The Art of Crossing Cultures
By Craig Storti
Nicholas Brealey Publishing Copyright © 2001 Craig Storti
All rights reserved.
I have already mentioned the prickly heat, ringworm, dry gripes, putrid fevers, biles, consaca, and bloody flux, to which human nature is exposed in this Climate; also the mosquitoes, Patat and Scrapat lice, chigoes, cockroaches, ants, horseflies, wild bees and bats, besides the thorns and briars, and the alligators and peree in the rivers; to which if we add the howling of tigers, the hissing of serpents, and the growling of Four — geoud, the dry, sandy savannahs, unfordable marshes, burning hot days, cold and damp nights, heavy rains, and short allowance, the reader may be astonished how any person was able to survive the trial. Notwithstanding this black catalogue, I solemnly declare I have omitted many other calamities that we suffered, as I wish to avoid [exaggeration].
— Captain John Stedman Journey through Surinam
All in all, [this] is a really nice place to live and work. The people are friendly, the beaches are great, and the fried ants are delicious.
— Foreign aid worker, East Africa
Before you can learn how to get along with the locals, you first have to survive the move abroad. While our focus in this book is on how to interact effectively with people from other cultures, this is not the only or even the first adjustment you have to make when you go overseas. You also have to get used to the new country — the new physical environment — to the new community, and to a new job (or, in the case of many expat spouses, to not having a job). Strictly speaking, these are not cultural adjustments (coming to terms with the behavior of the host country people), but they are very much part of the overall context in which cultural adjustment takes place. Occurring at the same time as cultural adjustment and competing for your attention and energy (neither of which is unlimited), these other adjustments inevitably affect the pace, and in many cases the outcome, of your struggle to adjust to the local culture. The impact of these other challenges is so direct and immediate that if you don't acknowledge and address the problems they pose early on, the resulting stress and anxiety can overwhelm and defeat you before you ever really encounter the culture. In short, while dealing effectively with what we might call these lesser adjustments may not constitute cultural adjustment, it could determine whether you ever get a chance to adjust to the people.
Some good news about these adjustments is that, unlike cultural adjustment, most of us have gone through them before. The typical expatriate has moved, for example, and has some idea of what's involved in adjusting to a new physical environment and to a new community, and most people have also changed jobs before and are familiar with the adjustments that involves. You might never before have done all of these at once — you can change jobs, for example, without moving — and you have probably not done them in an alien land, but at least you have some idea of what to expect and some of the skills you will need to cope.
A New Country
The first adjustments you make are to the new country, starting, unavoidably, with the climate. Whether you come from a dry climate and are set down in a humid one or from a cold climate and are set down in a warm one, you're going to notice the weather. We tend to think of climate or weather more as part of the scenery of an overseas experience, as a characteristic of the setting in which adjustment takes place, than as something else we have to adjust to. But climate can in fact wreak havoc on the unsuspecting expat: on your body, your health, your lifestyle, your pocketbook, and (sooner or later) your mind.
If you're not used to it, the heat and humidity of the tropics can be debilitating, even demoralizing. "I've been in Ceylon a month," D. H. Lawrence wrote on a visit to that country, "and nearly sweated myself into a shadow" (1984, 25). For the first few weeks, even months, you may feel a marked loss of energy, a need for more sleep, and any number of symptoms commonly associated with dehydration, such as headaches and low-grade fevers. You may have to rely on round-the-clock air-conditioning, though you consider it unhealthy; you may have to scrap plans to walk or bicycle to work (thus leaving your spouse at home without a car); you may have to give up tennis or jogging on your lunch hour, then gain weight because you don't get enough exercise; or you may have to buy new clothes, an unexpected expense; or your skin may break out, causing you to become depressed about your appearance. "The humidity could be blamed for many things," Anthony Burgess writes in The Long Day Wanes, "the need for a siesta, corpulence, the use of the car for a hundred-yard journey, the mildew on the shoes, the sweatrot in the armpits of dresses, the lost bridge-rubber or tennis-set, the dislike felt for the whole country" (1964, 36).
Nor is too cold much of an improvement on too hot. Older flats and homes in many countries don't come with central heating, for example, or they may have inadequate insulation. You can heat a room or two, perhaps (when the power is on), but you can't heat the entire house. You may bathe less frequently because it's too cold, and you may catch cold more easily.
