Our home assignment in 2020 had two unexpected challenges. Home assignment is hard enough without extra challenges (that’s why we call it an assignment, it’s not a holiday). Both these challenges related to COVID and they both involved waiting. COVID made life hard in general, this included our church visits in the first half of 2020. We went from meeting in person to meeting online in a split second. Talk about whiplash. Then came the difficult news when our June flights to Cambodia were canceled.
Our first challenge was how to proceed. With the help of CMS we came to the plan of staying in Australia for the rest of 2020. This gave our family stability amongst a lot of unknowns, especially that our children could finish the academic year in Australia. We were in a season of waiting and while it was hard to wait, there was harder to come.
This harder news came at the end of 2020 in December. Our next challenge was that our visa wasn’t approved, so we had to cancel our January flights to Cambodia. That was rough. What was rougher was the unknown-ness of this second challenge. When flights were canceled the first time, we set a time to return. With visa uncertainty, would we ever get back to Cambodia? We were well aware that this has been the experience of some missionaries.
What I want to reflect on is that month of waiting and not knowing (late Dec until early Feb) was harder than the six months previously when we had set an arbitrary date to return. We were waiting and knowing. Waiting with knowledge is much easier than waiting without knowing. This is very much akin to Christian hope. We aren’t hopeful, as in whether we hope it will rain or not. We’re hopeful with more certainty. We’re certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re certain of Jesus’ promised return. Hope is waiting with knowing and that actually makes things easier than waiting and not knowing.
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.
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.
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.
When we were living in Cambodia, what did we miss the most from Australia? Of course family and friends is what we missed the most. Close to this was the beauty of Australia. But on a more trivial nature I missed the cold. I joke that in my time back in Australia I’m going to freeze my body temp to 10 degrees Celsius and then spend the next term in Cambodia thawing in the humidity. Though I don’t think the freezing would last that long. I missed the cold so much, I wrote a poem about it.
I also missed driving. We weren’t ready to drive in Cambodia when we first arrived. But having driven for almost 20 years, it was a skill that I missed every now and then. The other thing I missed I never would have thought I would miss until I did. That is communicating with ease. Learning a new language is hard. Using that new language is hard. I did improve in the three years that we were there. And yet still, communicating takes so much work and is fraught with so many issues. Now of course we have issues with communicating in our own language all the time. There are frequent miscommunications. But there are a bunch of interactions that are just simple and easy. Hello! How are you? Can I please have ….? (when at a store). Imagine those simple interactions being hard. They were. Or to order something and not be sure what will come out. One time I tried to order 3 eggs, and 9 eggs came out. Some friends affectionately call me ‘Craigy nine eggs’ now as a result. When even simple conversations are tricky, you miss communicating with ease. This is even without going into all the shared culture that you have with people from your home culture as I spoke about last post.
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.
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).