against the bossIronically, this post is based entirely on an outright assumption. 

My assumption is this.  If crossing cultures is a part of your life then you probably have some comprehension of the things that prevent you from doing that well.  You don’t need a blog to tell you that mockery (for example) is going to slow you down if you’re really trying grasp the heart and soul of a people group that is different from your own.

Let’s get honest — it doesn’t mean you don’t mock. The cheap laugh. The sarcastic wisecrack.  The overstated accent.  We’ve all gone there at some point but generally speaking we know it’s not a good thing.  You’ll find very few blogs that defend mockery as a mechanism to thrive as an expat.

Plenty of them that mock.  Few that defend it.

There are numerous other attackers of the healthy expat life.  Obvious ones like racism (no-brainer there), arrogance, stereotyping, ethnocentrism, name-calling.  How about crawling into a hole and hiding from reality?  That’s one.  Maybe screaming “SPEAK ENGLISH!!” at people who don’t know how.  Not a best practice.

Nothing new there.

These are the super villains — the arch-enemies of understanding a culture that is different from your own.  I’m assuming you know that already — BUT — in fairness, assuming should probably go on the list.

Ohhh the irony.  Let’s roll with that.

This is a list of the lesser obvious bad guys.  These are the culprits that you don’t see coming.  They blend in with the best practices and sometimes they even share the same names.  However, in their sneaky, subtle ways they often cause more trouble than the big ones.

These are the ironic enemies of living cross-culturally

(count-down style for dramatic effect)


perfidiousEnemy # 5:  Grinning

We’ve established mockery as a bad thing right?  Usually expats (following  a period of adjustment) develop an instinctively visceral reaction to blatant, full on mockery of their host culture.

I, for example, grow Wolverine claws when the “hilarious”, self-proclaimed comedians from my own culture pop off with something like, “OOOHHHH you go to China?  Ah ching chang willy willy bing bang bong.”

Trust me.  It happens.

Expats (at least the healthy ones) move past mockery.  However — sometimes the remnants remain.

It comes in the form a tiny little grin — a raised eyebrow — a silent head shake — an under the breath giggle (or sometimes a snort).  Often it’s a shared moment of eye contact with someone who knows exactly what you’re saying in your head even though you didn’t say a word out loud.  It’s micro-mockery and chances are it is much less externally damaging than it’s full grown form.  Unfortunately, internally it’s fueled from the same source — a betterness complex and a sense of cultural superiority.

Bonus tip:  Judge your ownself.  Apart from time and relationship there is no weapon that works against mockery except the “awkward juke of shame”.

“You know guys, I just really don’t feel like that kind of talk is appropriate.”

That will stop Mr. Ching Chang dead in his tracks but it won’t change his heart.  He just learned that he can’t make that joke around you . . . because you are hypersensitive.  Try starting by being aware of where your own grins are coming from and model something different.


Enemy #4:  Progress 

Cross-cultural progress is a wild ride.  I have a reputable source who says I am not the only one who set goals on the front end of my expat experience which turned out to be tantamount to a typical New Year’s resolution.  Dropped cold by week three.

The consequence is a feeling (somewhere along the line) that we have failed miserably as expats.

“I thought I would be fluent by now and I can only order three dishes.”

“I planned to have great relationships and I haven’t even met my neighbors.”

“I was so ready to go exploring and I’ve barely left my apartment.” 

We’re stuck with a depressing sense that we have made zero progress — UNTIL — someone comes to visit from our previous life.


In one trip to the airport we transform into some kind of an expat superstar.  The last time you saw these people you were at exactly the same level of linguistic fluency and cultural savvy.  Now look at you.  You’re practically a local.

So you see, progress can leave you delusional on both ends.  You mistake yourself for a miserable failure or a colossal  success based on a misguided assessment of what progress is supposed to look like.

Bonus Tip:  Slow and steady wins the race.  Progress (of course) is not an inherently bad thing but it doesn’t function well in extremes.  Your benchmark is not the people who know nothing anymore than it is the people who know everything.  Keep moving forward.


WinnerEnemy #3:  High Praise

It’s been nearly ten years since we first moved to China.  I must have ridden in a thousand taxis.  That means that 900 plus taxi drivers have told me how great my Chinese is.

It’s really not.

Generally I lead with something simple like, “ni hao” which means “hello”.  To which they say “WAAAH!! You’re Chinese is SO good!”

