Digital dep #3: Culture as sharing

Do you know what that hand hold represents? I didn’t even get the hold right, let alone the meaning.

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.

Digital dep #2: Being there distantly.

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.

This is where my thoughts on the missionary as bridge seem to really resonate.

Love to hear your thoughts on this: parts that you agree or disagree with.

Digital deputation series.

This time last year I didn’t think I would be starting a new blog series from Australia. We had planned to be back in Cambodia by now. COVID has changed many things for many people. As a result, we’re still in Australia. But we’re aiming at returning to Cambodia in January.

COVID also changed our time here. While we were able to visit all our partner churches, over half of our church visits were done digitally. We were flying by the seat of our pants with this digital deputation as churches were coming to terms with what church looked like in these crazy times. One week, I couldn’t have told you what Zoom was. A month later I used it almost daily.

One consequence for us is that we didn’t get to share with as many people as we would have liked about our time in Cambodia. Further, even when we did share, we didn’t have the same opportunity that you would normally have to go a bit deeper when you are face to face.

To try and remedy that lack of connection, this blog series will cover some of the things we shared about in our church visits. It will also help us consolidate our thoughts as we gear up for our second term in Cambodia early next year.

Questions please…

I used this photo from an earlier blog. 10 points if you can find the title for the previous post.

Ladies and gentlemen, lend me your questions.

We’re looking forward to catching up with many of you in person this home assignment in Australia. In order to assist us I would love it if you could share questions that you may ask us in person, prior to us meeting in person. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask us these questions in person. But if I’ve thought about these questions and have a few answers prepared pre-conversation I’m likely to give a better answer.

My thought is also to blog a few FAQ, not to detract from being asked these in person, but so that we can go deeper together in our experience of Cambodia as we share about our time there. This is essentially a strategy to strengthen our partnership together.

Questions about anything, welcome. Questions about family life, about language, about Cambodia, about anything else related.

So without further adieu, I’ve loved to hear any questions you may have from our first term in Cambodia. Send them to me anyway; comments below, an email, facebook or other.

Fire away.

End of 1st term language update

The kids bible (aimed at roughly 10yr olds) is easier reading for me whereas reading a simple Khmer version of the Bible (the Message standard) takes more effort.

So where am I up to in learning Khmer as I edge towards the end of our first 3 year term here in Cambodia?

From my point of view, I feel like I speak like a 6 year old with a slightly larger vocabulary (although, my vocab is heavily weighted towards theological words). I have just finished the academic year teaching at Phnom Penh Bible School in Khmer. Teaching Old Testament subjects this last year has greatly assisted my language skills, not only with vocabulary, but with lots of practice in speaking and listening. I feel like my reading is still ahead of my speaking. I feel like I’m able to read literature that an average 9 year old could read.

What my current language abilities means for straight forward conversations is that I go in fairly confident of decent success. Success for me in language at the moment is not so much about getting perfect pronunciation or understanding every detail (although, this is good if I can). Success for me is about outcome. Is there successful communication? If I have understood what is being communicated or they have understood what I am communicating that is more important than the specific language skills like pronunciation. Communication is how I measure language success at the moment.

A focus on language outcome (communication) over language skills is like team sports for me. You can have an all star team and still bomb out, because no one can work together. Conversely, you can have a team full of average players that absolutely kills it because they all work together well. This is what I’m going for. While I’d love to have a few all stars in my language abilities, I’m much more concerned about how everything is working together and the result. If I come out with a win (comprehension or communication) that’s what matters to me.

So I’m certainly more able at Khmer than I was 2 1/2 years ago. However, my expectations have also grown. Although I can do some things in Khmer, I still desire to go deeper. I still get to conversations and places in conversations where I want the ability to say more or understand more but can’t because I don’t have the vocab or ability to use that vocab or the cultural understanding that comes with years of living in a place. So my expectations for myself have moved on from where they used to be and as always they are ahead of my actual abilities.

BUT I am trying to take the big picture stance, which is that I’m very content with where my Khmer is up to for my first term; I’m thankful for where I am as I look forward to more growth and improvement in the years to come.

No-longer New: #2. Heat Acclimatised?

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Can you imagine sledding in South East Asia?

Coming to Cambodia one of my biggest concerns was how we’d fare with the heat. More specifically is how we’d cope with the humidity. Obviously, I’d come from a place that was significantly hot. But humidity and constant heat were the new factors. Before we came someone described coping with the humidity and they likened it to Sydney traffic (for those not familiar with Sydney traffic, think either scary or jammed). They said the heat is like Sydney traffic, you never get used to it, you just learn to live with it.

So far, this has been our experience. We’ve learned to live with it and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how we’ve gone in this aspect. Now don’t get me wrong, on those hot days when there is no power my energy levels plummet and my crankiness skyrockets. But generally, life is doable in Cambodian heat.

