Transition time: #2. Transitioning from…


Translating a lecture from English to Khmer

In 2018 I have already transitioned from classroom language learning to independent language learning. Now as I edge closer to October I’m transitioning out of full time language learning. With the goal of teaching in Khmer, part of my time this past 6 months has been lesson prep. To streamline my language learning with my lesson prep I geared my language learning towards learning stories from the OT; thinking through how to explain themes and topics that arise from those stories. In a sense, my language learning has been more specific than in the early days. In early days, I was learning basic Khmer for a variety of different situations and on a variety of different topics. Now my language learning (intentional learning) is much more narrowly targeted. Having the goal of teaching in Khmer has actually been really helpful for motivation, a massive carrot.

As I transition away from full time language learning, I’m not really leaving it. What I’m leaving is my independent learning category. For I’ll be still learning massive amounts of Khmer as I teach in it. It’s just that learning won’t be the primary goal, teaching will be. And I guess that’s the case in our native language as well. We never actually leave language learning fully, not even in English. What changes is that it no longer becomes the primary goal, but a secondary bonus. So while I’ll transition from language learning in one sense, in another I’ll never leave it — life long language learning.

What this looks like in practice can be seen when I contrast pre-August break and post-August break. In both periods I was doing language learning and lesson prep. But, pre-break, with my language helper I was more getting help with language learning stuff (rather than lesson prep). Once I came back I got my language helper to help me with my lesson prep. Though, because I am seeking to teach in Khmer, there was still a lot of language learning going on. I’d ask him to show me where my mistakes were, but not fix them, so that hopefully I’d learn from my mistakes and not make them as often. In this sense my language learning and lesson prep had merged. Pre-break, they felt like slightly different streams. It’s kinda nice just having one project to work on rather than two, particularly when the language learning side of things is never ending. But teaching has a definite goal and end point (the end of semester). The brilliant thing about the merge is that I’m getting to work on a long term thing, with the advantage that teaching gives the sense of accomplishment when you’ve finished the semester.

Transition time: #1. Transitioning tonnes

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One of many big transitions for our kids; ready to get on the plane to Cambodia

You could say that life is about transitions. We transition from childhood to adulthood. We transition from study to the workforce. We transition from job to job. We transition as family life changes, from being children to either having children or being part of an extended family as an adult.

My life prior to Cambodia had many transitions (from tennis to physiotherapy to ministry and further study), and life in Cambodia continues to have transitions too. But the transitions feel different at the moment. Maybe it’s because of the pace and size of these most recent transitions. So much change! Prior to coming to Cambodia we moved down to Melbourne for some missionary training. Then we transitioned to partnership raising for 6 months. Then we moved to a new country and completely new culture. In this transition came learning the language. And soon I face another major transition; teaching in this new language. As I mentioned previously, this first three year term is like three first years back to back.

As I reflect on transitions more, what I think mission transition brings to the equation is often all those normal transitions we have (study to work, changing family situations) continue in a midst a different context or in the transition from one culture to another (backwards and forwards between two countries). These more normal transitions take on a different light in a different place that has different values and way of life. Such that smaller transitions feel bigger and so we just seem to be going from one big transition to another. My thought is that even as we settle longer into Cambodia (and so may have less transitions here), missionary life (for us) means backward and forwards between Australia and Cambodia. So while other life transitions in Cambodia may settle down some what, just around the corner is another major transition.

I feel like where this leaves us is that transitions become a normal, regular part of life. Maybe that’s where transitions feel different as a missionary. I feel like most transitions are big events that come along once every little while. Whereas here it feels like there is always one just around the corner. Maybe missionary life normalizes transitions. They become the new norm.

At any rate, these next two posts will explore what this latest transition is shaping to look like, even before I’ve fully transitioned.



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


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


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


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


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: #6. When culture shock isn’t shocking


On a Skype call last year, after an hour of pouring out my heart, I hear these words from a close friend, ‘I think you’re in culture shock’. ‘Huh… that’s interesting’, I reply.

