Our first book!

We’ve compiled over 50 of our short essays into a new book. The book covers topics like transition, TCKs, grief and loss, conflict, marriage on the field, and more. The Kindle version is $1.99 and is available here.

Here’s what Elizabeth has to say about the print edition:

What I like about the paper copy is that it’s in 8 1/2 X 11 inch format, so it has lots of white space and (ahem) margin to make your own notes, to sort of journal through it, as it were. A lot of our posts really are like journal entries of what God is taking us through, so having a hard copy allows you to journal through those issues on your own, too. Hopefully that’s a blessing to someone!

We are ordering a bunch to have with us here in Phnom Penh, so if you’re local and you’d like a hard copy, check back with us in a couple of weeks. Thanks so much for all your support along the way.

all for ONE,
Jonathan T.


10 Ways to Survive Your First Year Overseas

by Elizabeth


I worked at a lot of summer camps before moving overseas. Camp work is hot, sweaty, and tiring, and I always loved that last shower before “lights out.” So before moving overseas, I told my husband that I’d be able to handle anything during the day in Cambodia as long as I had a clean shower and clean bed at night (with a fan!).

And for the most part, that’s been true. Besides the nightly shower, however, I’ve picked up a few other survival skills from my first year overseas. My best advice still lies in the Preparation Phase, but today I want to share tips you can use once you get to the field. Here they are:

1. Figure out your Absolute Necessities, and do whatever you can to install them in your home or in your life. For myself, I needed curtains in my bedroom and gates on my stairs. I had to be able to dress and undress in private, as well as spend time with my husband in private. I needed curtains pronto! Thankfully a friend supplied me some hand-me-down curtains three weeks in to our Cambodia adventure. They may or may not have matched my sheets, but they gave me the privacy I needed.

A close second for me was the safety gates on our treacherously steep concrete Asian stairs (for my then one-year-old), obtained five weeks in to Cambodia life. Those were my Absolute Necessities. You may need something different. Certain kitchen equipment, perhaps. The point is, figure out your two or three Absolute Necessities, and obtain them if at all possible.

2. Funny Youtube clips are your best friend. Some weeks it was all I could do to get to Friday, when my husband and I would watch Fail Blogs on Youtube. Another favorite was Mitch Hedberg. Here’s a 2-part compilation that deleted nearly all his bad words:

We’re big fans of Brian Regan’s “I Walked on the Moon” (mostly clean, with occasional bad words).

Of course who can’t help loving Jim Gaffigan (also mostly clean, with even fewer bad words)?

This is one of our family favorites: NFL Bad Lip Reading. FYI not all Bad Lip Reading is this kid-friendly.

3. Find spiritual nourishment. I can’t tell you enough how much I love our international church and the spiritual food I receive there. But I know not everyone lives in a city that offers English-speaking church services like I do. Nowadays, though, overseas workers have access to sermons and podcasts on the internet. My husband, for example, likes listening to Andy Stanley sermons. Figure out which teachers feed you, and set aside some time to listen.

We all need to worship God in song, so if you don’t have access to worship services in your heart language, remember you can purchase worship music on iTunes (artists like Bethel, Hillsong, and Matt Redman are some of my favorites). I know some of this depends on your internet quality and won’t work for absolutely everyone at all times; still, it’s an improvement in resource availability over times past.

And don’t forget your own personal morning quiet time – it’s worked wonders in my life. So no matter what your options are, I do believe you can find the spiritual nourishment that you crave and that you need. You just might have to be creative about it.

4. Closely related to spiritual nourishment is finding community. You might be able to find that at an international church or on your team, as I’ve been thrilled to find. (Although I personally have had to guard against being oversocialized.) Finding community might be trickier for you if you live in a really remote place, with few other workers.

One of the best things you can do is pray for God to bring you a kindred spirit or two. Yes, the goodbyes hurt, and sometimes God brings people into our lives only for a season, but I do believe God answers our prayers for friends. Sometimes we have to get creative in our search for community as well, and another option is online community. Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas are two options for Christian expats.

If you’re married, it’s far too easy to forget that you and your spouse can provide built-in community for each other — but that only happens when you spend time together. Maybe there’s no money to go out anywhere, or nowhere to go out, or maybe you don’t yet have babysitters you trust. You can still have coffee at home. You can still put the kids to bed early. You can still find fellowship with each other; in fact friendship is a vital part of a thriving marriage. Our first year we went up to our roof after our kids’ bedtime a couple times a week, looking out over our city and just talking to each other. It was peaceful and bonding, and I cherish those memories.

