Expat Problems: Navigating Culture And Tradition In a New City
Navigating the various nuances of culture and tradition in a culture that isn’t your own
What does culture and tradition mean to you? What are your principles and values? Are all of these non-negotiable and set in stone, we cannot fathom a day going without them? As many cities around the globe are forced to go cosmopolitan, there is an ever existent threat of the debasement of local culture, traditions, values, and principles. Many cities across the world are faced with the prospect of letting go of their prized historical artefacts, tangible as well as intangible, in exchange for the comforts of modern life.
So, there is cultural denigration as it is. But as an expat, what can you do to make yourself discreet and blend into your new home country’s culture as much as you can, making you almost indistinguishable from the locals? What can you do to prevent their prized heritage and culture from being whisked away by modernity?
What is the best way to save the culture and heritage of the new place that you now call home? By taking part in it, of course!
Here’s how you can manifest the courage to talk to people around you in the new city that you now call home:
The first level of confidence comes from knowing the local language
As an increasing number of cities turn cosmopolitan worldwide, there is an increased likelihood of cultural disintegration and a fear of local languages going extinct amongst the traditional and ethnic locals of these newly developing cities. These fears and apprehensions are totally justified. The English language and its attendant cosmopolitan culture always seems to be barrelling straight into local culture and heritage wherever it goes, completely disintegrating it and disfiguring it out of recognition, isn’t it?
People do require the comforts and conveniences of modern life, most of which are derived from cosmopolitan capitalism, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of their own language, heritage, culture, and lifestyle.
Learning the local language of a new city not opens up a lot of doors and avenues of personal growth for you. It also helps you cement ties with your newly met acquaintances, foster friendships, and helps you get around the city with effortless ease and confidence.
The second level of confidence comes from knowing the culture
Sure, anyone can take a course and learn a language. But what about its nuances; the situational aspects and cultural context of the language that one can only imbibe from daily usage? You can read all the books, flip through all the magazines, and watch all the movies you want. But if you’re not residing in the culture that uses that language on a daily basis, you’ll miss out on a lot of common references and idioms that only native speakers understand.
It isn’t just about movies and references to great personalities.
It’s about the festivals celebrated in that particular culture, its rituals and traditions, its history, and the dos and donts of the culture. Speaking their language fluently will be for nought if you aren’t well versed with the unwritten rules of the game. That’s something you can pick up only by living there and interacting with the natives on a daily basis, completely submerging yourself in the local boiling pot of culture customs and tradition.
I had to attend a funeral at one of the electric crematoriums in the city when a close friend passed away last year. When the ritual was over, and I was about to let my friends know that I was leaving, I felt a strong tug on my shoulder. Before I could commit cultural blasphemy and collectively offend everyone who had gathered there together, I was sternly told by another friend that as per local custom, it was considered sacrilege to let people know you are leaving from a funeral. No one is supposed to greet anyone, either.
Would I have been able to pick up such etiquette from a language book? I think not.
The third level of confidence comes from doing the same job, or working in a similar field
Very simple. Imagine you and I were both in the restaurant business. We already have a lot to talk about, don’t we?
Now imagine, we not only work in the same field, but speak the same language too! Even though our cultures may be immeasurably different, and the cuisines in our respective restaurants might vastly differ from each other, we’d still be able to connect with each other with the common language and entrepreneurial background that we share.
The fourth level of confidence comes from having similar food habits
When I moved to Bengaluru, India more than a decade ago, I seldom knew what the locals ate or what their staple diet consisted of.
I was accustomed to having my North-South fusion meals which my mother used to cook at home every day, and was pretty content with whatever I got. Fast-forward to today, and there’s an assortment of local dishes in my diet. This might be more about an adulting vs youngster-living-home-with-your-parents thing, but it still matters. Since I’ve come to call the place home, I’ve not only picked up on the local language, its slang, the cultural references, and the subtle differences in dialects from one region to another, I’ve also made sure to learn about the food habits, the traditions, values, and the lifestyle of the people, which all comprehensively come together to chisel and shape my personality.
I can easily hop into a conversation on food amongst my local friends without even hesitating for a second, and proudly boast about my culinary skills with their regional food. You have a totally different kind of confidence speaking to someone from another culture when you already consume their own traditional food on a daily basis. You glow different whilst speaking to them with this confidence.
The fifth level of confidence comes from sharing a similar lifestyle or having identical aspirations
Most cultures around the world are inherently conservative and orthodox. Although liberal communities do exist, the world is largely made up of traditional, religious people who are set in their ways. You can have a lot of commonality between people who think like you and share the same values. If you’re a person who’s conservative and traditional, and the city you’ve migrated to also happens to be religious and conservative, you’ll easily gel with the people there.
Likewise, if you’re a bleeding heart liberal who has migrated to a city where the citizens have a free and liberal outlook towards life, you’ll get along with them easily there too.
Same for aspirations and life goals. If you’re someone who follows a traditional “life path”, i.e. get a degree, work a traditional job and save up for retirement, get married, have kids, buy big ticket stuff, and raise said kids to adulthood, then you’re bound to find hoards of others to gel and socialize with in a conservative country where traditional people are the majority.
Similarly, if you’re one who doesn’t follow conventional paths, whether for life or anything else, you’ll find your tribe in many cities with a much slower pace of life across the globe. So take your pick.
I’m in no way advising anyone to dissociate themselves from their own culture, pander to certain customs and traditions of their new home, or flatter the locals with every opportunity they get. One must own their distinct culture and tradition with pride, while at the same time, metabolize the customs and traditions of their new home. If everyone left their principles and values at home while migrating to a new city, we would never have cosmopolitan cities. Cities are made cosmopolitan by the fusion of different cultures, ethnicities, dialects, traditions, and customs.
But it’s how much of this home city’s culture that you’re willing to soak up and imbibe in yourself that will set you apart from the rest of the immigrants, and make you truly desirable amongst the locals.