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Culture Shock and Misplaced Normal (An int’l school teacher’s experience in Tanzania)

February 5, 2014

There’s an element of visiting home while living abroad that I call Misplaced Normal.  It gives you a taste of the culture shock that everyone else that is just visiting your country feels when the norms that they carry with them don’t apply to their new surroundings.

1240232_10152188433337589_1867444700_nWhen people first move to a new place, many things about our everyday life seem exotic and fascinating.  It’s amazing how quickly we can adapt to change, though, and the exotic can very quickly become normal.  So what does that do to us when we go home for a brief visit?  As we move from one version of normal to the next, our behaviors change in subtle ways that we don’t always notice, and that sometimes make us do really dumb stuff.

I moved from the southeastern United States to Barcelona, Spain in 2008, and I quickly got used to lengthy lunches, going grocery shopping on foot, not owning a car, and living in a small apartment, all pieces of the Spanish lifestyle.  When I visited my parents during the Christmas holiday, I couldn’t believe how quickly everyone ate, how much of a hassle it was to have to get in a car to go anywhere, and how pointlessly huge every department store, supermarket and home seemed.  I had never noticed any of those things before moving overseas, but now they were blaringly obvious.  I was carrying over the norms of my new home, and the place where I grew up had become strange.

I also found myself doing really stupid things, things that made sense in one setting, but not in another, and I did it all over again when I went back to work.

Misplaced normal while living in Spain had me talking a lot more loudly than anyone else when I visited the U.S., and not being hungry until restaurants were ready to close.

Misplaced normal while living in England had me driving in the wrong lane in parking lots and carrying an umbrella with me at all times.

Here is a recent example from my current home, Tanzania, on the eastern coast of Africa.  I visited home for Christmas after only five months in Tanzania, yet I still took subconscious Tanzanian norms home with me.

In Tanzania the tastes of Christmas are golden mangos and papayas, because they are at their best around Christmas time.  These are tropical 1240318_10152188436592589_1742188044_nfruits that grow in Tanzania’s tropical climate.  That means December is hot in Tanzania.  For my northern European friends, though, December means drinking hot mulled wine, simply because that was the taste of Christmas for them.  It was what they had always drunk at Christmas time since, because it’s really cold in northern Europe in December.  That’s what was normal.  Two friends from England invited friends over for mulled wine shortly before the December break.  We drank some very good mulled wine and did a lot of sweating.  Why would we do such a silly thing?  It was our misplaced normal.

In Tanzania there isn’t enough money on the local level for the police force to have their own cars, or even radar guns to keep people from speeding.  Instead, huge speed bumps are put in at seemingly random places, marked by paint on the road.  Within a few weeks, the paint wears off and isn’t replaced, so driving slowly to avoid flying over an unnoticed bump and losing pieces from the bottom of your car keeps your speed down.  Where there aren’t any speed bumps there are huge potholes and wildly driven buses that pull over at seemingly any intersection to squeeze in more passengers, often not really coming to a full stop before swerving back onto the road again.

Visiting my family in the U.S. my misplaced Tanzanian version of normal driving had me going down a local highway at 20 miles per hour above the speed limit.  I had grown used to driving at the fastest speed that was physically possible while avoiding reasonable danger in Tanzania, but that version of normal makes you go really, really fast on a smooth, well-maintained highway in the United States.

1186006_10152188434617589_262902529_nWater is not safe to drink out of the tap in Tanzania, because of bacteria, so clean water is carried around the city in huge tanker trucks and everyone I know has a water dispenser with the big five-gallon bottles on them.  Visiting my family in the U.S., I kept getting a glass out of the cabinet and looking around for a water dispenser.  My parents have had the same house for over 30 years, and have never had a water dispenser.  Why was I looking for one now?  It was misplaced normal yet again.

When I came back to Tanzania for work after a mere two weeks back home I nearly wrecked my car because I had forgotten where those large, unpainted speed bumps were.  I also nearly drank a glass full of water straight from the bathroom tap, a mistake that I never came close to making before my visit home.  Why would I do those stupid things?  The norms of home had so quickly taken root again that I had to go through yet another round of adjusting my normal, and even though I am fully aware of it, I know that every time I visit home I will still misplace my contradictory versions of normal all over again.