5. Your old coping mechanisms might not work at first. Don’t sweat it too much. I love to read, but my mind was too tired from language learning and culture acquisition to read much that first year. I’ve had other friends whose beloved piano playing went by the wayside their first year. Don’t lose heart – these things will come back later, when your brain isn’t so tired from the onslaught of culture and language.

6. Your body and mind may feel weaker than ever. Take care of them. You’ll probably get sick with strange illnesses. (The first two years are the worst for that, until your body adjusts.) But I’m not just talking about illnesses here. Before I moved overseas, I’d never struggled with mood swings, due to either hormonal shifts or low blood sugar. Now I deal with both, and not only do I need to be aware of them, but I have to be diligent in alleviating my symptoms.

Living cross-culturally (especially in a developing country or a very hot country) drains your body of its resources. So you’ll have to feed and water it regularly. You’ll need to de-worm regularly, take your vitamins, go to bed at a good time, and exercise. Exercise is not a coping mechanism you can afford to relinquish. You may have to get creative for this one too. A lot of people don’t like using videos for exercise (you can access a lot online if you don’t already own some), but if you don’t have access to a gym or decent running paths, you may be forced to exercise in your home.

7. Fall in love with something in your host country. In the beginning it’s too easy to love everything or to hate everything. But as with everything in life, the truth about your country is probably somewhere in between, a mixture of both good and bad. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered God in a sunset or a palm tree, in a rice field or a painted sky. When I need a reason for why I stay in a dirty, stinky, crowded city, I simply go to my roof and meet God in the clouds and banana leaves. You won’t be able to love everything where you live, but if you want to stay, you can’t afford to hate everything, either.

8. Some days you’ll only be able to accomplish one thing. You might feel like a failure for that, but you need to celebrate that one thing. You might not be able to shop for furniture and groceries in the same day, and that’s OK. You can always try again tomorrow with something else. You’ll get more efficient at this life, and eventually daily living won’t wear you out so much. You need to give yourself this grace. And you’ll need to continue giving yourself that grace, because to a certain degree, living cross-culturally will always wear you out more than living in your passport country.

9. If you home school your children, don’t be afraid to drop it for 3-6 months. Your kids will be ok, I promise. I didn’t believe that at first, either, even when my missions coach assured me of it. But she was right; it turned out ok. Not only does it save you sanity (it’s hard to home school kids and study language at the same time) but your kids really do catch up later. Plus, they need to adjust to overseas life, too. We don’t want to overload our kids with too many expectations.

10. And returning to my first point, if all else fails, don’t be afraid to put yourself in time out in the shower. Go to bed early. You can try again tomorrow! Grace grace grace. You’re gonna need to give yourself a lot of it this year, so just starting doling it out now.

It’s 1am, and I need an Epi-Pen (Or, How Harm Avoidance Can Disrupt Your Sleep)

If you are known for your 100% Harm Avoidance, and are awakened from a dead sleep by two insanely itchy mosquito bites, which are swelling your fingers into sausages, and preventing you from closing your fist because your swollen skin is stretched too tight, and your arm is numb and tingly all the way up to your elbow, you may become afraid that if that tingly feeling gets to your heart, you Might Die. (Wait. Is that the risk for snake bites? Or rabies infection? Or blood poisoning?) Then you just might wake your ER nurse husband out of his dead sleep to inform him of your fears.  This is a completely rational train of thought.  After all, he will probably need to administer the epinephrine.

But, if you wake him and say, “I think I’m going into anaphylactic shock,” he may very well respond by singing his “Hypo Hypo Hypo Hypochondriac, I’m married to a Hypo, Hypochondriac” song. Because although it may be the Worst Mosquito Bite of All Time, requiring no less than 3 applications of Benadryl cream to reduce the swelling and the tingling, you are, in fact, Not Dying. Unfortunately your husband will now know just how absurd you can be under the influence of Harm Avoidance. (But you can claim it was the 1am stupor talking.)

Not that I would know anything about that.


