Challenging Challenges

Although I have grown up in several countries and have seen the different cultures, languages, and customs, I still find it difficult to switch between them as an adult. You would think that it is easy for me to make that switch in France considering my background and age, but to my, and possibly your surprise, it has been a bit difficult. I wanted to specifically talk about cultural change because in my opinion it is the most challenging to overcome when living in a foreign country.

You see, what might be culturally normal to you, might actually be abnormal to the locals of your host country and vice versa. When it came to cultural differences my mother had always told us to “put the special hat on”– or, to wear that country’s culture and customs on your head because it will aid you in getting used to the new country. This method involved us isolating our own personal perspectives and absorbing new ones. This method was truly very interesting and had in fact helped me to learn more about that country and ease myself into my new environment. Therefore, as a young girl, I did not have trouble with the change in environment when we would move from country to country. In other words, I adapted to my new environment with much ease. I would absorb the culture, learn the local language, and make friends from that country which was something that had helped me become a part of a foreign community quickly. I want to reiterate that during this time I was young girl– I traveled and lived in these countries between the ages of 2 and 11, so for me moving to foreign countries was both mentally and physically easy.

I believe that as a young child you adapt better to environments, then you do as an adult. I guess we attach less emotion to the previous places and focus more on the present. I know that as an adult we are the complete opposite, that is, we have a harder time adapting culturally because we attach a lot of emotion to what we had before. We are more aware of the relationships we have back home and the customs, which makes it challenging to adapt to an environment where you almost know none of that. However, there is so much beauty in going to a new country and being completely unaware because in the end you learn everything.

I was always told that the French were incredibly straightforward. That is, they would tell you directly if you did something wrong. I already had some previous experiences with direct people when I was living abroad and it was something that did not really bother me, but of course this was all when I was young. As an adult, I think that I a more sensitive to directness from strangers. In the United States, being direct or straightforward is something that is completely avoided because it could come across as rude and hurtful. However, in France it is a custom that is very much normal and accepted. In other words, although it might sometimes come across as rude, it is not something that you should take personally because they are like that with almost everyone.

This cultural difference did shock me when I arrived because I had first hand experience. For example, one day I was coming back home from work and I noticed that the metro was exceptionally full. I was squished to the one side of the train and did not have a smile on my face. A lady that was standing next to me pointed out that I was frowning (for some reason), even though I was not. She asked if I was annoyed and proceeded to tell me that I should not be annoyed since this was a very normal situation– the train to be full. The lady was extremely direct and it made it especially hard for me to even accept comments like these by strangers. Although she did not mean to say it a mean way, it came across like that to me because in the US we do not make direct comments like that to strangers.

It was difficult for me to adapt to the directness because I am a sensitive person. However, I believe that in a way that situation has made me stronger mentally, because now I do not take those comments personally as I did before.