A clumsy, hard fall on the rough hotel room floor left me with scraped knees and a short but distinctive spell of embarrassment. A few days later when the raspberry scab was fully formed it triggered a flurry of memories from my childhood. Scraped knees are a part of every kid’s childhood and it all came rushing.
Kids partake in risky activities all the time and I was no different. Playing on uneven ground, running from strays, jumping over fences, climbing walls, hiding in the bushes and countless other escapades. That’s a lot of scraped knees.
Scraped knees become a distant memory after you enter adulthood. This last incident happened in a foreign country, far away from home, in a new environment. I’ve been in the US for only 3 months. The similarities between trying out new things as a kid risking scraped knees and adjusting to new ways of living by making a fool of yourself repeatedly became acute after this minor mishap.
During the time I was planning the trip, I was told by colleagues and friends how difficult it was for them to adjust in a different country. All of them cited the inability to develop/maintain new relationships and fundamental differences in ways of living as barriers to adjustment.
I don’t feel like this, so far. What explains this? An above-average sense of familiarity with the culture, my below-average need for people and relationships, the presence of a handful of acquaintances in every city I’ve been to (thanks to Twitter) and the transient nature of this gestation period where everyday life is defined by a lack of routine rather than a fixed set of rituals are all good candidates. These can explain some of it but here’s the kicker – the courage to ask and being open to experimentation and failure.
When I reflect on the past three months, I now realize why many people find the transition difficult. Adjusting to a completely new set of rules – both spoken and unspoken is hard work. It also comes with the risk of being outed as an outsider or feeling embarrassed at each juncture.
I’ve struggled with the simplest of tasks – how to engage with strangers, where to find napkins at a restaurant, how to order a meaningful, tasty salad and not 10 random things mixed together, how to hold a glass of wine, hell, how to pronounce their names? Even basic etiquette relating to tipping, holding the door, greeting people and walking on the street needs learning. Interfacing with a new environment brings out the inner child in you and kids are excellent at learning via mimicry. This is a humbling experience in adulthood. Scraped knees and bruised egos take longer to heal.
People moving to new cultures fall broadly into two categories – ones who stay among themselves and look for their communities and those who engage meaningfully with reality on a daily basis, trying to integrate in an accelerated manner. It largely comes down to whether or not you want to change and more importantly, if your being is amenable to said changes.
There is no correct answer here but the latter can be fun if you stop taking yourself too seriously. It’s okay to fall sometimes.
An interesting sidetrack here is that of folkways (a unit of social analysis or “ways of being”) on Ribbonfarm titled The Missing Folkways of Globalization. It talks about globalization and its effect on the social landscape, describing how people adapt or adopt in new environments.