When Cross Cultural Living Makes You Stupid (Looking Back on a Year in Asia Part 6)


Bilbo Baggins (of Hobbit fame) once reflected, “Adventures are not all Pony-rides in May-sunshine.” Sometimes, though, unfortunately, those pony rides can lead to stupidity. Or maybe it’s the May sunshine?? Whatever the cause, for me, the end result is the same: Stupid. Here is my proof that cross cultural living can, indeed, make you Stupid.

My Knight in Shining Chacos

We purchase our drinking water (in the form of 5-gallon containers) from a man on our street. His type of in-home shop is very common here. These shops sell drinks, various packaged candies and junk food, and paper and cleaning products. We really like our water guy. He is cheerful and eager to help. He always knows what we want and has enough water on hand (which is quite a lot in hot season). He will even deliver the water to our house.

One evening in January we were playing outside. The sun was creeping lower in the sky. Suddenly we remembered that we were running low on water. I decided to walk to our water shop and buy some water, which means taking empty containers and exchanging them for new, full containers. I had been pushing Faith in her purple push toy, and Jonathan suggested I just take her with me. Hannah wanted to tag along too. I thought that would be a fun little outing for the three of us girls.

I managed to push Faith and hold a water jug with one hand, and hold onto Hannah with my other hand. Hannah also had to hold a water jug in her tiny hand. Jonathan wondered if we’d be ok. I assured him, yes, we’ll be fine. It’s our water guy, it’s our street, no problem. So I left Jonathan at our house, playing football with our sons, feeling quite confident in my errand-ing ability.

The water place is just past the dress shop. At least, it has been all year. But when I got to our water shop, our trusty water guy wasn’t there. Some guy I didn’t recognize was sitting on a chair. And he didn’t recognize me either.

Ok, Elizabeth. It’s time to put the two water jugs down. And do some thinking. I think to myself, is this the right place? I’m just past the dress shop, where we always get our water.  I’ve been here 100 times. And this shop doesn’t look the same as my regular shop. Instead of having lots of drinks and junk food, it’s nearly bare, except for a washing machine against the wall (which wasn’t there before).

Is this not the place?? I ask myself if it could possibly be past the alley with barking dogs? I shook my head. No. We never pass the alley to get to the water. I stand stupidly at the edge of that alley. There I am, with two little girls, a purple push toy, two containers in need of exchanging, and the money with which to do the exchanging. I didn’t even have to talk to my regular water guy. He knew what I wanted when I showed up with empty containers, and I just handed him the money. I might have to talk to this new guy. Except my brain is tired after a long day of homeschooling the boys, and I had neglected to put on my Khmer Thinking Cap. (In all fairness, I didn’t think I’d need it.) In my confusion I cannot get ANY intelligible Khmer out of my mouth.

The sun in the sky is in that eerie, almost-twilight stage. I can see my own house as I stand there. But where in the world am I???? I am completely lost. I am convinced I must be in a parallel universe. And I don’t even believe in parallel universes.

I am so confused, and I look it. What should I do? I know I’m not at the right place to buy water, but how can I just walk home with empty hands, er, containers? And what if I’m not in the right dimension after all? I might never make it home, even if I try.

Then, there he was. A Man in Sandals, walking towards me. Jonathan’s keen observational skills had told him that I was in need of assistance, even from 100 meters away. Oh thank goodness. I don’t have to believe in parallel universes after all.

Jonathan HAD put on his Khmer Thinking Cap that day (as he does every day), and he talked a bit with the guy who has taken over our old water shop. Apparently when we weren’t looking, that family moved away. Now we have to buy our water elsewhere.

But I’ve seriously got to watch out for those pony rides in May sunshine.

And here is my message to you:  In whatever myriad ways you may have embarrassed yourself today, take heart in this one simple truth — at least you didn’t get lost on your own street.

photo source here

An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 1: A Trip or Two to the Seamstress)

— by Elizabeth

The seamstress on my street does my mending, and each time I am happy with the quality of her work (and with her exceptionally low prices). While she speaks no English at all, she does speak her own language rather rapidly.

I’d been admiring the purple dress (my favorite color!) in her window for weeks but didn’t have the courage to ask about it. Asking about it would expose my ridiculous lack of Khmer language. But there was a wedding coming up, and I wanted something more formal than what I owned.  So three days before the wedding (can you tell I brought my whole self, including the procrastinating part, to Cambodia??), off I marched to the sewing shop. And this is how it happened:

I tell the seamstress I like the dress. I stand there next to it, unable to think of the word for “wear.” Because of course I want to wear it before buying it. Oh why didn’t I study first? That’s what Jonathan does before he attempts something new.  I have a limited Khmer vocabulary, and only the most used portions come to the front of my brain during a conversation. Words I don’t use much — like words about clothing — stay way in the back. Think think think. What is the word for wear?? The only thing I can think of is the word for clothes. I stand there unproductively, actually waving my hand in circles as if it could help me. She talks at me while I think. I have no idea what she is saying. Then poof! The word I need comes to me.

