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.
There is a truth to the title that I didn’t realise before I moved to Cambodia. Pre-arriving in Cambodia I was all about learning the local language and helping locals to engage with theology in their own ‘heart’ language. Then any speaking I did with them would be helping both of us as I was learning the language and they were engaging in theology in a language that they are proficient in. So I would try in as many contexts to speak in Khmer, rather than in English. And, to a certain degree, I haven’t changed this view. Learning Khmer is extremely helpful for me and others. What has happened is that, instead of changing this view about learning language, I’ve enriched it, or added to it, even nuanced it.
My view now is all of the above AND for a few people I’m going to speak English with them. For these few people it is actually selfish for me to learn their language. They should be the ones learning language. They need to improve their English.
The reason English is important, and I didn’t see this before, is that for Christians in Cambodia at the moment to progress in theological education they need to do that further study in English. Not only do they need sufficient English to progress, but they need theological English (which might as well be another language). The reason is simple. There are not enough theological resources in Khmer to sustain a Masters level degree or higher. The point could be argued for Bachelor degrees as well, but that’s a whole kettle of fish that I don’t know if I want to get into right now (though I would love to engage this point).
Given the need for English skills to progress in theological education, rather than just seeking to speak Khmer with my fellow Khmer colleagues at the Bible School, I should be using some of my time to help them improve their English. Now this is not an easy swap, English for Khmer, because they have an important role in developing my theological Khmer. However, there is a mutual need that I didn’t see before. They need theological English from a native English speaker and I need theological Khmer from a native Khmer speaker. To just work in Khmer with them all the time would be selfish. There is a mutuality in learning language that I knew in principle from missiology, but needed to expand my approach to others learning Khmer.
This needs further qualifying. While I want to speak with them in English, my thought is that this is best done one to one. In group settings at the Bible school I think speaking in Khmer gives them the power and ability to interact in a language that they are comfortable with rather than in a second language which is harder. So in group settings I prefer Khmer. In one on one relationships with a few, English.
I wrote previously about the missionary as bridge between two places (or two cultures). I stand by this description. But I want to add another metaphor. The bridge metaphor captures our in-betweenness. When I think about our relationship with locals, the metaphor changes. And I can’t decide. Am I a goalie or the coach? The description of goalie and coach resonate with how I see myself as a missionary.
A missionary like a soccer (or hockey) goalie is not up the front pushing play forward and scoring goals. They’re not making the new developments happen. They’re more like the back stop. To even mix metaphors, we could say we deal with the tricky things in the expression “let that one go through to the keeper” (yes I realise that’s for cricket). A soccer goalie has different resources. They can use their hands. We come with a different perspective and different training. However, a goalie is limited. Outside the box they are just like any other player. In fact it’s better for them to not leave too much. This “contained to a box” feeling echoes my ability to travel round. I’m not as useful on the go as I am in my one spot. You could say that a goalie has limited mobility (in a ministry or vocation perspective, not just physical mobility) and that’s how I see my experience. Further a goalie has a different perspective on the action and is able to lead and direct, but not as coach or captain. The goalies main job is to stop goals. This could be described as a defensive stance or protective and again this resonates with what I’m doing in Cambodia. There are many things about a goalie that resonate with my missiology.
But coach also resonates in a different but similar way. A coach has a specific role that is different from the team. They can’t make the players play, they are an assistant to the players. A coach, when they are at their best, is neither doing too little or too much in how they lead, direct or manage the team. And their very inability to get too involved in the actual play feels like a helpful way to look at mission from one perspective. And in the end the glory often (and rightly so) goes to the players. The coach is valuable, but they have their limitations.
The emphasis on limitations helps me to find my spot as a missionary (whether as a goalie missionary or coach missionary) and it speaks to the vulnerable mission thoughts that I’ve mentioned at other places (here, here and here).
When we were living in Cambodia, what did we miss the most from Australia? Of course family and friends is what we missed the most. Close to this was the beauty of Australia. But on a more trivial nature I missed the cold. I joke that in my time back in Australia I’m going to freeze my body temp to 10 degrees Celsius and then spend the next term in Cambodia thawing in the humidity. Though I don’t think the freezing would last that long. I missed the cold so much, I wrote a poem about it.
