What Living in 8 Different Countries Taught Me About Culture and Identity

I have been thinking about this article for nine years, which explains why it is so long. Enjoy!

This article was changed on the 4th of April 2022. As I was cooking pork carbonades, I figured out what was the missing piece to the puzzle of identity. Read the article to find out.

“International student party”, “international bachelor’s”, “international environment”, “international fair”.

The word “international” positively resonates in our society. It gives a fresh outlook and open-minded vibe to the noun it accompanies.

Unfortunately, the reality behind “international” whatever e(vents, people, or experiences) is bleaker than it seems.

In the mainstream, “international” is represented as below.

The pictures showing in Google Image when one searches for “language courses”.

A group of young and handsome people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds are having fun working together.

In practice, this idyllic image does not apply.

Quite the opposite

To fully understand the situation of “internationals”, we need to take an academic approach and start by defining what an international person is.


What Is an International?

On a rainy morning of the year 2016 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, I suddenly realized I was as lonely as I had never been.

Despite living the dream “international student life” (I was going to university by boat, imagine…), I was often suicidal.

The dream of being an international student that I had been sold didn’t quite match the nightmare I was living.

It wasn’t cool to be an international. It was awful.

Suddenly, I had understood what an international really was.

An international person is someone that left their country because they didn’t find what they were looking for.

An international person is first and foremost a sad story.

It is someone that had to move out because what they had at home did not suit them. Call them international, expats, or immigrants, it’s ultimately all the same thing.

Reasons to move out can be culture, customs or religion, lack of democracy, corruption, the absence of opportunities, war…. There are as many reasons to immigrate as there are people that do so.

I once met a girl that had immigrated to Belgium because the mafia was after her dad in her home country.

The thing that almost no one realizes about moving to a new country is the following: it sucks.

It sucks because you’re taken out of your environment with its codes and practices and get immersed in a brand new environment with different codes and practices that you have to learn all over again.

Or to be more specific, you don’t.

The shock is so huge that when moving abroad, most people dive deeper into their own culture and heritage, the last stable pillar of their lives reminding them who they are and where they came from.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates this concept.


The Story of the Nepali Girl

At the beginning of my master’s in Rotterdam (that I would quit a week later), I met a girl.

That girl was from Nepal although she had lived for almost her entire life in the Netherlands.

Her dad was working for a big international organization and had raised his daughter as Nepali, not Dutch. She went to the international school in English and did not speak a word of Dutch despite living there for 20 years.

When she turned 18, she went to live for two years in Nepal to learn more about her culture and people.

When she arrived, she experienced a shock.

The Nepal of 2016 was not the Nepal she had been told about.

It had changed. A lot.

When this girl’s dad left Nepal in 1998 to move to the Netherlands, he took with himself the culture, language, and practices of 1998.

He subsequently kept them (a) not to lose his own identity and (b) to hold onto cultural landmarks in an environment that was foreign to him.

He transmitted the 1998 Nepali culture to his daughter as if it was “Nepal”.

But all societies evolve.

When the daughter went to explore her country, practices had changed. Words had changed. Culture had changed.

The Nepal the dad had left 20 years before had disappeared.

Incapable to identify neither to the Dutch culture she grew up in but never assimilated nor to the local Nepali culture that was different than the one she had learned, the girl experienced a cultural and identity shock: she did not recognize herself as being part of either community.

She was “culturally stateless” and experienced “acculturation”. She was stuck in a culture that not only no longer existed, but that she had never truly known.

This story got me to understand several phenomenons I had been aware of intuitively. It further led me to think deeper about the cultural complexities surrounding multiculturalism, culture, and identity.

And it led me to elaborate on a theory.


My Theory

A big share of people’s identity is transmitted, defined, and recognized by culture.

Furthermore, culture is to individual’s identities what water is to a fish.

It’s when you get out of it that you become aware it existed in the first place.

Immersed in a new environment, you can but rest on your memories of your culture to maintain a sense of self and continuity with your own narrative.

Identity, after all, is the sum of every moment we have lived up to now.

