Before missionaries move to their assigned foreign country, most receive some form of instruction in cultural sensitivity, but 'How to Date' is not usually on the agenda.
Over the last year, British Siobhain Dales and Canadian Ryan Cole have been learning the fine art of dating in the ‘fishbowl’ of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where all eyes are watching their every move, and the cultural expectations are radically different from their own.
Dating is not a 'thing'
Take, for instance, the first cultural point: Papua New Guineans don’t date. The Canadian or UK concept of dating simply doesn’t exist in the culture. Instead two people move from zero to marriage either in an agreement between tribes and families, or they sleep together which equals marriage. No time taken to measure compatibility. No ceremony.
Both Siobhain and Ryan decided separately and years apart to join MAF as single missionaries. Siobhain moved to PNG in 2014 as MAF’s Ground Operations Manager, and two years later in February 2016, Ryan arrived as a pilot. Within a few months of Ryan’s arrival, the two were clearly attracted to each other despite their diverse backgrounds, countries and personalities. Siobhain is a self-described extrovert while Ryan is quiet and reserved (barring those Facebook photos of the two in wildly hilarious poses).
It started, in a way, with an airplane-shaped birthday cake that Siobhain made for Ryan. Add on some singles group outings, a lot of flirting, and the spark ignited. Both knew that to be culturally sensitive they would have to adjust their natural behaviour.
‘I’m in my 30s,’ Siobhain explains. ‘I wasn’t interested in casual dating anyway, so we had that conversation – either we’re doing this with a view toward the long term, or we’ll just be friends and not make things awkward. Being here in this environment forced that serious conversation to happen sooner.
‘You absolutely can’t do casual dating here because it not only brings your own reputation into question, it brings the whole reputation of MAF amongst our national staff. Our guards see, our house-helpers see, the local people know. People who don’t live on my compound know that I have a dog named Ray, because they watch us. So we can’t just treat it like we’re back in the UK or Canada.
‘We’re expats. We stick out. We like to call it the MAF fishbowl. Everyone is watching us to see what we do.’
‘Here’s so much accountability within MAF and the compounds,and so many eyes watching that it gives you that extra incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.’
Facing the rumours
Within one month of the beginning of their romance, the rumours were spreading. Nicky Duncalfe, a MAF missionary in PNG for 23 years, gave Siobhain some advice: pick some of the nationals at the compound and at work and tell them the official story. Give them permission to tell others so the false rumours would end.
‘So within a month of us starting to see each other, I was having conversations with some of my members of staff who live on our compounds and who see us going in and out of each other’s houses,' Siobhain remembers. ‘I had to say to them, “Just so you’re aware, we are seeking God’s wisdom as to whether or not we should get married”. That’s a terrifying thing to say out loud when you’ve been seeing someone for a few weeks. Those were the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve ever had in my life. I had to tell two members of my staff about my relationship with Ryan before I told my mother!’
‘I was oblivious to these conversations,’ Ryan comments. 'She told me after-the-fact, but it was a good thing for her to do, to get things clarified.’
How to behave in the Fishbowl
Two rules have reigned in the not-so-secret-dating period for Ryan and Siobhain in PNG: keep the windows and doors open to view, and no public displays of affection. In a way, the first rule is an open invitation for anyone to look and see that they are behaving. It could be frustrating, but Ryan and Siobhain see it as a blessing.
‘There’s so much accountability within MAF and the compounds,’ Ryan says, ‘and so many eyes watching that it gives you that extra incentive to stay on the straight and narrow. We go over to each other’s house. The doors are open. The windows open. But we still have our conversation privacy.’
The second rule is just annoying.
‘It’s natural if you’re back home to hold hands with the person you’re dating. But we just cannot do that in public. Absolutely cannot,’ Siobhain explains emphatically. ‘Sometimes we have lunch together in the picnic area at work, and if there’s no one else around, we’ll sneakily hold hands across the table.’
‘But we can’t walk down the street holding hands because that’s not done,’ Ryan adds. ‘If you’re showing affection in public, it’s assumed you’re sleeping together. And if you sleep together, you’re married. Instantly.’
The purple ring
It seemed inevitable from early on that the relationship would, in fact, lead to marriage and Siobhain had a sneaky suspicion that the proposal might be during the time that both their parents came for a visit. The parents met each other on Valentines Day and then all traveled to Yuo Island for two days, a tropical paradise off the north coast of PNG.
‘That’s where he proposed on 16 February with our parents there to witness,’ Siobhain describes. ‘Ryan told me we should go for a walk. He was super nervous. He had spelled out our initials in a heart made of lights on the sand, played our song, got down on one knee and proposed with a purple leather ring that he made himself.
‘We danced in the sand under the stars and celebrated with our parents. It was super special as we are very close to our parents and not being able to actively involve them in our relationship, due to the distance and time zones, has been an unfortunate fact of living in PNG.’
The couple has survived and thrived in the tangled web of Canadian, British and PNG cultures – intact, and with a future they are excited to share as a couple serving the people of Papua New Guinea.