Immersive Cultural Experience
In one sentence, I would define a major cultural change as analogous to uprooting and replanting a grown tree. My time in England has involved starting a new life of sorts. I have had to question and reconsider attitudes I took for granted, and my review of the general outlook on life.
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Having been born in Greece and lived there for the first two decades of my life, moving to England was a major life change for me. The culture of the country of my birth was as far removed from that of my new country of residence as the two were in the economic aspect.
In a way, Greek culture is the antithesis of the English one; while the Greeks are found to be boisterous and informal, the British are steeped in formality and placid living. While Greeks are big on carnivores and holidays, the English prefer sensible concerts and recitals.
I am slowly becoming acculturated and adapting to the way of life in England.
Appendix one: Cultural map
People I interact with and how they influence my adaptation to my new culture
|Private domain||Public domain|
|Friends||Help me in adapting because they are more honest and open in telling me how to conduct myself, and what is expected of me in different cultural context||Acquaintances||The pressure to conform. Influence how I dress and behave in the public domain|
|Family||Keep me grounded because though I want to adapt to English culture, I do not want to entirely lose my Greek identity||Service providers, casual encounters (people on the street, bus, etc)||Reinforce stereotypes since more often than not they do not take the time to know me and judge me on a broader general basis|
|Mentors||Provide a rationale and mostly unbiased advice on how to adapt to my new cultural environment||Schoolmates||Are a mixed bag. Sometimes I interact with other students who are foreigners and I learn from their ways of adapting to the British culture.|
|Social common interest groups (e.g sports)||Make me feel like I belong because we have something shared in common that is separate from cultural backgrounds|
Appendix two: Concept map
What I have to do to adapt to a new culture.
|Inter-personal relationships||I have to learn the differences in inter-personal relations between my new culture and my old one, such as the boundaries set for personal space|
|Social relations||I have to learn how to relate to people in social gatherings, and how it differs from my old culture. I have to know that what might be considered normal behavior in my country of origin might be found offensive in my new culture|
|In the public domain||I have to learn to readjust how to interact with others in the public sphere and shared public spaces (no treating strangers like they are a long lost brother)|
|Dress-code||I have to adjust my dress-code to at least blend in with what is considered a normal dress in England. I have to be aware of the different occasions that require different modes of dress.|
What culture means to me
From my experience, I can define culture as a set of societal practices and shared values that define people and gives them a common identity. Culture determines how people behave towards each other and to some extent how they react in a given set of circumstances. Culture is what provides the basis of what is considered acceptable behavior. Culture is deeply inbred and sets the tone for group behavior. It is like a navigation tool that steers our interpersonal relationships.
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Culture sets the tone not only for how we relate with those we are closely related to but also in a broader sense. It determines how we dress, what we eat, how we react to strangers on the street. Culture even has a bearing on how many holidays we get in a year.
What I have come to learn is that culture plays a major role in shaping who we are. We cannot entirely separate our identities from our cultural upbringing. Personality is shaped as much by culture as it is by temperament.
My Cultural Journey: day to day experiences
When I was still living in my native country Greece, it was considered an achievement to migrate to the more affluent European countries. Going there was considered the magic wand that would transform a mundane life into one of great financial success. When I got the opportunity to make the move to England, I was ecstatic.
But that was only half of the story. I was not at all prepared for the inclement English weather, so different from the warm sun-filled days back home. The food was foreign in look and taste, I found the people cold and indifferent, and every time I asked for directions on the street, more often than not all I got was a mumble and hastened steps.
However, my greatest challenge was communication because no matter how keenly I tried to listen, or how carefully I enunciated my words, I neither fully understood native English speakers nor seemed to get through to them. It seemed incredulous that I had been speaking English for the past two decades. This was my greatest frustration since I could not accomplish a task as simple as ordering a plate of fish and chips without the bustle. Being unable to communicate hampered with my social interactions. I was at first not confident about trying to make friends because I knew it would take extra effort for us to understand each other. My classes took more effort too, and I was concerned my grades would be affected by my inability to keep up with variations of the nasal Queen’s English.
Another challenge for me was the perceived ‘coldness’ of the English people. Greeks are generally friendly and trusting in the public domain. It is not unusual to strike a conversation with the person behind you in the queue at the bank. In my new country, I found that on a bus, everyone stared firmly out the window or into their newspapers, and striking a conversation with a stranger was considered close to bizarre. Greece still has remnants of Greek traditional culture which has the element of community and openness. Thus, no one is a total stranger, even the person sitting next to you on the bus whom you have never seen before and might never see again.
A further challenge I experienced when adapting to English culture was the stereotypes that came with my darker skin and my very obvious Grecian looks. While before I had been one of the millions of others like me, now I stood out. There were instances when I was unfairly labeled with the stereotypes given to my countrymen and women. I was referred to as being lazy, a drunk, and good for nothing. I was expected to be loud, callous, and uncultured. I was once asked if any member of my family owned a shipping line. These accusations were not necessarily true, but since I am Greek, I had to bear the brunt for the traits most commonly associated with people from my country of origin.
