The Seven Lies of Living Cross Culturally

Rural signboard - Forward - Backward

 

People who live cross-culturally, for any significant portion of their lives, are often duped.

When we first choose to live as foreigners we are prime for the suckering.  We are wide eyed and overflowing with enthusiasm.  We soak up everything that Lonely Planet, Rosetta Stone and Wikipedia have to offer about our soon to be new home.  In our zeal we are prone to misgauging our own proficiency.

We are pumped . . . and ready . . . and oh so naive.

Set for swindling.

There are seven great deceptions and most of us fall for at least five. I have personally tested them all.  You know . . . for research.  I lay them out now NOT for the sake of  those who are packing up their lives and getting ready to go.  That would be like telling newlyweds that marriage is hard.

They just tilt their head and grin at you as if you’re the cute one . . .  “yeah, we know it’s hard for everyone else but we’re sooooo in love . . . and it will never, ever be hard for us. ”

You’re sweet and I would never steal this time from you.  Proceed.

But for those of you coming down from the honeymoon (and possibly even some of you veterans) . . . here are seven deceptions which you may or may not have noticed just yet.

 

These are the Lies we believe

 

1.  The “Dual Culture” Lie 

It’s perfectly natural, when we relocate from one country to another country to focus entirely on those two cultures.  Give me a spreadsheet with TWO columns and tell me how our cultures are different.

liu yang 1WE like personal space — THEY don’t.

WE are direct — THEY are indirect.

WE use a fork — THEY use their fingers

BOOM!  I got this.

There are tests and inventories and boatloads of brilliant research that can help you size up YOURS and THEIRS.  Culture to culture, side by side.

I love that stuff.  I could get lost in it but the big reality shocker comes when you realize that living cross-culturally is not simply TWO cultures but it requires MULTIPLE layers of cultural adjustment.  Here’s the kicker — often times the OTHER cultures are more consuming than the one of your host country.

  • Expat culture — so different — You need another column on your spreadsheet.
  • Professional culture — different again — Another column.
  • International school — layers in itself — Multiple columns.
  • Faith culture — another column.
  • Generational gaps — more.
  • Subcultures — more.

This list goes on.

It’s never just two

 

2.  The “Language by Osmosis” Lie

Learning a new language is hard.  Sure it’s easier for some people than others and no doubt there are gifted learners who seem to have flare for picking it up quickly.  The rest of us are . . . what’s the English word?

NORMAL

Regardless, one of the most painful realizations is that new language doesn’t just grow organically in your brain because you are surrounded by it.  Expats are survivalists first and foremost.  We pick up the absolutely essential phrases, we seek out picture menus, we print taxi cards, we download apps and we are shameless masters of hand gestures and charades.  Never has there been a group of people who have worked harder to communicate without learning how to.

In many places you can be (and you will not be alone) an expat for years upon years and never learn the language. Intentionally choosing the harder option is key.

It doesn’t just happen.

 

3.  The “Culture Shock Immunity” Lie

“Culture shock” is a deceptive phrase.  The word “shock” insinuates some kind of unforeseen, instant jolt.  As if you stuck your fork into an outlet and BAZZZAAAPPP!

“WHOA!  Should have used chopsticks!  Didn’t see that coming.”

Consequently, when we don’t have the quick sizzle, hair raising, eye bulging zap followed by the easily distinguishable and obviously dysfunctional melt down we assume (incorrectly) that we have beat the system.  No culture shock for me.

“I am Transition Man!  Your culture bolts are no match for my defenses!”

But transition from one system to another system is not a switch that we flip it is a process that we go through.  That process includes the stress of adjusting from the way you have always done it to the way it is now done.

It includes wrestling with knowing, without a doubt that your way is better . . .  and then thinking that it probably is . . .  and then wondering if it might be . . . and then acknowledging there may be two good ways . . . and then (sometimes) recognizing the new way is better.

For some people the process is harder, deeper, darker, more dysfunctional.  Some people thrive on the instability.

It’s not the same (by any means) for everyone but no one gets immunity.