I tell her I want to wear that dress. I tell her, if I like the dress, I will buy it. She looks a bit confused, but she teaches me the word for “to try on.” I stand and think some more. Suddenly I know what to say: “I want to try it on now.” The light goes on, and she pulls the dress off the mannequin. I have found the Magic Key. (Magic Keys are an essential part of my life. The Magic Key asks a question that forces the hearer to answer me using words I already know. Or, as in this case, the Key asks someone to do the very thing I want them to do.)

I try it on, and it fits (hooray!). But the back shows too much skin, so I tell her I don’t usually show my back, because I am “shy.” (That’s the only way I know to explain my desire for more coverage.) She teaches me another new word, which literally means “skin for enclosing.”  She’ll basically make a wrap to cover my back and shoulders.

Then it’s time to hem the bottom. I don’t have my dress shoes with me. (Um, again, why did I not think to bring them?? I am so unprepared.) I’m not sure how much she should cut off, so I ask for her advice. She doesn’t seem to understand that I want her help in deciding the length. So I ask her to make it the normal length for dresses. Again, her face registers no understanding. I stand there, think think thinking again, about how to do this hemline. (Have you noticed yet that I do a lot of standing around and thinking??)  At one point she even tells me I should have my husband come (she knows he’s a better speaker than I am).

Finally I tell her, cut just a little bit. She seems to understand that. (Magic Key alert!)

But when I go to pick it up later, it’s not ready. She seems to be concerned that the dress and wrap materials are not exactly the same color, so she hasn’t sewed the wrap yet. At first glance, they look exactly the same to me. But as I examine them closer, I notice a slight difference. She is very concerned, so I start wondering if the slight color difference is a big deal to Khmer people and will I show up to the wedding looking extremely inappropriate?? (Insert internal freak out moment right here.) I stand there. Thinking. Asking myself what to do, as if I could possibly help myself. All this time she is talking at me again, and I understand nothing. Finally I say, sort of questioningly, “they’re close to the same color.” She agrees, “yes, a little bit different color.” I ask her if that’s good.  She says yes. (There’s that Magic Key again. Because let’s face it, all I really care about is covering up that back.)

In the end, I’m very happy with my new dress and wrap. And I’m very happy with my seamstress.satnight (2)

Wherein I Offer My Deepest Apologies to Khmer Speakers Everywhere (and to Alexander Graham Bell)

–by Elizabeth

Our family has a favorite tuk tuk driver. His name is Bun, and I dial his number every week on grocery day.

I say:  “Can you come to my house now?”

Normally he tells me yes and is at my doorstep in less than 60 seconds. This week I couldn’t understand his reply. But I don’t worry. What usually happens when I can’t understand him is that he’s unavailable and is sending a friend instead.

Would this be a good time to mention that I don’t understand Khmer very well on the telephone?

I wait at the door for his friend, but after 10 minutes, there’s no tuk tuk in sight.  I begin to wonder if he meant what I assumed he meant. I run inside to discuss my little problem with Jonathan and come back out a few minutes later, determined to wait longer.

A tuk tuk has arrived. He’s not my usual driver, but I recognize him. As I leave my house, I see that he is talking on his phone. Hmm. Perhaps he’s calling Bun to ask why I wasn’t waiting at the door for him. Oh well, he hangs up when I walk outside, and I tell him where I want to go.

Just as the tuk tuk starts driving, my phone rings. It’s Bun. Oh dear. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone. I answer the phone, but I’m not sure what he’s saying. Instead, I assure him: “Tuk tuk came already. Sorry. Cannot understand. Street loud.” That seems to satisfy him.

But wait a second. My driver is now going in the wrong direction. “Stop!” I tell him. He stops, turns around, says something in Khmer, and smiles. I return a blank stare. He then points to another tuk tuk driver (whom I also recognize) and says something else, still smiling. Huh? His meaning is lost on me. And he keeps driving the wrong direction.

