How not to be raging mad at your host culture, part 1

When I first arrived in my host culture (and didn’t speak any of the language), I went to a park and immediately everyone started staring at me, little kids pointed at me, and people snapped my picture. I didn’t have my fly down, I wasn’t inappropriately dressed, and I wasn’t doing anything other than being there. I didn’t know it then, but this was my first introduction to the “stare at foreigners” pattern that is endemic in my host culture.

It is constant, endless staring that never seems to end; it is brazen, unapologetic, and in your face, constant staring. I didn’t realize how pervasive it was until I traveled with my kids to another country and my son asked me, “Dad, why aren’t the people here staring at us?” He just figured that being stared at was normal—so much so that the absence of staring struck him as odd!

Staring is something that aggravates many expats in my host country and used to drive me crazy, but the other day I realized I had changed. I took my entire family to a restaurant where a guy stared at us the entire meal. I wasn’t actually bothered by it; instead, I looked at my family and realized that everything he saw was new and a curiosity: I’m a foreigner and he’s probably never seen one before; my wife is a local and he’s probably never seen a cross-cultural couple before; my kids are biracial and he’s probably never seen that before; I have four kids and most locals only have one or two; all my kids are boys and that’s statistically unlikely. As I considered what he saw, far from being upset at the staring, it kind of made sense to me that he was staring.

How did that change take place? As expats, we regularly encounter stressors and differences and things that can easily make you raging mad at your host culture. It may not be staring, but there are definitely things your host culture does (or doesn’t do!) that irritate you and drive you crazy. How do you live as an expat without developing Raging Expat Syndrome—ok, so that’s not a real thing but I’m sure you’ve seen it in others (if not in yourself!), a low-level of resentment that makes you constantly annoyed by your host culture, ready to explode the next time a local does “that thing” that you can’t stand.

The good news is that Raging Expat Syndrome is easily avoidable…if you know how to deal with and process cultural differences. You don’t have to rage at differences—with the right method, you can respond with empathy, humor, tolerance, and—dare I say—even emulation!

This topic is quite complex, so we’ll address it over the next weeks. Today is the foundational understanding of what makes up cultural differences—and how that informs our response to them—and in the next weeks I’ll share how to move past cultural frustration towards understanding, empathy, and emulation. Let’s dive in!

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Sponsor: EYCA Panda, a 100% English online grocery store for expats

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Keys of understanding culture: norms and values

Before we understand how to deal with cultural differences, it’s first important to understand that cultures differ in two broad categories: norms and values. Understanding both, and knowing how they differ from each other, is critically important to knowing how to respond to and process cultural differences, so let’s examine what they are at the start.

What norms are

Merriam Webster provides this definition of norm:

a pattern or trait taken to be typical in the behavior of a social group / a widespread or usual practice, procedure, or custom

Merriam Webster, “Norm”

Put simply, a norm is something that a lot of people typically do—what they normally do. Saying hello with a firm handshake is a norm in US American culture; saying hello with a bow is a norm in some Asian cultures; saying hello with a kiss is a norm in other cultures. Whatever is normal for you to do in a situation is the norm of your culture.

Norms can also be what people don’t do in a situation. In US American culture, you don’t talk with food in your mouth while eating; in Chinese culture, you don’t stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice; in Thailand, you don’t step on money; in Japan, you don’t wear shoes into someone’s house; in many Arab cultures, men and women don’t touch when greeting each other.

Norms are visible and observable, things that people do (or don’t do) according to the custom, practices, and procedures of a country, city, company, or even family. However, we get so used to what is normal in our culture that we often don’t realize we have a norm for basically any situation until that norm is violated or we see someone acting according to a different set of norms.

What values are

What, then, is a value? Merriam Website again provides a helpful starting point:

something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable

Merriam Webster, “Value”

We need to tweak this definition a tad to apply to our cross-cultural context: a value is something that a culture believes is intrinsically valuable or desirable. Values are the beliefs a culture has about what is honorable, right, proper, true, good, or praiseworthy — and thus, conversely, what a culture believes is shameful, wrong, improper, false, bad, or worthy of censure/shame.

Values are deeply ingrained, often unspoken, and yet color deeply our view of the world—so deeply that oftentimes they are so deep that we cannot fathom another cultures’ values and are quick to judge them as not just different, but wrong. I have a friend who lived in a culture where only the oldest woman was allowed to speak and all younger women were expected to be silent—this applied in any situation, whether it was a 70 year old woman with a 20 year old woman or a 10 year old girl with a 7 year old. Westerners would bridle at that as wrong, and yet someone raised in that culture would feel just as strongly that it would be shameful for a younger woman to speak.

