Journal & Scribblings

More to come…

Thoughts on personal culture from the coolest bar in downtown Aachen…

A late summer glow has settled over the streets and buildings of downtown Aachen as I sit here enjoying my Chimay at café Egmont. It’s Thursday evening and bustling bodies and laughter fill the street in front of me as the voices in Egmont crescendo behind me. Patrons are finishing and ordering yet another drink and you can feel the excitement building towards the weekend.

I am here after meeting my English – Spanish tandem buddy for our weekly language exchange. The goal of the exchange is of course for mutually beneficial time to practice both English and Spanish. Alas, Miguel, a Barcelona native, is considerably stronger in English than I am in Spanish, so sometimes our tandems can become…unbalanced. Luckily, we get along well and have been fortunate to become good friends. Thus, our tandem sessions will generally undergo three evolutions. We can break these evolutionary stages down into lovely Belgian beers:

Beer 1) [20-25 min]

We start in Spanish. I bring Miguel some new words and phrases I have been working on and he lets me know the proper way to say them and where I am making grammar mistakes. I will repeat these over and over just up to the point where I can see his patience start to fade. Time to order beer 2.

Beer 2) [15-20 min]

I’ve gotten my ‘need-to-know’ questions answered and have practiced the new phrases trying to incorporate them into the base knowledge and vocabulary I already have. There is no official switch but slowly and steadily we are speaking more and more English.

Beer 3) [undefined length of time]

The unofficial switch has been made to English. We now break into a more creative discussion about pretty much anything. I cannot say that this is the most effective method for managing a language tandem…but sometimes having fun while doing something is more important than being efficient while doing it. Today’s discussion was fun and provided the inspiration for this post.

Miguel had other dinner plans and had to run but I kept the table deciding to stay a few extra minutes. Egmont’s atmosphere, excluding its above-average beer, is intoxicating. 40+ years of graffiti covers the walls while old-school trumpets, trombones, french horns and tubas hang as lamps with light bulbs protruding from their bells. This undergrowth spills out to the chaotic cobblestones of the Pontstraße where internal and external worlds mesh in a kind of involuntary outdoor theater. A people watcher’s dream, a pedestrian’s irritation, and fun place to just be. The discussion Miguel and I had been having centered around his upcoming plans. He will be relocating to California next month for work, much to my dismay, and we had been talking about making the move and, specifically, how it will be for him and his wife to adjust and acclimate to a new culture.

Miguel is amicable, well-traveled and far more clever than me, so I have no doubts that he and his wife will both prosper in the Golden State. What caught my attention, however, during our talk was this one word: culture. It kept creeping up and as I think about it more, I realize that it is used a ton. It seems as though it has become a nebulous term at best as we talk about the American culture, Spanish culture, German culture, Western culture, Eastern culture, Middle-Eastern culture, working culture, company culture, food culture, family culture, millennial culture, etc. The list is exhaustive. The media loves this term and it is at this point so broad that it is almost difficult to grasp. Culture, or the idea of it rather, is central in defining ourselves, yet so vast that it can encompass virtually every aspect of our lives.

I have been trying for some time to find a way to talk about, or at least start talking about, life abroad. I could start at the surface and describe typical interactions, getting around, language barriers, etc. but this would not do justice to what living abroad and traveling is at its heart. It would only further solidify stereotypes, provide some mild entertainment and create a rather banal blog experience. You don’t build a house from the top down. Solid structures are built on solid foundations. Rather than start at the surface let’s start at the core. I promise to incorporate all the other stuff from life abroad as we go.

So to start this series on life expatriated, be it no small task, perhaps culture can be our first stepping stone. It is as good a starting point as any in approaching life outside the comfort zone and it walks hand in hand with one’s success or failure and ultimate happiness in living abroad (or anywhere for that matter). To start a debate on the definition of culture is not my intention. I want to take the most generic definition of culture and compare it with my own definition which is rooted in the culture of the individual as opposed to the group. This is because for me it is the culture of individuals which shapes a life expatriated and not necessarily a culture of a group or place.

Culture vs. Personal Culture

First, what is culture?

Webster defines it as:

  1. the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
    2. a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
    3. a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

*you can find varying definitions but for the purposes here these were sufficient.

Okay, so this is culture according to Webster. While I agree with the majority of the elements that make up this definition I want to take these elements from a broad group level down to an individual level. It may be the cultures of groups that dictate the formation of stereotypes and trends but it is the cultures of individual people which collectively dictate the course of history every day. This is the culture that I want to discuss here as this is the culture that shapes experiences.