Whatever. I know these roads. I know these drivers. I will get to Lucky Supermarket. Eventually. Both tuk tuks turn down another road, and the other driver stops at a house while my driver watches him. Then my driver turns around and goes in the right direction. He drops me off at the store, and I say: “Wait about 30 minutes.”

I shop and get in line and am just about to pay when my phone rings. I do not recognize the number, but I intuitively know it’s my driver. It has been 31 minutes. First I silence my phone. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone.  But he calls a second time, and this time I feel I obligated to answer. I do not know what he is saying. But I say: “Wait 3 minutes more” and hang up.

My tuk tuk is waiting for me, all smiles, when I walk out of the store. I tell him: “Sorry. Talk phone difficult me.” He smiles and nods. Would this be a good time to mention that my 6 months of language study gave me survival speaking ability only?

We learned in PILAT (Principles in Language Acquisition Techniques) that learning should be comprehension-based. In other words, we should practice hearing and understanding before we practice speaking. I have unfortunately reversed this. Sometimes when I speak in Khmer — and nearly always on the phone — I am, as my dad would say, “on transmit only,” with no possibility of receiving.

It is for this gaping hole in my conversational ability that I sincerely apologize to Khmer speakers everywhere, especially when using the telephone.

Scheduling a Dentist Appointment in a Foreign Country (Or, How I Made a Fool of Myself on a Monday Afternoon)

— By Elizabeth

I have been putting this off. Making that dreaded phone call to schedule dental appointments for our family. I must do this — finding a dentist and doctor in your host country is an important part of the re-settling process.

But calling the dentist here is not the same task it was in America. Here is my story:

The baby is napping. I inform the older children that I must make an important phone call and not to talk to Mommy. I walk into the kitchen, which is swelteringly hot, and close the door. I dial the phone number. Three rings. I hear a Small Voice. I hesitate. What did that voice say?? “Hello, is anyone there?” I hear an Asian accent. I guess it was English words, after all. I can barely hear her. She asks if I’ve been here before. I say no. She asks me if tomorrow is ok. I say, no, 2 weeks from now. (When has a dentist in the States ever offered to see me the next day??) She asks me what we are having trouble with. I say, we just need cleanings, X-rays, and my son may need sealants. I tell her my name and how many people need appointments (5), and she schedules appointments for 2 adults and 1 daughter. No, I say, 2 adults and 3 children. 2 sons and 1 daughter. Ok, she corrects it.

Then she asks for my phone number. To confirm the appointment later.

I do not have this 12-digit number memorized. I say, I need to look in my phone.

I look at my phone. I normally know how to find my number. But I cannot for the life of me figure out how to access it during a call. My phone is sopping wet with sweat at this point. I haven’t seen that before. Neither have I pressed the phone so hard against my ear before. I can barely hear this woman’s voice, and she’s clearly not a native English speaker.

It is at this point in time that one child decides to hit another, that other hits back, and the crying begins. I motion for them to be quiet and leave me ALONE, and I close the door again. I retreat to the bathroom just off the kitchen to try to continue the call.

I tell her, I can’t get my number right now, can I call you back with it? She gives me a number that will reach her personally, and I hang up. I briefly tell the children not to talk, not to hit, and can’t you see I’m busy trying to make this important call?? More crying ensues. I again close the door.

I dial the number she gave me. I hear some Asian words and read “Not a valid number” on my screen. Again I see my phone dripping wet. I try the number again. Same result.

I figure I’ll call the original number again and try to explain myself. I hear a New Voice. I made an appointment 10 minutes ago, I say, but I need to give you my phone number. She tries to make my appointment all over again. I say, I already made that appointment. She sends me to a Different Voice. I say, I already made an appointment and tell her when it should be. I am starting to wonder if I did make this appointment? I ask, is it scheduled? This Voice is louder, clearer, and more authoritative. Yes, it is scheduled. She asks me if I’ve been here before. I say no. I give her my phone number. She asks if they need to call me back?? I say, no, this is the number to call to confirm the appointment, later. Yes, yes, she understands.

Sigh of relief.

Then she asks, is there another phone number I can be reached at?? I say, there is my husband’s phone, but I don’t know the number. Let me look in my phone. I look again. Still no luck finding a phone number while I’m in a call. I am however still finding sweat all over my phone. I say, I can’t give that number to you now. Can I call you back??

No, no, she says, this is fine.

End call.