Learning to be a Foreigner

As an American I’ve always been a foreigner.  Like all Americans other than the relatively small minority of indigenous Native Americans my family is from someplace else.   In my own case the migration took place a couple of generations ago but the timing doesn’t redefine the reality.

I knew I was a foreigner in a foreign land the minute I stepped off the plane in Beijing.  And that made me both frightened and exhilirated.
I knew I was a foreigner in a foreign land the minute I stepped off the plane in Beijing. And that made me both frightened and exhilirated.

America, however, was built on a culture of assimilation.  Often referred to as ‘The Melting Pot’, the ability of U.S. culture to assimilate foreigners has long been considered one of the country’s great strengths; the symbol of a culture built on equal rights, transparency, and good will toward those who are different from us.

This inward assimilation, of course, is getting a lot of press at the moment, both from those who wish to limit the pace of immigration and by those who prefer not to be assimilated to the same extent that prior generations of immigrants desired.  That, however, is not the subject of this post.

What gets far less attention, and is my topic here, is the inverse of the American cultural trait of assimilation.  It is the cultural tendency of Americans to seek assimilation, however temporary or superficial, when we are the foreigners in a foreign land.

When traveling abroad strong transmitter-oriented communicators have been known to get a little loud when they're frustrated by an inability to communicate.
When traveling abroad strong transmitter-oriented communicators have been known to get a little loud when they’re frustrated by an inability to communicate.

Americans traveling abroad have earned a universal reputation for being a little loud and a little pushy at times.  And while I have witnessed this myself I have also witnessed similar behavior in tourists from every corner of the globe.  The fact is that people who employ a strong transmitter-oriented communication style are likely to get both loud and frustrated when they are unable to get their point across.

The truth is that most Americans genuinely want to ‘fit in’ when they find themselves in a foreign culture.  Business travelers in particular often obsess about it.  American companies sending employees on a foreign assignment frequently provide extensive formal training to assist in cultural understanding and assimilation on the implied assumption that cultural integration is universally admired by the host culture.

I see it frequently in my own company.  Colleagues who are visiting China for the first time are often brimming with questions about what to do or how to behave in a wide variety of social situations they may or may not encounter.  They are anxious to do the right thing.

Tourists also exhibit similar enthusiasm for ‘going local’, as it were.  One older widow in the small town where my in-laws live went abroad for the first time on a group tour to India.  She came back so enthused with her experience that she re-decorated her home with Indian art and took to wearing traditional Indian clothing around the small rural village.   Amused, but ultimately weary of her over-indulgence, her neighbors came to joke, “It’s time for Sally to take another trip.”

I, too, used to accept that cultural assimilation is important and underscores the generally respectful and civil nature of America culture.  Since moving to China almost 7 years ago, however, I have acquired a different perspective; one that I believe may help to explain the general political and cultural isolation that we as Americans sometimes find ourselves in.

My 'aha' moment about having learned to be a foreigner came to me during our company training in Shanghai.
My ‘aha’ moment about having learned to be a foreigner came to me during our company training in Shanghai.

It came together for me in an ‘aha’ moment I had while attending training that we were providing our field sales organization in Shanghai this past weekend.

The trainer was an independent professional that came highly recommended and certainly lived up to his billing.  He was Chinese, of course, but attended a prestigious U.S. university so certainly has an informed opinion of American culture and social habits and, in talking at some length with him, he genuinely likes and respects the country and the people.

In a section of the course that addressed how to interact with other people in a positive and effective way, however, he put up a series of PPT slides showing President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin greeting various foreign monarchs, emperors, and religious leaders; some from the Middle East and others from Asia.  It was a lesson in contrasts, and President Obama, I’m afraid, did not fare well in the comparison.

In each case President Obama could be seen bowing deeply while looking straight down – in a way totally outside of the American cultural norm – to the foreign leader he was being introduced to.  President Putin, on the other hand, was pictured standing erect, offering a firm handshake, and looking his host directly in the eye.  And in each picture of President Obama the trainer had added a speech bubble to the receiving dignitary saying, “Dude, what the f_ck?”  (It’s a topic for another post but many Chinese swear in inappropriate settings because they learn English, in part, from American movies.)

