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).
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.
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.
Turn the grief that you feel in saying goodbye into anger that is easily released on those closest to you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Say yes to more responsibilities in this time, because you can manage it 😉
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ↩
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.
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.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but curiosity can have life-giving results. Curiosity is not only useful when exploring new places or things, but it turns out that curiosity is a good way to explore ourselves as well. We see this particularly in relation to our feelings. Being curious about our feelings enables us to grow in our self-awareness; something which will be all too necessary for our family as we are thrust into a new culture and place, bringing with it a whole set of feelings.
Feelings in this case, are more than just a chemical reaction. They are bodily forms of knowledge.1 My main point is that feelings can function as sign posts. They can give us clues about what we are thinking and valuing. For example, feelings of anger may highlight that I feel like an injustice has been committed or they may point to a love that I didn’t know I have (or have to a such an intensity). Rather than quickly dismissing our anger, if we are curious about it we may learn new things about ourselves. Not only may we get more insight into the situation, but we can also learn about what we were thinking and valuing and we may even learn about what another person is thinking and valuing as well. Questions like, why did I react that way, or what does my anger tell me about ‘me’ may help draw out what is going on underneath or behind the scenes. Curiosity regarding our feelings can help shed light on who we are and what we love. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can be a useful approach to growing in self-awareness.
For a concise summary of four current models on the interaction of feelings and thought, see Mark Wynn’s book Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding: Integrating Perception, Conception and Feeling, particularly p.107. ↩