What do I put this down to? Part of me surviving in the heat is probably due to my tennis background. Tennis being a summer sport and fairly vigorous, I’m not unaccustomed to heat or hot places or expending energy in the heat. But a second factor has probably been how we’ve sought to set up our lives in Cambodia. Part of our1 strategy has been to limit air-conditioning use. Sure, there’s a financial (and environmental) benefit here as well, but one of the benefits is missiological (Previously I’ve discussed other missiological reasons for why I ride). Not using A/C too much helps us get out more and helps us not feel a huge disparity between our house temp and outside temp (which also limits heat rash). My riding a bike is also another significant way that I’ve gotten used to the heat. On top of this there are plenty of other strategies like taking a cold shower, or a cold shower then standing in front of a fan, through to lying on the floor as the tiles are cooler, and then more cold showers. And many of our drinks now have ice. Don’t know if I’m fully Cambodian yet… while I’ll sometimes have ice in my beer, I won’t always.

So these strategies have helped us settle in to the heat, to the point where this January we found that it was sometimes too cold to swim. That’s crazy for two reasons. First, January in Australia is peak swimming season, but it’s the cooler part of the year in Cambodia. Second, when we arrived last year (in January) we went swimming all the time because of the heat. Now we’ll probably just wait till the hotter heat.

One funny story to finish. Last year, about this time, a letter came home from our kids school saying that due to the cool mornings (think 18-21 degrees Celsius), the students should wear beanies, jackets and gloves to school in the morning. Sam and I couldn’t believe it, and laughed at the thought, while continuing to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Fast forward one year, and as our kids are getting on the bus they ask for a jumper to go with their long pants. We just had to laugh at how things have changed in just one year.


  1. I say this very un-prescriptively. This is not the only way to do heat acclimatisation. Its just the way that we’ve attempted it. There are many other ways to live and survive in Cambodian heat. 

Settling in: Still settling in

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Feed the birds, mboan a bag. Mboan, mboan, mboan a bag. A family day out playing in the park in front of the palace

Hopefully this series has given you some sense of what our time has been like in Cambodia so far. It hasn’t been Cambodia-details rich, but hopefully sense rich. That is, hopefully it’s given you a sense of the ups and downs of settling in here–the joys and challenges. The joys have come from the new and also the not so new. The joys have even come from and through the challenges, amidst our indecision, our comparisons and our confusion. Some of these challenges recede in importance as our language improves, though the journey is slow.

We don’t feel new anymore. If you think about it on a scale, there are tourists, expats and locals. We’ve definitely moved on from tourist and we’re in the heart of expat land as we seek to improve our language through the ups and downs of language learning. We’re not out of the “honeymoon phase”, just yet. But we may be soon.

Following the great advice we were given during our missionary training in Melbourne, we are taking a break from language learning and Cambodia and heading to a nearby country for some much needed R&R. Stay tuned in August for a new blog series on our time in Cambodia.

For a heads up on when that series starts, sign up to receive an email alert by clicking the ‘Follow’ button on the right side of our blog home page.

 

 

Settling in: #8. Language ability update

Below is a visual representation of what I heard when someone is speaking to me in Khmer about a month ago:

Blah blah blah blah blah BUT… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ME… blah blah blah blah SO… blah blah blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah DAY… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

Have you figured out what the above paragraph is about??? Me either.

A month later (now) it’s more like this:

Blah FATHER blah blah blah BUT… blah DEAD blah EXCITED blah blah MONEY blah ME… blah JESUS blah blah SO… blah SAD blah blah blah YEAR… blah blah blah blah blah GOD blah blah blah DAY… blah blah LOVE blah blah (I THINK HE SAID TEACH) blah blah blah blah blah THANK YOU.

So its been about four months of full time language learning. Where are we up to? Well, in one sense, “not far” is the short and obvious answer. But in another sense, we’re exactly where we should be in learning the language. I’ve just started learning the Khmer alphabet a few weeks ago. Our language learning centre has emphasised listening and speaking first, to enter into the language and culture more verbally through conversation–speaking and listening. This approach is in contrast to a method that begins more through books–reading and writing. Neither is necessarily more right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.1 One strength of this method is that we are both often complimented on our pronunciation.

Our language classes have been working at growing our capacity to speak and to listen. So what does that look like? With speaking, we’ve gone from no ability to being able to ask simple questions in order to get to know people. And recently we’ve been able to ask simple requests from our house helper and tuttuk driver, or even say thank you for particular jobs that our house helper is doing.

This has made a huge difference. For one, the other day I understood when our house helper asked to come in early and finish early because she wanted to go somewhere. I worked out the next day that it was to a family wedding. So there are improvements in our langauge, of which I couldn’t have done that even a month ago. With our tuktuk driver, we can organize pickup and drop off times in person and on the phone, as well as interact in little conversations about how we are going.

An example of our listening ability is to a sermon in church. I’ve gone from no word recognition to understanding about 1 in every 20-30 words and probably more now. Unfortunately, they are mostly just connecting words like ‘but’ or ‘I’ or other simple words that don’t really give the sense of what is being said (like the above visual representation). But even this is a cool win. There are many times when our house helper or someone similar mistakes how much language we have and go off into a very long winded and fast description… and I’m left just nodding saying ‘Yes’ (‘baht’ for boys, ‘ja’ for girls) though I have no idea what she said. Hopefully, it’s nothing too important…

At our language school we’re at the level of ‘survival Khmer’ or just above–enough Khmer to get around Cambodia doing basic tasks. By early next year I am hoping to be able to have moderately deep conversations, delving further into relationships. As far as writing and reading, my best guess is that our language centre emphasised speaking and listening first so that we could be growing that skill while we do the long and arduous task of learning the alphabet and putting those letters into words. So while reading and writing will come later this year, that hasn’t stalled us communicating and building our vocabulary from verbal means.