I also missed driving. We weren’t ready to drive in Cambodia when we first arrived. But having driven for almost 20 years, it was a skill that I missed every now and then. The other thing I missed I never would have thought I would miss until I did. That is communicating with ease. Learning a new language is hard. Using that new language is hard. I did improve in the three years that we were there. And yet still, communicating takes so much work and is fraught with so many issues. Now of course we have issues with communicating in our own language all the time. There are frequent miscommunications. But there are a bunch of interactions that are just simple and easy. Hello! How are you? Can I please have ….? (when at a store). Imagine those simple interactions being hard. They were. Or to order something and not be sure what will come out. One time I tried to order 3 eggs, and 9 eggs came out. Some friends affectionately call me ‘Craigy nine eggs’ now as a result. When even simple conversations are tricky, you miss communicating with ease. This is even without going into all the shared culture that you have with people from your home culture as I spoke about last post.
This is not the first time I’ve got this hand hold wrong. I think I have photographic evidence another time as well. Do you know what it stands for? Its not the standard V shape that you make with your 2nd and 3rd finger. Its not a symbol for money like I originally thought it was (and like my hand hold assumes). It is, as far as I know, a symbol for love: a heart. Contextually, it makes sense: a wedding.
I don’t think I realised how little culture I knew til I was back in a culture I knew well. Granted, I knew that it would take years to learn some culture and I’d still be only scratching the surface. But you don’t realise the storehouse of culture that we imbibe from our home culture. Decades of exposure, compared to a shallow immersion in Khmer culture.
In my home country I understand clothing trends: jean styles moving from bell-bottoms to bleached to straight to tight to so-ripped-there-is-barely-any-jean-material-left. I’m not even a fashion expert, and I know that basic transition. I would have no idea of the current clothing trends in Cambodia or where they have been or where they are going in Cambodia. I feel the lack of culture even more in relation to movies and songs. Being back in Australia and being able to reference lines from movies we share in common like “I’ll be back” or “How’s the serenity” without a strange look of “What did you just say?” Or being able to start a line and not need to finish it, like, “From little things ….”
Does this make me feel despondent, the shallow nature of my cultural understanding in Cambodia? Nah. Does that mean I just feel like giving up? Nah. Two things. I appreciate more my Australian culture and the depth that I have there. And I look forward to days, not when I can know all the cultural references made in a conversation down to the last proverb, but when I can share some of them with my Cambodian friends. The beauty of sharing a joke together. It seems to me that culture is a form of sharing.
Warning: This is a more abstract reflection on being a missionary
Before leaving for Cambodia I did a brief seminar on my thoughts on immersion and connection as a missionary as a sort of thought experiment of what it would be like to be a missionary in a new place, seeking to get to know (immersion) while also being known in another place (connection). Towards the end of my first 3 year term in Cambodia I wrote a post summing up my thoughts in this regard.
One of the surprises of first term was where we ended up on my made-up immersion/connection spectrum. In short: not as immersed as I thought. Now, as I reflect on that, I can see lots of reasons why. The main reason is captured in the missiology language of insider and outsider. I think the goal is to move towards being like an insider in a new culture (for us, Cambodia). What’s interesting is how far you can actually move towards being an insider. Of course, you can never be a true insider of a new culture, even if you’ve been there for yonks. There will always be a sort of distance.
But I don’t think that distance is wrong. In fact, in some ways, its necessary. One of the necessities of mission (exemplified in the CMS model of mission) is that we do it in partnership. We are sent. We are not lone rangers. We are part of a fellowship. That requires communication or connection. As you communicate, what you have to do is step back from experiencing in order to observe and document and describe. That distance is necessary in communicating with others, but it changes your stance toward the new culture. Again, not that distance is bad. We don’t say that a doctor should not have distance when they treat patients. In fact, some distance is necessary to be a good doctor. A good teacher has distance as they have to be able to see the whole in order to rightly teach the next step. Mission today requires more partner experience. We see this in the nature of mission communication. Not only is it prayer points that should be sent monthly, but videos, pictures, media that enables or assists partners, in some way, experiencing what the missionary experiences. In this sort of partnership model, there is a movement from the immersion of the missionary to the immersion of the partner.
Living in Cambodia as a foreigner is like living with two personalities. It’s like living as a king and pauper at the same time.