To which I say, “why thank you — I have been working on my ‘hello’.”

I know that not all expat experiences are like my China one but often a misunderstanding of cultural obligations surrounding hospitality combined with low expectations of the foreigners (like myself) result in a sort of surface level accolade that is easily mistaken by the dolt foreigner (like myself) as a fair and accurate assessment.    “These people love me and wish they could be more like me!”

Sounds ridiculous but it’s not far from spot on.

Living in a highly complimentary host culture is not a bad gig if you can get it.  However, the really good stuff is below the surface.  Expats who set up camp in a La La Land of “They love me” miss the joy of genuine relationship.  It’s a painful moment, though, when the Emperor discovers he’s not wearing clothes.

Bonus Tip:  Ask double third person questions.  Don’t ask your friends what they think of you.  Ask them what their friends think of other foreigners — then assume that’s what they think of you.  Brace yourself.  You may be naked.


ProblemsEnemy #2:  Asking “WHY?”

Some of the best advice I ever got came from a veteran expat who told me to stop asking “why”.

My first response was knee jerk . . . “Seriously?  Why?”

“Why” is the core.  It is the source.  It is the deep-rooted nucleus of everything that is happening around you.  It is often ancient at it’s origins but complexified by hundreds, maybe thousands of years of socio-cultural events, political uprisings, economic trends, religious undertones and philosophical masterminds.  Not to mention every “why” has a different answer — a different source — a different nucleus.

“Why do they eat with sticks?”

“Why do they rub noses?

“Why do they slam the ball into the ground, scream at the sky and punch each other when they score?”

The first assumption when you ask “why” is that the person whom you have asked actually knows the answer.  The second assumption is that once you have heard it, you do too.  Asked and answered is far too simple a process  for nuclear topics.

Why should you not ask why? (are you following the irony here?).  Because you can’t handle the why.  That’s why.

Be a constant inquisitor but ask “who, what, when, where, how?”  “Why” will become clearer over time.

Bonus tip:  If you must ask “why” commit to asking it 100 times.  Don’t accept that the first answer is the full one.  Pile a hundred partially correct answers together, though, and you’ll start to get the picture.  You’ll also realize how big the question is.


AND the #1 (ironic) enemy of living cross culturally . . . drum roll please


Enemy #1:  Grace

If you have ever read anything that I have written you’re likely calling me a big fat hypocrite right now.

You are freakishly observant.

Grace is a theme for me.  I have held it out there as a key (if not THE key) to thriving in practically every aspect of cross-cultural life (if not life in general).

See for yourself . . .

Leaving Well

Landing Well

Staying Well 

Receiving Well

Going Nowhere

I’m like a broken record and I’m not taking it back — but I’ve noticed something about myself.

I am great at extending grace . . . selectively.

Here’s an example:  I am quick to give grace to my Chinese friends if they say something that could sound offensive.

“Meh — it’s cultural.  They probably don’t know any better.”

However — When my friends back home (the ones who look, talk, think and act like me) say something equally offensive (“ching chang” for example) I am disproportionately slower to allow grace into the equation.

“Idiots.  They should know better.”

This is where it stings a little.  My selective grace — my harshness towards my own — is actually an expression of my own betterness complex.

“My people should know better than the poor, uninformed others.”

Don’t read me wrong.  I’m NOT suggesting that you should give less grace to your host culture.  Please don’t.  Nor am I suggesting that you should let Mr. Ching Chang entirely off the hook.  You can play that one by ear.

I may not even be suggesting anything but what I have recognized in myself is that when there is a disparity in my willingness to give grace it may be a result of some uncovered, yet to be dealt with prejudice.

In other words — when I’m pointing out one group’s prejudice and ignoring another’s . . . I’m revealing my own.


Bonus Tip:  Cultures are not just foreign.  It helps to recognize that “my people” have a culture too.  A rich and imperfect history.  A deep and misguided understanding of the world.  A vast set of presuppositions built on centuries of shared experiences.


There they are.  The sneaky.  The subtle.  The ironic enemies of living cross-culturally.

Now you know and “Knowledge is Power”.

Ironically “knowledge” should probably be on the list since once you think you know something you stop trying to understand it.

Ohh the irony.  Let’s stop there.


Something to add?  Ironic enemy # 6?  #7?  #8?  Comment below and pass it on.



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