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Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 1/3 Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 1/3
by Joseph Gatt
2008-12-09 09:45:54
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Part 1: Discovery and culture shock

Moving to a new country is often an enriching and valuable experience. Spending life abroad has its ups and downs, but will often prove being beneficial as a means of self discovery. However that does not go without its downside.

Having myself lived in seven different countries, it is surprising how little attention people give this exciting experience. However, if one looks into himself and sees what he can take from living abroad, one might find a lot of benefits. In a globalized world, a lot of people will be asked to move abroad, whether they really wanted it in the first place or not. Especially for those who experience moving overseas for the first time, a feeling of culture shock is almost inevitable.

Expat or immigrant?

Before discussing culture shock, I would like to give my brief opinion on one of the worlds perhaps greatest injustices. Throughout my many travels, I have noticed most people calling me a first or second generation immigrant. My American friends called Smith or Williams, sitting next to me, are called expats.

Over the years, I have noticed there is no big difference between the two groups. Except for their nationality of origin. People from third world countries will be called immigrants, from first world countries expats. The reasons mentioned are that immigrants never go back to their countries, and are economically better off in their adoptive land. Well, a lot of “immigrants” go back to their countries after retirement, and some “expats” stay in their adoptive country forever. A lot of immigrants would be better economically in their home countries, or at least have better jobs, and equivalent purchasing power. A lot of expats have lower purchasing power and would perhaps have a lower category of jobs in their home country. Well, in a globalized world, a stupid American is worth 10 skilled third world country workers and deserves a better appellation. Something I denounce.

Getting to the adoptive homeland

Living in a different environment often goes with a good impression upon arrival. That impression may last shorter for some people than for others. Just like that new book you buy at the library and are eager to read when you get home. To some, that good impression is accompanied with a feeling that it they will adapt in no time. Learning the first few phrases of the local language gives the impression of knowing and understanding half the language, knowing one manner feels like knowing all the culture, knowing one dish feels like having tasted the whole food.

Let me illustrate this. I met a lot of kids who would tell me they spoke the local language without giving it any effort. In most cases I took language classes in my adoptive homeland and people would tell me “all I did was speak to the local people”. Later, I realize the person is not really telling lies, just really thinks his 10 sentences (most of them incorrect) in the local languages gives him the right to proclaim he can speak the local language.

During that immersion phase, the impression is very positive. In Africa, the weather will always be great, the landscape amazing, the prices ridiculously cheap, the people warmhearted, the food delicious. In Europe, the cities will be beautiful, the cuisine refined, the people well organized, services quick and the city highly comfortable. And even when there are problems, they are surmountable. In Africa, it will be OK to, say, live without a single product we are familiar with, or to live without watching a television station in a language we understand. In Europe, people would be right to scold us if we are three minutes late, after all, we should all be on time when we have appointments. But these facts will soon annoy the expat.

I don’t feel home

The greatest difficulty living abroad for me is that no one cared about my international background, yet people don’t want to hear my opinion about local issues because I don’t have enough experience to give a clear founded opinion about them. In many ways they are right.

As for my international experience, I always thought it would be a decisive matter when it came to making a friend, getting a girlfriend, being accepted to a school or getting a job. The mere fact of having lived in seven countries should have done the trick. Well, surprisingly, people change the topic as soon as you mention how things work differently in your country or in a third country.

My potential employer never mentioned my international experience. During my final interview to get admission to grad school, the dean did not ask me a single question related to my foreign experienced, when ironically, I applied for an international politics major. And my friends change the topic as soon as they hear  a sentence start with “when I was in…”. This complex problem was very frustrating to begin with. I kept wondering how people who watch and analyze international news religiously never think about asking, let that be listening to, the experience of an eyewitness. I guess I found the answer. People don’t always keep in mind that I have an international experience. And they really want to have the kind of two-way conversation where they have room for participating in the conversation.

The other difficulty is that after a few weeks or months, people often realize they don’t know as much about the local culture as they thought they knew. During the learning process, they will find it difficult to accept the fact that things are different. They will always think that it would have been more convenient if things were different, say something they would have adapted to more easily.

During my first few months in Korea, I found it difficult to accept that I had to conjugate my verbs differently when I was talking to a friend and when I was talking to a stranger. I wanted everyone to take me as a friend, and often invited people to speak to me the same way they would speak to a friend. The fact that people used the language form used when speaking to a stranger to me, even after having met several times, made me feel like I could not be trusted. But that’s just the way Korean culture is. In Turkey, one should always obey to what the elder says. Quite a few times, people would order me things like to wash the dishes, something I never did even in my own home. Refusing that order from elders made me lose quite a few friends.

