It’s been a while. Apart from our latest post, the post before that was one we did from Australia in 2020, before we knew our flights would be canceled, again. So what has been happening since then? This next series catches you up, not only on some of the details of our goings-on, but also adds in new cultural and missiological insights that we’ve picked up along the way. For those who receive our monthly updates, the beginning of this series will be a helpful reminder of our journey in recent years giving good context to where we are up to as well as going into details that we can’t always fit in our monthly updates. Hope you enjoy the ride.
Jenny Asks #1
Living in Cambodia, we’ve grown old eyes for a place we now know much better. Having a visitor helps us remember what it was like to be new and share a little bit more about the basics of our life. One of our next blog series comes from Jenny Kemp’s visit to Phnom Penh in 2022. She asked Sam some questions to help our family, friends and supporters back in Australia better understand what our lives are like in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. These are the first two questions.
Jenny: Tell me a bit about where you live and what it’s like.
Sam: We live between the Phnom Penh Bible School and Hope International school, each are a 7 minute drive. We live in a housing complex called a borey, which has a guarded boom gate at the entrance. Our borey has 6 streets, with many Cambodian, Chinese and expat families. We have lived here for 6 years, and there are many more Hope families here now than when we first moved in (American, NZ, Aussie, UK and Danish). The houses are mostly 3 storey brick villas, with 4 bedrooms, each with an ensuite. We have a tiled front yard with a gate. The houses are only 10-15 years old, but they are not well built, and things seem to break frequently. The borey has a grassy area with a dilapidated playground, trees that are great for climbing and there’s corner store at the gate.
Jenny: What’s a typical shopping trip like?
Sam: My shopping list is complicated. I miss Coles and Woolies where I can buy everything I need for my weekly shop. Here I ride my bicycle to the supermarket near our house and buy some of the items, and ride home with about 3 bags, either in the basket or dangling off the handle bars. This is the supermarket pictured below. Then Craig or my house helper will buy fruit and veg from the market. I like to buy meat and dairy from an online store which delivers on a motorbike, either the same day or the next day. We buy nuts in bulk which also get delivered by moto. Every few weeks I try and go to one of the other big supermarkets to get the extra items on my list, eg probiotic yoghurt, vanilla essence, jars of sauce, shampoo, multi vitamins. The prices of identical items varies from store to store, so I also try to be thoughtful about which shops I go to first. The range of products available in each store varies month by month, so I need to be flexible in what I want to buy. It is a complicated process every week. I still have not had the courage to buy meat from the wet market!
Digital dep #14: Self-Growth in stability
Part of our decision to stay in Australia till January rather than attempt to return earlier was to prepare ourselves for the long term in Cambodia, in view of the disruption that COVID has been. Part of our rationale was giving our family stability for a little bit. During that time of stability we (Sam and I) were able to use that time to ‘grow ourselves up’ (the title from a book by Jenny Brown that we both love) or more specifically, work on ourselves in different ways.
The result of that working was that during the Term 3 holidays I reflected that I was ready to return. We were both rested and had grown in self-awareness. Both of these will help us as we start back in our second time around in Cambodia, and help us stay in the long term. Below are some of the things we’ve done and the way we’ve found them helpful.
Resilience insights: I was involved in a resilience training study. It was helpful to see that we can grow in resilience and that we often rely on previous forms of resilience that may or may not be helpful in new situations. I was able to see that resilience is related to our beliefs, practices and resources. For me it was particularly this third category, in how I spent my time and energy that provided me with insights about how best to grow my resilience. In the past I would normally just try and rise to the task (when massive things came along). While that’s needed in some ways, now I need to work much smarter as mission and family life mean that I can’t just up-my game, because I have been maxing out.
Marriage enrichment: Sam and I were enabled to participate in the Condie online marriage enrichment course (we’ve been able to be a part of their in person seminars twice before). This was helpful for us both, particularly in the very ordinary but profound insight of doing little things every day as the way to grow a marriage. Grand gestures are fine, but it’s about cultivating friendship and gentleness and staying connected with each other (particularly in stressful times like this year or when living in other cultures).
Family systems: I first came across Bowen’s Family System thinking at Moore college about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve dabbled a little (see the book I mentioned above). During this period we were able to put these insights to greater use as we delved into some situations more particularly with the help of a Family Systems counsellor. We picked up insights about how we function individually, but more importantly how our family functions as one ’emotional unit’. To quote Dr Robert Creech, from an online conference that I was enabled to participate in, the aim is to be the calmest person in the room. Now, while we can’t always be calm, the result of working on ourselves and our responses has effects on the units we are a part of (our families, staff teams or similar). In understanding ourselves more we can reduce the emotion that inevitably gets passed around in the groups we inhabit.
Those are just a taster of the insights we’ve gained from this time. These insights will set us up, not just for the long term in Cambodia, but the long term in life.
This post rounds off the series. Hope you’ve found it helpful. For me it provides a place for my consolidated thoughts, if I want to access them later. And in consolidating I’ve learnt and been reminded of a great many things that I have learnt already. It’ll be interesting to see what the next blog post series is from our second term in Cambodia.