Very aware of how much money we have as westerners as we ride past kids working instead of going to school, or when the street sweeper is so glad for your empty cans. In our daily life we are confronted with how much we have and how little others have. Why do we feel frustrated at losing 50 cents when really we can handle it? There are so many here with so little. Even the growing middle class here has a vastly reduced spending power compared to us Westerners. Our daily experience shows us a reality that is harder to see living in Australia. That is, our wealth.
Yet, in that same breath, we are living off less than we did in Australia. We are able to do less here than we would in Australia. We hear from friends and family and all that they are doing. So, while we are confronted with our wealth, we also are conflicted with memories and experiences of having more in Australia.
This perspective, living with both lots of money and with less, is a blessing because it’s a challenge. Particularly, this is seen in killing the unnecessary want to have more and more or to acquire the new and better things that I find myself more easily seduced by back in Australia. When others around me don’t have as much, it helps me to not want as much either. I’m able to see more clearly the ridiculousness and lie of materialism. So the blessing of living in Cambodia is that it rightly forces me to think through what we have and what we value.
I know that it will be hard to keep this perspective in our return. I hope I can, to some extent. But this perspective has been strengthened by living in a place with less. Leaving a place of less, and heading to a place of more, will make it harder to be challenged in this same way.
One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.
Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.
Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.
Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”
Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.
So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.
As we come closer to coming home for a decent time, one thing that changes is how we look at life in Cambodia. Life in some ways doesn’t change. Cambodia doesn’t change. But the way we view it changes.
I remember early on in our time here in Cambodia, I was taking a tuktuk home and I was just overwhelmed by all the “new” I was experiencing. That tuktuk ride I stuck my head in a book to limit the new. Fast forward to a week ago, I noticed myself thinking about how we wouldn’t be around for a while and how we’d gotten used to life here. As a result of that thought, as I rode on my bike, I was looking at all the things, thinking about how I wouldn’t see them for a while. What had once caused me to hide was now something that I could handle, I was trying to take it all in.
Because of transition, my view on things had changed. If we’d just stayed on here without a break, I would not have noticed the same things. But, with the upcoming flight, my perspective had changed, my awareness of Cambodian life was different in the face of transition. In transition we are given the gift of reflection, and we are also given the gift of awareness; a similar awareness found when we reflect on the passage or speed of time in general.
One area that this awareness particularly impinges on is around friendships. Missionary friendships are in some ways different from friendships in home countries. What unites us is often a similar purpose, even if we are from different organisations or backgrounds. This unity often leads to friendships becoming closer quicker than they would elsewhere. But part of the pain of transitions is the awareness of relationships that have gotten close quickly in a context of fluid relationships; where people come and go more than they do in other places. This same awareness will come to us again in the opposite direction as we return from Australia to Cambodia. But right now, transition heightens my awareness in Cambodia (even as my head moves toward Australia).
One of the things I associate with transition is hassle. There’s the packing up. There’s the stress. There’s the actual transition. And then there’s the time once you arrive where it’s just slow in setting up and settling in. To those of us (like me) who are focused around efficiency, transition feels anything but efficient. Now of course transitions for missionaries are much more efficient than they used to be; spending 6 months on a boat travelling from one destination to another. With flights, transition is now much more compact, but still feels hard. The stress at either end is tiring. So it’s easy to see why the prospect of transition feels daunting.
However, I came across this other idea (not sure how). Not only that transition as a hassle, but transition as gift. The gift comes if you use it properly. Transition provides a neat boundary that normal day to day life doesn’t necessarily have. There is a clear beginning and end on a regular basis (like from term to term). The value of this clear boundary is the ability to wrap up one season with reflection. With this first term in Cambodia coming to an end there is an up-coming transition. I’m able to think back about the last three years and reflect on it. This helps me to learn from my time, but also helps me to transition as I get closure on what has occurred. When I’ve done this reflection before a holiday (like last year before our Chiang Mai time) it has also helped me to rest on that holiday having sorted through some issues before seeking down-time. So I find my rest is better having reflected.
For this next transition from Cambodia to Australia, while there will be some rest, there will be tough parts as we say goodbyes, settle in to a familiar, but in other ways unfamiliar place (given the changes that have occurred to us in this last three years). So reflecting well on what has been, this first term in Cambodia, will help me transition better. In that sense transitions provide a unique gift to us in terms of providing us with obvious points to reflect and think about what has gone before and what lies ahead.