Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on ‘Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptivity.This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them. In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation. The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!
Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*. They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside. Every Malteser is alike. So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.
But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos. On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different. In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do. That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.
But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals. That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside. So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them. Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.
Then we go back to our ‘home’ country. But we’ve changed on the inside. So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside. Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced. ‘Home isn’t home any more. This is when we can get reverse culture shock.
So what do we do about it? Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again. But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson. That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’. Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.
The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel. They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different. It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not. So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do. This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.
Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more. We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving. Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
* Other types of confectionery are available.
-  Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.