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.
Part of our experience of settling into Cambodia has included the experience of those not in Cambodia; those in Australia who are settling in to no longer having us there. This post below is from my parents and gives another perspective on the whole settling in, a settling without. Having left home many years ago, I returned–a boomerang child–but this time with a family. We lived with my parents for two years before coming here to Cambodia. Below are some of their thoughts post us leaving:
What’s it like to now have them all disappear from our everyday lives and for us to no longer be busy with the activities that were part of having them around us?
At first it seems surreal, like they are just away for a few days and will soon be running around with us again. I even came in one night and was about to tell my husband to turn the TV down so he didn’t wake the children. It doesn’t seem necessary to put away toys and left over clothes “because the children might need them”. And then there’s a few tears as we realize the distance that now separates us.
There are also thoughts about how they are all going. Have they been able to settle in ok? Are they able to get around safely and perform the normal routines of life in a safe manner? Can they maintain their health in very different circumstances? How will the children manage such a big cultural shift? Are they feeling alone in a new place where communication is in a language they don’t yet know?
So how does our faith in God speak to us in these circumstances? We know that the best place for our children and grandchildren to be is doing what God wants them to do. We feel blessed that they are following God’s guidance for their lives. We know that God loves them and watches over them way more than we do. Our children and grandchildren are in a better place than many others that live comfortable lives but don’t know God. This of course doesn’t mean that what they are doing is easy. So we pray that our children and grandchildren will be given the strength they need to keep doing His will.
Children and grandchildren boarding the plane, January 2017
Wing: the place I pay my bills in Cambodia (unless I’m late and then I have to go an hour into town). BTW I now can read WING in Khmer.
Maybe God had a better plan than me when he put tennis in my background. Not maybe, definitely. I’ve found a few similarities between playing tennis and learning a new language in a new culture.
Firstly, learning in a new culture is like learning a complex skill in sport. You don’t pick up a tennis racquet and hit a serve straight away. You break down the skill into parts and work at each little bit. It feels a bit weird doing each part, but once you get good at the little bits you add a few of them together like building blocks until you work your way to the full serve. Learning a new language and learning how to function in a new society are similar. We learn to do more complex jobs based on learning simple jobs and adding them together. So now I can pay a bill–ON MY OWN–because of four smaller parts of this more complex skill. NOW I can ride a bike in a new country. NOW I know where to go to pay the bill. NOW I know how to use money in Cambodia (Go figure… 4000 Riel to each US Dollar). And NOW I’m familiar with the process for paying the bill at the shop (Wing). Put it all together and though it’s not the most complex job, I certainly couldn’t have managed it by myself in the first week.
The other way learning in a new culture is like tennis is those good and bad days for no apparent reason. In tennis you have those days where you can’t miss a ball. You hit all the lines. You’re in the sweet spot. The next day… You can’t hit a backhand. Your ball toss is all over the place. You just don’t have it. What’s changed? Often nothing. What’s the difference? Who knows? It’s just the ups and downs of playing sport.
It feels the same with language learning. Some days you come to class and your pronunciation is spot on. You remember all your vocab and you’re able to form questions with relative ease. The next day… You get pulled up for saying everything slightly wrong. Words are just lost in your brain somewhere… and don’t even get me started on trying to put a question together! What’s changed? Nothing! What’s the difference? Who knows?! It’s just the ups and downs of language learning.
The pay-off in all this skill building and up-down days is that one day you get to play a real a game of tennis–all the skills come together. The joy of all those hard days and training comes in a game well played. This is what we’re aiming for with language learning.
The bigger picture however, is that we’re not just language learning, we’re discovering a new world (Thanks MILL for that insight). That is, we’re not just doing language learning for itself, but as a means to enter into a new world. This bigger picture of participating in a new world helps put those down (and even up) days in perspective.
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.
A major-ish road in Phnom Penh with a large shoulder. I love riding a mountain bike down that shoulder.
There are two dangerous comparisons that I musn’t make living overseas. The first is don’t compare the new country with the one back home. Instead, live each country as its own entity rather than wishing one was more like the other. Thoughts like “I wish Cambodia was more like Australia” are not helpful. Comparison is a slippery slope towards resentment and burnout.
Of course it’s okay to compare. I just need to think about why I’m comparing and in what spirit I’m making the comparison–less grass is greener comparison and more healthy respect for both places. So comparing, when contented, is healthy and normal and even helpful. But if I’m tired or stressed or not going well in the new place, then I should not compare. At these times I just need to let each place be what it is.
For example, I could look at the above road and wish the roads were more like Australia, where the roads are paved right to the edges. That’s the sort of comparison I shouldn’t make. A more healthy comparison is to see that the upshot of these roads however, is that when they are packed with traffic, and I’m riding my mountain bike along the side, guess who slips straight past the traffic (even past all those tuktuks and motos)?
The second comparison that I shouldn’t make is with other missios or expats (people from other countries). The reality is that every single expat is from a different place and is here for a different reason and a different length of time. These multiple differences will affect all the choices they make and will mean those choices differ from mine with varying degrees. Comparison is helpful when you are aware that there is going to be a healthy and normal difference–where we are all just trying to make decisions in light of our own background, circumstances and purposes.
This comparison thingy is also particularly evident in language learning. I often need to tell myself “DON’T DO IT. DON’T COMPARE. GO AT YOUR OWN PACE.”
I suspect I’ll need to remind myself not to compare for many years to come.
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.
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!