The Five (Ironic) Enemies of Living Cross-Culturally

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.




  1. Jerry – your working through the more subtle, and private, reflections on adjusting to cross cultural challenges is a big help for me. Thanks for saying what often goes unsaid.

  2. “Sir… I need you to remove a word from your vocabulary ” (said the sgt working for the US Army in Europe). “Sir,” (he said to me on my first overseas contractor tour in 1990), “I need you to remove the word, ‘why’.” He continued, “Sir, this is the US Army. We are at war. There is no why. There is only ‘where’ and ‘when’ and ‘how fast’ and ‘who will sign the form.'” Great piece of advice 🙂

    • I love that story Makala.

  3. When I was learning Cantonese someone shared this great thought: We are like a dancing bear. It isn’t that the bear dances well. The miracle is that he dances at all.

    It also applies to my running.

    • So good Cindy. I can relate to that bear.

  4. I get the Mr. and Miss. Ching Chong all the time in the form of my students. Luckily, they are a captive audience 😉 I can teach them some, though, it does not cure all… it saves some. I too grow claws, but try really hard not to let them show!

  5. Brilliant! You never disappoint. I mean, I’m sure your kids might not agree, but writing wise…. 🙂 I so get the “Your [insert language] is so good…!” We just went through that in Lebanon and Jordan. And the reality is, our language is only good when we control the conversation. Once it veers away from hello and the weather and how “Da’esh is bad” (ISIS) then our true colors are shown. I think where I’ve stumbled the worst though, is in giving grace to people in the US. I have realized how biased I am toward so many and it’s not pretty. Thank you once again for a great piece.

  6. Thanks so much for your thoughts in this blog. I have witnessed or experienced all of them firsthand having spent 22 years living in Japan, the Philippines, then Japan again. A suggestion for ironic enemy #6: “I grew up here.” There is a great difference between cultural understanding and cultural comfort. An adult who grew up in the host culture may feel very much at home and may have language skills the rest of us could only dream about, but is he a master of conducting himself in a culturally appropriate way? A person who grew up in a host culture, left for college plus a few more years, then returns as an adult may seem to be an expert, but his ways of interacting with the host culture are more likely to be shaped by his parents, the adults of his parents’ generation, and his teachers and friends in the international school setting than a thorough study of that culture. The worst part is that person cannot be questioned by the one who didn’t enter the host culture till he was 25 or 30 years old.
    Here’s a suggestion for ironic enemy #7: “My wife is Japanese (or Filipino or whatever the host culture is).” Again, there may be a very high level of cultural comfort, but does that equal cultural understanding or sensitivity? Sometimes (sadly) the national spouse can be a buffer that insulates the person from deeper interaction with the host culture: my wife answers the door, my wife pays the bills, my wife translates for me, etc
    “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it will not bear much fruit….”

  7. Here’s an idea for #6: “Sustainability.” We figured out Taobao and got a Zhifubao account 2 years into our time here in China, and it’s made life SO much easier! We call it sustainability, but now we find ourselves towing the line between pursuing sustainability and simply pursuing comfort. Because, if comfort were our #1 priority, we definitely wouldn’t be living in China! I can bake what I’m used to baking now that we have a bigger oven, but how many times have locals come over and raised eyebrows over that contraption? We have to constantly evaluate whether our purchases help us serve here BETTER, or if they build more walls and distractions between us and locals!

    • Samantha — so true and well said. That tension between comfort for comfort’s sake and feeling entitled is a constant one but a good one. We’ve wrestled through a lot of that ourselves. Thanks for reading — PS have you seen Taobao for English speakers. You may not need it but we’ve been loving it.


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