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When You Should Stick to Your Own Culture

The signals were all around me. After a few months of being in India, my wife and I were invited to a dinner with a group of other expats. We had intentionally avoided these kinds of gatherings at first because we knew they could be addictive and also prevent us from really diving into the culture.

The main question to ask yourself here is: are you willing to be considered “weird” for this? If that is fine with you, then proceed.

When It Is a Matter of Identity/Personality

If you love to sing, but are working in a place where singing a tune at your cubicle is considered unprofessional, this might be an area you choose just to be weird. Similarly, if cheering for a certain sports team is more central to your identity, don’t feel compelled to pack away all your t-shirts and caps. These personality markers will become the things your new friends will remember and appreciate about you.

When It Is a Unique Hobby or Passion

If you really love surfing and adventure sports, you might find certain countries to be very underdeveloped. However, that doesn’t mean that you should give it up all together. You can either find the few outliers who have similar passions, or think about starting a club (quilting, ultimate, baking). These are ways you can add to the diversity of your new home, and not keep all your favorite things in boxes.

When It Is Part of Your Family Culture

Does your family make a special cake around Christmas, but you are afraid of what your Hindu/Muslim/Buddhist/atheistic neighbors will think? Odds are they will love the fact that you want to share your family culture with them (although they may or may not eat it). Other cultures might be much more family-centric, and simply saying, “It is a family tradition” is plenty of license to be as weird as you would like. For your own sanity and long-term success, it is important to retain your connection with special days and traditions.

When You Have Defined It as a Matter of Personal Health and Safety

In India, I went to some amusement parks with some groups of young people. It was fun, but the safety of the rides was extremely suspect. If someone invited me to go with my young children, I would likely decline. If no one else in your apartment complex uses mosquito nets, but you feel it is important, then go ahead with it.

However, you should let this category be in constant flux. What was unsafe and dirty to you a year ago might seem fine today. Conversely, you might feel like you can stomach street food when you first arrive, but later learn that your stomach is not as steely as you thought it was.

When You Feel You Are Making a Personal Compromise

Most cultures around the world will respect a personal choice you have made. If you really feel convicted not to drink, smoke, eat meat, etc., they will understand. You might be the first German they ever met who didn’t enjoy going out for a pint, but it likely won’t have a lasting impact on their friendliness with you.

The decision of when to enthusiastically adopt your new culture and when to staunchly hold on to your own is a significant one, but it helps to see this not as a onetime question, but a situational one. How you respond will affect your longevity, happiness, and overall feeling toward your host culture. Don’t make these decisions lightly, but don’t make them permanent either. Enjoy all the riches your new culture has to offer, but don’t lose yourself in the process.

Neil Miller is a US American who has been living and working with India since 2010. He currently lives in Chennai with his wife and children and writes regularly about several topics on India at Learning India.

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