This article was submitted by a veteran international school teacher and International School Community member, Jonathan Park.

Discussion Topics
africa, cultural, culture misunderstanding, culture shock, cultures, expat life, international school, international school educators, International teaching, laugh at yourself, life overseas, living abroad, misplaced normal, relocating overseas, reverse culture shock, sense of humor, tanzania,

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RELOCATING OVERSEAS: #10 – Do not allow negative comments and attitudes to darken your outlook.

April 3, 2012

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RELOCATING OVERSEAS

10. Surround yourself with positive people. Do not allow negative comments and attitudes to darken your outlook.

It is hard to stay positive, but when culture shock is at its worst, it is very easy to slip.  Sure the other new teachers at your school (and the veteran ones) have a lot to say to you about the host country and culture, but you just might find yourself joining in with them. Commence the inevitable negative thought process!

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller

It is hard to know exactly about the meaning behind those negative comments from your coworkers (or from yourself).  Are they saying those things because that is just what you do and say when you are an expat, even if it is said like it is only a joke?  On the other hand, people say things as a joke under stressful times and there is usually much truth behind their negative comment.

Some things are small and people are easily quick to be negative about it.

“Why do I have a pay this media tax? I never had to pay this in any of the other countries I’ve lived in.  I don’t even have a TV.  I refused to pay this stupid fee!”

“Seriously the internet in this country is so slow. You can’t even access Facebook and Youtube here.  Now I have to pay for a VPN service, which usually makes my internet connect even slower!”

“Nothing is open around here.  Good luck finding a store open after 18h here.”

“Arg! It is so dirty here.  I open the windows to my apartment and one hour later the floors are covered in a thin layer of dust.  I can’t want to move back to a country that is cleaner!”

There are many more things to talk negatively about when living in another country.  We forgot too, under the influence of culture shock, that there are many negative aspects to living in our home country as well (e.g. getting a cable service repair person to come to your home to fix your internet or cable).  People complain and obsess about negative aspects of their lives in their home countries too.  But some might say that is your country so maybe you are “allowed” to say negative things every once and awhile about your own culture and way of doing things.  Is it different or the same then when living abroad?  When you are in a host country, the country is your “host.”  Certainly, we all would agree that you should try and be gracious to your host.

Some things though are NOT small, and can be quite important in relation to your life abroad.

“Be ready to not get paid on time.  Last year, we didn’t get paid until three weeks after the salary payment date! Why don’t we get paid on time?  There is nothing we can do about too.”

“The building management in our apartment complex steals our money.  They are giving us bills that are way more expensive than the locals that are living in our building.”

“I have been waiting for six months to get reimbursed for things that I purchased for the school!  I am also waiting to get reimbursed for my flight allowance….for LAST YEAR!”

“My last schools didn’t have this much work to do.  It is unbelievable about much I have to work at this school.  I don’t know if I can handle working until 19:00 every day after school!”

When there is something negative related to your home, your salary or your money (in general), then it is very easy to be sensitive to these situations.  Maybe then you are allowed to voice your concerns (i.e. be a bit negative).  Hopefully though there is something that you can do about it; get your school administration involved, the local police, etc.  Also, it is important to remember that these things might be temporary as well, inconveniences that will pass after a few weeks or months.

“Don`t be trapped by Dogma – which is living the results of other people`s thinking.   Don`t let the noise of other`s drown out your own inner voice.   And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” – Steve Jobs.

So, knowing that there are going to be negative comments heard and negative comments coming out of your mouth at some point, the key is to try and stay positive as much as possible.  Don’t let the negative thoughts and comments take over and take control of your thinking.  Your life in your new country will be full of ups and downs, that is a given.  Realizing that simple thing, could dramatically keep your negative thoughts to a minimum.  Also, maybe think twice about sharing all of your negative thoughts with your friends and coworkers, some might be best to keep to yourself anyways.

How do you try and stay positive in your current placement?  Share your comments with the rest of the International School Community readers.

