The weirdest thing about moving to France was the culture shock. Not the fact that it existed — I was prepared for that. No, what floored me was how intense it was, especially in comparison to my previous move. Who would have thought that adjusting to a Western culture would be more difficult than adjusting to an Asian one?
(The culprit was cockiness: I wildly overestimated my expat abilities because this was my fourth move and I thought I’d already made all my mistakes. One word: hubris.)
During those first challenging weeks in Bordeaux, the target of my wrath became the Internet café, where all the keyboards were — quite naturally — French. I’d never used a different keyboard layout before, and as a touch typist, it was discouraging to glance over a lengthy email I’d just written only to find a screen full of gibberish staring back at me. I was inadvertently signing my name “?qriq” instead of “Maria,” which seemed fitting in light of my brand-new identity crisis.
I was trudging back to my crappy temporary housing after another frustrating keyboard experience one day when Blaine called. Blaine and I have been good friends since high school, so I had no problem whining to him that I felt like a total loser who couldn’t seem to figure out how things worked in Bordeaux. Like the sweetheart he is, he started telling me how much he struggled when he moved to England twenty-plus years ago.
“Are you kidding me?” I snapped. “You think that’s hard? At least you didn’t have to learn a different #@*&$ language.” (For the record, yes, he’s still my friend. The man is a saint.)
I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that
“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”
I think there are three broad areas that trip up expats who move to a culture they think is similar to their own:
Language (vocabulary, syntax, accent)
George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde — take your pick) once observed, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an immigrant kid I have some experience in this matter, and I can say with utter certainty that you don’t know what mortification is until your English/Irish parents send you out to “buy some fags for us” in the presence of your snickering Canadian schoolmates.
“There are some amusing differences such as pants, which you quickly learn means something different,” agrees Blaine. “Also, I had a fanny pack….”
Well, I never said he was cool.
Let’s turn for a moment to another brave voyager, Aisha Ashraf. (You might know her from her excellent blog, Expatlogue.) Aisha moved in the opposite direction, from England to Canada, and has had similar issues understanding Canadian English.
“I had a cut on my finger so I asked at the hotel reception for a plaster,” she told me in an email. “The woman at the desk gave me a blank look, shifted uncomfortably, then gave a little cough and asked if I’d like an elastic band. After I explained about the cut, she got the picture and her face lit up as she triumphantly iterated, ‘aaahhhh, a Band-aid!’ That was my first experience of speaking the same language yet appearing incomprehensible, and it was a really odd and unexpected feeling.”
These are the practical aspects of daily life — those routines that are so mundane, you’ve never given them a second thought.
“It can be just minor things,” Blaine says, “but because you’ve grown up with only one way of doing something, you may have not have developed your flexibility bone* enough to consider that there might be another way. I can give you a trivial example: knowing the difference between a taxi and a private hire car. In Canada there’s only one kind of taxi. In England there are the more expensive official taxis, there are private hire cars — the mini cabs — and then there are the unlicensed mini cabs, which are another breed altogether. When you have to learn 20 new things like that a day, it makes you crazy.”
People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”
“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”
So apologies to my dear friend Blaine for discounting the very real culture shock he experienced when he moved to Blighty. Scratching the surface reveals that Canadians and Brits aren’t so similar after all: they speak different Englishes, have different behaviours, and even — as I learned while writing this post — type with different keyboard layouts.
* * *
Fags: British English for cigarettes
Pants: British English for underpants; also, adjective that means “really bad”
Fanny pack: Canadian English for bum bag
Plaster: British English for Band-aid
Band-aid: Canadian English for plaster
* “Flexibility bone” — LOL! See why I love this guy? 🙂