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 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.

That weird missionary

Look at me! I’m not even holding my fingers the right way.

One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.

Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.

Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.

Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”

Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.

So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.

Bridge Kids

An attempt at a bridge made of kids

Before coming to Cambodia I used the basic mechanics of a bridge as an analogy to describe a missionary — the connection that a missionary has between two cultures, their home culture and their new culture (this analogy I stole from another missio friend, Arthur). The basic picture is that a bridge has a connection to two places, but doesn’t really dwell in either but is stranded between.

Before coming to Cambodia I also did a seminar on some guesses that I had on mission. I talked about the immersion model of mission (living as completely as you can like the locals). I then opposed this idea with the idea of being connected that now comes to us through the internet and how this has changed mission. Does it mean that it’s harder to be immersed like it was before with so many ways and opportunities to connect with our home culture than before? My basic point was rather than think about these two mission types as ‘either/or’ (both are unattainable ideals as neither is truly possible), I found it helpful to view connection and immersion as two points on a spectrum and that missionaries will sit somewhere on that spectrum based on their goals and situation. Further, missionaries might slide up and down that spectrum at various stages of their ministry overseas.

Having been in Cambodia what I am realising is that this sliding between immersion and connection doesn’t necessarily just occur in the long term, but can occur around short periods of time. As missionaries prepare for furlough (home assignment) and so their head moves more towards their home country.

Having been in Cambodia what I’m also realising is what this idea of immersion and connection means for our kids. We haven’t been immersed as we initially thought and so that changes their experience of Cambodia, but also how much they are affected by Cambodia. Further, with more connection this has also affected their relationships with family and friends in a Australia (often in a really positive way). One example of this is a closeness with grandparents that might not have been possible before (see here, here and here for further details). In my seminar I had been exploring immersion and connection from serving as a missionary point of view. What I haven’t really begun to explore (but we have been experiencing) is how immersion and connection affect our kids.

While I appreciate the term TCK (Third Culture Kid) as a way of describing what it’s like to grow up overseas away from your parents home culture. For me, seeing them as Bridge Kids is a more concrete description of what it’s like to grow up overseas.

Mid-year musings #11: Cork not in Cam post #2

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Enjoying a catch up with Granny and Gran Gran (technically there are four generations in this picture)

Previously, my mum wrote a short piece from her perspective on how things had been going in Australia a few months after we moved to Cambodia. This post is a follow on from that one:

It is now 9 months since our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren headed overseas. We watch their progress through internet connections like WhatsApp and Facebook, Skype sessions, and sometimes, phone calls. We can see the children growing and becoming oriented to their new circumstances.

There are many good things that can come from a grandparent relationship. Grandparents have the opportunity to provide undivided attention for a time, and can reinforce the special value of that child. Grandparents can be part of giving a child a perspective on life that goes beyond the view of their peers. So the challenge comes to us – can we do any of this for our grandchildren when we are in different countries? Can any of this be communicated in short bursts of Skype? It’s really hard to know.

The other issue we deal with is the sense of loss that comes from our grandchildren (and their parents!) being so far away. Managing a sense of loss can be a tricky thing as sadness is one of those emotions that is “magnetic” – you are feeling the loss, and every other sad or lost situation comes racing in as well, until you are immersed in a “storm of lostness”. But on the other hand the loss is real and pretending it is not there doesn’t address the situation either.

The reality, contrary to popular belief, is that losses don’t heal with time. They actually get deeper because the time you are separated from the person/situation/etc gets longer as time passes. The impact of loss lessens, in the sense that you learn to live with it, rather than it actually going away. Other positives can come into your life that help to restore a bit more of the balance between the losses and the joys. As to where I’m at–it’s still in a fluctuating state, sometimes feeling the loss keenly, sometimes feeling the joy of things that happen in life here.

We miss our overseas family. I am thankful we live in the technological era that we do, so that we can maintain contact with them.  We also need to focus on what we are meant to be doing, following the purpose that is ours in Australia, just as our overseas family are following their mission.

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: #9. Corks not in Cambodia

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:

Cork Parents

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.

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Children and grandchildren boarding the plane, January 2017

 

Settling in: #7. Language learning is like tennis

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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.

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.