Ten Commandments of Relocating Overseas
cultural, culture misunderstanding, culture shock, cultures, expat life, international school, international school educators, International teaching, laugh at yourself, life overseas, living abroad, relocating overseas, sense of humor,

Discussion Topic: Things I (an international school teacher) Have Not Done in a Year

February 28, 2012

After living abroad for so many years, I have forgotten all the things that you don’t do anymore.  We used to have a different life, didn’t we?  But now that you are living abroad, many of your routines have changed. Being that these changes have now become your new routines, you tend to forget about the things you used to do!

Inspired by this blog entry by the Kirby Family, Things I Have Not Done in a Year, we invite our readers and members to discuss their list of things that they haven’t done in a year (or more for that matter).

 

The following is the list from the Kirby Family blog:

In the past year I have not . . .

1) Driven a car.

2) Worn a seatbelt while riding in a car.

3) Used a vacuum.

4) Used a dishwasher.

5) Used a dryer.

6) Cooked anything in an oven.

7) Said “it’s cold” except when I was in an overly air conditioned movie theater, bus, restaurant ect.

8) Eaten steak, or really any form of beef.

9) Gone a day without eating rice.

10) Walked anywhere without carefully watching where I step so I can avoid the many creepy crawlies and the occasional elephant poop.

11) Walked into a public restroom expecting to find any of the following: a western toilet, toilet paper, soap or paper towels or any means of drying your hands.

12) I have not flushed toilet paper down the toilet.

13) Gone a day without smiling and laughing.

It has been a great year and I will miss so many things about Thailand and I am looking forward to the day I get to come back again.

If you are living in a “developing country” or a more “tropical climate” country like Thailand, you might be able to related to some of these statements for your past year or two. Teaching abroad at international schools can really change one’s life from your diet (eating more like the locals and not like the people from your home country) to your daily trips to the bathroom (quite important for some people, a bit of a culture shock when you are not supposed to flush toilet paper down the toilet).

Just want to mention about number 13…it is a great reminder to stay positive and keep your sense of humor with your chosen life abroad.  It directly relates to our latest 10 commandments of living overseas post topic: TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RELOCATING OVERSEAS: #9 – Maintain a sense of humor, but most importantly be ready to laugh at yourself.

Currently there are 37 international schools listed in Thailand on our website: International School Community.  Check out the latest comments and information that have been submitted about them here.  Who knows where you might be teaching next?!

Discussion Topics
culture shock, cultures, expat life, internation teacher, life abroad, life of an international school teacher, lifestyle change, lifestyles, living abroad in thailand, moving overseas,

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RELOCATING OVERSEAS: #9 – Maintain a sense of humor, but most importantly be ready to laugh at yourself.

February 17, 2012

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RELOCATING OVERSEAS

9. Maintain a sense of humor, but most importantly be ready to laugh at yourself.

When you are living abroad, there are moments when the locals are looking at you strangely. You might be thinking that they are making fun of you, being rude, or just plain staring at you.  Most of the time though they usually don’t have a unkind intention towards you.  The initial reaction is to put on a face that resembles the woman in the first photo above and think the worst.  But after a nice hello and a kind smile, many times you can turn a negative cross-cultural encounter into a positive/normal one.  Often I find that I make a rash judgement call about the situation when living or travel abroad, and sometimes that gets me into trouble, leaving me with a poor attitude toward the locals.  It is good to remember to try and take a step back (figuratively and maybe literally) and have a think about what might be really happening and try and view the situation as if you were in their shoes.  A negative situation can easily be averted if one of you puts a smile on his/her/your face.  A smile is typically contagious, no?

Taking pictures of the locals is a strange situation really. I mean how often are there tourists walking around Minneapolis wanting to take pictures of the Minnesotan people that are walking around the downtown area.  Well maybe there might be a few there (but most likely not), but for sure there wouldn’t be tourists walking around the suburbs taking pictures of you.  It is hard for expats to really know what it is like.  It is sometimes irresistible though to take a picture of a local.  You can take the indirect approach and try and snap a shot without them knowing, but that sometimes leads to the locals getting angry.  A more direct approach sometimes is better when you are trying to get a shot of a local. You might buy something at their store or your might just start up a conversation with them.  Instead of the person getting angry or suspicious of your camera, they might have a different reaction to you taking a picture of them.  It is a good idea to not get lost in your photography and to remember to smile (and sometimes laugh with the locals) as you are walking around their neighborhood.

