Life Lessons from Overseas / Travel

Life Lessons from Overseas: Culture Questions

chengdu street scene
More Life Lessons from Overseas here.

Culture is just way too big a topic to cover in one post, don’t you think?  Too big, too messy, too complicated.  To do this topic justice I think I’d have to do another series-within-a-series set of posts.  “Culture!  The Five-Part-Trilogy!  According to Me!”

Gah, I’m exhausted just imagining it.  I think instead of planning such an involved project, I’d like to start talking culture just by sharing one very simple, little culture-coping strategy for now and we’ll see what happens after that.

The thing about culture is that it’s a little like the Matrix.  When we’re in our native cultural environment it’s sometimes hard to remember that the way we do things and the reason we do them aren’t necessarily universal–they are actually quite specific to the culture or cultures we belong to.

It’s only when we leave everything we know behind and travel to a foreign place that we really come face-to-face with the fact that nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the way we do business, to the methods we use to clean our homes, are all incredibly dependent upon and specific to the culture(s) in which we normally operate.

Cultures exists for many reasons.  Most practically though, cultures exists because they reduce social friction and strife among large groups of people by defining what is and isn’t valued, what is and isn’t useful, what is and isn’t acceptable.  It’s why, in America, we get angry when people cut in front of us in line, but also why we rarely resort to violence when someone does so.  One cultural norm dictates that we queue up, while another dictates that we don’t beat one another to a bloody pulp for not following the rules.  The frosty glares, angry whispers and social isolation one feels when they cut in line is usually enough of a deterrent to keep us from doing so.

But of course that is just in America.  There can be no cultural deterrent from cutting in line when there is no tradition of lining up and taking turns in the first place.

Which is why interacting with a foreign culture sometimes feels a little like navigating through a Tri-Wizard Cup hedge maze.  You don’t always know which behaviors are governed by which cultural norms-if any–so there is sometimes no way to know exactly how you’ve messed up until after the fact.  It’s one thing to remember that you shouldn’t stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, it’s quite another to figure out how to run an American-style office staffed entirely by local employees.  Or to come up with the appropriate way to convince your housekeeper to buy more soap when she runs out instead of trying to save you money by just using water to clean.  Or how to react when people tell you you’re hurting your child by letting them have ice cream in the winter time.

What about when the cultural tradition, as it is practiced in a modern world, is corrupt, wasteful, or even just horribly unproductive?  What if the local culture dictates discriminating against someone because they are younger, poorer, or female?  What about when the local practice seems inherently unsafe or dangerous?  What about when the local practice is actually fairly innocuous—but drives you bat-sh*t crazy anyway?  How does one win the cultural tug-o-war in these situations?

And here in lies the real crux of the cultural dilemma for expats: how does one stay sane while having to constantly operate in two or more cultures? If culture is, on some level, the arbitrator of good and bad behavior for a group of people, what do you do when the right thing to do in one culture is very much the wrong thing to do in another?  How do you pick which set norms to follow for any given circumstance and what can you do to avoid feeling constantly confused or even angry when things in the foreign culture aren’t the way your culture would have you believe they “should” be?

For me the answer, and the most effective coping strategy I’ve found is actually another question: “why?”

When in a new place, observing and interacting with a new culture, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of asking “why” about everything I observe–from the simplest of traditions to the most thorny of societal ills.  I ask Google, I ask people I meet, I read books and I ask “why” over and over again until I get some sort of practical, historical, or anthropological answer.

And you know what?  I always get an answer.  Even if it’s an outdated practice, or people disagree over the origin of a custom, no cultural norm or practice is done “just because.”

Why bother asking “why” though?  What good does it do if it doesn’t change anything or resolve any questions of right and wrong?

Well, on the most practical level, asking why helps me to remember local etiquette more easily.  If I know why it’s so rude to point my feet towards someone, it’s much easier for me to remember not to do it.