Why does one culture say that practice is obviously wrong and another say it’s clearly right? It’s not just because they have different cultures—that’s too simplistic an answer—it’s because they’ve imbibed the values of that culture so deeply that they can’t imagine a different way could not just be acceptable but praiseworthy.

How norms and values interrelate

In reality, values and norms are not always easily separated because values always influence norms and norms always reflect values. Put simply, norms are what people do—values are why they do it.

What this means is that when you encounter a cultural difference that makes you bristle, it could be because you dislike the norm itself, even if you have no objection to the value. I’d be awkward in a greet-by-kiss culture because I’m not used to it, even though I don’t object to it. But usually merely different norms doesn’t lead to Raging Expat Syndrome because norms can be quickly learned.

What’s far harder—and more likely to lead to the syndrome—is when a norm violates a value that you hold dear or because the norm imposes a value that you oppose. A woman growing up in a Middle Eastern culture where unmarried men and woman do not touch will probably react quite negatively if a man greets her with a kiss. Why? Because the norm violates a deeply held value about the proper relationship of men and women.

This difference of norms and values explains why some norms are easy to embrace and others cause so much difficulty. I can drive on the left-hand side of the road without raging at it, since it represents the same values as in the US (order, rule following, efficiency, safety, etc.), but I’m sure I’d have more trouble in a culture where the roads seem chaotic because my values are violated.

The point of these examples is to identify that a norm is never just an action; a norm reflects and embodies a value. To emulate a culture’s norms, then, is not just taking certain actions with your body—it is participating in the values of that culture, which may or may not be the same as yours.

Why this understanding is crucial

This isn’t ivory tower musings of a wannabe sociologist; this is exactly why you get frustrated with a culture and, if you leave that frustration unchecked, develop Raging Expat Syndrome. There’s four important lessons to draw from this understanding of norms and values.

First, and this should be obvious except that lots of expats are bad at this—the more you embrace and emulate the norms of a culture, the less frustration you’ll feel and the less conflict you’ll cause. You don’t have to agree with a value or a norm to emulate it—as long as you’re not violating your conscience or doing something immoral, try to imitate those around you as much as you can, especially in little things that you think don’t matter. You’ll not only honor others and cause less conflict, but you’ll experience less stress yourself if you go with the flow rather than fight the stream of your host culture. And if you bridle at that notion, it means you’re probably from an individualistic culture that taught you to “express yourself” and be different from everyone else. I know it’s hard to change, but if you’re in a collectivist culture, that individualism is gonna cause you a lot of stress and create immense conflict with those around you. Try to adapt.

Second, most of your frustration comes from judging your host culture’s norms by your home culture’s values. I’ll repeat that: most of your frustration comes from judging your host culture’s norms by your home culture’s values. I reacted to people staring at me by saying it was rude—my culture values privacy and so I judged that person’s actions by my value, leading to frustration with him for not acting according to my value! Yet, as I’ve learned talking to locals over the years, they’re just curious about me and aren’t trying to be rude. If I say in my head “that person is rude,” I’ll react negatively, but if I say “that person is curious”, then I’ll have an entirely different reaction. Your frustration comes from using your value to judge their norm; learn to avoid this!

Third, we need to understand and respect a culture’s values if we are ever to make peace with a culture’s norms that irritate us. For example, by realizing that I, too, value curiosity—I regard it as critical to innovation and learning—I’m to empathize with someone who stares at my family because we are a curiosity compared to most locals. If I were him, I’d be quite curious too—and that’s actually something I regard as good! Identifying and respecting my host culture’s values helps me to make peace with the norm.

