Life abroad can be incredible . . . and challenging . . . and wonderful . . . and horrible.
Transition from one space, one place, one system and one normal to another is an ongoing process.
Even after the initial settling in, “culture shock” and newby bumblings, life abroad remains more fluid, more changing and more filled up with shaky uncertainties than monocultural life back on the farm.
Another angle that we often miss (in our sweet little expat bubble) is the fact that we have also imported copious amounts of transition into our host culture. They were normal before we got here — or at least they knew what normal looked like. Now their lives are filled with a constant stream of incoming and outgoing foreigners who talk funny, act weird, eat wrong and complain a lot.
You can’t write stuff this good.
Wide-eyed, hyper-optimistic, fresh off the boat Newpats (new expats) getting initiated and inundated by multi-varying degrees of seasoned or disgruntled or savvy or battle-weary Vetpats (veteran expats) who introduce them to the ways of the Locals with wise, wise words of expat genius like . . . ” you can’t get that here.”
It’s a wild mix of people who don’t understand the least bit about each other but feel the pressure to act as if they do. It’s like a gigantic petri dish for toxic assumptions to go crazy.
It’s not always fatal but it is never healthy.
Here is a short (and very abridged) guide to cross-cultural assumptions:
The assumption of direct correlation: The false assumption that every new experience is fully grasped and understood based on previous exposure to a completely unrelated and equally misunderstood foreign culture. Generally accompanied by the words, “That’s just like” or “When I was” or both.
Example: “Oh they eat with chopsticks?! That’s just like when I was in India . . . and they ate with their hands.”
Nope. It’s actually not.
The assumption of overestimated relational capital: The misguided perception that ones influence in his or her new community is stronger than than it actually is. Often accompanied by expectations for broad paradigm shifts based on personal recommendations, followed by confusion when said paradigm shifts don’t occur immediately.
Example: “Wow, you guys are way too introverted. It wasn’t like that where I come from. Let’s start a street corner karaoke night every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Here’s a sign up sheet.”
Slow down. People need to trust you before they can trust you (read that twice).
The assumption of different is wrong: The premature deduction that cultural characteristics, customs, traditions or actions are automatically faulty solely by nature of their deviation from the Newpats preferred alternative. Often accompanied by phrases such as, “did you see that?!” followed by some sort of question, mockery or expletive.
Example: “Did you see that toilet?!! It’s a hole in the floor. How do they even do that?”
Different does not equal wrong. If it does, you are in trouble. Look around — you are the different one.
The assumption of time standing still: The notion that virtually nothing has changed between the entry points of the Vetpat and the Newpat. Often accompanied by phrases like, “Yeah, you can’t get that here” or “you can’t do that here.”
Vetpat: “Soap? No we bring that from home.”
Newpat: “Really? I thought I saw some at the market.”
Vetpat: “No that’s probably Tofu.”
Newpat: “Ah. Ok. Do you think I could find it online?”
Vetpat: “On what?”
You don’t have to stay up on everything but don’t put the Newpats in your box.
The assumption of identical issues: The idea that the Newpat will experience the exact same gut reactions and frustrations that the Vetpat experienced. Accompanied by phrases like, “You’re going to . . . ” or “You’ll probably . . . ”
Example: “You’re going to love the food. You’re going to hate the smell. You’re going to get really frustrated when they stare at you so much so that you’ll probably snap at some point, put on a Spiderman costume and start screaming, “TAKE A PICTURE IT WILL LAST LONGER.”
“It’s ok if you do.”
Newpats will develop their own biases. Don’t insist they share yours.
The assumption of golden words: The ill-conceived impression that Newpats are hanging on every wise and wonderful nugget of advice and guidance offered by the Vetpat. Often accompanied by one sided conversations, long explanations, presumptuous opinions (stated as fact) and a deep sense of satisfaction for the Vetpat.
Newpat: “Hey where’s the bathroom.”
Vetpat: “Well, son let me tell you, there are actually three different types of (finger quotes) ‘bath rooms’ in this country. The first is an actual (finger quotes) ‘room for bathing’. Historically, you see, this is a much more collective culture than . . . (30 minutes later) . . . so the third one, or as the locals would call it the (finger quotes again) ‘room of the toilet’ is down the hall to the left. I’ll take you there.”
Newpat: “Nah. Thanks. I’m good.”
Your wisdom is so wise . . . really, it is . . . so stop talking and listen for a while so someone will hear it.
The assumption that ignorance equals stupidity: The misconception that ones intellect, intelligence or complexity is directly reflected in his or her capacity to express them in the context of a foreign language or culture. Generally accompanied by speaking louder, slower and offering disproportionate praise for the simplest accomplishments.
Local: “HELLO! WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . . . . . . . . . NAME?!!”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Bob”
Local: “WAAAHHH BOB. YOUR LANGUAGE IS SOOOOO GOOOD!!”
Foreigner: “Really? I just said my name”
Local: “WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . JOB?”
Foreigner: “Um . . . Astrophysicist”
Local: “WAAAH. YOU ARE SOOOO SMART. YES YOU ARE.”
Examples can vary drastically from location to location but the same assumption shows up universally. Just because the foreigner can’t say it, doesn’t mean they don’t know it.
The assumption of cookie cutter foreigners: The mistaken conclusion that all foreign people share a single set of opinions, ideas, understandings and temperaments. Accompanied by words like, “They”, “always” and “because.”
Example: “You’re feeding your foreign friend what?!! No don’t do that. THEY hate spicy food. They always start sweating and crying because they only eat cheese and vegetables.”
Special note: The assumption of cookie cutter LOCALS could be added to both the Newpat and the Vetpat lists.
The assumption of weird foreigners: The unfortunate deduction that all foreigners are strange, odd or different.
Actually this one is probably spot on. We can own it.
The only tragedy of oddness is when it becomes an insurmountable obstacle to relationship. Weird is worth working through.
If assumptions are poison then QUESTIONS are the antidote. Good questions. Lots of questions.
Starting with “I don’t know, but I want to” instead of “yeah, that’s just like” changes absolutely everything.
So how do you ask good questions?
That’s another post entirely.
How about you? Which assumptions have poisoned you or your community the most? What other assumptions have you seen (or used)?