Then, there's too wet — in the form of the monsoon that occurs each year throughout much of Asia and the Pacific: two to three months of relentless rain, flooded, impassable streets and roads, mold sprouting on your shoes and clothes and creeping down the walls. At least in the hot weather you can still go outside and move about, but in the monsoon you have no desire to do so (though you don't want to be inside either). Like excessive heat and cold, the monsoon not only makes you uncomfortable; it can make you unhappy.
Wherever you live overseas, the list of things "they don't have here" sometimes seems to have been designed with you personally in mind. Bad enough in itself, this list normally calls into being a second list — of the things you can't do here — and taken together these lists can make you very unhappy and frustrated. The lists are different in different places and for different expats; it may be a favorite food, a spice you can't cook without, replacement parts, a certain type of service, books in your native language, an appliance you can't live without, or a favorite sport or pastime. Learning to get by without these requires you to make scores of tiny adjustments every day, and while most people manage to cope well enough — finding substitutes or getting cherished items from loved ones back home — the annoyance and inconvenience of doing without take their toll. Any veteran expat will tell you that it's not just the big things that get to you overseas, like not speaking the language or understanding the locals, but also the countless petty irritations that slowly wear you down. One famous story in the lore of expatriate failure tells of the man who came home early from his assignment in the South Pacific because, as he put it, "The salt wouldn't come out of the shaker."
The Loss of Routines
In a way, doing without is part of another, more all-encompassing issue, which we might call the loss of routines. Some observers claim that this is really the essence of adjusting to a new country, but whether it's the essence or not, it certainly looms large. But what are routines, and why is losing them such a problem? As this writer has noted elsewhere:
[A] routine is something you do while your mind is on something else, an action you have done so many times you no longer need to think about it in order to perform it. Most routines involve simple, uncomplicated behaviors that are easily mastered and that are always executed in a predictable, unchanging manner. For most people, brushing their teeth is a routine, or, more accurately, many aspects of brushing one's teeth are routine. You don't have to be consciously aware of picking up your toothbrush, of opening the tube of toothpaste, of squeezing the tube, of raising your brush to your mouth, etc. You may give parts of this procedure fleeting attention, but you are probably giving conscious attention to something else for most of the time it takes to brush your teeth. And the same can be said for numerous other actions and parts of actions you perform day in and day out.
Many routines, though not all, involve basic coping and survival behaviors, such as bathing, dressing, eating, going to the bathroom, driving. More complicated behaviors can also become routines over time; for some people, cooking certain meals can be a routine. And even some of the most complicated behaviors can have routine elements. Routines by their very nature use up very little of your mental and physical energy, which is therefore available for higher order, more complicated — or brand new behaviors, which do require your mental and physical energy (at least until such time as they too are reduced, or reduced in part, to routines).
The lifeblood of routines is the known and the familiar. Needless to say, when you move to a new country, where nothing is known and familiar, your routines get mightily disrupted. Suddenly, nothing ... is a routine. The loss of routines means the time and energy that were available for higher order, more sophisticated tasks now goes to basic coping and survival functions. With the minutiae of everyday life now demanding much of your conscious attention, [these higher order functions] either get put aside or take much longer to accomplish. ... Many routines can be easily reestablished — the second time you brush your teeth overseas, the action is fast becoming automatic — but others can take longer to reconstruct.
The loss of routines hits you at your core. You expect to have to learn how to do new things overseas and even new ways of doing familiar things, but you may be surprised to discover that you have to learn to do things you normally do without thinking. (Storti 1997, 12–13)
Here's an expat describing the excitement of reestablishing a common routine, driving, his first day in England:
My very first day in England I went into work just to get the [company] car. It was a stick shift. I drove a stick shift about fifteen years ago for about a month. ... The manager who was leaving drove me to a petrol station, filled it up for me and said, "Okay, here is your driving lesson." So I jerkedback to the office about a mile or two away and he proceeded to show me where all of the little gizmos were on the car. He said, "Okay, you are on your own." And there I was with the car and no map and two hundred miles to drive that day with a stick shift, sitting on the wrong side of the front seat. It was a little terrifying.... (Osland 1995, 38–39)
The problem with routines is that until you've reestablished them, you can have a very low opinion of yourself. If something this simple can be so difficult, then what am I going to do about something that's genuinely difficult?