As humans, we need culture as a system of belief to make sense of the world that surrounds us.

When people immigrate to a new culture, they arrive into a new world full of new meaning they need to make sense of.

The problem is that the culture they have received as a sense-making tool is ill-suited in this situation. You don’t dress the same way on a beach in Finland as you do on a beach in Australia.

The difficulty to understand the new world stimulates an even greater need for a sense-making tool to understand it. Ironically, a new culture reinforces your usage of your own culture.

This is why you can’t stop making comparisons with “back home” when going on holiday.

But the tool, as we said is not well suited.

What happens when all you have is a screw instead of a hammer?

A culture clash.

Culture clashes manifest in one’s complete retrieval from the foreign culture and complete immersion into his or her own.

With time, this leads to cultural hierarchy, closed-mindedness, as we will see later, nationalism.

Drawing on my own experience, I had to move to Australia to take a strong interest in the story of my country.

Believe it or not, I discovered more than a few things about myself (like how proud I was to be Belgian).

This urge for self-discovery can almost only be triggered when your identity is threatened by a new culture, a new “story” you are immersed in.

Because of the absence of cultural repairs, you hold on to your own culture and story like on an identity liferaft in an oceanic storm of foreignness.

You at home VS you in a foreign country.

This thirst for identity is unfelt to local people that have never lived abroad for a long period. When you live in your own country, you don’t feel this urge to hold onto your culture. You live in it. This is why the culture can evolve. (Most of the time), there is no sense of “loss”.

This isn’t the case for internationals. They almost always remain very conservative in keeping their culture and customs intact and unchanged (as we will see).

My friend, upon entering Nepal, felt a very special and unpleasant feeling: the one of not being completely part of what she thought was her own culture because it had evolved, while not being completely part of the Dutch culture either because she had never learned it.

The culture she was part of was the culture of Nepal from twenty years ago. A culture that no longer existed, except in the people that had left Nepal…twenty years ago.


Immigrant Communities Are Almost Always Profoundly Conservative

Growing attention has been dedicated to the political behavior of the diasporas in the elections of their country of origin.

What we observe is that diasporas are often (but not always) supportive of nationalist parties in their country of origin: living-abroad Poles are strong supporters of the PiS, living-abroad Hungarians support the Fidesz; living-abroad Turks support the AKP, etc.

You’d think that migrant communities supporting nationalist parties in their country of origin wouldn’t make sense as they are themselves benefitting from an open-minded system that enables them to immigrate. But this isn’t how it works.

As we explained above, one becomes more attached to their country and culture upon leaving it. It is therefore normal for them to vote for parties that talk about culture, history, the nation, etc.

While there is a tremendous lack of data that would help prove or disprove my theory, the trends and patterns we notice around the world confirm times and again what has been outlined so far.

The Greeks moving to Melbourne are Greeks, not Australians. They’re so Greek that Greeks often joke by saying that Melbourne is the second Greek city in the world.

The movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is about a Greek wedding. Not an American one.

The Italians moving to Sydney aren’t Australian either. They are Italian.

The Chinese moving to New York remained so Chinese that they created Chinatown.

The movie “The Big Sick” outlines well this constant cultural struggle for kids growing up in a certain culture at school that clashes with the hereditary culture they are taught at home.

The hereditary culture often wins, at least for the first few generations.


Erasmus Doesn’t Count

There is a difference between moving somewhere because you can, and moving somewhere because you have to.

While one is voluntary, the other one isn’t.

As a result, people that did Erasmus can’t be taken seriously in this matter because of one defining variable: you know you’ll go home eventually. There is a difference between Erasmus, and moving permanently to a country.

Most people’s first international experience (aka living in a foreign country and culture for at least 1 month) will be “amazing”.

You eat different food, talk to different people, get (really) drunk in different venues, and you get laid anonymously.

ON TOP OF THAT, and this is what makes the whole difference: when people go live in other countries, they don’t hang out with the locals.

They live with people from their own country. 