Digital dep #13: The 2mth crazies
Missionary friends of ours (Arthur and Tamie Davis) have shared with us quite wisely that 2 months out from a transition (a move overseas for us) there is a change in dynamics. Craziness happens. Parents and children are both more stressed, easily agitated and so not functioning well. This change in functioning is both a grieving of leaving as well as an excitement about the next. This change in functioning is often combined with not sleeping as well and increased workload in preparations. Also people want to see you and you want to see people before you leave. The result is that this time is pretty crazy. In terms of my goals for my work, I need to learn to halve them and give myself and my family grace in this time.
As I reflect, part of the stress comes from pressure. The finality of the transition (compared to another year of more of the same) adds pressure to the now (the time just before leaving), both in terms of leaving well but also in terms (particularly for me and my personality) wanting to do too much in and with the time left. While at the same time, my head is more in imagining zone about our time in Cambodia, further taking any leftover brain space from preparations to leave. Pressure feels like it captures this period in a really visceral way, where our body is affected by this transition time. I’ve noticed myself being a bit more physically jittery (symptoms like heart racing at random times). My physio brain knows that muscle twitches like this further add to physical tiredness along with everything else.
This two month period is mirrored on arrival and so it helps me to set my expectations right for once we get there. We want to reconnect. There’s the reconnection of admin and all those start up jobs in a new place (or in a place you haven’t been to for a while). There’s the reconnection of relationships. When you first go to a new place, relationships from your home culture provide support while you build new relationships in your new location. This time, while relationships from Australia are closer given the time we’ve spent here, we’ve got good relationships that we head back to in Cambodia and so there is a sorting out how to give time to relationships in both locations; staying in touch with family and friends as you slowly disconnect and re-settling into the supportive relationship network that we have there.
Digital dep #12: Comparing digital dep to regular dep
In some ways we’ve had two different deputation experiences this time in Australia. We’ve had the face-to-face church visit and the digital church visit. As I reflect on what the digital church visit is like, you’ll hopefully get a sense of how it was different for us compared to face-to-face.
On the positives of digital deputation, a zoom or similar format allows both spouses to be able to attend instead of one having to stay home with the kids. Further, zoom provides an interesting format for seminars or Q&A, where people can write their questions. I think we got onto a good format when we had someone fielding the questions and then asking us, like a host. The now normality of zoom or team catch ups means that there can be many meetings without having to travel and that are easily organised. This is helpful when partner churches are a fair distance and enables conversations without travel. It even allows you to be in two places at once, with a pre-recorded sermon for two different churches. The other thing we found about the digital side of things is that signing up for prayer letters online is easier, as people are already on the device and can sign up while the session is on (especially if you allow extra time for this).
On the other side, the negative, it is easy to get zoom exhaustion, feeling “zoomed out”. Over the screen, there is much more energy required for various reasons that is different from when you’re in person. There’s less feedback and you’re always feeling ‘on’. Basically you pour a lot more energy in and don’t get it back in the same way. The technology can be distracting, when there are sound or video issues, or the device is low on battery. The other thing we missed was the chats that occur before and after events, which are much easier to do as you’re milling in person, than milling online. Night zoom seminars means that you’re on screens till late and its harder than Bible study till late because of the screen lighting. Digitally we can’t see as many people as we could in person so we miss out on encouragement and those without technology miss out too. This also occurs because you have to keep things much shorter online as people can only handle so much on a screen, so our sharing is condensed.
With those positives and negatives, I hope next deputation we’ll be able to do it all in person. Though I’m thankful for the technology that enabled digital deputation, in the place of what would have been nothing during COVID. We certainly couldn’t have done this 10 years ago.
Digital dep #11: Language update
It might seem strange that I’m giving an update on where my language is up to while here in Australia at the end of 2020. But actually my language ability has changed, or at least that’s the theory. So a quick summary of where I was up to, then my deputation language learning plan and the results (or hoped for results).
Where I was up to when we returned to Australia at the end of 2019 (feels so long ago now): On arriving in Cambodia for the first time with no Khmer in January 2017, my aim was to attempt to teach the Bible in Khmer, but I was unsure of the timeline. I thought maybe a year of learning Khmer would get me to basic conversations. My first term of learning Khmer involved 1 year of full time language school, then independent language learning till I began teaching at the end 2018. This pace of language learning was only possible with Sam’s help. In that sense I don’t consider my skills an individual but team achievement. In fact, this also includes the support of the wider CMS partnership who has freed me up to focus solely on learning Khmer.
The result was after 4mths I could hear conjunctions and some words. After 8mths I could guess the topic of conversation. After 1 year I was not close to basic conversations like I thought. After 14mths I could get the main point of conversation, but interactions were often minimal, because it’s hard to keep asking friends the basic questions, like their age (even though this is not taboo in Cambodia). My skills moved on to seeking out more conversation with how’s the weather questions in the middle of my second year of learning Khmer.
