Before I moved to London, I hadn’t really given cultural differences too much thought. I’d been there for a holiday a few years before and, apart from noticing that “g’day mate” was missing from the vernacular and I couldn’t get a decent meat pie with sauce, I hadn’t seen too much of concern. We spoke the same language. How different could it be?
But after a few months of living in the Motherland, I realised that my brief look at the British culture had only touched the surface… there were far more differences than I had expected. Even the most basic interaction of greeting someone was different… the laid back “How-you-going-mate?” was replaced with the direct “You right, yeah?” delivered, as it seemed to me, as a form of accusation. Yes, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? Is my hair a mess? Are my clothes out of place?
A few years later I found myself in a similar situation. When I moved to France, I took into account the difficulties I would face in not speaking the language. But again I underestimated the level of cultural differences I would encounter. France is a Western country. Aside from the language, how different could it be?
As I know now, the answer is “extremely different”. The typical French/Latin way of thinking is completely divergent from that of Australians/Anglo-Saxons. We may look fairly similar, but culturally we are miles apart. Even when it comes to the basics. I will never forget the first time my boyfriend chastised me for not giving two kisses on the cheek to every stranger in the room at a party we went to. Really??? I don’t even know these people and I have to kiss them???
When moving to a new country, it’s usually the same story. At first, everything seems wonderful… all shiny, new and exciting. But as this dose of enthusiasm wanes, reality hits and negative contrasts start to rear their ugly heads. You see the things you liked better at home. Sometimes you even start to feel like an outsider.
It seems that there is an endless sea of ex-pats living abroad who cling desperately to what they know. They pass their time telling everyone how much better life is in their country of origin, but seem to forget that they are actually choosing to spend a part of their lives in their adopted country. And that’s exactly what living abroad is for most of us born in a Western country. A choice. Something we decide to do. Something we then have the responsibility to embrace.
When I say embrace, I don’t mean that it’s necessary to holistically adopt the customs and habits of your new culture in order to make your stay a success… I certainly don’t advocate adopting the local rituals should you ever happen to live with a cannibalistic tribe! I am simply talking about approaching life abroad with an openness of spirit that allows you to enjoy the differences you find, to appreciate the weird and wonderful quirks of your adopted home.
Some of the customs and habits you will come to love, some of them you will dislike. But it is important to learn to understand and be appreciative of how they all mesh together to form the culture you are living in. I now know that the English “You right, yeah?” isn’t an accusation, but a genuine request after my well-being. And I enjoy the fact that there is a standard method of greeting someone here in France… no doubts as to whether a kiss, a hug, a hand-shake or even a mix of all three is appropriate. Simply two kisses and the job is done!
The other important factor in adapting to your adopted home is learning to speak the language. Without an understanding of the local language, a lot of cultural subtlety that can be missed. Starting to understand how the language works gives great cultural insight. And if the locals see that you are making an effort with their language, they are much more likely to be welcoming!
It is normal to miss things from home and to have days when you just don’t get the culture of your adopted country. But an open mind, a bit of curiosity and a willingness to learn are the key ingredients for discovering the ideas and practices from your adopted home that will enhance your life and help you find your place with the locals.