involved in a resilience training study. It was helpful to see that we can grow in resilience and that we often rely on previous forms of resilience that may or may not be helpful in new situations. I was able to see that resilience is related to our beliefs, practices and resources. For me it was particularly this third category, in how I spent my time and energy that provided me with insights about how best to grow my resilience. In the past I would normally just try and rise to the task (when massive things came along). While that’s needed in some ways, now I need to work much smarter as mission and family life mean that I can’t just up-my game, because I have been maxing out.
Marriage enrichment: Sam and I were enabled to participate in the Condie online marriage enrichment course (we’ve been able to be a part of their in person seminars twice before). This was helpful for us both, particularly in the very ordinary but profound insight of doing little things every day as the way to grow a marriage. Grand gestures are fine, but it’s about cultivating friendship and gentleness and staying connected with each other (particularly in stressful times like this year or when living in other cultures).
Family systems: I first came across Bowen’s Family System thinking at Moore college about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve dabbled a little (see the book I mentioned above). During this period we were able to put these insights to greater use as we delved into some situations more particularly with the help of a Family Systems counsellor. We picked up insights about how we function individually, but more importantly how our family functions as one ’emotional unit’. To quote Dr Robert Creech, from an online conference that I was enabled to participate in, the aim is to be the calmest person in the room. Now, while we can’t always be calm, the result of working on ourselves and our responses has effects on the units we are a part of (our families, staff teams or similar). In understanding ourselves more we can reduce the emotion that inevitably gets passed around in the groups we inhabit.
Those are just a taster of the insights we’ve gained from this time. These insights will set us up, not just for the long term in Cambodia, but the long term in life.
This post rounds off the series. Hope you’ve found it helpful. For me it provides a place for my consolidated thoughts, if I want to access them later. And in consolidating I’ve learnt and been reminded of a great many things that I have learnt already. It’ll be interesting to see what the next blog post series is from our second term in Cambodia.
Missionary friends of ours (Arthur and Tamie Davis) have shared with us quite wisely that 2 months out from a transition (a move overseas for us) there is a change in dynamics. Craziness happens. Parents and children are both more stressed, easily agitated and so not functioning well. This change in functioning is both a grieving of leaving as well as an excitement about the next. This change in functioning is often combined with not sleeping as well and increased workload in preparations. Also people want to see you and you want to see people before you leave. The result is that this time is pretty crazy. In terms of my goals for my work, I need to learn to halve them and give myself and my family grace in this time.
As I reflect, part of the stress comes from pressure. The finality of the transition (compared to another year of more of the same) adds pressure to the now (the time just before leaving), both in terms of leaving well but also in terms (particularly for me and my personality) wanting to do too much in and with the time left. While at the same time, my head is more in imagining zone about our time in Cambodia, further taking any leftover brain space from preparations to leave. Pressure feels like it captures this period in a really visceral way, where our body is affected by this transition time. I’ve noticed myself being a bit more physically jittery (symptoms like heart racing at random times). My physio brain knows that muscle twitches like this further add to physical tiredness along with everything else.
This two month period is mirrored on arrival and so it helps me to set my expectations right for once we get there. We want to reconnect. There’s the reconnection of admin and all those start up jobs in a new place (or in a place you haven’t been to for a while). There’s the reconnection of relationships. When you first go to a new place, relationships from your home culture provide support while you build new relationships in your new location. This time, while relationships from Australia are closer given the time we’ve spent here, we’ve got good relationships that we head back to in Cambodia and so there is a sorting out how to give time to relationships in both locations; staying in touch with family and friends as you slowly disconnect and re-settling into the supportive relationship network that we have there.
In some ways we’ve had two different deputation experiences this time in Australia. We’ve had the face-to-face church visit and the digital church visit. As I reflect on what the digital church visit is like, you’ll hopefully get a sense of how it was different for us compared to face-to-face.
On the positives of digital deputation, a zoom or similar format allows both spouses to be able to attend instead of one having to stay home with the kids. Further, zoom provides an interesting format for seminars or Q&A, where people can write their questions. I think we got onto a good format when we had someone fielding the questions and then asking us, like a host. The now normality of zoom or team catch ups means that there can be many meetings without having to travel and that are easily organised. This is helpful when partner churches are a fair distance and enables conversations without travel. It even allows you to be in two places at once, with a pre-recorded sermon for two different churches. The other thing we found about the digital side of things is that signing up for prayer letters online is easier, as people are already on the device and can sign up while the session is on (especially if you allow extra time for this).
On the other side, the negative, it is easy to get zoom exhaustion, feeling “zoomed out”. Over the screen, there is much more energy required for various reasons that is different from when you’re in person. There’s less feedback and you’re always feeling ‘on’. Basically you pour a lot more energy in and don’t get it back in the same way. The technology can be distracting, when there are sound or video issues, or the device is low on battery. The other thing we missed was the chats that occur before and after events, which are much easier to do as you’re milling in person, than milling online. Night zoom seminars means that you’re on screens till late and its harder than Bible study till late because of the screen lighting. Digitally we can’t see as many people as we could in person so we miss out on encouragement and those without technology miss out too. This also occurs because you have to keep things much shorter online as people can only handle so much on a screen, so our sharing is condensed.
With those positives and negatives, I hope next deputation we’ll be able to do it all in person. Though I’m thankful for the technology that enabled digital deputation, in the place of what would have been nothing during COVID. We certainly couldn’t have done this 10 years ago.
It might seem strange that I’m giving an update on where my language is up to while here in Australia at the end of 2020. But actually my language ability has changed, or at least that’s the theory. So a quick summary of where I was up to, then my deputation language learning plan and the results (or hoped for results).