 

4.  The “Cookie Cutter Culture Shock” Lie

Maybe you’ve seen something like this:

Culture shock continuum_edited-1

 

Tools like this are especially helpful when cultural transition feels like puberty.  “Why am I feeling like this?! Why am I acting like this?!  GET OUT OF MY ROOM!!”

In the complicated, confusing moments of adjustment, charts like this serve as a sweet reminder of a simple yet solid truth.

“I’m normal??.  Waaahh, that’s fabulous.  But seriously, get out of my room.”

The problem with the standard culture shock continuum is NOT that it is inaccurate.  It is that we think it was designed to be more accurate than it is.

“I feel like my transition had more dips than that.”

“I think my dip wasn’t so deep but it lasted longer than 6 months.”

“I don’t think I ever got a honeymoon phase.”

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  You are spot on.  Your transition is yours.  It is dramatically different than the next guys and his is different than everyone else. If you are expecting to fit exactly into the right schedule for adjustment you’re likely to slip back into feeling weird or abnormal or dysfunctional or superhuman.

There are too many variables for everyone to have the same transition.

This was mine.

Culture shock continuum_Real life

 

 

5.  The “Single Answer” Lie

In human years expats move from 5 to 16 in about two months.  Let me explain.

Expats are uber inquisitive on the front end.  “What is that?  How do you say this?  What’s that smell?  Why to do they do that? What’t the history behind this? Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Why? Why?”

Like a 5 year old.  We embrace ignorance on a quest for answers.

BUT (and this is where it ALL falls apart):  We think when we get an answer we understand it (you should read that sentence again).  Soon we “know” (finger quotes) everything.

Like a 16 year old.

When we have answers we stop asking questions.  This can be a fatal flaw for expats.  There is ALWAYS more to it.

 

“Ignorance is not your problem unless you think that you’re not ignorant.” 

-Albert Einstein – should have said this

 

Embrace ignorance and stay 5 for a while.

For contrast imagine describing the climate of North America as frigid because you spent Christmas day in Northern Canada.  Check out Guatemala in July before you share your expertise.

There is always more to it.

 

6.  The “Expat Bubble” Lie

This one is doubly deceptive.  It sneaks up on you and you never see it coming.  There are no instant, clear cut signs but one day . . . months from now . . . maybe even years, you realize you’ve been duped.

No one is more excited than the honeymooning newbies to engage local culture.  “We’re going to make lots of local friends and study language learn their customs and teach them ours.  We’ll share cooking lessons and laugh about idioms.  It’ll be great!”

Then . . . over time . . . and one interaction at a time you take the least challenging option.  It’s frustrating to speak a language you don’t know.  You don’t connect with these people on sports or politics or food or fun and it feels more like work than friendship.

That’s how the bubble is built.

For clarity let me just say . . . I love the bubble.  Some of my best friends are in that bubble and I like hanging out there.

BUT I don’t want to be STUCK inside of it.  To live cross culturally and never genuinely experience (deeply) your host culture is a BIG miss.  To be surrounded by people who are SO different and could teach you SO much and never find a friend, is a sad thing.

The lie we believe is that it won’t happen to us.  However without tremendous and ongoing intentionality it almost always does.

 

7.  The “They love me because I’m a foreigner” Lie

This varies dramatically depending on who you are and where you are living.  It is painfully easy to mistake cultural hospitality for respect and admiration.  “These people treat me like a rock star.”

It’s easy to let that misguided reaction go to your head (much like a rock star would).  The result is typically tragic.  This is where cultures get abused and foreigners leave a trail of mess behind them.  In their arrogance they assume that they have all of the pieces — “They smile when they see me, they laugh at my jokes, they want to spend time with me . . . they must love me.”

There is always more to it.

  • It could be culturally mandated kindness
  • It could be the art of war
  • They could be buttering you up to steal your wallet

Or maybe they love you.

Point is, you can’t know until you stick around and build a real relationship.  That’s where the good stuff is.  The real stuff.

 

Lies are easy to come by when you live cross culturally.

If you’ve been duped, welcome to the club.  Actually you’ve been here for a while but none of us wanted to say anything.  Welcome back from your honeymoon.

This is where it gets good.

 

Helpful? Have some friends who might need to hear this?  Please pass it on.

