Driving on the wrong side of the road

The following is a blog post that I wrote over six months ago but didn't publish! Here it is!
Kangaroo and its joey
Flickr: JoshBerglund19
As you might have guessed, I like hats -- my pseudonym gives it away— and one of the 'hats' that I wear is being an Aussie who speaks French. Yes. From September, 2010, until June, 2011, I lived in Lille, France to do student exchange at a left arts university, Charles de Gaulle Universite (Lille III).  It’s funny the sort of things that I noticed when entering a new culture, but a very normal thing I noticed was that everyone drove on the wrong side of the road. At least, it’s the wrong side for Australians. The French would be technically correct, though, to say that they drive on the right side of the road!  #BOOM I didn't ever drive in France, but it took me about two or more months for the road side change to become ‘normal’ for me. For quite some time I was cautious and had to double check to make sure I knew which direction to expect cars to come from when crossing the street. 

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. 

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