Culture. One little word used to describe the diversity of differences between one people group’s way of doing or being or acting or thinking, compared to another. Not only do we have national identity related cultures, but regional sub-cultures, and sub-sub cultures.
This small world describes a constant source of conversation, headache, interest, tears and joy in my life and career.
See, I’m a southern girl, born and raised in Texas. But my parents moved there from California, so there was also a lot of the ‘Californian’ in my upbringing. Part of that was my parents’ encouragement to travel – so I did. I have studied in France, Maryland, and Belgium, worked in Brussels, fell in love in Ireland to a Brit, and got married in England. And on top of that, we are about to move to Myanmar!
Put simply, over the last 5 years, I’ve moved house 8 times, had bank accounts and paid taxes in 3 countries, and have applied for 6 different types of visas.
My life is culturally complex to say the least.
Yet despite all of these choices, the cross-cultural drift of my current existence at times grates against my own cultural push toward ‘rootedness.’ To have the ‘American dream’. As much as this seems attractive at times, I’m slowly learning that this doesn’t have to be at odds with an ‘inter-cultural’ life – because being culturally flexible has its immense benefits in my life and career as well.
Regardless, living between cultures is a constant game of navigating, and trying to figure out where I fit and how to act – both personally and professionally.
Right now I work in international development and live in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. And even though my work here is very international, I am surrounded predominantly by ‘natives’ (I married one!). It’s a great adventure and a joy to explore this culture more deeply than BBC could ever show me. However everyday, there is also something that reminds me that I’m not quite from here.
Sometimes it’s professional, like learning that I can’t actually confidently say what I mean all the time (because that is impolite) and that when people are being polite to me they might actually be annoyed with me (!). I’m always reminding myself that I need to be gentler and use softer tones of voice, and that it is not normal for people to just talk to you like they are your friend or hug you even when you don’t know them well – a Texan thing that I apparently still have deeply ingrained in me.
Sometimes it’s personal, like having to work extra hard at communication in my relationships. For giggles, my husband and I made a dictionary for the guests at our wedding, and still most of my family didn’t understand bits of the wedding speeches. Our words, context clues and cultural sayings are not always the same, and don’t necessarily have the same meanings. I have a new evolving English vocabulary and strange neutral accent that I’m putting on or off. Even new American acquaintances tell me that my accent is some weird hybrid. And the most common phrase I hear from Brits is ‘…But you don’t sound like you are from Texas..?’ For those back home, I have to remember to change my keyboard to American English when I write them and use words like ‘college’ rather than ‘uni’ – switching my US brain back on. I frequently translate whole sentences for or to my husband when in mixed US/UK groups. But in no way would anyone actually think that I am from England either…
And then there’s home. I still get nostalgic over country music, American football, driving on hot summer days, iced tea, fried chicken and biscuits, and there is the occasional escape of a draw from my mouth. But 99.5% of the people I am around day to day don’t share this with me. This includes my closest friends and my husband. And that can be really lonely at times.
But even when I go ‘home’ to Texas, I’m not able to handle more than two weeks. Things I wouldn’t blink at before now stop me in my tracks – filling me with frustration or questions about my own ‘culture.’ Don’t get me wrong – I love Texas and the US, but I become distinctly aware that I don’t really fit. Because the last few years have changed me.
Brussels changed me. England is changing me. Working in an international environment changes me.
So I’m stuck in this ‘in-between.’
And now I’m getting to a point in my life where sub-cultural pressures are telling me to ‘root’…. to settle down. To stay in one place. To come ‘home’ or stay in England. Pick a culture. Choose who you are.
I see my friends with steady jobs in one country, not worried about visa restrictions or international tax laws, buying homes and having babies (that won’t have to get naturalized at an embassy!), and I get it. I see the benefits of having a more stable, steady, mono-cultural life. And sometimes I really long for it
I long for a life without visa paperwork draining my time, visa fees draining the savings, where cross-cultural misunderstandings are non-existent, and where feelings of isolation disappear. I long to be close to my family, to celebrate holidays together with ease, and drink margaritas with the girls I’ve known since kindergarten.
For so long I wanted to travel and felt called to be elsewhere – that I thought admitting this would be settling, giving up, or giving in.
But it’s not!
‘Rootedness’ is a good thing to have. But, it can be found in unexpected places.
Simply, the opportunities and gifts I have been given, and risks I have taken thus far are different. And they come with their challenges to be sure. But so many joys as well.
And yes, sometimes I long for steady and stable and familiar. But the reality is that no matter where I live physically, I’m not sure I can ever fully achieve that. Even if and when we stay somewhere for a good long while – I will never be 100% culturally compliant. Something in me will be different, because of where I’ve been.
And I’m sure some of you might feel the same way. You might now or someday feel the pressure to fit your proverbial square peg into that round hole. And you will try painfully over and over again.
And I think we have to stop that.
I think what we must realize is that a cross-cultural life is a valuable lifestyle in itself. And in that lifestyle – we can have roots too.
For me, my roots are just spread across the cultures and places that have raised and changed me. They have taken the nutrients from the soil of Texas, California, Maryland, Brussels, London, and all of my other international experiences in Africa and Asia, and fed my branches to reach further and further up and out. More deeply, my roots push past the topsoil of those places to the unwavering, unshakable God that I trust and believe in – who is the there in every culture in all of these places, across time and space. He is the living constant water that they drink.
These nourishing roots have taught me how to be flexible, be humble, to respect, to adjust, to learn, to change, to empathise and understand, and to be proud of who I am. They let me cry when I feel that no one understands me, turn on country radio when I need to, enjoy a French wine or good Belgian beer, easily navigate DC when I visit, and love a cream tea. They help me think critically about global and national events, policies and propaganda. They help me to understand how to communicate more clearly in my workplace, so that we can be more effective.
These spreading roots help me to translate not only language, but also life and ideology. They help me see past a culture, to the people behind it. To broker understanding when to the untrained eye one might not have even seen the miscommunication.
In our world that is growing increasingly polarised and divided – this is a life lesson that I cherish and want to share with others.
I am grateful that my life and career thus far has crossed international borders. Though challenging in many ways, it has been an incredible experience, which has grown me. For now, my husband and I have chosen to lean further into the challenge and in August we move to Myanmar, and I will take up a new role and life in another very different cultural context.
In our marriage to each other, we chose to push into this space – our lives will forever be cross-cultural. This move will be difficult. There will be tears and sweat and mistakes, but also laughter, love, and understanding will grow for yet another place in this world, and our roots will grow deeper too.