…because some thoughts are worth remembering
After living in Denmark for 2 years, I didn’t realize that the cultural lessons would continue after we returned to the U.S. as we experienced our own cultures with a different filter and noted the differences and acknowledged the process of repatriation and affects of reverse culture shock. It turns out you can get more than 2 chances (culture shock living abroad and the reverse culture shock returning to your home country) to reflect on your experiences in a foreign country: through the eyes of a foreigner experiencing your home country.
Soon after our return, we had an opportunity to spend time with a Scandinavian couple who recently arrived in the U.S. (a postdoctoral researcher wife and a “plus one” husband, the exact reverse of our situation). Their run down of the orientation process and frustrations mirrors that of ours: every transaction and decision they had to make seemed to be non-trivial because our approach was different from theirs. There were factual things that were tough to track down like health care, visa requirements, and insurance info, so much so that the researcher had to spend a week in orientation classes rather than working on her research. There were cultural subtleties they had to contend with (e.g., relationship with professors, how polite or formal one must be). To show their appreciation for dinner, they calmly said, “We must take some home with us.” I could tell they were joking (after 2 years, I started to learn their sense of humor delivered in a deadpan manner, where you only know it’s a joke because whatever they said would not be said or expected in a normal course of action, but unless you know what is “normal” to them, the doggy bag was quickly assembled).
When they made observations, they had to fit into their mental framework of the U.S. I guess capitalism must have been a major part of that framework, because they observed the long commute and the level of traffic on the road Northern Californians endured as a result of market forces: if you want to afford a house, you can have to travel farther. It doesn’t, of course, explain everything (e.g., government could have invested in a more efficient public transportation system rather than diesel-operated Caltrain which only runs once an hour after rush hour). But when you are taking in so much information, you want your model to be simple: oh, they do this because of market forces.
We had similar mental frameworks in mind for Denmark, where it was easier to explain away their every quirk as stemming from their socialist attitude and their welfare state benefits. Pretty soon that framework would give way to a more complex model after realizing there are too many contradictions. That’s when we had to rid of our own perspectives and adopt theirs to see that how we saw as opposing forces were 2 sides of the same coin for them.
Listening to my new Scandinavian friends’ questions, I was reminded of questions I posed of my Danish friends who didn’t necessarily have answers and seemed puzzled why I asked them in the first place. For example, our new Scandinavian friends asked why the U.S. street addresses had such large numbers: e.g., 99999 Main Street. I had no idea, and also never really wondered or cared about it. I also couldn’t understand why that bothered them. “It seems like a big number, and they jump. One house it’s 90010 Main Street and then it’s 90025.” I told him that it may be that the plots are large and that if they subdivided, there would be enough numbers in between to pick. “You mean, so there could be 90011, …12, …all the way to …25? But there couldn’t be that many houses.” I think my answer was partly right, but it still doesn’t explain the large numbers, where the shortest streets within a housing development subdivision with 10 houses along that street would have to have 5 digit numbers.
The answer may be best handled by their mental framework…market forces! The larger the number before a street address, the more important and pricey the address sounds?
When we first experience a culture, it’s easy to focus first on our differences, but third time around and from the third perspective (second being reverse culture shock, and third being observing someone from the land you traveled to experience your culture), I was appreciative of the similarities we shared: how curious we are, how we try to make sense of new experiences, how breaking bread together can set aside our preformed perspectives. Before we can tuck away our observations as an expression of capitalism or socialism, getting to know people as individuals can help us learn that sometimes cigar is just a cigar.
This experience has made me want to welcome more people from other cultures into our home.
Photo: Summer party in Denmark where we asked many questions of the Danes which they patiently and thoughtfully answered.