Why do we keep on comparing our cultures?
"Expat syndrome is a condition whereby many expatriates see mostly either the best of their own nationality and the worst of the locals or see the opposite." T. Crossley
I stumbled across this quote from Tony Crossley, an Englishman living his life in Thailand and writing about his experience (especially how the Western male reacts to the Thai female – for those of you interested in that topic ;-))
I found this quote sums up the whole living abroad experience quite nicely.
It’s a typical human trait and how we react to a changing environment.
We feel comfortable in the well-known. We compare the social system we grew up in, where we went to kindergarten, high school and work, where we knew the language by heart and had time to get used to rules and habits with a completely new and foreign culture. A culture we had only months, maybe years to get acquainted with. A culture, where we walk around still like a tourist, not knowing the language by heart. Major differences in how people are doing things, how people value something and what individuals are striving for triggers us to compare. It makes us rate the host country against the place we grew up in.
the different layers of each culture
For me, there are different layers of comparison. First, there are the factors that nobody can influence: The weather, the landscape and flora, and fauna. These elements are shaping the daily life of a country drastically as they influence the way houses are built, food is prepared and how human life is connected to nature. These are also normally the things you are already kind of prepared for before moving abroad. You might have googled things and have gained an idea of how different lifestyle might be on the other part of the planet.
The second layer is the way in which a country has developed their own system in order to function. Beauracratic processes, job market, housing market, police force and so on. As an example, I definitely have more respect for American police as they are kind of unpredictable to me. Also, there is a different approach to get an apartment or driver license. These are most of the times things that surprise you, especially in the beginning. Moving abroad you are confronted with a lot of “set-up” tasks and you have to learn from scratch how things are done here.
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The third and for me most interesting layer is the value set a country and a society has developed over centuries. We are all living on one globe but the way we have been raised, surrounded by the first and second layer, really shaped what we believe in, what we think is the best, and what we are striving for. Values are shaped by growing up in a society living to these values. As a foreigner, it is sometimes hard to adapt when you are already an adult and are moving to a different country with manifested values in your head and heart.
Our values heavily shape how we define a lifestyle
Our values heavily shape what we think is important to us and how we define a happy and fulfilling lifestyle.
How important is family for us? And if everyone is saying, yes family is the most important part of our life, still, every culture shows this affection differently.
I am still very fascinated by the different perceptions on what is enough vacation in Germany compared to the US. How many days should a mother stay at the hospital or at home after giving birth? How many days, weeks, months before giving birth should a mother be allowed to stay away from work. Should the social system continue to pay your salary after giving birth if so for how long?
If you are used to certain things which you have defined as benefits to you it is hard to sometimes to let them go and realize that not everybody would define these as benefits.
What I found surprising
Family time, vacation days, sick days: These are just a few examples but they showed me how different we rate our own culture and our opinion is based on our own beliefs, our own experience we gained by growing up in a certain country. What system is best? For me, it’s the German system, but for the American, their system is everything they know from growing up and why shouldn’t they feel comfortable living in their own culture? Who am I to come and say what is right or wrong where there is no right or wrong but only what we feel comfortable doing because it’s familiar to us.
Of course, cultures are developing and the fact that more and more people leave their home country for a certain time results in more comparison and progress and people start to think about new life models. No system is perfect but always in progress to improve by the input of the people, by the global development and progress in general.
Will we ever fully exchange our culture?
So, after one year abroad I stopped rating the culture I am living in and started to be fascinated by the difference. I am in my honeymoon phase of living abroad.
From this momentum, I can see that it might be interesting to see where this attitude towards a “guest culture” goes when people decide to stay in a specific country for a longer time. How much will you then give up on your own culture and adopt from the new? Are you still open and ok with adapting to the new culture when it’s not only about yourself but also when you have kids and you actually have to decide in which country you want your kids to grow up.
Would be very interesting if you share your thoughts on this in the comments below as I am not a mother and I can’t speak authentically about these issues 🙂
Also thank you so much for all the messages you are sending me. It really means a lot to me. Please don’t hesitate to state your opinion down in the comments so that also others in similar situations can enjoy your learnings, thoughts, and opinions.