It is hard to keep your sense of humor when you are on a old, rickety bus in a developing country.  You are in the back.  You are stuffed between to people that don’t share the same cultural tradition of putting on deodorant.  But these are the times when you can easily laugh to yourself, especially if your friend is in a similar situation in the front of the bus. You know it is not ideal.  You know that it is temporary (sometimes it is just a short bus ride, though sometimes a longer one!).  You start to think about how this is so different from where you grew up and how awesome really it is that somehow you ended up in this situation halfway across the world from your home.  Truthfully, it is the story you make sure to tell your colleagues the next day at school about what happened to you on the bus yesterday; a very good time to keep a good sense of humor and laugh about a situation that in reality really isn’t the most desirable one to be in.

When you look at the locals, they sometimes look very different from you and the people you would see in your hometown.  Because of that fact, you might tend to stare a bit or be quick to observe and judge.  But you must remember that the locals might be looking at you in the same way (see exaggerated picture above of the guys in top hats).  Try to remember to keep a positive attitude towards the people around you, and keep your respect.  When you are by yourself you might not think twice about the guy in the crazy Eastern European sweater walking down the street, but people tend to be more vocal about their opinions and observations when they are in group of two or more.  Being “ready to laugh” in this instance might be a poor choice; and hopefully they won’t laugh and poke fun of your outfit as well!

If you are living in China, one thing that keeps your sense of humor in its place is your ability to use chopsticks. Sure, many expats have mastered the art of eating dumplings and other Chinese food that can be a challenge to eat using chopsticks, but there is a sizable amount of expats that struggle.  You want to impress the locals with your skills.  You DON’T want them to see you fumble for fear of cultural embarrassment.  Try to maintain your sense of humor though and don’t give in to the temptation to ask the server for a fork and knife (if they even have them) and most importantly be ready to laugh with them as your dumpling falls from your chopstick-grasp to the edge of your table and then down to the floor.

Leave a comment and share your experiences keeping your sense of humor while living abroad.

Ten Commandments of Relocating Overseas
china, cultural, culture misunderstanding, culture shock, cultures, expat life, international school, international school educators, International teaching, laugh at yourself, life overseas, living abroad, relocating overseas, sense of humor,

Video Highlight – Rick Steves: The Value of Travel (TEDxRainier)

January 18, 2012

After spending 4 months a year for the last 30 years living out of a suitcase, Rick Steves reflects on the value of thoughtful travel. Sharing lessons learned from Iran to El Salvador and from India to Denmark, Steves tells why spending all that time and money away from home has broadened his perspective, enriched his life, and made it clear to him, as he says in his talk, “Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.”

Having only watched a few of Rick Steves travel videos, I wasn’t for sure about listening to his speech.  He does really explain very clearly and to the point his views on traveling and the value of it.

His speech inspired me to always make sure to find a way to interact with the locals somehow.  Am I really taking advantage of the time I am in a taxi cab going from one place in the city to another?  What could I do more to create an environment to initial a conversation in an authentic way?  I guess most of the instances when you get to talk with a local aren’t situations that are exactly planned.

How can you interact with the locals though in such a short time?  The great moments you might share with the locals might only be brief encounters, but they can be, in deed, lasting ones.  One can almost retell each individual encounter with a local when revisiting old photos they had taken from a trip.

What part of travel have you put value on?  Do you value other parts of traveling more than others?  Are international teachers more likely to have the necessary skills to interact with the locals or place that experience high on our list?

One of the reasons that I because a teacher was so that I could work with people that are different than me.  I learn so much from talk with the students from countries different than me.  I learn so much from what the parents share with me as well.

Our quest continues then in our attempt to understand the people in our world a little bit better, and I guess that means that more traveling is in order for our next vacation time….ahhh the life of an international teacher!

Video Highlight
cultures, international school educators, international school teachers, locals, rick steves, speech, teaching abroad, ted, traveling, traveling abroad, understanding,

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