How to transition poorly

Disclaimer: this is an ironic post highlighting the difficulty of transition. It paints a fairly bleak situation and expresses my tendencies but not the reality. I write this as a reminder to myself of my tendencies in order to try to counteract them in this really significant time. It is a reminder to give myself and my family time and grace as we face this significant change.

This is my guide to transitioning poorly. It is not exhaustive, nor ordered in any particular way. There may be overlapping themes coming through that express the personality of the author.

  1. Get preoccupied with the details of moving countries, ensuring that this consumes all your thoughts, your emotional energy and depletes you of resources to care for yourself and your family.
  2. Turn the grief that you feel in saying goodbye into anger that is easily released on those closest to you.
  3. Fail to see that grief, stress and moving country is going to sap you of energy and so fill your diary full, just to spite yourself.
  4. Assume that your family will not feel the same things as you and that you will all be fine. Children’s extra disobedience in this time is not a symptom of them feeling tired, grief, or anxiety themselves.
  5. Also assume that if your child/children don’t say anything, this means they are coping fine with the big change ahead. Full steam ahead then. You have no issues to deal with.
  6. Anger is the best way to deal with what you are feeling (regardless of whether it is stress or grief or anxiety). In fact get angry very quickly. This is always the best solution.
  7. Say yes to more responsibilities in this time, because you can manage it 😉
  8. Don’t waste time sitting, thinking, processing and reflecting. Give yourself more fully to more insignificant jobs that will make you feel better immediately and help you push deeper down those stronger, tricky feelings to deal with.
  9. Disconnect from friendships early. Don’t get too close, it only hurts more when you leave.

Do you have any tips for transitioning poorly? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a monopoly on transitioning poorly. Comment below so we can share the wealth of knowledge and all transition more poorly.

Transition feelings

A view of the Cambodian skyline from the Mekong.

When we arrived in Cambodia, almost 3 years ago, my head was ready to dive into life here. As we went along and got half-way through our first 3-year term, I knew roughly when we would be heading back to Australia (late 2019). Six months out from going back to Australia for our first home assignment, I noticed a change in how much I was thinking about Australia (more than in the last 2 years). This thinking has only increased 3 months out, and even now with under 2 months to go it has further escalated. In order to finish well, my mentor suggested not counting days until I was a month out. This has been a good move, helping to keep my head here.

So where am I up to? With each week as we get closer to moving back to Australia for half a year or so, two things happen. The first is my excitement for returning home grows. I start thinking about it more and so it occupies more of my time. Not that I’m sitting around just thinking about Australia all the time. I’ve still got plenty of stuff here to do, but there is more head-space devoted to Australia now than there was even a few months ago. I picture catching up with family and friends, visiting familiar places and doing things that I would normally do in Australia (more time outside is a big one).

The second thing that happens, as we get closer to heading back, is grief. This grief is different from my son, who has now spent more of his life in Cambodia than Australia. Most of what he knows is Cambodia. For him to leave is different from me who has spent only a small portion of my life here in Cambodia. However, I still experience grief as I consider heading back. There is grief about saying good-bye, even to those that we will see again in 7 months. There is more grief for those we are saying good-bye to for good (as they return home to a different country). There is also the grief of just not doing things that we enjoy here together (getting local drinks like ទឹកអំពៅ, our being part of our neighbourhood or going to places that our family is now familiar with).

CMS prepares us for this by setting out the guideline that the first term on location should be three years. They encourage us to stay the whole time, without returning, so that we will feel settled here in Cambodia, before we return to Australia. This helps us to want to return to Cambodia for our second term (particularly with kids in mind). All I can say is that it has been gold advice for us. Cambodia is now known to us (with plenty more to know). So while we are excited for returning to Australia and to things known, we are also leaving Cambodia which is now known as well.

Grief and excitement are what we’re feeling as we prepare for another transition. Suffice it to say that it’s very easy to underestimate the tiredness that follows feeling all these things as we prepare to leave (not unlike the newness tiredness we felt in the beginning).

First year teaching: #1. My non-teaching background?

Board game time on holidays

This series explores my experiences in my first year of teaching; my background leading up to teaching, my preparation, execution and reflection upon finishing.

The phrase “I am no teacher, nor the son of teacher” captures my feelings having found myself preparing to teach the Old Testament at a Bible School in Cambodia without any formal teaching qualifications. While I have much to learn on the teaching front, as I reflected (or at least steeled myself against the coming year of teaching), I realised that my background has provided me with multiple opportunities to exert or practice and refine some teaching skills.

I was explaining the rules of a board-game to someone and they remarked at how well I had explained the rules for them (whether I can play board games as well as I can teach is another matter). It wasn’t that I had taught them every single rule (people will know that details are not my forte). It was that I had captured the essence of the game and strategy in order to assist them beginning to learn and play the game. I feel like this shows some sort of aptitude for teaching.

I’ve heard it said that physio is 70% confidence and 30% skill. I can say that because in a past life, for a very short time, I worked as a physio (don’t get me started on the physio/chiro debate). An important part of being a physio is being able to build a rapport. But when I think more about what I did as a physio, I can see that at its heart are teaching skills. The essence of a lot of physiotherapy is to teach patients; teach patients about their condition and their recovery. Given that a big part of this recovery requires active participation by the patient, physiotherapy is about equipping a patient to help themselves recover. There is a teaching involved here.

