Adaptation: Both A Front- And Back End Job

It is one thing to theoretically know about cultural differences, to be very aware, open-minded and prepared, and a totally different one to get the firsthand experience.

I was 19, and it was my first time moving. I had never moved before, not even from one apartment to another. The biggest change regarding my living space was moving from one room to another when my little sister was born. Even though I always read lots of books, and I had all kinds of ideas about the world, I grew up with the warm fuzzy feeling that I was in my place. That I knew how to work my way around people, when to be all social and open, and when to act more professional. Then I took a leap, and I moved to a new country.

It is one thing to theoretically know about cultural differences, to be very aware, open-minded and prepared, and a totally different one to get the firsthand experience. I remember the shock when I realized that people in my new place were actually different from those back home. The shock of first getting into a situation where I had to realize that my ways of communicating weren’t going to work at the new place. And for a „moment” there, I was stuck. I use the quotation marks because that moment lasted quite a bit.

What Now?

Back then I was in a state of perpetual questioning. And all of those questions raised themselves basically regarding the same topic: how far should I go in the adaptation process. I was torn between wanting to become invisible – which says a lot, since I’ve always been the kind of girl who loves to share her stories, and loves interacting with people in general – and wanting to stay true to myself. My first thought was that by becoming invisible, I can become „one of them”. That adapting simply means not to stand out. Soon this turned out to be the wrong approach. I didn’t „cause any trouble”, I was an okay person to study/work with, but I felt like I was being locked in a small box and all the world seemed to have vanished from around me. You can’t just act like you don’t exist, and then hope that this is all it takes to adapt.

Let’s Try Something New

So a new phase commenced. The one when I had to find the balance between letting myself be seen and at the same time learn to act, communicate and live like the locals. Most part of this procedure was just letting go of my fears, I guess. And what I didn’t expect, but happened, and now it seems perfectly logical: I started getting to know myself in a deeper way than before. Because when you are trying to adapt to a new place, to new, different people, you inadvertently start to notice your characteristics that you can’t let go of, because they are so defining of you, and every now and then you get new revelations regarding those ones, which only seemed important to you, but actually aren’t that strong part of your identity. After a few years spent abroad one will see themselves in a whole new perspective: if you are willing to go with the flow, you slowly come to lose all your learned ways, which you carry like mandatory travel baggage, and you find how those characteristics, thoughts and general ways of seeing the world, which are really yours, deepen. At least that is what happened to me.

So, At The End Of The Day…

On a less philosophical/psychological note there are the really practical questions, like how you talk, how you act in stores, administrative places, at he bus station, on the subway etc. These are the things that need „practicing”. You probably won’t spend your nights at your new flat thinking about how to act when you step on the tram or the suburban railway. You will do it each morning, and after a year or two you will find yourself doing it as a routine, and when you go home for the holidays, maybe you will feel some strange tingling, when getting on the tram. Then after the holidays you will go back to your „other home” and start all over – or continue where you left off. I don’t think that there is an end to the adaptation process, but you definitely get to be more familiar, and it is always a 2 in 1 package: once you let go of your fear, you get to open up, learn new ways, and at the same time go deeper within yourself, and learn what is really yours.

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