If you are like me you probably grew up in the same country your whole life, maybe even the same state, province, county or even the same town. I grew up in small town USA. I had the same friends my whole childhood. My family is related in some way to almost half of our home town. Everything I was taught was centered around deep rooted values of religion, family and patriotism. I rarely met anyone outside of the state of Texas, let alone from another nation or continent. I was country girl, with a simple view of right and wrong. I didn’t know that so much of what is right, normal and typical in my culture, is wrong, abnormal and strange in other cultures.
To be honest until I prepared to actually move overseas I had spent very little time in my life wondering or trying to understand how different other cultures were and how to acclimate to them because I had never needed to.
When I first moved overseas to do a DTS the hardest thing was the unknown, because everything is unknown. Everything is strange and unfamiliar. Whether it is where to shop for food, how to acquire a driver’s license, what clothes to wear, how to navigate conflict, or even what it looks like to interact in a foreign work culture. You find yourself the first few months getting slammed over and over again with the realization that you know nothing. Even if the difference is as small as taking your shoes off before entering a house or as big as not knowing the language of the country, everything adds up to a bigger whole. It is unexpected, strange and uncomfortable.
I remember the first time I had to go to a grocery store. The store itself was similar to a small grocery store back home and it offered many similar products, but at the same time it was completely different. All the food was labeled in an intelligible language, there were ten types of options for baking flour and no such thing as vanilla extract. I stood in front a massive cheese aisle, only to discover after ten minutes using google translate and online research that the most common cheese I use at home doesn’t really exist in a country that has ever other type of cheese you can imagine.
It feels cool at first being surrounded by a culture speaking another language, the words feel beautiful and exotic. You find yourself just listening to conversations with a half smile on your face. But then you need to ask if someone speaks english. And then you have to do it dozens and dozens of time over and over again every time you check out at a store, order from a restaurant or just ask for directions. It gets old really fast. The first time you can complete an entire purchase without using your home language, even if it is less than ten words, you feel like you finally cracked a magical code or joined an elite club.
All your normal social cues of what people mean when they say certain words or phrases are completely stripped away. Even if your host culture is speaking in your own language you realize that so much of what they say is not communicating for them the same meaning that you attribute to their words. Some cultures are very direct in their meaning, some cultures are not. This is what is known as a high or low context culture. In a low context it means, you say directly what you mean with very little outside help and explanation. It is a very verbal communicative culture. In a low context culture everything is very non-verbal; meaning is derived more by what is not said than by what is said. So as you can imagine if you are coming from a high context culture to a low context culture, it is very easy to get confused and frustrated if you don’t understand what is happening. Also coming from a low context to a high context culture as well. Without realizing it misunderstanding and miscommunication can quickly take place.
Moving to another culture will stretch, challenge and often at times even offend you. But it will also broaden and deepen your capacity for compassion, understanding and culture awareness. You learn more about yourself as well and as discover new ways to become a mature, well-rounded and adaptable individual. There is humility and wisdom that comes in realizing that not everything you understand or see is the reality of others what others see in so much of the world.
Moving to another culture is never easy, but you will find that what you gain through the experience is worth all the difficulties. It is important to see change and differences as opportunities and discoveries, not just challenges and negativity.
There are many things I still do not understand about my host-culture, but I am thankful for the opportunity to see the world through others eyes. It continues to create inside of me heart to really see others and look beyond my own selfishness and truly embrace more and more people around of every language, tribe and nationality.