Two surprises came from those words.

The first surprise concerned my experience of culture shock; not so much that I was experiencing culture shock (I was prepared for that) but by the way it was manifest in me. I wasn’t so much shocked by my culture shock, but more surprised by the way I experienced it. The back story to this conversation was that I was emotionally empty and needed a break after a big first year as a missionary. I’d been prepared for experiencing culture shock through our wonderful training with our sending organisation, CMS. But I was still surprised when it hit. Not because I thought my friend was wrong, but because I think I had been expecting culture shock to feel different or to manifest itself in a different way.

I think my idea of culture shock was the reaction or experience of physical repulsion to a different thing (or event, or experience) in a new culture. I expected feelings of being angry at locals, repulsed over something or feeling like I was trapped in this new place. But my culture shock was for different reasons and so it manifest itself in a different way from what I had been expecting.

My guess is that there is a whole spectrum of how culture shock can manifest itself. I feel like the classic example is of physical repulsion to some aspect of the new place. For me, I didn’t really have any of that. For me, culture shock was more about running so fast and so hard for so long (a whole year, look at me talk as though I’ve been on location for yonks) that I was just worn out. I wasn’t repulsed by the new place, I was just exhausted from experiencing all the new and different aspects. That was my culture shock; exhaustion rather than repulsion.

My second surprise was my reaction to my diagnosis of culture shock. In some ways, I wasn’t shocked that I was in culture shock. It made complete sense. And the result of rightly recognising culture shock for me was a reduction in my culture shock. For me, the simple naming of culture shock helped to reduce its impact. I feel like this is the case for many hard experiences. We name something and its power is reduced. Not only this, but in a funny way my experiencing culture shock assured me. Instead of sending me into further stress, ‘Ohh no… I’m experiencing culture shock, what am I going to do?’ What this meant was that I was on the right path. The way I was feeling wasn’t because I was doing something massively wrong. It’s just a normal experience of missionary work. So in a funny way naming my culture shock assured me that I was normal and that what I was doing was normal. As a result, the diagnosis of culture shock also helped give me clues and ideas of what to do in order to manage the shock. The naming of culture shock was thus the first step and precipitated further steps.

No-longer New: #4. Expectation vs. experience

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Setting up expectations

One of the things that CMS (Church Missionary Society) did in preparation for sending us to Cambodia is to help us construct helpful expectations for our time serving on location. Having never been to Cambodia, we constructed our initial expectations of what our life might be like based on glimpses of Cambodia that we had access to in Australia. These initial experiences came from things like meeting Cambodians in Melbourne, discussions with other missionaries already in Cambodia, through to what we learnt about Cambodia from books, lectures and other resources. CMS helped us combine these introductory experiences with some planning and preparation in order to put together some expectations for what it might be like to live in Cambodia.1 These expectations served as a foundation for our experience of Cambodia.

Moving from expectations to experience

After a year of now experiencing Cambodia, I’m able to look back and contrast some of my expectations with my experience. Some of my expectations matched my experience. We were stressed, lost and it took time to start to feel settled here in Cambodia. Expecting these things helped me survive these experiences. Good expectations assist our experience. 

But even the best of expectations will miss the mark. While I expected to be stressed, the experience of stress was much greater than I ever could have expected. No surprises here. Expectations will never match our experience. For example, the experience of bullying is always different from our expectation of being bullied. Our experience of parenthood is always different from our expectations about parenthood. Experience is the full bodied expression of what our expectations are only a glimpse of.

The nature of expectations

Four things I’m learning about expectations.

Firstly, our expectations will always be a mix of on the mark and completely missing it. Some expectations will match our experience and some won’t (whether by exceeding it, failing to meet it or just being completely wrong). But even the best expectations will still fall short of matching completely the experience.

