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.
As we come closer to coming home for a decent time, one thing that changes is how we look at life in Cambodia. Life in some ways doesn’t change. Cambodia doesn’t change. But the way we view it changes.
I remember early on in our time here in Cambodia, I was taking a tuktuk home and I was just overwhelmed by all the “new” I was experiencing. That tuktuk ride I stuck my head in a book to limit the new. Fast forward to a week ago, I noticed myself thinking about how we wouldn’t be around for a while and how we’d gotten used to life here. As a result of that thought, as I rode on my bike, I was looking at all the things, thinking about how I wouldn’t see them for a while. What had once caused me to hide was now something that I could handle, I was trying to take it all in.
Because of transition, my view on things had changed. If we’d just stayed on here without a break, I would not have noticed the same things. But, with the upcoming flight, my perspective had changed, my awareness of Cambodian life was different in the face of transition. In transition we are given the gift of reflection, and we are also given the gift of awareness; a similar awareness found when we reflect on the passage or speed of time in general.
One area that this awareness particularly impinges on is around friendships. Missionary friendships are in some ways different from friendships in home countries. What unites us is often a similar purpose, even if we are from different organisations or backgrounds. This unity often leads to friendships becoming closer quicker than they would elsewhere. But part of the pain of transitions is the awareness of relationships that have gotten close quickly in a context of fluid relationships; where people come and go more than they do in other places. This same awareness will come to us again in the opposite direction as we return from Australia to Cambodia. But right now, transition heightens my awareness in Cambodia (even as my head moves toward Australia).
One of the things I associate with transition is hassle. There’s the packing up. There’s the stress. There’s the actual transition. And then there’s the time once you arrive where it’s just slow in setting up and settling in. To those of us (like me) who are focused around efficiency, transition feels anything but efficient. Now of course transitions for missionaries are much more efficient than they used to be; spending 6 months on a boat travelling from one destination to another. With flights, transition is now much more compact, but still feels hard. The stress at either end is tiring. So it’s easy to see why the prospect of transition feels daunting.
However, I came across this other idea (not sure how). Not only that transition as a hassle, but transition as gift. The gift comes if you use it properly. Transition provides a neat boundary that normal day to day life doesn’t necessarily have. There is a clear beginning and end on a regular basis (like from term to term). The value of this clear boundary is the ability to wrap up one season with reflection. With this first term in Cambodia coming to an end there is an up-coming transition. I’m able to think back about the last three years and reflect on it. This helps me to learn from my time, but also helps me to transition as I get closure on what has occurred. When I’ve done this reflection before a holiday (like last year before our Chiang Mai time) it has also helped me to rest on that holiday having sorted through some issues before seeking down-time. So I find my rest is better having reflected.
For this next transition from Cambodia to Australia, while there will be some rest, there will be tough parts as we say goodbyes, settle in to a familiar, but in other ways unfamiliar place (given the changes that have occurred to us in this last three years). So reflecting well on what has been, this first term in Cambodia, will help me transition better. In that sense transitions provide a unique gift to us in terms of providing us with obvious points to reflect and think about what has gone before and what lies ahead.
Disclaimer: this is an ironic post highlighting the difficulty of transition. It paints a fairly bleak situation and expresses my tendencies but not the reality. I write this as a reminder to myself of my tendencies in order to try to counteract them in this really significant time. It is a reminder to give myself and my family time and grace as we face this significant change.
This is my guide to transitioning poorly. It is not exhaustive, nor ordered in any particular way. There may be overlapping themes coming through that express the personality of the author.
Get preoccupied with the details of moving countries, ensuring that this consumes all your thoughts, your emotional energy and depletes you of resources to care for yourself and your family.
Turn the grief that you feel in saying goodbye into anger that is easily released on those closest to you.
Fail to see that grief, stress and moving country is going to sap you of energy and so fill your diary full, just to spite yourself.
Assume that your family will not feel the same things as you and that you will all be fine. Children’s extra disobedience in this time is not a symptom of them feeling tired, grief, or anxiety themselves.
Also assume that if your child/children don’t say anything, this means they are coping fine with the big change ahead. Full steam ahead then. You have no issues to deal with.
Anger is the best way to deal with what you are feeling (regardless of whether it is stress or grief or anxiety). In fact get angry very quickly. This is always the best solution.
Say yes to more responsibilities in this time, because you can manage it 😉
Don’t waste time sitting, thinking, processing and reflecting. Give yourself more fully to more insignificant jobs that will make you feel better immediately and help you push deeper down those stronger, tricky feelings to deal with.
Disconnect from friendships early. Don’t get too close, it only hurts more when you leave.
