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.

Settling in: #3. Decisions galore

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A major intersection near where I study. Which way should I go? Decisions, decisions.

Yes, there’s choice paralysis in Australia too. But there is a new stress to making choices in a new country. As you settle-in in a new country you’re constantly having to make all these decisions about how you’ll live; not only where you’ll live, but how you’ll set up your house. Do you set it up to be friendly to local friends or as a sanctuary for the family? What should you do about transportation? A car may be cheaper and safer, but are they the only criteria?

For those who don’t mind what others think, these decisions don’t have as much weight. But for those who do consider what others will think, this is one of the harder things about moving to a new country. You’re never sure what impact the choices you make will have on others. You have more certainty in the country you’re from as you know the culture and how people think. But in a new country, you have mostly no idea how people are going to interpret what you do.

Added to this is that you not only have the local community to keep in mind, but you have a international community (expats) to keep in mind. Expats can be a source of help as you settle in. But here’s the catch. Each person/family has come from a different place, with different backgrounds and different experiences, with different purposes and length of stay in this new country. The range of choices people make are from one end of the spectrum to the other. This means that you’re having to sift through every bit of advice and try and interpret it for yourself.

In the beginning there are many decisions to be made. Eventually, the number of decisions to be made slows down. But you are very aware of each new decision that you make, and begin to deal with the unseen consequences of earlier choices. Again, in some way this isn’t much different from doing life in your own country. But settling-in in a new country means you’re making a lot of these choices all at once and you’re doing it with less cultural awareness. So, in short, a condensed period of decision making brings to the fore the act of making decisions.

Settling in: #2. The joy of early wins

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My first wet night ride. Notice my poncho goes into my helmet; thongs/flip flops as essential wet weather footwear (essential footwear in heat as well); and the trail of water behind my bike–the water was easily 20cm deep on our street. Not even wet season yet. Oh yeah, that’s two pieces of trash floating along right there.

Who’d have ever thought riding at night in the rain in ankle deep water was a kick? Such is the joy of settling into a new place. Simple things can give you such great joy.

Have you ever started a new sport or hobby before? One of the joys of starting that sport or hobby is that in the early days you see lots of improvement. You make what seems like big wins.

I was a regular bike rider in Australia – both for recreation and transport. I loved it. But riding in a new place is a joy, an early win in a different way. Riding, to explore and have some independence in a place where you rely on others for transport–win. Riding, after your first fall (with minor cuts and scrapes) in a new country–win. Riding in the wet at night, not just in sprinkles, but in water almost up to your pedals–WIN.

After you’ve been playing or hobbying for a while, those early wins diminish slightly. But in the early days, they’re more regular, more visible and more joyful.

The joy of settling into a new country includes getting good at living in that new country. Completing simple tasks provides easy wins, like learning how to buy food, learning how to get around (particularly without a car or obvious form of transport), learning how to pay bills, or setting up a bank account. All these things come with a sense of satisfaction that you might not have in a country where you are able to do more things. In the context of very obvious inabilities (settling into a new country), growing abilities provide a great source of joy. Bring on the early wins!

New Series heads up: Settling in over first impressions

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The Wat near our house. It encapsulates the feeling of this post, BELOW.

‘First impressions’ or ‘Settling in’. I’ve had these two taglines rummaging around in my brain, peering at me from my notes when I make observations about myself or about Cambodia. Since before we arrived in Cambodia I’ve been hoping to do a series that gives you a sense of how it’s been for us in these early days. I kept coming back to these two phrases, again and again.

The more that I observed and reflected, the more these two phrases separated in my thinking. Early on they’d almost been synonymous. But as we’ve ‘settled in’ (so far) over these last three months they’ve taken on different meanings. This separation helps to explain where I’m currently at.

I wanted to give you a taste of what Cambodia is like for us, through our new eyes. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet. The more I reflect on our life here, the more I am able to talk about what we were experiencing. Yet at the same time I also feel less able to speak confidently about Cambodia. Not because I don’t like it here, but more because I want to give time to my observations and reflect some more before I make some of them public.1 The Wat (think temple, i.e., Angkor Wat; pictured on the flag above) near our house provides an apt illustration. We’re used to the Wat, we’re settled. However, I don’t feel I could really say much that is helpful about it, just yet. I hope to soon.

So… I feel I’m able to speak about our experience and how we’re going–settling in–in a way that has clarity and is hopefully helpful. Thus, I lean closer to the term ‘settling in’. ‘First impressions’ seems to require more local knowledge than I have yet to do it well; context sensitive.

So this first series will be about our settling in. There will be glimpses of Cambodia in this series, but mostly it will be about our experience in a new culture. In that sense, the learning will be more general than specific to Cambodia. Although I’m sure it’ll have a Cambodian flavour. So in this series you’ll hopefully get a sense of what it’s been like for us so far – some of the joys and challenges as we’ve settled in to Cambodia.


  1.  The proverb that has been running around in my head is ‘In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’ (Prov 18:17) Not that I feel I’ll be cross examined for what I say by others. This is more just a cross examining from my later ‘me’ (which is bound to happen anyway).