on life in a foreign country

It’s a funny thing, moving to a foreign country. People get upset if you expect it to be at all like home, you are expected to know everything will be different, accept it and just be happy about it. Enjoy discovering new things. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. In theory. The problem comes when you step off the plane in a new country and the first thing you see is… McDonalds. Or Starbucks.

For me, as an American, this wasn’t what I expected. I expected things in England to be different. I was totally prepared for things to be different, yet what I quickly discovered is that, actually, they really weren’t. Thanks to globalisation, I could have the same lunch latte in London on Thursday that I had had two days and 6000 miles previously, in Phoenix. The similarities didn’t stop there, I could also buy most of the same brands of clothing and food, shop in the exact same supermarkets, even watch the same tv shows and channels. I can buy a lot of the same food, enjoy many of the same sporting activities and speak the language fluently, with no extra effort at all.

I have been here six years now and know that while things look the same, they arent exactly the same. I know that certain drinks and foods are prepared differently, with different ingredients, or amounts. I know that while many of the food items and brands I know and love from my formative years in the states may be available, in the same or a different form, in grocery stores, chances are restaurants will not have heard of them or added them to their menu. I know a lot of the ins and outs of the culture.

To someone just getting off the plane, expecting adventure and discovering new things, it is disconcerting to find everything the same. To then have to adjust, not to foreign differences, but to foreign sameness is quite difficult. As the days and years pass by and you learn and absorb you eventually start to pity and even mock those newcomers.

But, perhaps we should all remember that it is not necessarily ignorance or arrogance that defines foreign visitors who don’t seem to accept that they are in a foregin country and things will be different. Perhaps it is a genuine confusion over what is actually different, and trying to reconcile that with what is the same. This is no easy task and instead of anger or surprise- natives and long term foreign residents should try their best to guide newcomers, help them find the differences that they will cherish and be thankful for.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I think this is a phenomenon mostly particular to people who move from one English-speaking country to another, or to another country where they speak more or less the same language that you did in your home country. Where language is similar, culture is similar. However, similarities aside, they are not the same country, and have diverged in some ways. So there’s a sort of strange lulling into a false sense of security, in a way. You go along happily for some time and think that you know your way around quite well because it really isn’t that different from what you grew up with, and then – wham! – you come across something that you think SHOULD be the same, but actually isn’t. It’s that foreign sameness that I found particular disconcerting – like home, but in a parallel, alien universe. I think I could almost deal better if everything WERE completely different. I think the shared language is what makes it especially jarring when you do come across a difference. I think if you move somewhere where basic communication becomes a laboured process, you’re more ready for things not being quite what you were used to.

    Reply

  2. I went from US to UK too, and I do know what you’re talking about. Although I never was much of one for American chains anyway, occasionally it is convenient to go somewhere that I know has just the right product. But then I feel guilty about it! Then again, there are also the wonderful, small discoveries of new things–chocolate digestive biscuits are the most brilliant food ever devised.

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