The following is a blog post that I wrote over six months ago but didn't publish! Here it is!
Riding kangaroos to school and other cultural differences
It’s funny the type of differences that we notice when in a different culture. Also funny are our reactions to those differences. For a fair few of my French friends, the concept that Australians might drive on the left side of the road was incredible! They would stare at me in surprise. (Sure, they also would ask me questions about native Australian animals, particularly kangaroos. I enjoyed watching their gaping mouths when I stated with a deadpan that we Aussies often have a couple of kangaroos in our backyards and sometimes kids ride them to school.) Our surprise reaction to little cultural differences, like a change in the side of the road that locals drive on, or the proliferation of unusual animals, points to our assumptions and the way our cultural context shapes how we see the world.
What is normal?
These little details tell us what is ‘normal’, and so when we enter a new culture we get a shock at realizing that ‘normal’ is different, depending on where you live. Of course, this shock can lead to positive, neutral or even negative feelings. You might simply think, ‘that’s cool, I like different.’ Alternatively, ‘It really doesn’t matter.‘ can be a reaction to some cultural differences, despite the perhaps slight feelings or unfamiliarity or discomfort. But from time-to-time, foreign visitors go through negative feelings, too.
Not so little differences: on negative feelings
I remember how the slow and seemingly inefficient bureaucracy of French governmental departments as well as of the Lille III university got on the nerves of my fellow international exchange student friends. I learnt to laugh at some differences when I felt tempted to get angry and get into a negative thought cycle. Other times, I tried to just ‘give ‘em a chance’ when my initial reaction to a cultural difference was negative. Sometimes I discovered there were good reasons for things that the French did (some paperwork processes). Other times, I just thought, ‘Hmm, that’s probably a selfish thing to do. Not good citizen behaviour (not cleaning up after your pet in the street).’
Current status: reflection mode
Going to France helped me think through my assumptions and reevaluate how I relate to foreign visitors to Australia. I realised that many foreign visitors to Australia must feel shocked at our seeming rudeness as a culture, due to our scathing sarcasm and teasing. Sometimes I think they have valid cause to be, as Aussies can be quite nasty with their words. Other times, it might help just to explain to an international that 'it was just a friendly joke,' and that they can relax. I certainly gained an appreciation overseas for how much language includes or excludes. It must be pretty hard sometimes for newcomers to Australia to understand us, as we speak with a different accent to the accent they are often taught in (UK Posh accent or 'American' accent). This language barrier can contribute to newcomers keeping to themselves and being quite lonely. I think it's great how various groups have formed on my campus to help international students fit in. I look at foreign visitors differently now, having had a taste of what it's like to be the 'other' and have your sense of normalcy knocked about a bit.