upside-down reflection

Across the globe, ways of life differ immeasurably – yet people are people. They will always compare – and, generally, they will always like to complain (at least a little bit). So, it might be only natural that when you experience a new place, you compare it to what you know already, especially when you are feeling rather disorientated. This post look at this tendency we have for comparing our cultures.

I stumbled across this quote from Tony Crossley, an Englishman living his life in Thailand and writing about his experience: ‘Expat syndrome is a condition whereby many expatriates see mostly either the best of their own nationality and the worst of the locals, or see the opposite’. I found this quote sums up the whole living abroad experience quite nicely.

Expats see mostly either the best of their own nationality and the worst of the locals, or see the opposite

Comparing cultures is a typical human trait and how we react to a changing environment. We feel comfortable in the well-known. We compare the social system we grew up in, where we went to kindergarten, high school and work, where we knew the language by heart and had time to get used to rules and habits with those of a completely new and foreign culture – a culture we maybe only had a few weeks or months, or even years, to get acquainted with. A culture, where we walk around still like a tourist, not knowing the language by heart. Major differences in how people are doing things, how people value something and what individuals are striving for triggers us to compare. It makes us rate the host country against the place we grew up in.

The different layers of each culture

globe and lightsFor me, there are different layers of comparison. First, there are the factors that nobody can influence: the weather, the landscape, and flora and fauna. These elements are shaping the daily life of a country drastically as they influence the way houses are built, food is prepared and how human life is connected to nature. These are also normally the things you are already kind-of prepared for before moving abroad. You might have searched things online and gained an idea of how different lifestyle might be on the other part of the planet.

The second layer is the way in which a country has developed their own system in order to function, e.g. beauracratic processes, job market, housing market, police force and so on. As an example (and as an American), I definitely have respect for the US police, as they are kind-of unpredictable to me. Also, there is a different approach to get an apartment or driver license. These are most of the times things that surprise you, especially in the beginning. Moving abroad you are confronted with a lot of ‘set-up’ tasks and you have to learn from scratch how things are done here.

The third and, for me, most interesting layer is the ‘value set’ a country and a society has developed over centuries. We are all living on one globe but the way we have been raised, surrounded by the first and second layer, really shaped what we believe in, what we think is the best, and what we are striving for. Values are shaped by growing up in a society living to those values. As a foreigner, it is sometimes hard to adapt when you are already an adult and are moving to a different country with manifested values in your head and heart.

Our values shape how we define a lifestyle

Our values heavily shape what we think is important to us and how we define a happy and fulfilling lifestyle.

How important is family for us? And if everyone is saying, yes family is the most important part of our life, still, every culture shows this affection differently.

I am still very fascinated by the different perceptions on what is enough vacation in my new home overseas compared to the US. How many days should a mother stay at the hospital or at home after giving birth? How many days, weeks, months before giving birth should a mother be allowed to stay away from work. Should the social system continue to pay your salary after giving birth if so for how long?

If you are used to certain things, which you have defined as benefits to you, it is hard to sometimes to let them go and realise that not everybody would define these as benefits.

What I found surprising

Family time, vacation days, sick days – these are just a few examples but they showed me how different we rate our own culture and our opinion is based on our own beliefs, our own experience we gained by growing up in a certain country. What system is best? For the American, their system is everything they know from growing up and why shouldn’t they feel comfortable living in their own culture? When I move abroad, who am I to come and say what is right or wrong? There is no right or wrong but only what we feel comfortable doing because it’s familiar to us.

Of course, cultures are developing and the fact that more and more people leave their home country for a certain time results in more comparison and progress and people start to think about new life models. No system is perfect but always in progress to improve by the input of the people, by the global development and progress in general.

Will we ever fully exchange our culture?

So, after one year abroad, I stopped comparing the culture I am living in and started to be fascinated by the differences. I am still in my honeymoon phase of living abroad.

From this momentum, I can see that it might be interesting to see where this attitude towards a ‘guest culture’ goes when people decide to stay in a specific country for a longer time. How much will you then give up on your own culture and adopt from the new? Are you still open and okay with adapting to the new culture when it’s not only about yourself but also when you have kids and you actually have to decide in which country you want your kids to grow up?

Maybe we will only know when we experience it. Whether values may change over time, having spent more time abroad living in a certain culture, is yet to be seen.

Comparing cultures is a typical human trait and how we react to a changing environment

What are your experiences? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

First published on Share the Love.

Katharina von Knobloch
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