Who said you can’t put in more than 100% effort?
One way to describe what happens to a missionary is through percentages. That is, assuming someone living in the one society is the standard, that being 100%. What happens to a missionary is that they kind of become 150%.
Now this is less like adding 50% to the 100%, and more like becoming 75% from each culture. The reason I like this description is that it portrays both a loss and a gain that occurs as you cross cultures. You lose touch with your own culture, but gain insights into another.
So what is lost and gained?
Loses: Time with family and time with society. The way this plays out is that you miss the ‘little times’ with family, seeing them at events or together as a group. On a societal level, what you miss is the trends and events that become part of a social memory – ‘remember when…’. Missionaries return and miss that social memory.1 In a way, the individual losses of social memory are nothing significant. Some you may prefer to lose. But in another sense, people refer to things from social memory and use language arising from that memory. The result is that the missionary feels on the outside having not experienced it with everyone else.
Gains: You gain insights into another culture. In seeing another culture, you see different ways of life. As a result it can help you reflect on your own. The distance that occurs as you lose some of your culture provides that space. So not only do you gain insights into another culture, but into your own as well; leaving your culture is a way of learning about it. Seeing a new culture and your own culture in a new way provides the opportunity to reflect, and, given enough time, it may also change your way of life. This may be permanent changes or just contextual (depending on where you are living). One of our teachers described it this way: you live one way when you’re overseas and you return to your life (more or less) when you come back.
On coming back, the missionary looks mostly the same. But because of their cross cultural experiences and lost home experiences (the 25% lost of your home culture) they’ll be different, even if it doesn’t show.
- I guess this is slightly diminished by online communication to a degree. Although seeing a few things at distance is no compensation for living there. ↩