How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak: Six Essential Steps

by Elizabeth

I believe if a missionary family is happy and healthy, they will be more sustainable in the long-term. I also believe that the key to happy and healthy missionaries is preparation. One of the things I’ve learned these past two years is that there is a lot of heartache among cross-cultural workers. After a while, I noticed that often, people’s heartache had common characteristics, and could have been addressed before arriving on the field.

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Why Transition is Terrible, But Having a Sending Agency is Not (Looking Back on a Year in Asia Part 2)

In light of my first post, in which I explain how much I love life in Cambodia, I felt it necessary (in the interest of honesty, which is, after all, one of my highest values), to talk a little about our first month here.


And we even had help. Lots of help:

Help #1: My mother-in-law and sister-in-law came to Cambodia one week ahead of us and bought the essentials like beds, washing machine, kitchen appliances. Apparently it was not the purchasing of the beds and refrigerator, but the transporting of them up to the right floors, that was quite the feat. (They may even have this on video.) Bonus: They stocked that fridge and made those beds, and when they were all done with that, they picked us up from the airport.

Help #2:  A different sister-in-law made the 24-hour long international flights with us, our 4 (sometimes motion sick) children, and 16 pieces of checked luggage. Bonus: She stayed for an entire two weeks to do whatever we crazed parents needed her to do, like, say, wash the dishes, or watch the children. This was not overkill, as I initially expected it to be. When Mommy got holed-up-in-the-bathroom-sick, she was there. When Mommy was camped-out-on-the-couch-wanting-to-die (that’s not a joke), she was there. Her and her Angry Birds game.

Help #3: When I was brand new to the country and didn’t know how to cook or grocery shop, three different families brought us meals.

That first month was the worst month of my life by far – and that is no exaggeration. Our luggage got stuck in Seoul, South Korea, and didn’t land in Cambodia with us. It didn’t arrive until midnight the next day, leaving us without such luxuries as diapers, shampoo, clean clothes, and tooth brushes for yet another 24 hour-period. (If any of you know my obsession with careful attention to clean teeth, you understand what a hardship that was.) I think I had brought some deodorant in my carryon. Oh yeah. I was real prepared for missionary life.


Fresh off the plane and smack dab in the middle of Transition.

Note the missing shirts, proof of our lost luggage.

Mosquitos ate us alive. Hannah and Faith were jet-lagged. We were jet-lagged. Jonathan had to drive that very first day in country (remember the lost luggage??). As a newbie driver, he got pulled over by police four times that first month — twice on the first day. Such a wonderful welcome to the country, don’t ya think??

One meal was just . . . rice. Another was eaten in the haze of burnt French toast. The plastic-y cheese on those first grilled cheese sandwiches never did melt. Even our kids have bad memories of those days.

I didn’t have any privacy — we didn’t have curtains in the bedroom yet. We didn’t have padding or carpeting for stair safety, and the gates hadn’t been installed yet. (Everything is concrete here, and the stairs are majorly steep. My Harm Avoidance had kicked into Overdrive.) And I couldn’t for the life of me convince the hot water heater to produce hot water, no matter how many exasperated sighs I let out. (My husband, on the other hand, had no such issues with the water. He did, however, find the nightly sighing sessions quite humorous.)

We didn’t know where to buy anything, and we didn’t know the language to negotiate a reasonable price if we had.

And everywhere we went, Cambodians touched my kids. They hated that.

My feet ached from walking barefoot on the concrete floors.

I was so hot. And we came in cool season.

Everything was so dirty.

And I was so miserable.

While Help #2 watched the children, I lay on the couch and wanted to die. Jonathan cried. That’s very characteristic behavior for us, by the way. Under the influence of stress, I shut down; he cries. (He tells me this is the Trotter Way, and he is ok with it now.)

We sent out a desperate “please pray for us” email. (Thank you for praying! We felt all your prayers from the beginning and continuing throughout this past year.)

Then one day, three weeks in, I got curtains in my windows. Privacy! Yay! My stress levels went down by 50%. That was the day I decided I could live in this place. (“They” say transition ends when you make the internal decision to settle in the new place.)

Then a week later, gates were installed on the stairs. Now I didn’t have to follow my toddler around every.waking.minute. My stress levels went down by another 50%. If you’re calculating correctly, I was now functioning at 25% of the first week’s stress — although it’s debatable whether lying on the couch wanting to die counts as “functioning.” That 25% slowly but steadily dropped to pre-flight levels over the next couple months. (Sporadically, levels do pop back up, but only temporarily.)

That first month is what we call Transition — the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad period of physical, emotional, and spiritual Chaos. (To read actual journal entries from that time, click here.)

I’d like to take a moment here, to say, that without the training and support we received from Team Expansion, we’d probably still be drowning. We use the material from Team Expansion’s required training multiple times a week. Our sending church’s elders also requested that we attend a week of intensive marriage counseling before leaving the States, and we use that material nearly every day as well.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Transition is Terrible. Sending Agencies are Amazing.


Post Script:

While my first month overseas was by far the hardest month of my life, it does not follow that my first year overseas was the hardest year of my life. That distinction belongs to 2008. I do not merely speak for myself in this; Jonathan agrees. That was the year he began work as a first-year nurse in Truman Medical Center’s Emergency Department, while continuing to work part time at Red Bridge Church of Christ. He had to work nights and attend extra trainings and was extra tired. I was pregnant with Hannah, endured intense morning sickness, and fought overwhelming fears about health throughout my pregnancy. 2008 definitely beats out 2012 for the Hardest Year Award 🙂

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.

A Good Day

– By Elizabeth

I had a good day today.

Yes, it’s true.

I had a good day yesterday too.  And not just “good for Cambodia,” but honest to goodness, downright good.

Last November I climbed a 20 foot pole.  And jumped off it.  (I know you’re all asking yourselves if this is the same non-athletic Elizabeth Hunzinger you thought you knew.)  I climbed it with no fear.  But when I got to the top, I froze.  The transition from crouching at the top of the pole to standing on the top of the pole was incredibly frightening.  It’s the shortest part, about 1 second of motion, but it’s the most difficult.  And I needed Jonathan to coach me through it.  Once I was standing, I felt fine again.

It’s the same in labor.  Transition, that part of labor just before full dilation, is the shortest part.  It’s also the most intense and the place where a mom doubts herself.  She needs help to get through it.  (Jonathan claims that since he did this for me 4 times, I owe him 4 doula fees).

At MTI last fall we learned about the “Chaos Bridge,” which is an analogy for transition (or “transsizion,” as our South African SPLICE leader called it).  We start out settled and stable, move into unsettled with all its farewells, and then into the bouncy bubbly transition.  We start to come out of it while resettling, and then finally reach a new settled state.

When I was neck deep in missionary transition, you supported me with prayers and encouragement.  I couldn’t have made it through without your doula-ing, as all my birthie friends would say.

Transition.  The most terrible part.  The shortest part.  Now I know with certainty that it doesn’t last forever.  And I can assure the next person I see experiencing transition that it does indeed end.  It’s painful, but it won’t last long.  Not much longer now.  I promise.


Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4