Have you fallen for one of these or something completely different?  Please comment below.

 

 

58 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Reply
    • Thanks Rachel — So glad it was helpful.

      Reply
  2. I have read lots of these types of articles, but this is by far the most insightful (not to mention funniest) one! Great job!

    Reply
    • Thanks LynnAnn.

      Reply
  3. I’m interested in your curve. How did you manage to travel back in time?

    Reply
    • Dear Me (funny I sometimes go by that too – small world). If I told you how that happened it could upset the whole time/space continuum and it would be “Back to the Future” all over again. If that got into the wrong hands . . . It’s better if we just learn from it and move forward.

      Reply
    • As soon as I saw that graph, I started figuring out a reason. It could work if he went back to his first culture for short periods of time. Maybe.

      Reply
  4. Sometimes, when you live as an expat in a country where they speak the same language, there is this underlying perception that you should be like the locals. Especially if there’s a historic tie between the two countries. #error.

    It just doesn’t work like that. Looking like the locals and speaking the same language can actually become a challenge in its own right – there are then expectations on you to simply know how to function within the culture, and sometimes you simply don’t. And other times, you know what the ‘right’ thing is in a given situation, but you can’t bring yourself to do it, because it feels uncaring or callous or intrusive or…something.

    After 16 years of the expat life, I feel like that guy with no sense of rhythm, trying to clap in time to the music along with everyone else. Clearly, everyone else is picking up on the same subliminal signal that enables them to clap in unison, but you just can’t figure out what it is. So you’re doomed to stop clapping or to carry on clapping out of time. Either way, you don’t fit in.

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    • Thanks for the comment Karyn — Really interesting points. I have never lived as an expat in a culture that is similar to my own (my experience has been all China) but I have always had a theory. It seems to me that the adjustment (say from the US to Australia or vice versa) would be less of an initial shock because of the similarities but would actually take much longer to work through because even though you can communicate easily and you may “blend” visually you don’t “fit” and you never will completely. It seems like the pressure to “clap in time” would actually be more of a challenge over time than just being a clear and obvious foreigner.

      Love your analogy. Interested to hear more.

      Reply
      • Great article. I have lived in four countries–born in the U.S., moved as a young adult to Toronto (3 years), the U.K. (18 months) and Australia (4 years) with stints in the U.S. in between all of the moves. I am now living back in the U.S. I think you are right that it takes longer to work through the cultural differences than when adjusting to a country that is outwardly different. I have been caught out many times after I thought I had it all figured out. Now I realize that it takes a lifetime to understand another culture, and even then, there would be more to learn. I especially like your analogy of multiple columns for all of the various subgroups.

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      • I’m an American, living in the UK for the past 32 years. People assume there won’t be any culture shock, but there is, lots of it from words or phrases that have different meanings (ie: jumper, in the UK a sweater or sweatshirt, in the US a dress). And after being here for so long I sometimes confuse myself and wonder, is that what they say in America (notice I said they, not we, more confusion) or in England? I’ve always been very keen to keep some American traditions going in the family (my husband is English) so we’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving, a bit differently perhaps to how my family in America celebrate, but we remember it nonetheless. Now both of my kids celebrate Thanksgiving with their friends and housemates at Uni (college – and there’s another one, college in the UK is the last two years of high school when you’re 17&18) The stuffing recipe lives on! I agree with your thinking Jerry that to ‘clap in time’ is harder over time. I like to celebrate the differences and my American heritage, to remain a bit different and it’s great when people still say, “Where’s your accent from?” Still, I do love living here, but also love the visits home every summer.

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      • Yup. My brother was totally blindsided by the culture shock when he moved to Australia to marry the love of his life. He doesn’t even remember the first year of his life there. Of course, diving into the new culture and a marriage with two small children involved made it a gargantuan challenge. Having a common faith with his wife and her family – Bible believing Christianity – and his faith in God was what saved him from total meltdown. When we visited them there a few years ago I started feeling the culture shock before our 3.5 weeks was over. I was weirded out at first too hearing my brother speaking with a “sort of” Australian accent.

        Reply
    • Karyn, you have touched on some key points with honesty and clairity. Keeping your core values while trying to embrace a new culture is not easy.