As a quick but important aside, contrary to what a lot of Americans believe, the Russians and the Chinese are not any more culturally aligned than, say, the Chinese and the Swedish.  President Putin, however, is widely admired in China and this trainer’s perspective on the difference between President Putin’s and President Obama’s approach to meeting foreign monarchs, I think, explains why.

The essential message is that when you are interacting with others, particularly if they are somehow foreign to you, you should be friendly but strong; respectful, but not compliant to the point of suggesting insincerity.  In each of these pictures President Obama was going so far to assimilate – to follow what he thought was the proper way to pay respect to the individual receiving him – that it actually came off as being a bit phony, even insincere.  At the very least he looked a bit weak, as if compliant to a degree that would naturally breed distrust.

President Putin, by contrast, exhibited respect, but did so with supreme confidence that enhanced the sincerity of his greeting.  He came off as a man who was genuinely interested in meeting his host and a man you could trust.

I offer no opinion as to which, if either, characterization is accurate.  I am a glassmaker, not a political analyst.  The lesson did, however, provide clarity to me regarding my own education in how to be a foreigner.

The social protocols of Chinese culture are extremely complex and daunting to the average foreigner.
The social protocols of Chinese culture are extremely complex and daunting to the average foreigner.

When I first arrived in China I was often an anxious wreck in social settings.  An introvert by nature I nonetheless wanted to do the right thing.  It was, of course, my job.  But more importantly I desperately wanted to fit in.  Introvert or not I wanted my new Chinese colleagues and neighbors to like me.  Don’t we all?

The social protocols of Chinese culture, however, are very complex.  Even after reading a half dozen books on the topic I still found it confusing to attend a business dinner where people were constantly offering toasts and making short speeches.  There were so many variables.  Sometimes you stand up; sometimes you sit down.  Sometimes you come around the table; sometimes you toast from afar.  Sometimes you suggest ‘bottoms up’; sometimes you don’t.  To say nothing about the protocols involving how to hold your glass and who should hold their glass lower, exactly how low to go, where to clink, etc., etc., etc.

But then I learned to be a foreigner.  I learned to accept the simple and obvious fact that I am a foreigner and my Chinese hosts know it.  I couldn’t convince them otherwise no matter how much I assimilate the language and the culture.  In the end, I will still have a Western face and a big nose.

But here’s the important part of the lesson:  That’s okay for them.  They know I’m not Chinese and they know I’m never going to be Chinese.  So they cut me a whole lot of slack when it comes to cultural protocols.

Social interaction was a lot less intimidating once I learned that it's okay to be a foreigner.
Social interaction was a lot less intimidating once I learned that it’s okay to be a foreigner.

The thing is that they respect me for being strong and sincere.  The rest is largely irrelevant.  I can relax.  They can relax.  Everybody has a better time.

Of course I still participate in the cultural traditions.  But I no longer think of it as a forced march.  I participate to the extent that I want and then I let them continue on their own.  I no longer feel like I need to understand or even participate in every cultural activity that’s going on around me.

But the lesson doesn’t stop there.  I can honestly say that in learning to be a foreigner I have come to be a whole lot more comfortable in my own skin.  Life is no longer the intense social continuum it once was for me.  I am perfectly comfortable taking it as it comes and that makes me both a better listener and a more effective communicator.  And that, in turn, makes me better at getting along and working with people – all kinds of people.

It's okay to be different.  Diversity gives our world color and life more interesting.
It’s okay to be different. Diversity gives our world color and makes life more interesting.

So when the day comes that I move back to America and a foreign family moves in next door, I will not care if they speak my language or follow my customs.  They are foreigners.  They should be who they are.  As long as they are trustworthy and sincere we will get along.

And should I ever get the chance to meet a monarch or a religious leader I know exactly what I’m going to do.  I’m going to ‘pull a Putin’; I’m going to shake their hand, look them straight in the eye, and say, “Hello.  I am a foreigner.  Please forgive my ignorance of your culture.  But it is indeed a pleasure to meet you.”

To my fellow American foreigners I say, “It’s okay to be a foreigner.  Don’t try so hard.  Relax.  Be who you are and let others be who they are.  Everyone will get along better that way.”

When we simply accept our differences we can all relax.  And that makes life a whole lot easier.
When we simply accept our differences we can all relax. And that makes life a whole lot easier and a bunch more fun.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.