Cultural crisscross

Living and working cross-culturally can change us in subtle, yet profound, ways

In the hectic weeks before hopping on a plane for life in a new foreign land, the to-do list is a long and stressful one. There are parties to attend, bags to pack and re-pack, documents to line up for, and travel guides to consult. Somewhere in the frantic scramble to ensure as painless a transition as possible, hopefully giving yourself a moment to learn a few things about the culture of your new home made the list. I’m always in awe when I think back to the old days of living and working abroad. I don’t mean the terribly old times, just a little over a hundred years even. There was no internet to search out the good, the bad, and the ugly of your destination. There were no travel reviews to read about which bit of the city should be avoided after dark. You just signed on for work, stuffed your worldly possessions into a bag, and found a place on the floor of the ship. Imagine the shock of stepping off the ship into your new home and wondering what all these strange things were around you.

When you go from one culture to another, there are a lot of things that remain true across the globe. We all worry about our families, complain about work, and like to relax with friends on the weekends – but exactly how we act on these feelings can be very different. When you leave home for somewhere new, what things do you take with you? How do you balance old and new in your new home? And what do you bring if you come back ?

A new way

Buddha statues in Thailand. Photo by Nancy Cater.

One of the things that stays the same across cultures is worrying about the health and well-being of your family. How we culturally break that down and decide what behavior best reflects that, however, can be shockingly different. An example of this that left a particularly deep impression on me while abroad was the treatment of the elderly in Asia. In South Korea in particular, age was a determining factor in how you communicated with the other parties involved in the conversation. One of the first things to be worked out is everyone’s age so you know who is older, and thus who commands more respectful word formations than the others. That was a bit much for me to take at first, I’ll admit. I spent a lot of time (mentally) rolling my eyes at the assumption that someone just one year older than me was in fact wiser.

Other aspects of respecting one’s elders made much more sense. Grandparents often lived with the family rather than in retirement homes. They were not neatly tucked away in the care of paid staff, only to be visited on special occasions. They instead enjoyed a useful role as the family elder – one who passed on the folklore, recipes, advice, and wisdom to the younger generations living under the same roof. Admittedly, three generations living together are going to have varying degrees of success, but I think we can all agree that valuing the active role grandparents can play in family life is a success itself.

Old dog, no tricks

The work culture of East Asia was one aspect that proved very difficult to reconcile with my Western work culture. I was not prepared to accept that life was work and work was life like some of my co-workers had. Working overtime (or usually just staying late and staring at your computer screen) with absolutely no benefit other than the hope of impressing the boss also seemed ill-advised. I really didn’t like going on mandatory weekend retreats with the company. The bosses assured us it was in the interest of team-building, but most of us felt that forcing friendships was not an effective path to that. While working in Asia I clung to the Western mentality, despite how ineffective it was against middle-aged Korean businessmen who were usually in charge. No matter how long I stayed in Asia, I still felt that showing up for a solid eight-hour, fairly paid workday was enough. That being said, by the time I moved to Western Europe I thought everyone was moving around in slow-motion and seemed to complain too much – so perhaps some of the Korean work culture snuck in when I wasn’t paying attention.

Something borrowed

Some other habits have stuck and somehow worked their way into my now mixed-up cultural habits. When I first lived in Asia, it felt very awkward to bow instead of shaking hands. Soon enough, that feeling faded and it then felt weird to touch someone when first meeting them. In a conversation I had with a fellow traveler he pointed out how selfish the act of shaking hands seems. Who wants to grab your germ covered hand anyway? Well, after a few years of bowing in Asia I then moved to Spain.

Saudi men in Dubai. Photo by nancy Cater.
Saudi men in Dubai. Photo by nancy Cater.

Suddenly I was kissed when meeting new people. There were some slightly embarrassing moments before I got the technique down, but eventually that became my new normal. Being back in North America, it seems far too formal to bow to someone – but I will admit it’s still my first instinct when meeting someone who is much older or in a position of authority. Giving the side-kisses ever so popular in Europe is not exactly common practice this side of the pond either. So, I’ve settled for giving a slight tilt of my head in replacement for the bow I feel is due at times, and saving those kisses for family and good friends who I haven’t seen in some time.

Perhaps one of the most important things to do before jumping on the plane for some far flung country is to learn a little about the new culture you’re going to be surrounded by. It also doesn’t hurt to learn a couple of key phrases if you are headed somewhere that your first language has yet to infiltrate. Above all, the most useful thing is to take advantage of suddenly being able to choose from the old familiar ways, the new enlightening ways, or better yet a blend of both.

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