Life is change. Everyone changes, even as adults. People gradually shift their attitudes on a wide variety of topics, often in response to changes in their experiences and circumstances. Usually these changes occur so slowly as to not be noticeable to those with whom the individuals interact regularly, or to the individuals themselves.
Yet, sometimes, people have experiences that change them more rapidly, or in ways that never would have been expected. Moving overseas is just such an experience. I feel much like the same person who first moved to Egypt six and a half years ago, but I’m not. Here are a few of the ways that living overseas has changed me:
I’m More Aware of Culture and Cultural Differences
Not too long ago, a friend here in Kosovo arranged for our family to visit a local Albanian family in their home. Throughout the evening, I plied my American friend with questions about appropriate behavior—is it insulting that we’re enjoying the outdoors rather than the “guest room?” Our hosts seem desperate for us to sit down; should we sit on the blanket they spread on the ground even if we’re more comfortable standing? Should I—and my husband—ask about the extended family, including wives, mothers, and sisters, or should we—he, in particular—not show interest in the female relatives? Is this one of those cultures where I’ll insult my hostess’s cooking if I don’t eat everything on my plate, or is it one in which eating all my food implies that they didn’t give me enough? Is it ok to provide milk for my daughter to drink, or should I allow her to drink the fizzy juice-ish soda? How do I signal that I’m done with the after-dinner tea, or would it be rude to signal such a thing in any way?
When I lived in the United States, in the culture of my birth, not a single one of those questions would have occurred to me. Culture is something that we absorb without noticing it, and we continue not to notice it unless something happens to draw it to our attention—usually an encounter with a culture that is different from our own.
I’m No Longer a Proponent of English-Only Business Practices
On Facebook, a friend posted an account of a personal experience in which she had to “press 1 for English” at an ATM, and she was offended that she had to choose English, rather than the machine’s software assuming she understood it. Before I lived overseas, I would have agreed with her frustration. I was a big proponent of the idea that foreigners in the United States should learn English, and that when we call various institutions, go to an ATM, or engage in other such scripted activities, the assumption should be that we speak English. Now, my initial reaction to complaints of that nature is sympathy—not for the inconvenienced English-speaker, but for the individual whose native language is not English, who needs to obtain information and instructions in a language he can understand, and whose ability to do so could be threatened by proponents of English-only business practices. My Facebook response conveys my opinion on this issue pretty well, I think:
And yet, when we were in Egypt, I really appreciated the "Press 2 for English" option. I'm inclined not to mind giving the same courtesies to non- or limited-English speakers in the United States that I've enjoyed as a limited-Arabic speaker in Egypt, a non-Khmer speaker in Cambodia, and a non-Albanian, non-Serbian speaker in Kosovo … It's much more efficient for everyone involved—incuding that native speaker in line behind the foreigner who's taking forever because he doesn't understand anything on the screen—to have the ability to choose the language right at the beginning. It takes 1 second of your time to push that button for English. As someone who has desperately needed that button before, I sympathize with those who need it in the U.S.
I Notice and Am
Annoyed By Unwarranted Exaggeration
I’ve lived in a country that was an effective dictatorship—I’m no fan of President Obama, but don’t tell me he’s a dictator. I’ve lived in countries where corruption is just the way things get done—certain parts of America have more corruption than others, but rule of law is the norm; don’t tell me that America runs on corruption. I’ve lived in countries where the poor have multiple generations living in one-room houses with dirt floors, no electricity, and no plumbing, and where allowing any one person to eat his fill means that another family member dies of starvation—don’t tell me that a person with a comfortable home, plenty of food, and cable TV is poor. I’ve lived in countries where the lucky children attend trade schools rather than so-called “academic” ones (that don’t actually teach anything), so that they can earn enough money to keep their younger siblings from starving while learning a skill that will enable them to make a decent (for their country) living as an adult—don’t tell me that these kids are slaves because they’re being paid less than you would accept for similar work. I’ve lived in a country where people may be killed for becoming Christians—don’t tell me you’re being persecuted when your employer wants you to work on Sunday or when the decorations at City Hall say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
My Foreign Policy Opinions Have Changed
When I lived in the United States, it was easy to decide what the official foreign policy of the United States of America should be: whatever was in our best interest, period, no further questions asked. It all seemed so clear cut. However, when I started paying attention, which for me was when I moved overseas, I began to see more shades of grey than black and white. I still believe that American interests should dictate American policies, but it isn’t always clear what those interests are or how best to advance them. Many fiscal conservatives—including me at times—reflexively oppose foreign aid, for example. However, I’ve learned that sometimes foreign aid is exactly what is needed to shift the attitudes of a population toward American interests, so that they are more likely to assist us in accomplishing our goals in the future. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem making foreign aid conditional on the policies of the assisted government, such that governments that oppose U. S. interests find themselves with less—or no—aid, but even there, the situation often calls for more subtlety than I once appreciated. I’ve realized that it’s easy for those of us with only headline-level information to think we know the best course of action, but once we get into the details, it isn’t so easy to make sense of the complexities and apparent paradoxes, and the best decision becomes less obvious.
I once had sympathy for American isolationists who wanted to let the rest of the world deal with their own problems. Now I recognize that the problems of the rest of the world often are our problems, though they may not be knocking on our doors just yet. (Think Ebola—what if we’d helped contain this outbreak when and where it started, rather than waiting until it came to the United States? It would have been a lot easier to deal with it then.)
I Have a Heightened Appreciation for the United States—Warts and All
Some of the above sections may make it sound like I have lost sympathy or understanding for my fellow Americans, or like I have lost my perception of the United States as an exceptional nation, or that I have lost the ability to recognize flaws that exist in my own country. None of those is the case. The good in America is there, and the bad in America is there, and living overseas, where I can see the good and the bad in other places, has given me the eyes to see both more clearly.
I have a much greater appreciation for those things that make our nation great. The United States was established on the freedom of the governed to choose their leaders, and despite the bellyaching of both political parties at various times in our history, that foundation is not and has not been in jeopardy. Our educational system puts to shame the educational systems of so many of the world’s nations. Our economy, even in the tough times, allows us to enjoy prosperity to a degree of which most of the world’s citizens can only dream. And despite the fact that our medical care is not provided for free as so many would prefer (I wouldn’t prefer, but that’s neither here nor there), the quality of the medical care available in American hospitals—even those with less than stellar reputations—is head and shoulders above the care available throughout most of the rest of the world.
As for America’s warts—I recognize those, too. I recognize that our culture is such that it makes childbearing and rearing more difficult than it needs to be; that community is lacking in most American cities, towns, and neighborhoods; that our prosperity has led to a materialism that cannot and should not be sustained; that the stereotype of the arrogant American exists for a very good and very regrettable reason—that too many Americans overseas expect the world to adapt to them, rather than recognizing their obligation to adapt to the world. There is corruption; there is political overreach; there are things that can and should be done better.
I know that when I go back home, when I visit my family, even when my friends and family see my Facebook posts or read this blog, they see that I have changed. I have become more complex in some of my attitudes, more simple in others. I have become more liberal in some ways, and more conservative in others. I’m pretty sure that not everyone likes all the changes—and frankly, I’m not always sure that I do, either. But overall, I have to say … I like who I’ve become in the last six years. I like that I’m willing to challenge ideas that I used to accept unthinkingly. I like that my default response to inflammatory headlines now is to dig deeper and try to find out what’s really happening. I like that I look for commonalities and try to understand individuals as individuals, no matter their nationality. Others may not need to leave the country of their births in order to experience these changes, but I did. And I’m glad I did.