International School Community Blog

Ten Commandments of Relocating Overseas #7: Try to understand the host country’s perspective.

Try to understand the host country’s perspective.

It would be quite the task to encapsulate an entire country’s significant culture, or even try to boil it down to a few key points. The thing is when you try to define nationality, you resort to simply creating a stereotypical object, which might embrace everything, but really fails to bring out anything significant. It’s the illusion that we can create anything objectively.

But maybe it’s an ancient romantic hope that globalization hasn’t completely devoured us all, and then spit us out as these uniformed clones that all march to the same beat. But when you scratch beneath the surface, and look beyond the fact that we’re all listening to Adele, going to the movies and seeing Transformers #1001, or buying our clothes at H&M, maybe there’s this thing I call “country habitus”?

Habitus can be described as some kind of objective consciousness; how we react, how we think, or how we experience. It’s the significant! It is what describes and sets us apart, it’s our lifestyle somehow put into a template. Habitus is derived from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and is usually used to summarize people into certain groups based on symbolic capital, which again is how we act based on our status and prestige in society. Can the same be transferred to a country?

To each other, international school teachers often talk about certain common traits in the various countries they have lived in or traveled to.  Albeit very generalizing and objectively, there might be truth to what we say sometimes. You often hear that Scandinavians are very happy people, that Germans are very pragmatic and industrious, or that Americans are much more hospitable than Europeans in general. These are of course very favorable traits, but maybe the traits change depending on who you are, maybe some think that the Scandinavians are very somber and dark, that the Germans are very stubborn and unwavering, and the Americans are ignorant and too self-absorbed. The thing is that you want to paint a good picture of yourself and showcase the best and most favorable traits, while still maintaining something significant. Your own country’s habitus.

We always somehow reflect ourselves in what we think we are, and what we definitely think we aren’t. We belong to a certain kind of culture, maybe only for a short period of time, and then move on. But in that culture we can reflect, feel we fit in, and feel a kind of cohesion, both as an individual and also as a people of a country. We bring our habitus with us wherever we go.

“Try to understand the host country perspective”. When we arrive at our next international school post, we all come with our own perspective, our own upbringing, and our own culture. It’s very easy to dismiss others as being brought up the wrong way or having a culture that we don’t really understand at all, and thereby find useless or unnecessary. There’s a certain prestige in being elitist or being charitable, and having the sense that you contain and understand all traits. Bob Dylan once wrote: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Back in the 1960’s we assumed people were more open-minded and free-spirited, since then a lot has changed. This world has been through a lot, and maybe the distance between us has grown both smaller and wider. There is a huge difference between everyday life in South Africa and Scandinavia, maybe we all make status updates on Facebook and poke our friends virtually, but how we live, and how we are raised are still very different.

It may take some time for international school teachers to observe the host country.  To find and then understand the multiple perspectives of the host country is a challenging task.  After a two-year posting at an international school, you are bound to know more than when you first arrived there.

So objectivity or an Archimedean point may not completely exist. If we sat down with an entire country’s people and asked them to come up with one significant trait of themselves, it would probably be impossible.  And why even try to minimize an entire nation’s rich culture, just to make it more accessible? International school teachers encounter new perspectives every day, and what is the easiest way to deal with these? Emphatically!

This article was submitted anonymously by an ISC member. Check out the rest of the 10 Commandments of Relocated Overseas here.