Where I was up to when we returned to Australia at the end of 2019 (feels so long ago now): On arriving in Cambodia for the first time with no Khmer in January 2017, my aim was to attempt to teach the Bible in Khmer, but I was unsure of the timeline. I thought maybe a year of learning Khmer would get me to basic conversations. My first term of learning Khmer involved 1 year of full time language school, then independent language learning till I began teaching at the end 2018. This pace of language learning was only possible with Sam’s help. In that sense I don’t consider my skills an individual but team achievement. In fact, this also includes the support of the wider CMS partnership who has freed me up to focus solely on learning Khmer.
The result was after 4mths I could hear conjunctions and some words. After 8mths I could guess the topic of conversation. After 1 year I was not close to basic conversations like I thought. After 14mths I could get the main point of conversation, but interactions were often minimal, because it’s hard to keep asking friends the basic questions, like their age (even though this is not taboo in Cambodia). My skills moved on to seeking out more conversation with how’s the weather questions in the middle of my second year of learning Khmer.
However, I needed to move to teaching preparation by this stage, so learning Khmer came through making teaching materials for teaching the Old Testament. Two quick reflections on learning Khmer. The first is a more general reflection. To learn language well you need to set up situations where you have comprehensible input. That is, you are familiar with a specific context or text up to about 80% of the words. That 20% left over is the new stuff that you want to add into your repertoire. This is hard work finding situations of comprehensible input, but makes learning possible. The second reflection relates to the language resources in Cambodia. I went to an excellent language school. However, when compared with Mandarin or Arabic, Khmer doesn’t have the language resources like these languages because it doesn’t have the speakers (20 million or so compared with billions or whatever number it is). This makes Khmer language resources trickier to come by.
On return to Australia at the end of 2019 we intentionally had a break from Khmer. The rationale being that just like athletes need to rest from sport, so language learners need to rest from language. There is even scientific support (I think) that in the same way that when an athlete rests from their sport, their muscle memory gets a chance to move a particular skill into a more automatic region of the brain, this same benefit occurs in language learners. So my hope was that resting from Khmer would help to make it more automatic when I pick it up again. Of course there will be rustiness, but the second time you learn a skill you learn it quicker.
With our extended stay in Australia I’ve returned to Khmer through vocab cards (ANKI is the best) and through Khmer soaps. Soap operas provide great comprehensible input as I shared above and it means that I can do my language learning by watching YouTube.
My plan for our second term serving in Cambodia is that I want to build on 1st term skills by improving my listening and my ability to use local phrases and expressions, not just the Khmenglish of my 1st term. Having said that my assumption is I’ll always carry around some Khmenglish, regardless of how ‘fluent’ I become.
This post comes from the video that we did for Mission up Close with CMS in June. You can either watch it or read the summary below.
What’s it like preparing to go back to Cambodia for a second time, our second term? We were excited to be going to Cambodia for the first time and we’re excited to be returning for a second time. But the excitement is different. In the first term, there was so much new and ‘for the first time’ excitement. We didn’t know if they would let us in on arrival. We had little local knowledge and even less language. Thankfully we had some great support from other CMS families. There was uncertainty about how long it would take us to pick up Khmer, or when it would be best to start teaching at the Bible school. So the excitement of the first term was the excitement of all the new. There was a lot of tiredness related to the new too.
Second time around, there is excitement. But it’s the excitement of the familiar. Returning and being able to have decent conversations in Khmer, getting to a greater relational depth and understanding of the culture. Returning to good friends and to an area that we know well now. And on the flip side looking forward to returning and not having the major start up in language learning that we had in the first term. Enjoying the wins of improving in a language that we already have some skills in (though rusty at the moment). As I say in the video, learning in a less intense way.
Sometimes the familiar gets a bad wrap, particularly as we long for the new or the unfamiliar. And yet, sometimes it’s through the familiar that we find the truly new; coming to a deeper understanding (and so ‘new’) of what we already know. As a tourist, yes, you see lots of new places. As you stay in one ‘new’ place longer, it becomes new in a way that you never could know if it wasn’t familiar. You could say there’s more new in the familiar than there is in the new. For me the excitement of the familiar over the excitement of the ‘new’ is my preference at the moment.
This post is about our experience of being delayed in returning to Cambodia due to COVID; the confessions of a stranded missionary. Below describes the rollercoaster of feelings that we felt particularly in the heart of the pandemic lockdown earlier this year. This is not where I’m at presently, but more an insight into what I went through.
Most people during the COVID-19 pandemic this year have experienced various amounts of panic and grief. As I reflect, there is definitely overlap in what we were feeling as stranded missionaries compared with those who are permanently in Australia and probably some differences too. What stands out to me is the complexity of grief. There was the loss as plans were changed (our flights back to Cambodia in July were cancelled). There was loss of certainty (not just when would we go back to Cambodia, but could we?), loss of space (the inability to travel), loss of privacy for some (having more people stuck at home), loss of connection and loneliness (for us this was both here in Australia as well as the delay in seeing friends in Cambodia). There was also anticipatory grief (not having stable plans). There was the loss that we felt of missing things in Australia that we would have been able to do had it not been for COVID (visiting family, friends, and partner churches in person). This loss is heightened for us given we are back for a specific amount of time. Strangely, this last loss feels at odds with all those other losses. In a sense we were grieving not being able to return while simultaneously grieving in a sense of not yet ready to return as well.
What I found over this time was a wrestling backwards and forwards with these feelings of grief combined with a sense of acceptance as I worked through all this stuff. On reflection, the grief over uncertainty only really exposed an uncertainty that is always there. COVID just removed the mask of certainty that we try to create. Grief and panic is tiring. I needed to give myself and others grace. Term 3 here in Australia (July-Sept) has given us that. We’ve had a time of stability and rest.
Where am I up to now? I’m now ready to return to Cambodia.