In interacting with many who have moved to a different culture, including myself, there is this push and pull factor of integration. We want to remain true to ourselves, but are we able to do that while adapting and adjusting our behaviors and mindset? Are we able to remain true to ourselves when the rest of society, including our family back home uses so many labels to define us? What if our behavior veers from those labels? Will be we scorned, teased, misunderstood by those closest to us? Will we fit in with our family anymore? Will our family recognize us? Will we recognize ourselves?
These are questions many struggle with day in and day out in adapting to a new culture. Those of us who either do adapt or appear to adapt and move between cultures ‘easily’ are looked upon in mystery and intrigue by others. While others may think those who change, adapt and integrate are giving up their ‘cultural identity’ or even ‘forgetting who they are.’
In adapting to another culture, we learn new behaviors, ways of talking, non-verbal cues, and thinking. Each person adapts to another culture differently. No two people, not even two twins will adapt the exact same way. All of us have a unique view of the world and what to expect from it. And what we think others expect from us. All the normal formalities, pleasantries and etiquette that define us as any particular nationality come into question when we move and see how others behave differently. In some cases, we learn new things that pleasantly surprise us. If we are open to the environment, we may learn about new ways of thinking or behaving that seem ‘good’ or ‘better than in our native culture’. We may adapt them. But, we may also see things we don’t agree with, and don’t want to adapt. The struggle comes in when the things we disagree with may be ‘required’ to survive in that culture.
All these new things, all these proposed changes question our very self. Sometimes we adapt behaviors unconsciously simply by integrating into the culture and hanging out with locals. Sometimes, we resist or are unable to change because it takes too much effort to think about the correct etiquette in the situation (even after repeated exposure to those situations). We begin to question how to interact and what exactly we know. Aren’t we adults? Weren’t we already socialized to behave? Our parents didn’t mess up with us?
That is true. Our parents did not mess up with us. They socialized us in the only way they knew how. That’s why even when expats raise their kids abroad, kids may end up acting one way at home and one way in society and at school. The home rules drastically different from the school and social rules outside the house. Though these kids can easily change from one cultural persona to the other, many of these children feel they have split personalities. This too, happens to adults as they are adjusting to another culture: unlearning and relearning things they thought they already knew.
Have you experienced any of these things? Do you have children? Have they experienced any of these things? Do share your impressions in the comments below.
This article was inspired by the article “My Son’s Name is Ivan.” This article is about a Croatian-Austrian-American and how she has struggled with cultural identity within herself and among her family members.
Photo credit: Johnny Grim, creative commons, flickr.
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Jennifer Kumar is a cross-cultural coach. She helps people explore their identities and come to terms with change when moving between cultures. Jennifer can also help you with cross-cultural skill building a unique process to help you identify and enhance cross-cultural adaptation skills in your own life for easier global transitions. Contact her by clicking here.