      Reply
  5. Thank you for this article. I am a transition coach for new personnel for a faith based non-profit, and this is a concise, thought provoking article that goes beyond the inverted bell curve of adjustment 🙂 I am grateful for the invitation to share it!!!

    Reply
    • Thanks Dana. You’ve got a great job. I think I’d rather spend time with people on the edge of moving their lives abroad than just about anyone. So much anxiety and excitement all balled up together make for GREAT discussions. I always learn from people like that. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
    • That sounds like a super cool job! I’ve wanted to do something like that since I first experienced life in another culture and watched my friends who are missionaries in their transitions. Are you a counselor by education, or have some kind of background in psychology? I’m currently living in Brasil (I’m an American), and after I finish my 2 promised years here I want to get my master’s in counseling/marriage and family therapy to be able to do something like helping with missionary care or what you do. Any tips on places/non-profits/businesses that want to hire people to do what you’re doing? If you went to college in a related field, how did that turn out for you?

      Thanks in advance.

      Reply
  6. Thanks for the laughs! After a nearly a year in Mozanbique, I’m a newbie inJapan, in a tiny village to boot. My adventure for the day today ~ trying to locate a language helper. A comical experience at best!

    Reply
    • Thanks Kimberly. Mozambique to Japan. You’re going to have some great stories to tell.

      Reply
  7. Why do we call ourselves expats? Aren’t we really just immigrants?

    Reply
    • Hi Cathy. I’m guessing your comment is in relation to a blog post or article that went around a few weeks ago. I don’t have any answers myself, but found Djibouti Jones had a really good, thoughtful response to this question. Maybe you might find it interesting and add more fuel for thought!
      http://www.djiboutijones.com/2015/03/expatriate-immigrant-racist/

      Reply
    • No. To immigrate is kind of permanent. The expat leaves again, at some point…

      Reply
  8. spot on, enjoyable and insightful. seems to me that so much of how we process cross-culture living depends on expectations, perceptions, “personality” and goals. took me nine years to really feel the challenge! much different for a fun-loving single just coming to “hang-out” than a single mom managing a service organization, for example. thanks for a good read

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading Fay. Good points — things do change with time for sure.

      Reply
  9. Returning to life in the US after being overseas for 18 years among refugees, the adjustments back have been much more strenuous….

    Reply
    • Tom — I can’t even imagine the shock of that transition. How long have you been back?

      Reply
  10. I expected to get culture shock when I worked in Bangkok for a year, didn’t get it. Loved being there and experiencing everything new. .But when I moved home to Australia reverse culture shock hit big time. I wondered what was wrong with me and it took months to adjust to working in my “old” job and workplace. But this did prepare me well for my next stint overseas for 2 years.

    Reply
  11. That was great!

    I suffered through my own horrid culture shock a few years ago and had no-one to say I was normal, I wish you were there then. Ah well, you’re here now and I will share your words. Thank you.

    Reply
  12. I am just at seven months and telling people that i was born to retire! I suspect going ‘home’ at thanksgiving and for a wedding will be difficult for me.

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  13. Very well said. There are many blogs out there regarding this subject. Are you familiar with COMMUNICATING ACROSS BOUNDARIES?

    Reply
  14. Very well said. There are many blogs concerning this subject. Are you familiar with COMMUNICATING ACROSS BOUNDARIES?

    Reply
    • Bettie – I just discovered Communicating Across Boundaries yesterday. Really good stuff. Are you connected there?

      Reply
  15. I really enjoyed your article. I manage HealthyLeaders.com. Would it be possible to share this article there? We would appreciate it greatly!

    Reply
    • Hi Matthew. Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share on HL. I just checked out your website and it looks like a tremendous resource. I look forward to digging in and learning more.

      Reply
  16. Excellent. I lived in Indonesia for 24 years, then was assigned to a job that required a significant amount of time present in eight other countries each year. That lasted for 10 years.Two of “my countries” are best described as multicultural countries where the language and mores were very different. I loved the experience… was often duped… and am aware that in the time since I have retired things have changed so much that I am not an “authority” on any of them. Certainly American culture changed so much in those 34 years, that living here means constant adjustment… which is much less invigorating than it was overseas.

