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

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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

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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

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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

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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. 

Transition ‘truths’: Series wrap up

As I look back over this series on transition, what springs to my attention is the many ways that I’m learning to learn. We learn from our actions for next time. We learn when we assume we should be teaching. We learn from our feelings and through our feelings. And we learn from mistakes – ours and others. This series has captured a few different ways or tools to help me learn. And the focus of this learning has been on the self, self awareness. But self-awareness on its own isn’t the goal.

Self-awareness goes hand in hand with other-awareness.

There is a wider goal in self-awareness than just getting to know one’s self. Learning about ourselves is part of learning about a new culture. As we’ve been speaking about going to Cambodia, we’ve used the language of learning; “we’re going to Cambodia as learners.” But we don’t just do our learning when we arrive. Part of our learning about Cambodia will come from our learning about ourselves. The self-awareness learning we’ve done in transition is ‘perfect’ preparation for learning a new culture.

See you in the next series.

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Transition ‘truths’: Three “I”s are better

In the previous post I reflected on our mistakes as opportunities for learning. But other’s mistakes also provide that potential as well. Obviously, we don’t learn from other’s mistakes in the same way as our own, but we can still learn. While it would be great to learn from other’s positive actions towards us, its often in people’s negative actions (of hurt or wronging) that provide fertile ground to reflect on ourselves, our personalities and culture.

Here’s an approach that I have found helpful and hope to use in Cambodia. As I reflect on another’s actions towards myself, I view it through Three “I”s and then ask, What do they do better? The first part of this approach contains three potential ways to summarise someone’s actions toward us. Sometimes (although, probably very rarely) people intend injury. Most of the time, their actions that hurt us come from either ignorance or incompetence.1 Generally, people don’t operate in the first “I”, but in the second two. What this reminds us to do is to lessen our reaction of injustice from “They’re out to get me,” to “They didn’t realise,” or “They couldn’t help it.” This is not to excuse their actions, but just to put them in perspective. It should also be said that ignorance and incompetence isn’t a full assessment of someone’s actions, but a catchy phrase to see wrong doings as unintentional rather than intentional. The second part of the approach is more positive. Everyone does things differently. Difference can be viewed as bad, but if we approach it as difference is a chance to see a better way, we may learn even in the process of being hurt or wronged. This should be obvious, but in the moment we easily forget.

These two approaches to other’s actions work well together. The first approach helps to take some of the heat out of our reactions towards what others do. With the heat reduced we may be able to take another look at what was done. The second reminds us that there are positives to the way someone else does something that we haven’t seen and that we can learn from. As we go to Cambodia, hopefully these two lenses will characterise our reflections as we process the different ways that people do things to us. Its often in the hard interactions that we learn about ourselves and others. Hopefully three “I”s are better will be the way we navigate our new culture.

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  1. This may seem like a harsh assessment, but the same is true for us, not just for others. The reality is that every single action that we do each day has elements of incompetence and ignorance in it. This is just our present reality as finite and fallen creatures. 

Transition ‘truths’: Freedom in failing

The other night I was taught some major lessons in a chess game with a good mate. My conqueror said, in loving instruction, “Keep an eye on the whole board and watch out for the forks.” As I peeled back the many layers of my competitive spirit, I found something odd underneath. Failures and mistakes are a chance to learn. I should know this implicitly and yet it came home to me in a new way. As I played chess a second and third time (still losing), I took those lessons with me. Mistakes and failures are a chance to learn and grow, an opportunity. If I’d been more concerned about my pride and focused on the results I would have missed the gold that is found in our mistakes and failures.

The importance of this reminder for me is timely as we move to Cambodia. I’ll move from a culture where I can delude myself that I’m not making any mistakes. That ability to deceive myself of my abilities will be destroyed in a culture where I will make many, many, many mistakes and fail in very obvious ways (often with the locals laughing at me in a lovely sort of way). Mistakes and failures as opportunities means there’s a freedom to our learning and living. Failures and mistakes aren’t obstacles, but opportunities. In this sense there’s a real freedom in failing.

God in his wisdom has set up being saved by grace so that, after being saved, we don’t exist in this life of perfection (or need to aim for it). Instead grace means the causal link between our lives and salvation is severed. We are freed to fail. Not to aim at failing, but freed when we do. Freed from the condemnation that one wrong move may cost our eternity, or that the sum of our good will be weighed against our bad. There is a wonderful recklessness that frees us up, not fearing our failures, but learning from them. I’ll need this reminder as we learn to be Cambodian – there are things to learn from my mistakes and failures.

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Transition ‘truths’: Who is more patient?

Who is more patient, a parent or their child? Being a parent, I’m easily inclined to go with where I’m at. That is, as a parent, we need to be patient with our kids. And there’s a truth to that. Kids are learning to control their emotions and we need to be patient as they grow in their own capacities.

Yet transition has brought a new perspective to me. As I’ve been thrown out of normal rhythms and routines, with the stress involved, I’ve noticed something else. My offspring are having to put up with a lot from me. I think I kid myself if I try to tell myself that I’m the patient one. They have to put up with plenty. They put up with my times of crankiness, the times I don’t come through with what I said and the times when I get super focused on something unimportant at their expense. And often they are patient without even realising it. Certainly there are times when they’ll chuck their tanties. But alongside these outbursts, they are also putting up with a fair bit from me. Who is more patient? There was a time when I would have said, parents, definitely. Now I’m not so sure.

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