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Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 2/3 Life as an expatriate: A third culture kid's perspective 2/3
by Joseph Gatt
2008-12-10 09:25:04
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Part 2: Adaptation

In the previous article, I discussed culture shock and its main features. Culture shock may often lead to depression, but a few months down the road expats end up adopting to the local culture. Adaptation is where all the fun begins, and when people really start seeing the benefits of living in a foreign country.

Once expats overcome depression, they often adapt to the local customs and accept doing things the way they are done locally. This experience not only helps them become open minded but also helps them analyze their native culture better. This life lesson helps understand the essence of human beings in itself. Attending a local school or working at a local company broadens the perspective and helps people learn more about themselves.
Adaptation can also have awkward moments, feelings of taking a distance from their native culture, or feeling of not knowing where they really come from.

You are a foreigner

“You are a foreigner” is a word I might have to hear for the rest of my life. My parents are Algerian, I was born in New York, and attended French schools in Mozambique, Colombia, Turkey, Algeria, college in France and grad school in South Korea. I heard people tell me I was a foreigner in eight different languages.

Interestingly, I made huge efforts to learn the local language and customs. In doing that, some people would be amazed at the fact that I was able to follow the local culture (as I previously said 60% expats don’t), but most would be indifferent. No one ever thanked me for being polite enough not to pick up my chopsticks after an elder did so in Korea. And no one thanked me for not sending a bouquet containing 13 flowers in France. However, if I did, local people may feel like “he’s a foreigner, he’s learning”, but will often feel like “he can’t adapt to our local culture”.

That is something people who adopt the local culture often feel. They feel like it is a miracle that they were able to keep in mind the fact that they had to do things the local way, and yet local people think it’s part of the game, not an accomplishment in itself. Yet parents don’t congratulate their one year old baby every time he makes “pipi in the potty” either. Something for people who are adapting to the local culture to keep in mind.

Yet, when it comes to talking about local issues, foreigners opinions are often not welcome. As much as the expat will adapt, understand local politics, have the same worries as local people (which meet with worries foreigners have), his opinion or concerns are often not welcome. In France, it was impossible for me to discuss gas prices, inflation, difficulties finding a job after college, when I had as much expertise on the topic local people had. The most frustrating comment I would get when giving my opinion about local issues would be that of “how are things in the United States/Algeria” (often followed by people turning over to the person sitting next to them).
At that time, I intended to spend at least a few more years, if not the rest of my life in France. But I would hear people say “you are a foreigner” often followed by “when will you go back to your country”.

I’m now part of my adoptive country

Some people adopt partly the local culture and maintain some aspects of their birth culture while others adopt the local culture completely. Those who adopt the local culture feel at home, have few foreign friends, and when kids forget their native language, adults may stutter when using it. Those expats often lose touch with their home country, don’t contact their family frequently, and in some cases, start hating their original culture. I’ve discussed immigrants opposing immigration before in another article. Expats often adopt the same way of thinking as the local population.

A lot will convert to the local religion, some will adopt a name that is used in that country, read the newspapers, watch local television. They are very sensitive of being reminded about their origins, and deny having anything to do with their original culture. Yet as I argued before more than half the expats refuse to adapt to the local culture. That has to a certain extent harmed my reputation, and that of expats who wish to adopt the local culture.

I’m a big fan of espresso and will go to coffee shops at least once a day. “May I take your order” the part timer will ask me in English. “I would like a double espresso” will I answer in the local language. “Take out or carry out?” answers the part timer in English. It’s not his or her fault. Most expats don’t speak the local language, therefore fear a misunderstanding if they speak in their language. Being born in the US and of Algerian descent, of course the war in Iraq and terrorist attacks damaged my reputation. But the way expats act in my adoptive countries damaged it even more. In France, the words “you are not a Catholic, you don’t know what Christmas is” would hit me like a bullet on the front. Of course I celebrate Christmas, Buddha’s birthday and Pessach. Same goes with “Oh that’s right, I can’t offer you to have a beer during Ramadan” without even knowing what my religion is. I might as well be an atheist, a Jew, a Protestant, a Buddhist or a Confucianist. Well, I have nothing against observers of any religion, but I think it would be more polite if people asked me “would you like to grab a drink” and let me answer whether my religion allows me to drink or not.

The issue is so big, that expats around the world have created cities within cities, cities they feel more at home. Shops selling products from their country of origin, no displays that would offend those expats, and the local language is almost non-existent. I have nothing against such cities, but they do give locals the impression that expats can not integrate. In France, foreign populations are concentrated in what is called the banlieus, suburban areas where the local population does not want to live. French people blame them for not integrating, not speaking French fluently and properly, lack of education, inability to integrate the labor market. While doing an internship in France, I asked my boss if I had to come finish the work that was left during the weekend. The reason I asked him that is that he asked me to finish my work on Monday, and I thought I might have to go to work on Saturday. “This is not a Muslim country, people rest on Saturdays in this country”. Though people adapt, it is still very difficult for them to get the population to get rid of stereotypes. Very frustrating for those 40% expats who decide to adopt the local culture to a certain extent.

Adaptation meets the immigration office

Some countries welcome expats better than others. In Canada or Australia, obtaining citizenship only requires a few years of residence, and residence is very easy to obtain. That is if you are from certain countries. As much as expats can perfectly adapt to the local culture, they will be reminded around once a year that they are still an “alien”. Very offensive, given that they know almost as much as the local people about the country. That bureaucratic procedure, which is the same for all expats, can result in being very frustrating.

I know people who attended French/American schools their whole lives, were sometimes born in those countries (to diplomat parents therefore can not get automatic citizenship) and got deported to their parents’ country, a country they know nothing about. That might be an extreme case, but I am in favor of privileged conditions for those children. That would be if a child can speak the language of the country, studied the culture and can find his way through that country, he can only be beneficial to the country. I don’t understand why a kid who attended an American school, studied American history, the US metric system and so on would have to go through the same procedures as someone who doesn’t speak the language and might never speak the language of his potential host country.

Immigration offices should know that some people do their best to adapt. They sacrifice their culture to adopt their adoptive country’s culture. Officials should recognize that sacrifice and at least mention that some people deserve to be allowed to spend the rest of their lives in that country without having to visit the immigration office every year. But once again, politicians take that sacrifice for granted (just like a baby doing pipi in a potty) and still consider that expat an “alien”. For this particular reason, a lot of people realize their efforts for integration were vain and that in the end, the would be better off going back to their native homeland. Surprisingly, once back to their native country, they’re not in for an easy ride



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Sand2008-12-11 09:09:44
To a large degree, it seems to me, culture shock must be a reflection of an individual's integration into his or her own society. As an originally born New Yorker my experience in growing up put me into contact with a very wide spectrum of different cultures where any subway car contained people speaking in three or four languages I did not understand with an accompanying melange of newspapers in a different range of languages and cultures. Subsequently in my life in several foreign countries I felt no shock at all at meeting and dealing with people from different cultures. I imagine there are more culturally homogeneous places in the USA where reactions would be decidedly different.

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