Another reality of being in a new country is not knowing anyone. For the first few weeks after your arrival, you will be interacting day in and day out, hour by hour, with people you don't know or don't know very well. There's nothing bad about this, of course — part of the adventure of being an expatriate is meeting new people — but it takes much more energy and effort than interacting with people you already know and who know you. When you are with people like this, you can relax and be yourself. Because you know they know you, you don't have to be especially careful of what you do and say to make sure they form a positive impression. With new people, however, who don't yet have an impression of you, you tend to be very careful of what you say and do until you see how they respond. Being careful like this, paying close, conscious attention to everything you say and do, takes considerable emotional and physical effort. A few hours of interacting with relative strangers, whether from your own or the host country, will leave you as tired as a whole day of dealing with people you already know.
A related problem is being so far away from family and friends. There's the homesickness dimension, genuinely missing close friends and loved ones, and there's also the matter of not having the support and encouragement such people offer us during difficult times. As you face the difficulties of those early months abroad, you need the kind of unconditional acceptance and support only close friends and family members can provide; you need people who will listen to your tirades about the country and the natives without judging, people with whom you can fall apart without being embarrassed or worrying about what they might think. Your spouse may be available for this purpose, of course, but he or she may be looking to you for the same support. Whenever possible, you should plan to fall apart on different days from your spouse.
Additional Issues in Developing Countries
Expatriates working in developing nations often face an extra set of "country" issues, those that their counterparts in more modern countries don't normally experience. The communications infrastructure, for example, is delicate in many developing countries, posing all manner of special problems in a world increasingly dependent on technology. The issue is not so much having the technology as it is having a reliable source of electricity. Electricity supply has always been a problem in the third-world, but it mattered less in a less-wired world. When the power goes out these days, as it does increasingly in many developing countries, the impact is much greater. Work stops, in a word, and out come the teacups.
Another chronic complaint is poor telephone service. While the situation has improved somewhat in the era of cell phones and satellite communications, any expat from a modern country who lives and works in a developing country has to adjust to considerably less reliable and efficient telephone service. Imagine for a moment having to actually visit, or send someone else to visit, a quarter or even a third of the local destinations you telephone or e-mail on an average day from work or from home. (And while you're at it, imagine not being able to contact at all some of the more far-flung destinations.) Without good telephone service, the amount of business you can conduct in Lahore or Harare may be only half what you are used to — and the effort may be double. In the West the telephone is like a third hand; when suddenly it's amputated, you miss it.
The absence of reliable communications is at least part of the reason for the expatriate's favorite complaint about how long it takes to get things done in developing countries. It likewise goes a long way toward explaining that other old standby about the slower pace of life in Asia or Latin America or around the shores of the Mediterranean. People have more time for each other, we hear; they enjoy each other's company more. While personal relationships are certainly more important in many countries than in the West, the fact is that when you can't call, you have to go, and a visit is naturally more personal than a telephone call and always takes longer. No one thinks it odd if you hang up after three minutes, but if you leave someone's home or office three minutes after arriving (when you spent half an hour just to get there) you would certainly be thought odd, or worse.
Transportation is another issue in many developing countries. If you can't call and the matter can't wait, then you have to go. Whether the problem is crumbling roads and bridges, old and unreliable equipment (stop lights, airplanes, repair and emergency vehicles), fuel shortages, or missing parts, a weak transportation infrastructure can make getting around the country expensive, extremely time-consuming, and, in many cases, downright dangerous. It is seventy-five miles from Colombo to Galle in Sri Lanka. If you leave at 8:30 A.M. for a 10 A.M. appointment, you'll be two hours late. If you need a spare part in Pokhara (Nepal) and it has to come from Khatmandu, ninety miles away, you can take off the rest of the week.
"It was not like other bad roads," Peter Fleming writes of a famous track he came across in Brazil,
which incommode you with continuous and petty malice. "Look how far we can go," they seem to say, as you crawl painfully along them, "and still be called a road." You hate them the more bitterly for the knowledge that they will keep certain bounds. They will madden you with minor obstacles, but in the end they will let you through.
But with the road to Leopoldina it was not like this. It had no quarrel with us. It took no count of us at all. It did not fight a sly, delaying action, raising our hopes only to dash them, but always keeping them alive. It did not set out to tantalize us or gall us. It seemed, rather, preoccupied with its own troubles. It had never wished to be a road, and now it cursed itself for not refusing its function before it was too late. It lashed itself into a fury of self-reproach. It writhed in anguish. It was clearly a tormented thing. At any moment, we felt, it might decide to End it All. (1985, 126) (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti. Copyright © 2001 Craig Storti. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
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