Do you have any tips for transitioning poorly? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a monopoly on transitioning poorly. Comment below so we can share the wealth of knowledge and all transition more poorly.
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).
My first go at teaching in Khmer, with a favourite subject of mine Biblical Theology.
I’m about to combine two realms. Training and experience as a minister (spanning 10 years) together with learning Khmer (almost 2 years) to teaching the Bible in Khmer. The past two years, not only have I put the first of these on hold (somewhat), but I transitioned to a realm of complete newness and sucking (learning Khmer). Now I combine my poor Khmer together with teaching the Bible (a realm I feel more confident in, though hopefully never too confident in). This brings excitement (bringing in what I have put on hold) as well as fear (doing it in a new way). But it also brings excitement to the teaching as I do it in a new way and learn new things (teaching in a different context). While I’ve taught the Bible before, I don’t have any formal teaching qualifications. What I have is experience in teaching, but in different situations (small groups, larger groups), but not regular classroom teaching experience. So not only is the Khmer new, but teaching with assessments and that sort of thing is also new. COMING SOON- new blog series on first time teaching.
A further way to look at my transition is in terms of visibility. As a student (Masters or language learning) you are either on your own or in a different position from the teacher. Coming into a teaching role puts you more in the spotlight, particularly in a South East Asian context. Now I’ve had this visibility before as a minister. The difference this time is the context and the high view that teachers are given in Cambodian society. I’ll move from less structured independent language learning to part of a team at the Bible school; part of a facility with its rhythms and community life that I’ll join. In terms of thoughts about how to teach, in terms of vulnerable mission I aim to give away power by being honest about mistakes and showing myself to be a learner even as I’m teaching. So that even though I transition from learning to teaching, I don’t really transition out of learning.
One of many big transitions for our kids; ready to get on the plane to Cambodia
You could say that life is about transitions. We transition from childhood to adulthood. We transition from study to the workforce. We transition from job to job. We transition as family life changes, from being children to either having children or being part of an extended family as an adult.
My life prior to Cambodia had many transitions (from tennis to physiotherapy to ministry and further study), and life in Cambodia continues to have transitions too. But the transitions feel different at the moment. Maybe it’s because of the pace and size of these most recent transitions. So much change! Prior to coming to Cambodia we moved down to Melbourne for some missionary training. Then we transitioned to partnership raising for 6 months. Then we moved to a new country and completely new culture. In this transition came learning the language. And soon I face another major transition; teaching in this new language. As I mentioned previously, this first three year term is like three first years back to back.
As I reflect on transitions more, what I think mission transition brings to the equation is often all those normal transitions we have (study to work, changing family situations) continue in a midst a different context or in the transition from one culture to another (backwards and forwards between two countries). These more normal transitions take on a different light in a different place that has different values and way of life. Such that smaller transitions feel bigger and so we just seem to be going from one big transition to another. My thought is that even as we settle longer into Cambodia (and so may have less transitions here), missionary life (for us) means backward and forwards between Australia and Cambodia. So while other life transitions in Cambodia may settle down some what, just around the corner is another major transition.
I feel like where this leaves us is that transitions become a normal, regular part of life. Maybe that’s where transitions feel different as a missionary. I feel like most transitions are big events that come along once every little while. Whereas here it feels like there is always one just around the corner. Maybe missionary life normalizes transitions. They become the new norm.
At any rate, these next two posts will explore what this latest transition is shaping to look like, even before I’ve fully transitioned.
A year ago, having lived in Cambodia for 6 months, I could say that both we had settled in, but that we were still settling in. I chuckle to myself. Now a year later, it still rings true. Settled, and still settling in. Even with the kids we say the same thing.
I was talking with a good friend of mine (he has come up a few times before). He compared our first term of mission to having 3 back-to-back first years. Generally, in a new job, the first year is hardest, the second slightly easier and the third, you get the picture. He remarked that our first 3-year-term will be like having three first years in a row. Sure, there are things that are easier. We’re not completely new, and so newness tiredness isn’t quite as taxing as it was last year. But because in another sense we are still new, we’re still expending a decent amount of emotional energy. This perspective helps explain our experience so far, of which we were prepared well for in training. First term, survive, second term start to get some momentum, third term things are clicking along nicely. Helps makes sense of this second year, anyway.
I was speaking with a missionary friend who has lived here in Cambodia for around 12 years. She said that it was around the 6 year mark that she noticed that she wasn’t expending all that emotional energy that is the common experience in those first years. This is also a helpful perspective as we continue along. So after a year and a half we’re settled and still settling. Like this time last year, we’re taking a break from Cambodia (language and culture learning) to rest and refresh ourselves for a new school year for all of us, the kids at school, Sam at language school and myself, teaching at the Bible School.
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.