Having come back to Australia after learning to do life in Asia I realize that many of those skills I needed there are obsolete here.
Scanning a train timetable in another language is no longer a survival skill.
The ability to have a conversation with limited words and only context to convey meaning is not really necessary here.
To find a word I needed, I learned to search online for an item that’s sort of like the item that I want to buy—but don’t know its name—and then scroll through search results to narrow down the algorithms by clicking on the most similar items. Not such a useful skill in Australia; I have the vocabulary for most things here.
Slowly developing the ability to discern if the new African face at the international church is more like the West Africans I know, the East Africans, or could be from the south. Realizing that when I see Black people in Australia that they may not want to be asked where they are from—the question may imply that they do not belong in this multicultural society.
When in a park, being aware at every moment of who is near my children and whether their phone is pointing at them. At the same time, monitoring the pulse of my children’s stress levels. Do they notice the attention on them and, today, do they mind? My ability to position myself quickly and discreetly into the line of a camera, facing my child and preventing them from being photographed is something I hope not to need back here in Australia.
Learning language to the degree I can listen to conversations around me and have a bit of a sense of who is sitting in the same subway carriage. It’s rare to find a group of people speaking the language we learned in Asia in our new community here, and to listen in without divulging that I can understand feels quite different to when I was clearly not a native speaker in Asia.
Noticing people out and about and having a feel for whether they are from the city or the countryside.
Looking out the window from the tenth or seventeenth floor and having a sense of the pollution level based on the view.
To wash dishes in sinks where there is only one sink, and perhaps no plug. Soaping dishes without water in that sink and rinsing them as per the style that our house helper would use to wash the dishes.
So many skills we learned to navigate life overseas are just not so beneficial here in our new life.
Living cross culturally (and dare I say it, living in different cultural pockets of the same country or city even) can render things that I didn’t even realize were things to be things. Realizing that what I assumed was the way to do something (for example, washing the dishes) was challenged over and over again by the realization that nobody knew “my way.”
And so, we learned many new ways to live, to navigate, to survive. Sometimes by necessity, because we didn’t know how the “locals” did things, we had to find creative ways to do what we needed to do. Sometimes we needed to learn new skills because doing them the way we would back home would be perceived as rude—and we wanted to be respectful guests in our host country. And sometimes our values and the expected ways to relate just clashed—and we needed to make value-based decisions about how to behave.
Now we are back in a culture which has echoes of familiarity—but we have changed. We need to unlearn ways of behaving which have become like clothing we wore to adapt well in our environment overseas.
I feel uncomfortable about wearing my shoes inside the house now—because the values that shaped this behavioral change as we adapted to Asia have stuck. Behaviorally it’s acceptable to wear shoes inside now—but I have been changed—and so I continue to take them off.
I prefer to wash the dishes the “Asian” way now—and find it very odd when I watch others fill the sink. I remember years ago finding it strange when an Asian friend reacted to me washing the “Aussie” way—if only I could tell her now how much I have changed and how right she was (😊).
Recognizing this change in ourselves is helpful. It’s much easier to process reactions if we can see the pathway to how we have developed these cultural perspectives. It’s also helpful as a skill to take forward. When we see how much we have changed out of convenience or necessity to live well in a culture that does things so differently, how much more grace and patience can we show to others who have not lived in different places and have not had to learn the skills that make sense in that place.
Yet there are other skills we can retain from our life overseas —like the ability to be curious and patient, to listen and watch when we met someone from a new culture. Often, we would meet students from countries we had neither been to, nor even met someone from before. We knew we were ignorant and needed to ask, and watch, and learn. Direct questions about their life or story or culture did not always open the way to understanding—not every culture thinks about itself in linear or direct ways. We had to watch and learn—and hold lightly what we thought things meant—because our own worldview shaped how we interpreted behaviors and incidents.
Similarly, to re-enter a country that is “home” can be confusing. There is an unlearning—a releasing of some of the strategies that were only needed in a place with different rules and ways of living. We do not return as people who have stayed as we were before we left. There are things to shed; there are things to keep.
The place we returned to has also shifted.
Perhaps more than ever we need to keep practicing patience, curiosity, and good listening. The culture we assume we know may be the one we understand the least.
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