Secondly, I’m learning that experience sheds light on expectations, particularly implicit expectations. As we experience something, we have the opportunity to learn. We are able to reflect on how well our explicit expectations matched the experience. But also, the experience sheds light on some of those expectations that were less explicit. Experiencing stress in Cambodia, a new country and culture, is an opportunity for me to see what I was expecting even if I wasn’t aware I was expecting it. Experience highlights implicit expectations that we could never have predicted, even with the best preparation.

Thirdly, expectations combined with experience provide a learning cycle that can give way to new expectations. The hope is that we are able to refine earlier expectations and take these refined expectations into our new experiences. While these new expectations will never match the new experience, the aim is that we will become better at expecting, to the point where our expectations more approximate the experience.

Fourthly, wrong expectations aren’t necessarily a problem. Put another way, perfect expectations is not the goal. In fact, sometimes I don’t think its about right or wrong expectations necessarily, it seems to be more about how tightly we hold those expectations. There’s a freedom in this. The pressure is off to always set up expectations that are exact, but rather to be ready to let our expectations be moulded and changed based on the experience. Further, this can be said for those who repeatedly have high expectations as well as those who consistently have low expectations (though I know which way I normally tend to lean). So no matter whether we aim too high or aim too low, sometimes it’s about how we hold expectations. Are you in danger of squeezing too tightly? I know I am. I need to hold expectations loosely enough to be useful in experience without strangling the life out of experience.

  1.  I’m thankful for this aspect of the training and I think they prepared us as well as I think is possible for a missionary sending organisation. 

Mid year musings #2: Oblivious to errors


In person, our tuktuk driver has a wonderful smile. For a photo, I’m not sure whether this smile is of happiness or awkwardness (or both).

Is he happy about this picture or not? I read somewhere (or have heard it) that a smile in Cambodia can mean many things–happiness, embarrassment, hurt or anger. Which one is this? I’m not sure. I’m potentially oblivious to doing the wrong thing.

Every now and then I become aware of, or I’m made aware of, my ignorance regarding my misdemeanours. It dawns on me that I’m making mistakes without being aware of most of them. In your home culture you have more of a sense of what is right and wrong and how to behave appropriately. In a new culture you don’t have that same awareness. You can easily fool yourself that you’re fitting in, when in reality you completely stand out by the errors you unwittingly make. Added to this is that in some places people won’t always pull you up when you’re doing the ‘wrong’ thing. The result is that you can end up doing many wrong things without being aware of it. Some of these wrong things are harmless and are just laughed off as ‘stupid foreigner’. Some wrongs can be more harmful, yet are still hidden from you (often through smiles that say more than you know).

This brings me to a second point. In moving to Cambodia we’ve moved to a culture that his high context (as opposed to Australia which is more a ‘low context’ culture). In a high context culture, like Cambodia, communication occurs as much through non-verbal communication as it does through verbal communication. In other words, its not just what you say or how you say it, but also what is not said that is just as important. You are looking for communication clues that come from body language or from the context of the communication (location, occasion, etc). In contrast, low context cultures like Australia communicate predominately through verbal communication and so less is communicated through body language or context (though that is still important).

What all this means is that not only are we navigating a new language system, we are also trying to learn how to pick up cues from what is not said. Picking up these non-verbal cues may help give us insight into the times when we do something wrong, particularly while our language abilities are still in infancy.

In the end my lack of awareness concerning the mistakes I make is just another aspect of ambiguity tolerance. But our hosts also need to be gracious and use ambiguity tolerance with us as well, until we realise or are shown our foibles. My hope is that this is creating in me more of a sense of humility, that many of my ‘sins’1 are being covered over.


  1. I actually think this aspect of culture learning is a great analogy for the Christian life. That is, in the early days we sin in tonnes of different ways that we are completely ignorant about. As we grow as Christians, it is through being confronted with God’s Word are shown just how sinful we are–the true extent of our mistakes and failures. As we see our sin more clearly we come to see God’s grace to us in Jesus death more and more deeply. My sins are not just those that I see or know. I’m am sinning constantly and much more deeply than I can know, yet Jesus death has paid for all these unintentional sins as well.