One encouragement we have had in learning Khmer is that many of our Cambodian friends are surprised with how well we are doing learning Khmer. The context in Cambodia is that many foreigners pick up only a little Khmer or none at all (even after many years of living here). Our efforts in learning Khmer are often appreciated by those we meet.


  1. I think one of the advantages going into a language orally is that you are more dependent on people in your host country guiding you. I feel like this is a more ‘bodily’ entrance into a culture as opposed to a more intellectual approach that you might get through books. With books you are more the guide. But with people it is much more obvious who the guide is. Hopefully the end result is that we not only can speak Khmer, but we develop similar mannerisms and habits to really inhabit Khmer culture. But who knows? 

Settling in: #6. Ambiguity tolerance

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What does this sign mean? I have no idea, despite using the road everyday. This is me exercising some ambiguity tolerance. (BTW my confused face looks a lot like my undecided face)

I remember hearing the phrase “ambiguity tolerance” in training down in Melbourne. Then, on the first day of language class here in Cambodia, our teacher shared that good language learners are those who have ambiguity tolerance (or who work on having good ambiguity tolerance). That is, there’s much that we don’t know. But if we stop to try to understand every single detail before acting–or speaking, in the case of language learning–then we won’t get very far without being constantly frustrated.

I think what this looks like in a new culture is that we’re acting or speaking without knowing the full extent of what we are doing or saying. For example, in just using our favourite and usual tuktuk driver are we being loyal to him or showing an unhealthy favouritism in a collective culture? We’re just never really sure what our actions are saying or the effect they are having on others.

Now, this is actually how we ALL live, all the time, whether overseas or not. But this fact is highlighted more in a place where you know very little about the culture. Sometimes I do well at tolerating ambiguity. At these times, ambiguity tolerance enables me to relax, given I’m not going to have all the info I need before making decisions. At other times, the ambiguity is harder to deal with. Here’s one example:

My tuktuk driver said something to me and I had no idea what he said. He’d been driving us most places, most days for close to a month. We were seeing each other a lot; some days I would be in the tuktuk for 3 hours. I had started speaking in very poor beginner Khmer to him. He often said things to me that I didn’t understand, but I usually nod to be polite (a fairly usual pattern for us here in Cambodia). This particular day was a Friday and I didn’t think too much of it.

Anyway, the following Monday, one of his tuktuk driver friends showed up instead of him. I thought, ‘he must have just wanted a day off or had something to do’. A few days went by and the friend kept coming, not our usual tuktuk driver. I started to wonder whether he’d told me something important on that Friday. Was he displeased with us? Were we paying him enough? Was he going to come back? Did we have conflict I was unaware of? I wasn’t being tolerant to this ambiguity, and it was affecting my tolerance in other areas of life here.

I didn’t realise how much the ambiguity was affecting me until the 4th day when the tuktuk driver was late coming to pick us up. I started to hope. My regular tuktuk driver was often late, but his friend was always early. When I heard the tuktuk driver come down the street late, I was hoping it would be him (one of those times when you’re happy someone is late). And it was. My friend was back! I was so happy. I was happy because he was back. But I was also happy because the ambiguity of that situation was resolved. Unfortunately I couldn’t really tell him why I was happy.

This is just a small example of ambiguity tolerance. But this is one of the main ongoing lessons of living here so far. To survive in a new place, I’ll need to grow my ambiguity tolerance.

Settling in: #5. Growing familiarity

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Our very ‘familiar’ family time is at a hotel that has a pool and cafe for treats.

Even in a short time it’s amazing how a foreign place can start to feel familiar. The school run, though only doing it for a few months, feels very familiar. Our route to language school also feels very familiar. The Khmer meals that our house helper cooks are less new and different and there are now some meals that we get very excited about when she is making them. And we’ve gotten used to living in our Cambodian house; each week it feels more and more like home.

This was brought home (hehe) to me a couple of weeks back. We managed to get out of Phnom Penh for the first time since we arrived in January. We couldn’t have done it without our good friends (locals) who helped us experience some more of Cambodia. But it was on the return trip that something struck me: We were returning ‘home’ to something familiar; familiar house and routine. We were coming home. There was a new sense in that word having left Phnom Penh for the first time and then return.

There’s still more to do and get used to in the house. There’s still much more to explore in Phnom Penh and much more to see in the countryside. Yet, its surprising how the different moves to familiar. With familiarity comes a joy and relaxedness. The stress hormones get a slight break and you’re able to function in a different way. In this sense, there’s not just joy in the new, but joy in the not-so-new as we settle into patterns and friendships that have enough history to make us feel like we’re not at square one. Things go from new to the new normal.