Asking why also tends to makes daily life much more colorful and interesting. Walking down the street becomes a richer, more enjoyable experience when I know the stories behind some of the seemingly strange behaviors I see: husbands complaining that their wives’ delicious food is terrible so as not to seem boastful, old men bringing their birdcages to the park so that the birds can “talk” to other birds, the pregnant ladies rubbing their bellies for luck as I walk past them carrying Will.  The more I ask “why,” the more I know.  The more I know, the more I want to know and the more I truly begin to enjoy the place I live.

The most important reason I ask “why” though is that often it’s the only thing that keeps me from dissolving into an angry, frustrated ball of ugly American.

As much as I loved many of the cultural norms of China–the tolerance in public places for children, the absurd extremes of Chinese practicality, the ability to get a cup of hot water at every restaurant I went to–there were many others cultural practices that I did not enjoy as much.

Everyone has good days and bad days when living in a foreign country.  On the good days, I didn’t need to ask “why,” I just went with the flow.  On the bad days though, ruminating on the “why” behind the things that were driving me nuts was sometimes the only way I could avoid making a total ass of myself at the grocery store.

**

Why is this old lady elbowing me in the spleen and spitting on my foot to get ahead of me in the produce-line?

Maybe she grew up during the famine of the Great Leap Forward and she was so thoroughly traumatized by the experience that she can’t help but fight everyone in line to make sure she gets the food she needs before its all gone.

Why do grandparents bundle their children to the point of absurdity and heat stroke during the winter months?

Maybe it’s because none of the stores, schools or restaurants in Chengdu have heat.  Most likely the kid’s home doesn’t have heat either.  It’s not totally unlikely that a kid without a warm house to go home to could become dangerously chilled if they aren’t bundled warmly enough at all times.

Why do I have to worry about people running me over when I’m in the crosswalk with a green light?

Because if cars in China waited for every single pedestrian to cross the street before they turned, they might as well just turn off their engines and resign to never move again.  Oh, and also because people who have cars tend to think they are more important than people without them.

Why is that baby peeing on the street?

Because diapers are expensive.  And, really, would we want to have as many landfills on Earth as it would take to handle all of the waste that would result if every single baby in China wore diapers?

**

Are all of my “answers” absolutely factual?  Kind of.  Maybe. I hope so?  Does it really matter though?  Not as much as one might think.

Accuracy is good of course, but if the end goal is simply to get through the day treating everyone the way I’d like to be treated, then asking why also serves the purpose of allowing me to distance myself emotionally from the behaviors or beliefs that I find annoying, insane, or just plain abhorrent.  When I’m asking “why,” I’m momentarily distracted from the temptation to judge everything I see as good or bad, right or wrong.

For me, fewer judgement calls means I feel less indignant and less frustrated.  I’m more able to accept things as they are rather than perseverating over how I think they “should” be.

Let me qualify the above statement by saying that, yes, there are certain things that are just so universally wrong that we can’t and shouldn’t witness them without feeling anything other than moral outrage.  There are things too terrible, too brutal to ever be justified by asking “why.”  We’ll get to how to deal with these sorts of things in a later post, I hope.

But for all of the absolutely-no-question-just-plain-horrible things out there, there are many, many, many more beliefs, practices and social norms that fall into a grey area of cultural relativity.  They might not be the “right” thing to do, but they happen because, short of a system overhaul, there is no other option.  Or, they might be things that don’t make sense in today’s world, but maybe they were vital practices 20 or 30 years ago.  They might not even be the sorts of things a person can judge “good” or “bad” but they befuddle and annoy us just the same.

As I said above, everyone has good days and bad days navigating their way through a foreign culture.  I’ve found though that by relentlessly asking “why” on my bad days, I tend to have fewer and fewer of them and more and more good days instead.

This Life Lessons from Overseas series will be taking a hiatus next week.  Partially because I need some time to get my creative juices flowing again, but mostly because we’ve got two different sets of friends and one awesome sister-in-law coming to town.  They’re all coming to us from Bangkok, New York and Munich and we can’t wait for them to get here.  In liu of Life Lessons next week, expect quite a few photo-heavy posts from all of the reunions!