Fourth, we must humbly recognize that judging another culture’s values takes an immense amount of careful thought. What causes Raging Expat Syndrome is that we experience a norm which violates our values and we instantly judge the norm or value as wrong. Then, of course, our anger is justified because we’re angry at something that’s wrong. But while there are moral absolutes in the world and some values are morally superior to others, it’s far harder to make that assessment than you’d think. For example, consider that my culture values both privacy and curiosity but decides which one is more important in different situations:

  • When it comes to a couple’s sex life, their privacy trumps your curiosity (but a very close friend or a doctor can ask about your sex life in certain situations)
  • When it comes to a stranger on the street, their privacy trumps your curiosity (but you are allowed to take quick “secret” glances at them)
  • When it comes to a celebrity on the street, your curiosity trumps their privacy so that you can stare or take pictures without permission

My host culture would actually agree with situation one and situation three, but in situation two they’d say you can stare at a stranger rather than only have short glances. If I can stop my internal judgement of their culture, am I really so certain that my culture has gotten situation two right? After all, if my host culture says that curiosity can trump privacy in some situations (and even situation one has exceptions!), am I really so certain this isn’t one of those times? Is staring at a foreigner actually that ethically different from staring at a celebrity? Am I really so sure that a short glance at a stranger is fine, but a stare is not? Is there really an objective moral justification for that difference in short and long glances? And am I so certain in my answers to these questions that I have valid moral grounds from which to judge another person as being wrong for staring?

The point in these questions is not to suggest that all things are relative—I believe there are moral absolutes in the universe—but rather to identify the complexity and difficulty of making those comparative ethical judgments. I have to remind myself to be humble when my internal cultural judge screams out “rude!”—after all, I might very well be wrong. That humility in the face of the complexity of the situation helps me to be empathetic rather than judgmental.

Summing it up

I hope you can see how this basic understanding of norms and values is helpful; in the weeks ahead, I’ll be sharing my four-step process for processing cultural differences so that you can avoid Raging Expat Syndrome. Learning to engage cultural differences with humility, empathy, humor, and even emulation, is critical to your surviving and thriving as an expat.

Stay tuned for more!

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Tips & Tricks: Use Forvo

After a couple week’s break (taking my own advice on rhythms of rest), The Prepared Expat is back this week with a short but immensely useful tip on language learning!

Tip of the week: Use Forvo for native speaker recordings of language.

Note: I have no affiliation with Forvo and this is not a sponsored post; I’ve just used Forvo for years, love it, and recommend it to you.

What Forvo is

Forvo is a website that bills itself as a pronunciation dictionary, allowing you to listen to and download recordings of nearly 6 million words in over 430 languages. If there’s a word you want to hear, just search for it and you can listen to it or download it, assuming it’s one of the 6 million words they have in their database. If it isn’t, though, you can request that a native speaker record the word for you and Forvo will email you when the word gets uploaded.

In my experience, 97% of the time Forvo has the word I’m looking for; the 3% is usually specialized or niche words. Even then, when I request a recording, I usually get the word recorded within a week. It’s a fantastic way to get native recordings of language–and best of all, it’s free! (They do have a paid premium tier, but I’ve never used it).

Whether you’re learning English, Cantonese, Arabic, Ukrainian, Bashkir, or Sicilian, Forvo will have something to aid you in your language studies.

How I use Forvo

The most important skill in language acquisition is listening comprehension. There’s a multitude of reasons for this—that’s a blog post for another day—but the short version is that brains naturally learn to understand words before they learn to speak them. Just look at any child; they’re able to understand you far before they’re able to speak. Even in your native language, you can typically understand twice as many words as you can speak. Language acquaintance starts with listening comprehension.

What that means for your self-study is that you need to review and study, not just written language but audio recording of language so that you can practice hearing and understanding the language. Your teacher or textbook may provide you with recordings, which is awesome, but there are always gaps—language that you’ve heard and want to review but for which you don’t have a recording. That’s where Forvo comes in, as you can find and listen to nearly any word in the world, pronounced by native speakers so you can be sure to hear a correct pronunciation (even if it’s different than what the dictionary calls “correct”!)

Another benefit of Forvo is that they have multiple recordings of more common words, so you can hear words pronounced in slightly different dialects or accents. That can help train your ears to hear the same word in slightly (or sometimes drastically!) different ways. I’ve found this especially helpful with words where my language helper records the local dialect, but I want to hear and understand the “standard” pronunciation too.

So there you go! Short and simple: Go to Forvo, create a free basic account, and begin listening to and downloading words! And each time you find a word they don’t have, help other language learners out and request a pronunciation for it! Go a step further and record some of your native language to help other learners out—not only will you serve others, but also Forvo prioritizes getting new words recorded for people who also make recordings, so it’s a win-win.

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Tips & Tricks: Fly better with baggage

My family recently had our vacation as part of our rhythm of rest and I wanted to share some tips from our flight experience that will be helpful to you as well.