As we were preparing for mission, I heard one missionary remark that preaching regularly in a church before teaching at a Bible School overseas was a great form of preparation. Being involved in ministry, from preaching regularly (to young and old) and receiving feedback along the way, to doing one-off talks, or attending camps with a series of talks, to leading small groups and their discussions, and even pursuing further study (with a thesis and so learning how to construct an extended argument), has provided various teaching opportunities in a variety of different formats. Further study in theology also enriched my teaching in terms of content. Ministry, in these senses, was a great preparation for teaching as it helped give me skills in content preparation (curriculum and weekly lessons) and delivery (communication skills). Examination skills were probably and still are one of my weaker areas that I need to grow.

Suffice it to say there were plenty of ways in which my background prepared me for teaching, even if it wasn’t with a formal teaching qualification.

Bridge Kids

An attempt at a bridge made of kids

Before coming to Cambodia I used the basic mechanics of a bridge as an analogy to describe a missionary — the connection that a missionary has between two cultures, their home culture and their new culture (this analogy I stole from another missio friend, Arthur). The basic picture is that a bridge has a connection to two places, but doesn’t really dwell in either but is stranded between.

Before coming to Cambodia I also did a seminar on some guesses that I had on mission. I talked about the immersion model of mission (living as completely as you can like the locals). I then opposed this idea with the idea of being connected that now comes to us through the internet and how this has changed mission. Does it mean that it’s harder to be immersed like it was before with so many ways and opportunities to connect with our home culture than before? My basic point was rather than think about these two mission types as ‘either/or’ (both are unattainable ideals as neither is truly possible), I found it helpful to view connection and immersion as two points on a spectrum and that missionaries will sit somewhere on that spectrum based on their goals and situation. Further, missionaries might slide up and down that spectrum at various stages of their ministry overseas.

Having been in Cambodia what I am realising is that this sliding between immersion and connection doesn’t necessarily just occur in the long term, but can occur around short periods of time. As missionaries prepare for furlough (home assignment) and so their head moves more towards their home country.

Having been in Cambodia what I’m also realising is what this idea of immersion and connection means for our kids. We haven’t been immersed as we initially thought and so that changes their experience of Cambodia, but also how much they are affected by Cambodia. Further, with more connection this has also affected their relationships with family and friends in a Australia (often in a really positive way). One example of this is a closeness with grandparents that might not have been possible before (see here, here and here for further details). In my seminar I had been exploring immersion and connection from serving as a missionary point of view. What I haven’t really begun to explore (but we have been experiencing) is how immersion and connection affect our kids.

While I appreciate the term TCK (Third Culture Kid) as a way of describing what it’s like to grow up overseas away from your parents home culture. For me, seeing them as Bridge Kids is a more concrete description of what it’s like to grow up overseas.

Overall thoughts on learning language FOR US.

As we come to the end of our first term, here are some more big picture reflections on language learning in Cambodia for us. I say for us, because this is different for everyone.

A big part of learning a language is having goals (like I want to be fluent or I want to do this with a language). These goals help shape what you’re learning. And we were prepared for this in our mission training. What I wasn’t as ready for was how much a persons context plays into their language learning. While most people have goals in language learning, I’ve been seeing how context plays a big part in how we pick up a language. Three contexts that influence our language learning are the country we reside in, the ministry we are a part of (or hope to be) and our personality that we bring to learning a new language.

Pre-arriving in Cambodia, I was hoping for fluency in the long run and in the medium term the ability to teach in Khmer. I was also hoping that my kids would be fluent too. Now I see how much context plays into our language learning and affects our goals. The short answer is that I’m much more flexible on language goals seeing how much contexts affects us.

It’s been interesting to see how the country that we are serving in plays into our ability to learn language. Below are some observations that I’ve made on how Cambodia, our ministry and my personality context affects our language learning.

Country context:

  • Khmer is an Asian language, so there seems to be a longer acquisition time in comparison with learning a European language. This is important to keep in mind for myself so that I don’t make unhelpful comparisons about rates of language acquisition with missionary friends in other countries.
  • Cambodia seems to have more of a culture of foreigners who don’t learn the local language. Now there good reasons for not learning Khmer and not so good reasons as well (of which I won’t go into). One of those reasons is that you can manage to live in Cambodia with English and only a little Khmer. I’d also like to say I’m no expert, so it may be that other countries have just as many missionaries or expats who don’t know the local language. The main affect of this seems to be that locals are always expecting me to speak in English when we first come into contact.

Ministry context:

  • While my educated guess is that while living in the province it is easier to learn language, we have chosen to learn Khmer in the city (see point below). I think my speaking and listening would have been better if I had learnt Khmer in the province, but I wonder if I could have been reading and writing as well as I can now if I had learned those skills in the country.
  • Our goal has been for me to teach the Bible in Khmer. In order to teach well, while having good Khmer is sought after, what’s more important is that the students understand the Bible better than before the class.
  • Part of our ministry context is also family context. Our kids don’t have the exposure to the Khmer language in the same way that we had expected before we came. This changes our family’s ability to function in different Khmer settings (weddings, holidays, outings and other things). More on this below.

Personality context:

  • I have high expectations. While helpful in some ways, I also need to be aware of pushing too hard. The outcome is that any time I have a chance to lower my workload, this is probably the right move for us given the context of just settling into a new country in this first term.

These are just some of the ways our context has affected our language learning. So where are our goals currently as we finish one term and prepare for another?

Currently: We want our kids to love Cambodia whether or not they learn the language. This is more important to us. They can function in Cambodia without a lot of Khmer, so if they come away from our time here loving Cambodia and the people, but not knowing a whole lot of Khmer, that’s a win for us. In terms of Sam’s language, we want to be mindful of the gap between Sam’s Khmer and mine. However, what’s more important is not so much the gap between us, but that Sam’s language continues to improve at the pace she is able to go at.

Being on location has shown us how, while language goals are important, context also plays an important part in learning language.

Transition time: #2. Transitioning from…

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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

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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

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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).