However, I needed to move to teaching preparation by this stage, so learning Khmer came through making teaching materials for teaching the Old Testament. Two quick reflections on learning Khmer. The first is a more general reflection. To learn language well you need to set up situations where you have comprehensible input. That is, you are familiar with a specific context or text up to about 80% of the words. That 20% left over is the new stuff that you want to add into your repertoire. This is hard work finding situations of comprehensible input, but makes learning possible. The second reflection relates to the language resources in Cambodia. I went to an excellent language school. However, when compared with Mandarin or Arabic, Khmer doesn’t have the language resources like these languages because it doesn’t have the speakers (20 million or so compared with billions or whatever number it is). This makes Khmer language resources trickier to come by.
By the end of our first term, I was teaching the OT in Khmer; a quicker timeline than we had thought. On reflection, teaching in Khmer was a brilliant way to help me learn Khmer. This post gives you a sense of where I was up to as I began teaching.
On return to Australia at the end of 2019 we intentionally had a break from Khmer. The rationale being that just like athletes need to rest from sport, so language learners need to rest from language. There is even scientific support (I think) that in the same way that when an athlete rests from their sport, their muscle memory gets a chance to move a particular skill into a more automatic region of the brain, this same benefit occurs in language learners. So my hope was that resting from Khmer would help to make it more automatic when I pick it up again. Of course there will be rustiness, but the second time you learn a skill you learn it quicker.
With our extended stay in Australia I’ve returned to Khmer through vocab cards (ANKI is the best) and through Khmer soaps. Soap operas provide great comprehensible input as I shared above and it means that I can do my language learning by watching YouTube.
My plan for our second term serving in Cambodia is that I want to build on 1st term skills by improving my listening and my ability to use local phrases and expressions, not just the Khmenglish of my 1st term. Having said that my assumption is I’ll always carry around some Khmenglish, regardless of how ‘fluent’ I become.
Digital dep #10: Feelings between 1st and 2nd term
This post comes from the video that we did for Mission up Close with CMS in June. You can either watch it or read the summary below.
What’s it like preparing to go back to Cambodia for a second time, our second term? We were excited to be going to Cambodia for the first time and we’re excited to be returning for a second time. But the excitement is different. In the first term, there was so much new and ‘for the first time’ excitement. We didn’t know if they would let us in on arrival. We had little local knowledge and even less language. Thankfully we had some great support from other CMS families. There was uncertainty about how long it would take us to pick up Khmer, or when it would be best to start teaching at the Bible school. So the excitement of the first term was the excitement of all the new. There was a lot of tiredness related to the new too.
Second time around, there is excitement. But it’s the excitement of the familiar. Returning and being able to have decent conversations in Khmer, getting to a greater relational depth and understanding of the culture. Returning to good friends and to an area that we know well now. And on the flip side looking forward to returning and not having the major start up in language learning that we had in the first term. Enjoying the wins of improving in a language that we already have some skills in (though rusty at the moment). As I say in the video, learning in a less intense way.
Sometimes the familiar gets a bad wrap, particularly as we long for the new or the unfamiliar. And yet, sometimes it’s through the familiar that we find the truly new; coming to a deeper understanding (and so ‘new’) of what we already know. As a tourist, yes, you see lots of new places. As you stay in one ‘new’ place longer, it becomes new in a way that you never could know if it wasn’t familiar. You could say there’s more new in the familiar than there is in the new. For me the excitement of the familiar over the excitement of the ‘new’ is my preference at the moment.
Digital dep #9: Missionary corona grief
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.
Digital dep #8: The Cambodian church
This is my understanding of the Cambodian church from my short time there. I checked it with a close Khmer Christian friend:
The Cambodian church began through French missionaries. While there was some growth of the Cambodian church before the Khmer Rouge, surprisingly, post-Khmer Rouge has seen an exponential growth in the Cambodian church. The main reason for this surprise is that the Khmer Rouge targeted and killed those with an education. This included a lot of church leaders. Since the Khmer Rouge ended (nearly 30 years ago), the then small church has grown rapidly to be now about 3% of the 16 million people living in Buddhist Cambodia. A lot of this growth has come through the Pentecostal denomination. This growth is quick, particularly when you compare it with other countries in the region where the church is not growing as quickly. One possible reason for this growth is the openness that Cambodia has shown to outsiders, given its need for assistance following the civil war. However, with quick growth in the church comes two problems; division and false teaching. One senior leader also sees a real need arising because many Khmer Christians don’t have much sense of what it means to be a committed follower of Jesus.
These are some of the issues that the Cambodian church faces. This is further compounded by the need for educated leadership. Cambodia’s young population (around 50% under the age of 22), combined with the leadership vacuum created by the war, has affected society and the church. Also, the average level of education in Cambodia also provides further challenges for leaders and churches.
To read more about the Khmer rouge, a series I wrote on Cambodia before we left is available here, here, here, here, and here.
Digital dep #7: Learning local language is selfish
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.
What do you think?