People’s Intellectual Dishonesty

There is a phenomenon that shocked me at first when I moved to Australia.

However, after having observed it on multiple occasions in the 37 countries I have been to, I discovered this phenomenon was the rule rather than the exception.

People don’t blend into different cultures when they move abroad.

It is in fact, the opposite. Not only do they join their own culture, but they reinforce the importance that it occupies in their identities.

What does it mean? It means that the Spanish that move to Rotterdam will go live with other Spanish. They will go out with other Spanish, date other Spanish, listen to Spanish music, eat Spanish food, and watch Spanish movies in Spanish.

The Germans moving to Sydney will eat bratwurst and drink German beer with their German friends in Sydney, the French living in Chicago will beg their families back home to send them cheese and pâté, the Chinese will spend their Friday night in Vancouver getting drunk in a karaoke, guess what the Japanese made in the kitchen of my hostel in Dubai: Japanese breakfast.

Do not be mistaken. There is no such thing as an “international”.

People that move to new countries, whether for 6 months, 6 years, or their entire lives, don’t hang out with the locals. My Chinese friend lived with other Chinese in Perth.

My Russian friend lived with a Russian roommate in Warsaw.

It’s a universal rule.


Why Erasmus Is “So Much Fun”

The German/French/English/Swiss/Spanish/Greek/ Italian/”insert nationality of your choice” backpackers moving to Australia hang out with (guess who)…the Germans/French/English/Swiss/Spanish/Greeks/Italians.

That’s in fact, and rather ironically, what makes the “international experience” amazing: you’re going through a time of discovery and adventure that you get to share with your own people. 

Your “international” experience will only be as good as your capacity to find someone that shares your culture to share it.

Spending a year in Australia with fellow citizens is much better than spending it with people from another culture/continent.

That’s a paradox, and that is why I argue that there is no such thing as truly open-minded people (people that go with an open mind and a spirit of acceptance to learn about other people’s culture without imposing theirs).

This is why most “positive” international experiences are actually fake: people that enjoy their international experiences are the ones that stay with their own people.

When I moved to Australia at 19, I was shocked to see the French dating other French when they had access to 50+ different nationalities.

Hypocrisy reached its pinnacle when they wrote on Facebook about their “Australian experience”.

Good one.


Humans Are Drawn to Similarity, Not Differences

People may trick themselves into thinking they like the unknown. But in fact, they don’t.

The setting may change (it’s sunnier or colder), the food may be different, but foreigners will always remain within their own culture, within their own “people” and within their own culture.

This is why when you meet an Italian in a non-Italian city, you end up meeting them all.

I am not attacking Italians as to their defense, everyone does the same.

That’s how you end up with culturally and ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods: the Chinese neighborhood in New York, the Turkish neighborhood in Brussels, the French neighborhood in London, the German neighborhood in Spain, etc.

So much for cultural diversity…


What Being an International Really Is Like

Let’s now turn ourselves to the people that lived a real international experience, fully immersed in a foreign culture without contact with people from their own culture: me.

I belong to a large group of people that no one ever talks about or caters to because few people know we exist.

We are individuals without communities.

We are:

  • people from small countries that find it difficult to find people from their own country abroad because their country is so small (Belgium, Luxembourg, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, etc)
  • employees from big companies on a foreign assignment in second-class towns.

Now, I could tell you all about my painful experience of not meeting any Belgians…but I won’t because the truth is that Belgian people were not exactly who I wanted to meet while being abroad.

Since there is no science of “culturally stateless backpackers”, let’s have a look at expats on foreign assignments.


What Science Says About Real Internationals

Companies that send their employees on a foreign assignment now screen them to make sure they are culture-compatible or at least, that they have the mental traits that will facilitate integration (flexibility, openness, curiosity, etc).

This practice has been developed after a significant number of employees quit their foreign assignments which increased costs for their employers.

One of the main reasons for quitting was (you guessed it) cultural incompatibility.

Unfortunately, there is more to it.