In the meantime, I have a few more ideas for this Life Lessons from Overseas series, but I feel like we’ve covered quite a few of the big topics already.  Are there any big things I’ve missed that would be fun/helpful/relevant to discuss?  Any topics you’d like to see a post on?  Let me know if the comments!

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5 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Overseas: Culture Questions

  1. Loved it Dani! I always deal with the queue cutting, traffic and people not minding their own business here in Indonesia. But you are right, i have to stop and think why… Have fun with your friends!

    • it’s just a funny little thing I do but it does help me so I hope it helps other people! Indonesia seems like it would be both a very fascinating and very frustrating place, I wish I knew more about the country but I feel like I know nothing about it. Thank goodness for our blog! I’m learning more and more!

  2. I’m just getting started on your series now and have loved loved loved ‘first impressions’ and this post. They both really resonate with me and I can’t wait to have the time to read the rest. Something I’m curious about which you may have already covered in another post (let me know which one) is blogging and impressions. I haven’t really identified my blog as a foreign service spouse blog and I’m not at all active in that blog community, for very similar reasons that you wrote in ‘first impressions’, not wanting a judgement formed by someone at the next post who stumbles upon it before meeting me in person. And now that I’ll be blogging at our next post (which I didn’t do at our first post), I’m unsure of how/if I will censor myself, again with the concerns about people at post reading it. Maybe all of this concern is unfounded and people really aren’t playing such close attention anyway. Would love to hear your thoughts (but I can wait until after your visitors, have fun). Thanks!

    • Ooooh you caught me! 🙂 I haven’t written about blogging and self-censorship yet, partially because it seems to be such a hot-button topic for so many FS bloggers and I’m not sure how to write about it without ruffling feathers. It would be a good topic to cover though, especially since pretty much everyone who goes overseas now has a blog. Donna at Email from Embassy did a fantastic post on a similar topic a few years ago and I still reference it.

      The short answer though is that yes: I do censor myself.

      I may write about the things I don’t like about China or the way Chinese society works, I but I try to never write a single bad thing about Chinese individuals. Mostly because I rarely met anyone in China whom I didn’t like or couldn’t at least respect, but also because I don’t think I could have looked our Chinese colleagues, friends and neighbors in the eye if I did.

      Likewise, I may make snide comments about the retina-scorching ugliness of Drexel Heritage furniture, but I try to keep my complaints about our situation to a trivial minimum. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bashing my own employer on my blog, so I’m certainly not going to bash my husband’s either–especially when, if nothing else, they are the ones paying for my plane tickets and making my lifestyle possible. I have my gripes and complaints about State, just like everyone else. I just, personally, don’t feel comfortable sharing them on my blog.

      But of course, that’s just me and I’m kind of a control freak. My goal with this blog isn’t to write a public diary, exposing every unvarnished though and detail of my life. I think of this site more as a carefully curated time capsule of who I was and where I was at any given point in time. If I write about something negative, I want it to be a thoughtful reflection on what I’ve learned from the experience rather than an impulsive tirade. Some of the most beautiful, powerful things I read on the internet are the least self-censored, but I don’t know if I’m personally capable of such eloquence and public vulnerability. I admire the people who are though!

      Basically, I hit “publish” always with the question in my head: how ashamed/embarrassed/foolish would I feel if one of my husband’s American colleagues read this post and asked me about it? What about a Chinese colleague? What about one of my dad’s clients? Or my in-laws? Because, guess what? Those are all people who’ve read my blog at one time or another!

      SOrry for the novel! Maybe I should just write this post after all! 🙂

      • Haha, yes you should because I think you have a great perspective for all of us to learn from. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. You know, I haven’t even announced my new blog to all family and friends, and keeping it as a creative outlet for like minded people to stumble upon and stick around at their own choosing.

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