How to Live in a New Culture
As much I wanted to be in Germany, things were not as rosy as I thought it would be. Well, it was not that bad. But there were times when I just wanted to stay away from society because I needed a break from trying hard to fit into society. Here are my few tips on surviving a whole new environment which you are or would be in soon. Not only to just survive but also to strive and obtain the best out of the experience!
The first few weeks were all great as I arrived in Germany. I enjoyed the wet streets as it rained daily and loved exploring everything, like the different types of breads at the supermarket. In my first week of work, I was sent to Munich. I lost my way but finally, managed to make it to work. Every hour was stressful. Lunch time was also stressful because I did not understand the language. Sometimes, even their jokes. When I can understand the language, I just could not laugh because I did not find it funny. To be fair, they sometimes do not get my jokes, too.
Embrace the Change
Nevertheless, living in a new culture requires one to be open minded. Even if it is not fully your desire because you may be there for education, spouse or a job, you need to first understand and accept the fact that you are now in a new environment. Due to the variety of cultures, certain actions may be read or understood differently. For example, people in Germany generally look more stern which may be read as being unfriendly. In Germany, there were also many times I get frustrated over answers like “I do not know” or “I cannot tell” to questions that I have.
It makes me wonder, why they do not take the extra effort to tell me something positive, or at least in a nicer way. Something I would like to know. After analysing the whole situation, I realised that it is in the German culture that they do not want to keep hopes high. So, by saying “I do not know” means he really does not know it and he does not want to make you think that something positive would turn out when there is a 50-50 chance. It took me quite a while to understand this, though to be honest, I still prefer the Asian way of dealing with such matter especially when it is regarding customer service.
When you are already in a new culture, take the time to explore. Be curious! Meeting people of a different culture and exposing yourself would help you in understanding why certain actions are done and accepted in a particular way. That would make life easier.
Expose Yourself to the Local Culture
Coming from a culture that is so different from Germany, I had a lot to learn. Not only the language, but I also had to adapt to the business culture, food, celebrations and most importantly, picking the right words for the right occasion. Like, in Germany, you congratulate someone who is having his birthday or you would need to bring some cakes when you are new to work or when it is your birthday. You have to bring the treat.
There were certain things that happened and I did not understand. This is when I will either ask my colleagues or my husband (then boyfriend) and perhaps discuss it. It helps me to learn. Being in contact with the local culture can be rather simple and you can simply be out with colleagues or new friends whom you just met. Push yourself out of your comfort zone to be involved in activities or events.
During the first few months at work, I was sitting with my colleagues for lunch while playing with my phone. It was my way of dealing with the awkwardness because I would have loved to contribute in the conversation. At the same time, I did not understand them. So I laughed whenever they laugh. It made me feel miserable at that time because I felt hopeless and almost disabled. After months of looking at my phone, I told my husband about the whole experience. I analyzed the situation with him. Then, I realised, instead of running away from being awkward, I should just sit through it and force myself to understand the conversation. Things got easier from then on. Not immediately of course but it did!
Do not let such experience hinder you from joining a new group of friends. I got to know many Germans and also others who share a similar story like mine. They taught me about their culture and in return, I shared a lot of stories about my culture too. These sort of experiences do shape your mindset. As I mentioned in the video, you may check online to join local activities. In Germany, every city has its own website whereby local activities are listed. Volkshochschule (or VHS), which is a community learning centre, offers various courses in German and sometimes English. You could also join such classes too.
Don’t Restrict to Your Own Community
With the lack of fluency in German language and being most of the time alone especially during the first few months in Germany, I was driving myself into sadness everyday. The only thing that could make me happy was a plate of delicious rice for dinner. Even that was also a tough task.
Naturally, I started to think of solutions. For example, my husband and I speak English at home. It has always been that way and I would never change it. For the fact that I spoke more German compared to English back then, I needed the break from this whole language stress. However, as I think about it again, I am so blessed to be in such a situation. Without knowing how to swim and then being thrown into the cold water, I had to survive, somehow. By doing so, my German improved!
It was exactly my goal, to improve my German! I always tried to tell myself to not be tempted and stay in my comfort zone. I knew someone back in Malaysia who studied in Australia for 11 years. He was sent to Australia for education. Somehow, something went wrong along the way, in my opinion. He returned and nothing really changed. He still did not speak much English. Also, he had the mentality of most Malaysians. Nothing changed. No difference. Then I thought, why did his father even bother sending him to Australia? I also had a former colleague who has been here for 15 years. Somehow he did not work hard enough to integrate well.
Although it may seem like I am stressing about the language here, but it is really the experience that I would like you to go through. I have seen many doing this, not only from Malaysia but other nationalities too. It is normal to want to seek a sense of belonging. This however will not make you learn more. By having people of different walks of life around you, you will get to see things from a different perspective.
As cliché as it may sound, your life is like a piece of white paper. You are the one holding the brush and deciding on the colours to paint. If you may think that being in a new country is not even your choice, why bother! Because it is your time that you are wasting. Learning from a tough situation is always beneficial, never a disadvantage.
If any case, you will only gain from it. Either you tell yourself that this is a bad culture which you should not adapt, or you love this culture and mindset, so it is something you need to learn from. Through this experience, you learn and decide the best for yourself.
This post is not to ask you to change your personality and forget your roots. It is to make you realise that the world is larger than you think it is and you should continue exploring. Stay curious, live life!