I don’t know where to start with this. I figured something out about myself—I think I did—something that has puzzled me for a long time.
I was chatting with a friend of mine today. She’s kind of a new friend. I don’t know her that well, but I seem to feel like being honest with her. I guess I don’t really have time for friends I can’t be honest with. I don’t have free time to fill up with mere entertainment. Social relationships are either necessary obligations, or they are giving me connection I need. I have too much work to do to sustain acquaintances.
The thing is we have these chats that confuse me. I like her, but there is a large part of our interactions that for me is one long wtf. Which is actually not unusual. I am not close to any of the other foreign teachers because of that. I do a lot of polite nodding while thinking wtf. It’s some kind of cultural gap, and it’s really nothing new, but Country X highlights it, and it highlights it in a somewhat painful way for me. I don’t really want to be reminded how different I am from other people, especially since I don’t know why I am so different, and especially since they don’t know either. It is much simpler with Country Xers. If they want to talk to me, they start from an assumption that I will be different from them in fundamental ways, and we move from there. Other people from Western countries usually start from an assumption we will basically have similar experiences (with some variations due to our particular personalities). Or something. And then inevitably I have no real idea what they mean, because we aren’t having similar experiences, I am not making the same sense of things and the implications of what they are saying escape me. I know in the sense that I have heard it all before, but I cannot imagine their mindset nor can I imagine why they think I could imagine.
So I was thinking about this, because that is what puzzling things make me want to do: understand them. And, because, very honestly, I find the wtf kind of limiting. There are a great number of probably very nice people I don’t connect with because they make me painfully confused and I don’t like it.
Maybe it starts with no sense of an “us.” I mean, for white people (to be frank), there is usually an “us-ness” that the individual is not consciously aware of. It is not like being Black, where probably you have been thinking since you were seven years old what it means to be Black. If you are white, as I am, your culture lies completely outside your awareness until you find yourself in the midst of a different one and your own ways of doing things start being called into question. But I think as an ex-pat, you look around and see other ex-pats, and you feel a sense of connection.
I don’t, because the other ex-pats here mostly make me feel confused.
I’m talking in circle now.
Anyway, I was thinking this and it occurred to me that the difference might be that I see culture as a kind of skin, like a shell or a set of clothes. It’s not that closely linked to my identity. I put on certain behaviours and ways of communicating for certain occasions, just as one might wear a suit to the office and dirty jeans to do yardwork. I don’t know anyone else who quite sees it this way.
As I said, if you are white, the link between your behaviour and identity is usually outside your awareness, but it is there. It is actually there for me: I notice it from time to time, that I cannot properly adapt to certain situations because the struggle with my identity is too great.
But this feeling I have that culture is a set of clothes that can be taken on or off. Well, that’s me. That’s because of how I grew up. It was something to take on or off, a state of being rather than a permanent identity. I went to Aliya’s house and we behaved one way, and I spent time with the Russian girls, and I behaved a different way and I went home and behaved yet another way.
A different person with a different family would feel one of these environments to be “us” and the other environments to be ways we behave when we are there, but those ways of behaving are not really “us.” The difference in my case is that I was being neglected at home. I was being abused, but more importantly, my emotional needs were in no way being met. This made me kind of up-for-grabs attachment-wise. Any nurturing female was welcome to sign up as mom to me. I seem to have had several.
So, when I changed my behaviour in different settings, I felt myself to be that behaviour. I went to Aliya’s house and felt I was temporarily Arab, like that is something you can do. I spent time with the Russian girls, and felt I was Russian, like you can be Russian for a few hours a day. It wasn’t the typical experience that a child might have, where they might go to a friend’s house and learn about what it is like to be Arab and maybe imitate those behaviours, but still understand they are not Arab. I took on the cultural identities of different settings because I felt such a strong attachment—because there was no single set of strong attachments at home—and so culture became temporary to me. It became something you can take on or off.
I don’t know that this attitude about culture is such a big deal, except that it makes me approach people from other cultures in some fundamentally different way that means I get a different reaction back from them. For one, there is no sense of novelty. I don’t get that “buzz” of everything being new. I came to Country X and they wear beautiful national dress and have prayer flags everywhere and have a very specific style of architecture. Except for the paintings of phallic symbols on the exteriors of houses, I had no sense of “this is new and different and isn’t that exciting?” I mean, I go to a different country, and I expect it to look different. It’s pretty, but the buzz is not there for me, because I am not surprised. I am not surprised, because I expect it. Because that is how I grew up.
It’s hard to explain this.
However, despite my inability to really articulate this, what I mean to say is, if nothing else, that buzz of novelty makes people behave in some particular way that I don’t behave in. Because I behave in a different way, I get a different response, then I have different experiences of interacting, then I make a different sense of it. When I meet other foreigners, all of whom have gotten that buzz of novelty and gotten whatever reaction from it they got, our experiences begin to part ways.
It might be also that many practices that feel identity-bound for people don’t feel that way to me. They are easier to give up. Not everything is that way for me, but many of them are. And that leads to other changes in my behaviour that lead to other differences in experiences.
It’s very noticeable here, but this has been going on for my entire life, where I have not conceived of any one particular culture as being necessarily mine. It’s not entirely that I feel like an outsider or like I don’t fit in, but that fitting in is this kind of temporary thing. Some people do that, but they find it painful. It’s this constriction of their real identity. And it is not like that for me. I feel neither excited at the novelty nor constricted by a sense of obligation to change. I feel, somehow, like this is a way to be understood. Putting on the skin of the new culture is a way for the deeper kind of communication. It’s pragmatic, and yet it feels so comfortable, to just adapt.
I do not think this particular view is at all common. For me, it came out of that coincidental nexus of having no strong attachment figures within my own family and being placed within all of these other immigrant settings. Almost anyone else, I think, will have some kind of sense of an “us” that relates to culture or to race or to ethnicity. Or at the very least to being “third culture,” to being an ex-pat, or to being an immigrant, or to being an outsider of some kind. Almost everyone finds a home base somewhere.
In contrast, I think of culture in the way that I do—as something temporary—because that is what it was like for me. I took it on and off. It is not something I learned as an adult trying to navigate a complex, multicultural society, but something I grew up doing. I became whatever culture I was in, because someone in that environment loved me and I identified with whoever loved me.
It has changed my interactions with everyone throughout my life in small ways that have ended up making a big difference.
So there. That’s why I’m like this. J