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Vanessa Workman: Cultural Divides

Initially I hadn't actually realised I was an 'expat'. I had always thought that particular moniker was reserved for old dudes that hung out at bars.

by / Published: 21 Sep 2015

Vanessa Workman: Cultural Divides
Photo: iStock

Vanessa Workman is a sand-and-sea girl through and through. Moving to the north of Malaysia from a job in Singapore, she found her home and now writes about her experiences as an expat on a tropical island.

When first embarking on the idea of moving overseas, I read any Culture Shock type books I could get my hands on. Advice from expatriates who had been there, done that, sort of thing. Fascinating insights to the new Southeast Asian cultures I was about to immerse myself into.

At the time I hadn’t realised that several of those books were penned by well meaning embassy wives, and proper social graces seemed of the utmost importance. (Yes I know that this sounds very sexist, but the books themselves were a bit dated).

I learned such helpful advice as, “Don’t point with your finger, use you thumb as if hitchhiking” (Obviously embassy wives with adventurous pasts). “Don’t pat children on the head” (But no mention of pinching cheeks).

One author accounted that it was also “expected” that I should have a live-in housekeeper, which “helps the community” (as well as obviously freeing me up for writing my own expatriate advice book).

The list of do’s and don’t was endless.

Did those books prepare me for a life overseas embracing a new culture? Well, yes and no. One thing no one ever seemed to mention was the subcultures of other expats.

As an American I don’t actually relate to a particular culture, perhaps because my own bloodline is rather diluted by generations of mixed marriages. Even my maternal grandmother, once she stepped foot onto American soil, seemed to have left her own culture back in Guam. Possibly for social survival or because of the lack of being surrounded by other immigrants of Chamorro roots.

Initially I hadn’t actually realised I was an ‘expat’. I had always thought that that particular moniker was reserved for old dudes that hung out at bars. I met plenty of them in my early days of travelling; footloose and fancy-free old dudes hanging out with other old dudes.

My own experiences with ‘foreigners’ have always been based on individuals I have met. Not pigeon-holing them to a particular country’s people. But now I am one of those footloose and fancy-free overseas ‘expats’ myself. Now I am the ‘foreigner’ surrounded by a peer group of other foreigners.

It gets even more stereotypical when individuals are characterized by their countries. Good, and more so, less than stellar behaviours summed up in one explanatory phrase. “Well you know how those ________________ are.” At this point you can just fill in the blank with any nationality.

I want to say, “No I actually don’t know, but I guess I’m learning.”

I cringe to think how I too might be summed up. All of my unique personality traits; talks a lot, laughs like a hyena, loud, summed up in one phrase, “Well you know how those Americans are.”

Some island expats seem to gravitate towards each other based on countries of origin. I suppose finding reassurance in remembrance of their roots. While others simply prefer to buffer themselves with other expats. The differences between those ‘foreigners’, and me, seem greater when they run in packs. Especially when the mother tongue suddenly becomes the preferred language regardless of who is around.

It’s been, on occasion, a challenge to understand some of these rather diverse expat cultures. I wouldn’t have thought we were really so different, especially since my own country’s founding fathers and second cousins are probably distant relatives of theirs. But then again maybe it just boils down to island dweller personality quirks (including my own).

A common first language can certainly make bonding easier. It also decreases the chances of those oh-so-common misunderstandings a few of us island expats seem to have with each other. It’s times like these that I wish I had in fact learned to speak a few European languages. I can’t say my

Southern colloquialisms have helped much in the communication department either. Southern drawl is not universal, nor are American idioms. And humour? Don’t get me started. Whoever said, “Humour is a universal language” didn’t live on an island with an international population. One person’s, “You crack me up,” response to humour is another person’s “You annoy the heck out of me.” But then again maybe it’s just me. “You know how those Americans are!”


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