In England, life is lived by the clock. This is quite different from the Greek approach to life. Yes, we make a conscious effort to keep time, but there is no serious harm done if a few minutes pass past an appointment. It took me a while to learn that the English take their time very seriously and being late is found to be very offensive.
My time in Greece was marked by first and foremost, the importance of the family unit in everyday living. A person cannot be considered complete without a family. An individual’s actions are held under scrutiny not only by his immediate family but also by the community which is almost an extension of the family. Occasions such as weddings, funerals, baptisms, and anniversaries are marked by the coming together of family units.
In England, I have found that the family unit is not as cohesive as it is in my native country. The wrongness of one’s actions is mostly determined by the law, not a collective community conscience. Families here are mostly nuclear, and even the nuclear family is much smaller than the average nuclear Greek family. The English, unlike the Greeks, tend to drift apart once the children become adults. In Greece, one remains a child to his parent for life and will be expected to show respect and deference.
Overall, the pace of life in England is much faster, even on the streets, it seems as though people walk faster. Everyone is always in a rush to finish school and start work, then get a promotion and a raise, then move to a bigger flat, and purchase a bigger car, or something else in that vein. It is a never-ending chase; very few people take time out to sit in a cafe with their coffee talking to friends for an entire afternoon. All-time has to be purposed, otherwise, it is considered wasted. The Greeks take life at a more moderate pace, reveling in the process of getting from one place to the next, not in what they are going to find when they get where they are going.
Another major difference between Greek and English culture is the definition of personal space. The English are big on privacy and do not take nosiness lightly. An innocuous question such as whether the expected baby has arrived yet can be found intrusive. In Greece, it is taken for granted that family units will not only stay up-to-date with each others’ affairs, but they have the right by default to offer advice, remedies, and in instances step in and take action during any form of crisis. The rule in England seems to wait until you are told, then you can ask questions. This adjustment has been trying since I am used to ‘intruding’, and being intruded upon. I lost a few friends at first because I was accustomed to discussing my problems in painstaking details, then asking for advice.
Feeling understood/ respected in the new culture
While at first, I was very conscious of myself in the midst of English men, because I was certain everything about me screamed ‘foreigner’, I came to learn that the reason why I stood out was that I thought so much about it. Gradually, I came to relax and mingle freely, and you would think now that I was born and bred in Buckingham palace.
Initially, I had concerns about blending in; with my accent and my color, it was made doubly obvious that I did not belong. I have overcome this awkwardness now. For me to blend in, I do not have to be the epitome of the perfect English gentleman, I just have to understand that I carve my place, that what is of greater importance is that I will be comfortable in my skin.
Confidence and willingness to adapt
My confidence has greatly gone up. When I was new to England, I second-guessed myself at every turn. I had suffered a complex that arose from years of being drilled with the mantra that England and all things English were superior to what I had in my own country. While initially I so badly wanted to fit in that I tried to ape English mannerisms, from speech to dress and a penchant for the races, now I am confident enough of my place that I opt to watch basketball over a game of cricket. I have decided to work with aspects of the English culture that work for me-like the strict observance of time and unerring politeness, while not trying to turn myself into the clone of an Englishman.
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Ability to deal with new surroundings
I could say I am well adjusted to England now; I know how to dress for the winter, and can fake a cockney with the best of them. The cultural adaptation process has been an uphill task because at first, I tried to resist the change. I felt as though I was losing the identity of who I am. But now I know that just because I live in England, talk, eat, and act like an Englishman, I do not stop being Greek. By adapting to the English culture I am in no way betraying my Greek heritage because when I return to my native country, I will pick up my mannerisms right where I left off. I even love the food now my favorite being a well-done roast, washed down with a tanker of ale.
How I have changed
Living in England gets easier by the day; I have become to read the nonverbal language that is to be found in any given cultural or societal setting and can only be learned by familiarizing oneself with the culture. While before there were nonverbal cues that puzzled me, or which I missed out on altogether, I can now easily pick up on the subtle nuances of nonverbal communications.
While at first I was traumatized by the odd case of stereotyping and racial maligning, I have grown a thick skin now, and easily shrug off the rare incidences when I am treated differently because of the color of my skin.
New experiences are not necessarily painless; this is true of my own experience of a major culture change. There have been times that I have been befuddled by the practices and attitudes of the English people. There have been times that I have felt the outsider, being treated differently because of how I look and speak, and there have been instances when the craving for home and familiar mannerisms has been almost overwhelming. Despite the challenges, I do not regret coming to England and experiencing her people and culture; I have been stretched out of my skin.
I think the greatest lesson for me has been that despite the glaring surface differences, all people are the same underneath the skin. Life is a cycle, and culture is the design of the pattern in the cycle; the pattern may vary from place to place, but the cycle stays the same. The friends I have in England have the same expectations as my friends back home in Greece: get a sound education, financial stability, and fulfilling life. It is a humbling lesson, it has made me realize I can make a home for myself any place where there are people because, all factors given, people are just that-people.