I used to think so! That’s the main reason I wanted to live abroad; initially.
“When returning to America from Kenya, I instinctively called my family members by the Swahili terms. It just seemed to come like second nature; and I don’t know why since I only spent two years of my life there.”
|Blog author, Jennifer Kumar|
I remember this quote from a variety of books I read of Americans who immersed themselves into various foreign cultures. I remember reading this with awe thinking, “How could this happen to someone? What kind of experience would make them forget their quote en quote natural ways of being? What did his family think not being addressed in English? Did they understand him anymore? How long did it take him to readjust to US ways? Wow…. he’s so interesting….”
It is very intriguing how someone can move to a different place and adapt so much it appears they have completely changed. At least to the people that thought they knew this man, he suddenly seemed different, foreign. Surely, they had no idea what in the world he was talking about!
Just like so many may be intrigued with me and how I have lived in India (As evidenced by the local media in the state of Kerala like the Malayala Manorama, The Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle and Vanitha who really liked to write about expats in India like me!)
and adapted so much to the culture, I am fascinated with others who do the same. I am equally fascinated with those who manage to ‘stay the same’ as I find it impossible to do.
Just like that man talking to his American family in Swahili probably thought, people who appear to adapt flawlessly have a different view of ‘identity’ than those who feel that identity is confined to ‘material’ things like food, dress, and even language (though I still struggle with that!). We find our identity in things that we can carry with us anywhere in the world. It may not be easy to carry material items around the world; but we can carry our inner being with us anywhere. Part of this inner being allows us to adapt which can help us find commonalities or at least comfort with locals in most of the places we go.
Is it easy? To coin an American slang “heck no!” Well, while some things may be easy; most of it is downright difficult. Some things, like maybe the Indian head-bob or saying ‘Yes ma’am’ or ‘No saar’ are easy to pick up and do; while other things like truly understanding group culture and always using my right hand (and not my left hand) are. Some behaviors we can adapt to without much conscious effort. Others – the ones that cause us identity problems and culture shock– cause us to wonder about our identity and how or if we should even entertain the suggestion of change. It’s not easy. Sometimes we refuse to change. Sometimes we realize we must change because the adopted culture measures different variables (eg. success, friendliness) differently.
Not everyone adapts the same way. No two people will adapt to or reject the same things. Sometimes that also causes a conflict.
Is it this illusion of change of identity the thing that makes people who live abroad appear interesting? Whether it’s India, Ghana, Chile, Philippines, Dubai, the United States of America, Japan, Rwanda, or any other country, understanding the local ways and adapting to another culture or nationality is NOT easy. It does challenge everything we were raised on. It forces us to look deep within and not live on autopilot.
The constant and timeless struggle with identity intrigues us. We are curious when people take the less trodden path and be different. It’s not easy to be different (yes, even in the individualist country of America). It’s easier to stay the same. It’s easier to stay tied to the things that we know. It’s comfortable. It won’t get us in trouble with our family or friends. People we [think we] relate to will always relate to us the less we change. The less effort we have to take to make new friends and meet new people. The less effort we have to take to know who we truly are on the inside.
So, does changing one’s identity through culture shock and adaptation make one ‘more interesting?’ That’s for you to decide. What I can say from going through this experience myself is, I don’t find myself more interesting. I feel I am just living my life. My life happens to take me on the path of living in India; not once but twice. For that I am blessed. I can experience something most from my country don’t have any clue about. And, because of that I have a responsibility to enlighten others. And, having this interesting life (in other’s eyes) has a consequence. Taking the less beaten path of life is not easy. It may sound romantic or bohemian; but, yes, sometimes I am intrigued by the people who appear not to change. I wonder if it is ‘easier’ for them. However, once I have tasted this life of difference and interest, there is NO going back because it helps me grow as a person. I am always challenged. I am always finding excuses to reassess myself because I am continually challenged by my surroundings and those I surround myself with. It keeps me on my toes. Maybe that make me and people like me interesting, I don’t know.
To sum up, understanding our true identity, changing or evolving our identity is interesting. Whether we live in the same place our whole lives or have a chance to move away or move abroad. It’s only once most of us move away from comforts and habits – out of our comfort zone – that we learn more about ourselves. That is only if we are willing to be open and learn.
Do you think people who live abroad are ‘more interesting?’ Why or why not?
Do people think you are more interesting because of your global lifestyle? What do you think about that?
Blog author, Jennifer Kumar provides cross-cultural coaching for expats moving to or living in a new culture or country. Contact her for more information.
Image: Krishna Kumar
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