    Reply
  17. Great article. You can even go around and around that ‘continuum’ for years. In fact I suspect that’s the case for most of us, if we’ve been somewhere a long time. We might just spend more time in the ‘OK’ quadrant, but I doubt many people would be there all the time once they ‘get there’.

    Reply
  18. Before leaving to take up life in a country foreign to me I had no advice such as described here, with graphs to describe emotions and reactions. I was given some wisdom from experienced “ex-pats” (a term that wasn’t used in those days): three things you will need as you set out to serve others abroad. 1. Humility 2.Humility 3.Humility. I think that pretty much sums up all that has been said here, all that seeking to live relationally in a different culture will teach us about ourselves. It was instructive, and humbling, to recognize after three decades in my new country that the the older foreign workers of colonial mindset who stayed, lived and were buried there were loved within intimate relationships with the people to whom they had given their lives. hard won through many trying experiences that required faithful perseverance…a love that endures. As one who returned to my home country I would say that the advice given in this article, and much humility, is just what is needed as we make our way back “home”.

    Reply
  19. I enjoyed a trip to Kenya last summer. As you can imagine it is a very different culture! I was fortunate to stay with friends who love me, but on the streets there were many who looked at me and I knew they were thinking, “What are you doing here?!” Beggars approached me, shop keepers wanted more than they charged others. (My friends would send me away and bargain.) Even my friends didn’t always speak in English. They would revert to Swahili or their “mother tongue”. And I would sit there wondering what they were talking about.. We have a 31 year old Kenyan living with us. His big thing at first was our houses, and the food. So much more than they have at home. One day when I was looking for a place to put some books he said, ‘You have much stuff!” He is right. We have much more tA han we need. They are happy with bread and chai. He has been here three years and is on his way to nursing school. I will give him this article and we can discuss what has been the hardest for him. This was very interesting. It would be good if all of us could experience another culture. It opens your eyes to people much like ourselves. They want to live in peace and comfort. They want to have enough food to eat. They want their children to have a better life than they have had. They want to feel safe when they lie down at night.
    This was a fun interesting article. Thanks!

    Reply
  20. Jerry, I am connected to COMMUNICATING ACROSS BOUNDARIES as I know the blogger. She asked me a while ago to write a blog about TKA (Third Culture Adults) which she re-blogged recently.

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  21. Jerry,
    Thanks for this article! Some friends in a Facebook expat group posted this, as I’m moving to Indonesia in about 10 days…but, the most surprising thing is…we went to high school together! I’m so glad to see you doing such great things. Good luck with your family and your move.

    Reply
    • Laura – No way. How cool is that? And how cool is it that you are moving to Indonesia. Pretty exciting. What’s going on there?

      Reply
      • My husband is taking an assignment in Batam (near Singapore). Who knows how long we’ll be there…a couple of years at least. I’m looking forward to using all your advice from this great blog! Nice job!

        Reply
  22. Jerry, great article…I have lived in four countries and worked in more than 20. After 35 years of experience in Latin America, I spent my last 5 years in India. I really like your graph and the idea that we are transitioning all the time in more than just one or two cultures. Attitude is a very important factor in adjustment and part of me just never adjusted and accepting that was okay, too. I am from the US and my wife is from Bolivia and we have been married for 37 years. That is also an on-going cultural adjustment. We just retired to Bolivia to be close to grandchildren, etc. Thanks for your insights and all the other helpful comments.

    Reply
  23. Hey Jerry – hitting the 5 year mark in another culture (I’m Australian living in Kenya and working in American International school) and I want to know where that nice flow chart thing goes after the 1 year “acceptance it’s OK” bit? Crazy thoughts accompanying the “I’m totally worn out and don’t know where I fit anymore and I don’t really care anymore” kind of trajectory. But don’t feel like returning to home country is the answer either. Really resonating with the multiple layers of cultural adjustment thing. Trying to work out whether I am now totally callous, dispassionate, been ripped off too many times …. or possibly just a ‘little’ burnt out … ? Thanks for this very helpful, self deprecating and honest article. Need to know there are fellow travellers on this path.