Today’s tip: Fly better with baggage. It’s actually six different steps to improve your airport baggage experience (and not about carrying emotional baggage 😉)

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1. Get a travel luggage scale

Airlines have baggage weight requirements and, unless you’re a very experienced traveler who tell just by feel if a piece of luggage is than 50lb/22kg, you’ll need a way to weigh the baggage. Unfortunately, bags rarely fit or balance on a bathroom scale so you have to resort to the “standard” but asinine method of weighing yourself, weighing yourself while holding the luggage (over your head?) and then subtracting your weight from your weight with the luggage. But as Brian Regan famously and hilariously showed, that’s just crazy—and, more than that, inaccurate and probably impossible on your return trip anyway since most hotels don’t have bathroom scales. Unfortunately, due to the law of expanding luggage1 and the purchase of souvenirs, your luggage on the return trip is more likely to be the problem yet that’s when you’re less likely to be able to weigh it.

Instead, just buy a luggage scale. These small handheld scales attach to your suitcase handle and measure the weight as the luggage hangs. They’re small and light so you can slip them in your suitcase and always have a scale.

2. Plan what you’ll rearrange

Unfortunately, even if you weigh your luggage in advance, you might still have a hassle if the airport’s scale is calibrated differently than yours. It’s a pain in the neck when a bag is overweight and you have to move a few pounds to another suitcase—rifle through your suitcase to find 1.3 pounds while everyone in line stares daggers at you and looks at your dirt laundry. Yeah, not fun.

Better yet: prepare a few things that are dense, easily accessible, and for which you know the weight. Super easy to make a switch, no underwear exposure required.

3. Go over the weight limit

This might sound funny, but I typically *intentionally go over the weight limit for my baggage. Airlines have margin around their weight limit; if their limit is 50 pounds, they won’t make a stink if your bag is 51. After lots of trial and error, I found that US-flagged carriers typically won’t make you reppack unless you are more than 3 pounds over the limit.

Three pounds may not sound like much, but when you check 2 bags apiece on an international flight and have a family of 4, that’s 24 pounds or half a suitcase of extra stuff you can ship for free. Just make sure to follow tip #2 so that, if you do have to repack, you can easily rearrange things.

4. Use your baby exemptions

If you have a baby, most airlines will let you check a car seat, stroller, and/or infant bed for free, which is wonderful. Airlines don’t care if the stroller’s empty space is stuffed with diapers, if the infant bed has an extra blanket smushed inside, or if the the car seat is full of baby clothes.

Maximize your allowance by buying a car seat bag or a stroller bag. Not only will it keep your car seat or stroller clean, but you can fill the empty space inside with tons of other stuff, giving you almost another checked bag for free. I only pack mine with baby-related things in case someone checks, but we’ve never had someone check in over 8 years of doing this.

5. Maximize your carryon capacity

US-flagged airlines that aren’t budget airlines rarely, if ever, weigh or check bags that are taken as a carryon or personal item,2 which makes your carryon bag a good place for small, dense items like books. I’ve traveled internationally with a 60 pound carryon bag plus a 30-pound backpack and no one batted an eye.

A large carryon bag, though, won’t fit in the seat in front of you, which makes getting items you want on the plane inconvenient. What I do is pack a small bag inside the larger backpack of everything I want to use on the plane. Then, when I get to my seat the large backpack goes overhead and just the small bag goes under the seat in front of me.

6. Make sure nothing is lost

My Grandpa worked in the airline industry for over 20 years and he would tell the craziest stories about lost luggage. While the airlines do a great job of trying to identify lost luggage if your information isn’t on or in the bag, there’s not much they can do. My Grandpa thus insisted that we travel with our contact information on the outside and inside of our suitcases.

Rather than those flimsy paper tags the airlines give you, buy some nice, sturdy, luggage tags so that you don’t have to constantly write your information down and so they don’t get torn off. As a bonus, if you get a distinctive color of the tag, it can help you find your luggage at the baggage claim.

I recommend travel tags that have privacy protection; these show your name easily so staff can check the bag, but in order to see the rest of your information, someone would have to unscrew or remove the tag, which helps protect your privacy.

So there you go! Six quick tips to make your airplane baggage experience better.

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1. Codified by my Grandpa, and who worked 20+ years at the airline, the law of expanding luggage states that luggage on your return flight expands to take up more space and than it did on your departure flight, even if all the items are the same.

2. In my experience, Southeast Asian (but not Chinese-flagged) and budget airlines will check both the weight and size of carryon items, so this doesn’t always work. You have to have prior experience to know if you can do this.