What is personal culture?

I define personal culture as follows:

the combination of a person’s origin, aspiration, and regard which creates a flexible, malleable, and floating identity. 

Let me break down the elements of this definition.

  1. Origin: Where you are from (Past)

This is your past and what you come from. It is a part of us, good and bad, that we will never lose. This is where the top, group, definition of culture still comes into play. Your nationality, upbringing, media influences, etc. will all play into this element of your personal culture.

This piece of you is not something you can change. It is the only one of the three that is like this but this is also what makes it unique. This should hold a place in who you are but should not define you.

While traveling you will meet people who live defined by their origins, chained to an idea of what they think they need to be, and you will meet people who recognize their origins but see also a chance to let go of what brings them down and hang on to what lifts them up.

  1. Aspiration: How you present yourself and where you’re going (Future)

What you are trying to accomplish? What are your goals? How do you present yourself to others. This is your outward facing presentation to the world that propels you forward as you move through life.

This is the story you tell when people ask you what your plans are or what’s next. Most people are probably familiar with the saying ‘fake it till you make it.’ I was never a big fan of this expression but am astounded at how effective it is. I am not saying you should fake or fabricate anything but you need to have the confidence, or at least fake the confidence to yourself, to know you can and will do something before you do it.

Basically, are you the kind of person that says,”I wish I could do that…” or the kind of person that says, “I will…”

  1. Regard: How you treat others (Present)

The most important of the three. This includes not only how you treat others but how you treat yourself. Regard is the aspect of personal culture which can most greatly influence other people and includes your ego size, appreciation for and acceptance of the world and those around you.

This element alone is the most important factor in changing your life or increasing your overall happiness at any given time.

Regard works like a mirror and therefore needs to be monitored. The type of energy you elicit will most likely be what you get back unless another person has a stronger regard than you.

These three elements combine to create who you are and define your personal culture. This is the culture that matters – at least as far as what I have seen. It is flexible because it can adapt to changing situations; malleable because it will evolve and reshape itself as you grow and learn; and floating because it is not tied to any location or circumstance.

The Floating Land of You

So, how does personal culture help you acclimate to new situations and to life abroad?

To start the story of life expatriated we need to understand that these elements of personal culture are a cohesive whole which together create a floating land. Once you pick up and move you enter a new world of extreme diversity. Even if you are not physically moving, globalization is taking care of bringing diversity to you.

The broad definitions of what culture has been historically are changing at a pace more rapidly than many people realize or accept. This is not a bad thing but it can create uncomfortable chasms from which fears arise. Look at the current presidential race in the United States or the refugee crisis in Germany and Europe. For many Americans and Europeans, their concept of culture, further cemented through stark political and media rhetoric, is a rock to which they must desperately cling. Yes, there are very real threats shaking our world to which we must remain absolutely vigilant; but the world is not something to which we should close ourselves. 

Walls are built predicated on the idea that the entity protected within is weaker than the external force.  If this was not true would there be a need to build the wall? I am not a military strategist, nor will I pretend to be, but as far as I can tell I will put up a wall when I feel that my personal culture is threatened. If we stop for a moment and look at the definition of personal culture above we will see that, while I may not be able to directly influence my past, I have direct control over my present and future. This means that if I accept the definition of personal culture as flexible, malleable, and floating entity that I control, there will be no one, other than me, who can change it.

If I had to reflect so far on expatriate life it would be to say that one undergoes a constant evaluation of one’s own personal culture. By no longer surrounding yourself with like-minded people (in this case, people of your nationality or background, and traveling does this the best) you become acutely aware of a vast array of viewpoints and opinions.

You then have a choice to wall-off or absorb. By walling-off you deflect what you don’t like and your personal culture remains unchanged. By absorbing you make a choice, first to listen, then to retain and refine or throw away, based off of the new information you have received.

Knowing that you have a choice and that you alone control your personal culture is a huge part in staying happy abroad, or anywhere, as you meet people with their own personal cultures. Try sitting around a dinner table with 6 people from 5 continents and you will see what I mean.

There is a floating land that is you. Its substance is your personal culture. Its propulsion is your free will. This floating land of you is powerful. It can build walls and destroy them. Its influence over other floating lands is great as is its vulnerability to be influenced should you allow it. It does not mind staying still but thrives on the move. Cultivate it towards good, let it do its thing, and you will pull in the world you create.

That late summer glow I mentioned about 2,000 words ago is almost gone and now I think I will call it an evening too. Patrons still drink and pedestrians still pass as I pay and tuck in my chair.