    Reply
  24. How about someone who was born and raised here in America, yet has never felt like I belong? I have been thinking a lot lately about relocating. I have gone through some crazy life-things, and have always felt more comfortable with foreigners. . They tend to gravitate toward me in a crowd, church, etc…. and have had a French teacher tell me she didn’t believe I was born here…. kept asking if I was “sure?”… (I was the ONLY American in a class of around 25). What would you call that?…is it a type of phenomenon? Just curious, as you’re the coach…and wonder if you could shed some light. =)

    Reply
  25. Thank you for your upbeat, positive-yet-realistic article, Jerry! Helpful and heartening to read. You are quite funny (which, in my book, is an essential skill when living abroad). Please keep writing!

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  26. I have appreciated so many of your posts – this one included – and since I keep having people ask me for input on how to do this move back and forth thing, I just keep sending them links to your blog (usually with a note like “don’t be overwhelmed by these 20 links while you’re sorting through your life – just read!” ha). Thanks for writing it all down and doing it so well so I don’t have to! 🙂 This time I went a step further and re-posted this one on our blog…with lots of links so people could get here, but also copied the text. If this bothers you lots and lots, I can take it down – I just know a lot of people who might be interested if they can read on, but might not manage to click on a link. If you happen to end up in our part of China, we’d love to have your family over. Happy transitioning and thanks for all of your insight and tips!

    Reply
  27. This is great, thank you so much for this post. When I first moved to Japan, I went through 6-7 months of nasty, deep culture shock. I felt like there was something very wrong with me, that I wasn’t cut out for this type of lifestyle. Now, I’ve been here for almost two years and I love it! It is reassuring to know that yes, culture shock exists but everyone goes through it differently. There was nothing wrong with me, it was simply my mind and body adjusting.

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  28. As if you stuck your fork into an outlet and BAZZZAAAPPP!
    “WHOA! Should have used chopsticks! Didn’t see that coming.”

    — Literally made me laugh out loud.

    Reply
  29. Am loving this blog. Was directed here on a suggestion from my head of school to the post about the never-ending transition of the Goers, Stayers and Newbies. Every word resonated from that post and from this one too! Thanks for much for sharing.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading Josianne.

      Reply
  30. This is a great article and I had to smile at your transition curve. I am currently working on my PhD researching the adjustment of expat spouses. What I miss from all previous research is the consideration of the process of ‘checking out’ which decreases adjustment. So instead of continuously adjusting more, the expat will, at a certain point, no further invest in the current adjustment but preparing for the next. So it is not a continuous cycle but somehow the cycles overlap.

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  31. Normally these articles have me rolling my eyes, but there’s a lot of truth here. Hat tip. Also, that whole wide-eyed, enthusiastic, ripe-for-suckering thing can work with new husbands as well as swindlers. That’s how I ended up with my semi-automatic washer. Emphasis on the semi. “Oh, it’ll be fun to live like the locals do. I don’t really need an agitator, and what’s a little extra work when you’re in paradise?” Oh, well, pura vida. At least I have a washer. Of sorts. And my esposo informs me that with occasional repairs, these suckers can last for decades. Yeah, that’s great, honey.

    Reply
  32. thank you. We so often go into it thinking we know it all and we are ready for anything. When these things hit, we find we are not ready. I wish all organizations would make this file part of their repertoire. Send it to us 6 months- 1 year into our first term.
    May we stay humble and rest in God to lead us through this maze of lies.

    Reply
  33. I think you are great. Would it be possible repost some of your Blog posts? I help organize the Nanjing International Club and some of these articles would go very well with our members.

    Reply
    • Simon — Thanks for your kind words. Please feel free to repost.

      Reply
  34. “It could be the art of war” cracked me up!

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  35. Thank you for your honesty. I am a Brit living overseas and sometimes get tired with the culture differences, even after 5 years, and as you mentioned, not just the differences with the 1 culture in the town where I live, but with all of the other cultures that I’m surrounded with! The expectation of the culture curve to look like the one in the first picture is high. Thanks for sharing that it is not always like that. Mine is never like that (having lived in many cultures) although mine still has low dips later on too, 5 years and 3 new languages later!

    Reply

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