Culture shock — it’s a word that many past, present and future expats are fed up hearing. Your new life in a new country will be overwhelming at first, and there’s lots of help available to help you deal with the transition. What many people don’t realize, however, is that a greater understanding of your own culture can actually make the transition easier. While cultural differences can be one of the hardest things to overcome when relocating to another country, they’re also a great conversation starter, as long as you know what you’re talking about!
So you’ve made it through your first week of work and it’s all going relatively well so far. To make things even better, some of your colleagues are heading out to dinner after work and invite you to join — a great start to your expat adventure. After helping you to translate the menu and having a laugh over your reaction to some of the unfamiliar combinations of food on offer, the conversation turns to your home delicacies. The breakfast in particular gets an unusual reaction — why in the world did the Brits ever think fried meat and greasy bread was a good idea for breakfast? Suddenly, you start to question your own habits and see them through everyone else’s eyes. So you can accept that your country has weird eating habits, but it really does taste good! One promise of a traditional home-cooked meal later, and the reputation of your country’s cuisine is on the line.
When it comes to history, you’re the native and considered the expert. Half an hour into a conversation about the battle for independence and multiple civil wars, however, you quickly realize that everything you learnt in history class 10 years ago just isn’t enough. You’ve never thought about it from an outsider’s point of view — you’ve always just accepted it as what it is; a part of your culture. But listening to the reasons behind all of the trouble said from a different view point, it really does sound a bit ridiculous. Discussing your own country’s history with people from around the world can rid you of biased opinions and encourage you to see the whole picture. Before you know it, you’ll be a history expert and informing everyone back home of your new outlook whenever you get the chance.
Communication is often one of the biggest struggles of expat life, especially if you’re moving to a country without knowing the local language. But communication is not just about words, it’s about body language, eye contact, mannerisms and so much more. You pick up the general mannerisms of those you’ve grown up with, and, because of this, you see these small habits as normal — it’s as easy as breathing. Still, becoming an expat means you need to learn to embrace a new version of normal.
If you move to America from an Asian country, for example, the different cultural expectations for something as simple as eye contact can cause confusion. In Asia, not making eye contact is seen as a sign of respect, whereas in America, avoiding eye contact can be seen as a sign of dishonesty — see the dilemma? Even saying hello can be a challenge. Should you shake hands? Maybe a polite nod? Or is a brief hug and peck on the cheek better? After a couple of awkward hugs, you soon get the hang of the local greeting and start to question your own — shaking hands just seems so impersonal, why not give a friendly hug instead?
Don’t worry, there are so many positives to this learning curve. With what you’ve learnt from all of the questions and discussions, you can now see your country through a non-native’s eyes. Maybe you’ll start to appreciate your culture a little bit more — suddenly you miss those Sunday’s in Germany that were ‘family day’ — or maybe you’ll realize that something that once made sense, really does seem like a waste of time — you missed out on so much working those long hours every week. Either way, you’ll see your home country in a new light and appreciate the little things a lot more.
Leaving behind home comforts for a “new normal” can also make you realize how much your own culture held you back. If you’re from a country where having a good job and providing for a family is the number one priority, moving to a country where relaxation and new experiences are encouraged can open so many new doors. Maybe you’ll pick up a new hobby, or spend less time making your children do homework and encourage them to pick up a new sport.
Expats are also often more aware of their home culture in that they realize that their way is not necessarily the right way. They quickly learn that projecting their values onto someone else is not the right way to go. Even though something is normal for you, it may not be right for others. Many people confuse their own culture with basic human nature, but expats quickly learn that “normal” can have many different definitions.
As Carl Jung once said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”. Expats are among some of the most open-minded people in the world, not just to other cultures, but also to their own. Who knows, maybe you’ll love your new country’s culture much more than your own, or maybe you’ll start to appreciate home more. Either way, moving abroad is ironically one of the best ways to learn more about the country you leave behind.
Laura Kernaghan is a language student from Northern Ireland, currently living in Munich, Germany. She works for InterNations as an intern in the Content & Communications Department.