This post comes from the video that we did for Mission up Close with CMS in June. You can either watch it or read the summary below.
What’s it like preparing to go back to Cambodia for a second time, our second term? We were excited to be going to Cambodia for the first time and we’re excited to be returning for a second time. But the excitement is different. In the first term, there was so much new and ‘for the first time’ excitement. We didn’t know if they would let us in on arrival. We had little local knowledge and even less language. Thankfully we had some great support from other CMS families. There was uncertainty about how long it would take us to pick up Khmer, or when it would be best to start teaching at the Bible school. So the excitement of the first term was the excitement of all the new. There was a lot of tiredness related to the new too.
Second time around, there is excitement. But it’s the excitement of the familiar. Returning and being able to have decent conversations in Khmer, getting to a greater relational depth and understanding of the culture. Returning to good friends and to an area that we know well now. And on the flip side looking forward to returning and not having the major start up in language learning that we had in the first term. Enjoying the wins of improving in a language that we already have some skills in (though rusty at the moment). As I say in the video, learning in a less intense way.
Sometimes the familiar gets a bad wrap, particularly as we long for the new or the unfamiliar. And yet, sometimes it’s through the familiar that we find the truly new; coming to a deeper understanding (and so ‘new’) of what we already know. As a tourist, yes, you see lots of new places. As you stay in one ‘new’ place longer, it becomes new in a way that you never could know if it wasn’t familiar. You could say there’s more new in the familiar than there is in the new. For me the excitement of the familiar over the excitement of the ‘new’ is my preference at the moment.
In my last twoposts I had overestimated my language abilities as I made my language plan. What’s also become clear is that I’ve also underestimated the change that has recently occurred in my language learning. That is, I had assumed that because I was continuing in language learning (transitioning from classroom to independent language learning) that it would be a fairly smooth transition. Well, was I wrong (again).
Instead of being a smooth transition, it has felt like the gear change of a 16 yr old first learning to drive stick (drive a manual car). A clunky beginning. I had underestimated the discontinuity between classroom and independent learning.
In one, you turn up and the teacher has prepared the content and there are others who are in the same boat as you. Both of these are helpful for motivation. There is also clarity because the teacher is the one guiding you.
In independent learning, you have prepare the lesson. There is no-one else when motivation is low and you are the ‘expert’ guiding yourself. I actually quite like learning on my own. I loved it when I was completing my Masters in Theology. But I had become used to classroom learning again. And so it’s taken me a while to get into the groove of doing it myself. What I had thought was going to be a ‘productive May’, has turned into a ‘sorting things out for the first time May’. It’s all good. I just hadn’t anticipated the clunkiness. It kind of feels like I’ve started a new job, even though I’m doing the same thing; language learning.
The result of this learning is that what the next (almost) 6 months looks like. It’s two lots of 2 month language learning blocks with a break in the middle. Initially, I had thought these would be fairly identical–language learning and lesson prep. But because it’s going to take a while to get into the groove of this new dynamic of language learning, the first block will look different from the second block. Once I get a groove, the later months will look different from the first. As I say this now, it makes complete sense. But as I was initially planning, I hadn’t factored in the clunkiness of the gear change.
There was another reason I found the first few weeks of independent language learning stressful. More on that next post.
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.
We’re being very ‘Cambodian’ in combating our newness tiredness.
Overseas tiredness is different from tiredness in your own country. While being too busy is present in both, there is one major difference; as you settle into a new country everything is new.
In your own country there’s a mix of new and old. Often the old is easy to do–we do it without thinking about it. How many people driving in Sydney for 10 years get stressed by ‘the scariness of driving in Sydney.’1
In a new country, everything is new, nothing is old. Which means everything is hard work. Even the little things that you wouldn’t think about as hard, are tiring. One example is shopping. Where do you go to get food? You can’t get it all in one place. There is often one place for one thing and another place for the next thing. None of this is one stop shop; more like one thing per shop. It hurts your head just trying to figure these simple things out. So overseas tiredness could be better termed ‘newness tiredness’.2 Gradually things change. But in the beginning you’re hit with all the new.
We were told in training, ‘expect to sleep 2 hours extra each night overseas just to get by on the day to day.’ We’ve certainly experienced that. But Sam and I also employed two other strategies to combat newness tiredness (at least we did in the early days). Our first strategy was to just aim to do one thing per day. If you get more than that done, you’ve done well… but maybe too well (you’ll pay for it tomorrow). So really it’s ‘well done’ if only the one thing gets done.
Our other strategy is to think long term. We have the privilege of being here long term, which means we don’t have to try and cram everything in all at once. The result of this is that going slow is not only doable but will enable us to stay long term.
This newness tiredness doesn’t disappear overnight. Even after you’ve ‘settled in’ there’s still more ‘new’. In that sense, the newness tiredness hangs around indefinitely.
There may be other reasons for why you are stressed while driving in Sydney. ↩
Not only are you physically and intellectually tired, but you’re emotionally drained. Your senses are pumped full with new. Your values take a hit as you get used to a new culture and new way of living with different goals and values inherent in their way of doing. ↩