Moving away to live a better life is the equivalent of giving one of your arms to drive a Lamborghini: it is annoying but you can still adapt and live your life normally and enjoy your Lamborghini.

However, after living a certain period of time in their foreign country (3 to 4 months), internationals suddenly realize that the bargain wasn’t as good as they thought it would be.

This realization is that life is actually the same.

The Lamborghini is in fact, a Skoda.


Life Is The Same Everywhere

That may be crazy, but heh, guess what?

Everyone wakes up in the morning, goes to work, sleeps during the night, and fails to get laid on Saturday night. 

Everyone.

E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E.

It doesn’t matter whether you are in Estonia, North Korea, Greenland, Sierra Leone, Uruguay, or Luxembourg, the workweek is from Monday to Friday and it equally sucks for everybody.

When expats finally realize that, they get second thoughts. If life is the same everywhere, wouldn’t it be more comfortable to just…go home?

And when a traumatic event like a worldwide pandemic hit, they don’t hesitate too much about leaving.


The Bottom Line

This article was not meant to discourage you to travel or move to a new country. I just want to warn you: in the long term, it won’t be the amazing experience you’re being sold (in the long term).

Human beings have a surprising capacity to adapt to what is good in life. Once you get used to the positive side of moving away (maybe food, weather, cost of living, salary…), you’ll get into a depression over how no one is laughing at your jokes.

To be more scientific, studies have revealed for example that international students (real ones) were MUCH more fragile than regular students due to loneliness, culture, language barrier, financial situation, and absence of a family member.

This perfectly summarizes the point this article is trying to make: being an international is *not* cool.

This is why the Spanish, Greeks, Italians, Germans, British, Americans, Chinese…hang out with their fellow citizens.

Is it wrong? Well, it depends on what you want.

If you’re just there to chill and have a good time…why not?

If you are there to “discover” the culture, you’ve failed.

When I went to Colombia, I went there to learn Spanish, so I hung out with Colombians. Was it fun? Yes.

Was I sad to leave Colombia? No.

I was happy and relieved to go home.

Even though I enjoyed living the Colombian way for three months, many things ultimately bothered me. I wouldn’t trade Colombia for Belgium.

Would I have been happier if I had hung out with Belgian people? Maybe I would have had more fun.

But I wasn’t there to have fun.

I was there to discover the culture and learn Spanish.

So, that’s what I did.

It was nice, but it wasn’t easy.

My roommate was the worst idiot on the planet. I felt lonely many times. No one laughed at my jokes.

That was a real international experience.


Conclusion

My advice, to conclude this article, would be the following: beware of what you’re being told about international experiences.

There is the “fake” one, hanging out with people from your own culture in a foreign place (fun), and the “real” one: fully immersing yourself by yourself in a new culture (difficult but enlightening).

A real international experience is like sex: everyone is talking about it, but no one is actually doing it.

The “real experience” is what everyone says they want, but few have the courage to go for it because it’s hard.

Really hard.

But it is the one that teaches you the most.

It makes you understand that eventually…there is no place like home.


The Missing Piece

I warned you at the beginning of the article that I had missed one piece when I originally wrote it.

There it is.

Identity is antifragile. It strengthens when it is attacked.

This is why ethnic minorities are strong, and ethnic majorities, weak.

The power of the majority improves the strength of the minority.

I suspect it explains why minorities, strengthened by an attack upon themselves, have won times and again against majorities that couldn’t benefit from the same effect.

A few examples:

  • Conquistadores VS Aztecs and Incas
  • Taliban VS USA
  • Chechens VS Russian army
  • Vietnam VS USA
  • Ukraine VS Russian army
  • Sparta VS Persians

But if identity is antifragile, why do big empires eventually fall?

Because a big empire cannot be threatened by a small minority. Therefore, it doesn’t get stronger upon the attack. Should the empire be attacked by another empire, then the property of antifragility may arise – and even then, there’s a question mark as the big is rarely antifragile.

A logical conclusion, to a counter-intuitive problem.

We haven’t finished speaking about identity.

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

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  • Post last modified:April 2, 2022