Language and relations

Perhaps even harder than the little interest people show in you and your experience as a foreigner, is not making oneself understood. And with that comes the issue of social relations. Having spent my whole life abroad, I was always encouraged to meet local people. Problem number one: the only thing I’m asked at first is my name (and sometimes my nationality). Problem number two: they often have conversations in their local language. Having attended international schools, I was surprised that my teachers or professors, once outside the classroom, would talk to my classmates in the local language. Even more surprising: the office of administrative affairs of the school operated, in most cases, in the local language, with staff with no knowledge of the schools official language.

Not being able to communicate freely and make friends often leads to the expat wanting to leave his adoptive country and go back to his native country. The process is frustrating, and after having once felt weeks away from mastering the language and understanding the culture perfectly, will realize learning the language is not such an easy process. Expats with children will also feel at distance with their children, who adapt better to the local culture. The feeling of not understanding their children may last forever. Not only will there be a generation gap, but also a cultural gap with their children. This is particularly serious with people from “conservative” cultures living in “liberal” cultures, say missionaries and their children.

These factors are often accompanied by a long period of depression for the expats. Making the kind of friends one could make at home is often impossible. That is followed with a feeling of being misunderstood. A lot of people (60% according to a study) reject their adoptive homeland’s culture completely and only stick to their local country’s people. Some (10%) will overcome culture shock so well they will feel their adoptive country is like their new home. Many (30%) will overcome culture shock but still have ups and downs.

A few tips with how to deal with culture shock

Having lived in seven different countries, I have a few tips that would ease the feeling of culture shock:

1-    Before moving to a new country, make sure you learn a little bit about the history, culture, language of the country. Checking a city map, a few restaurants, bars, and what is said about foreigners living there beforehand is also helpful.

2-    When you get to the country, balance time spent on the internet keeping in touch with friends and family and time spent meeting local friends.

3-    Make friends from the host country, and don’t hesitate to ask them (politely) about their culture and etiquette. A historical approach to those questions is always good.

4-    Avoid spending time complaining or criticizing local culture and trends with your fellow countrymen. That will only make you feel more depressed.

5-    Do your best to learn the local language. Language exchange and formal language classes are always helpful. Books which promise to teach you the language in a few hours are often not.

6-    Watch local television and check out local websites. You will learn a lot about the local culture.

7-    Try to find an equivalent to the thing you miss the most home. If it’s a dish, try tasting different dishes until you find one you find as delicious or even more delicious than the one back home.

8-    If you’re single, a local girlfriend will never harm you. International couples are often as much if not a lot more fun than couples from the same village.

9-    If something annoys you about the local culture, try to find an explanation. (Example: Koreans ask a lot of questions which would be considered personal in a lot of countries, i.e. how much money do you make, how old are you, what college did you graduate from. The reason all these questions are asked is that people often try to see what age and social class the person belongs to, to see what degree of friendship the two can have).

10-    Don’t forget that you can still stick to your principles. Saying “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this” will never hurt anyone. People will understand you.


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Sand2008-12-09 13:36:49
I left the USA some years ago and on the times when I returned I discovered the goals, ways of living, political environment, the things the population accepted and those they found unacceptable had changed so much that the country I grew up in no longer exists. The nostalgia I feel for my country is for a place not much different than for a fictional never-never land that remains only in memory.

Emanuel Paparella2008-12-09 14:09:59
Interesting article with good insights and advices. I particularly like the advice to first learn the language of the people one lives among or one will forever be the foreigner and “the other” a la Hemingway: foreign countries as exotic places to live in to project one’s image of oneself as an adventurer. Indeed, language is the key to the culture and the very soul of a people; it surely will not be found in childish utopian fantasies of the perfect country, or nostalgia for that matter, but in the ideals as drafted in the constitution of a country. It is the grasping and practice of those ideals that makes many naturalized Americans better Americans than many born here who take their citizenship for granted and don’t even bother to vote. I concur that bi-culturalism is like walking on a tightrope; not an easy feat, but once achieved one has a much better perspective on one’s own original culture and can be a good-will ambassador to other cultures. American international reputation, now in shambles, can surely use some of those people.

Alexander Mikhaylov2008-12-09 22:45:06
Thanks Mr.Hadid, very nice article!
Well, I might say my own experience is less extensive than yours - only six countries. My problem however, as I have noticed during these years, is that every time I arrive to a new place I have to adjust to a new culture from the scratch

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