Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

by Editor on July 23, 2014

Belonging

Today’s post is by Joann Pittman. Joann is a childhood friend from Pakistan who I reconnected with a few years ago. As a woman who has lived her entire life cross-culturally, Joanne is gifted at helping others learn to live effectively across cultures. You can read her full bio at the end, but for now enjoy this post on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong”.

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I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

Below are eight tips for living well where you don’t belong.

  1. Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to Dictionary.com, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”
  2. Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have done things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.
  3. View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form an assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.
  5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.
  6. Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.
  7. Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.
  8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips do you have to add? Would love to hear some in the comments section. 

*This post was originally published in Communicating Across Boundaries.

Joann Pittman is a consultant, trainer, researcher, and writer who helps people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living. She has lived in China since 1984, working as an English teacher, Chinese language program director, English language program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has done extensive study and research in Chinese language, history, and contemporary society, and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of Survival Chinese Lessons. You can read Joann’s blog Outside-In at joannpittman.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

  • Jessi Francis

    Joann, I really enjoyed this, especially as someone who wants to live overseas long term in the future.
    I especially liked #6! Awesome thing to think about!

  • http://shelaughsatthedays.net carrien-she laughs at the days

    I would add to #4 to just accept that you are the local entertainment. My large brood of fair headed children are especially exciting walking through the market. It helps us to be gracious with all the the touching and picture taking and picking up of my children that happens on a daily basis to just accept it. My oldest son just wanted to hide when everyone started looking at him when we go to the market so I sat down with him and explained what life is like for the ladies who work the various stalls. They get up, they go sit at the same table everyday. They talk to the same people, they go home. Their lives are somewhat small. “You’re the most exciting thing that has happened to them all day when you walk in there.” I told him. “That’s why they get so excited and give you so much attention.”

    It’s helped him to deal with it more easily, as it helps me.

    • Joann

      I agree. I once had a colleague in China who came to the (helpful) conclusion that one of the main roles of the foreigner in Chinese society was to provide entertainment for the locals, something he loved doing. Of course, he was a funny guy and provided entertainment for us as well!

  • Richelle Wright

    #8 (The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders.) kinda stopped me in my tracks. It was the one thing I never “got over” in my cultural adjustment to living in W Africa. I mean, I knew/understood it in my head but couldn’t get my heart to accept it.

    As I’ve been thinking about it, what a beautiful word picture God has given us as expats! With our very lives – we see what it means to seek to live and minister… to love and dive deeply into this life… without becoming of this world or just like it.

    • Joann

      Thanks. I think a lot of frustration in living cross-culturally is having unrealistic expectations of how much we can adapt and/or assimilate. The desire to be accepted as an insider is very strong, but in most places in the world, will never happen. Better to accept that up front.

  • http://www.daniellenotyetthere.blogspot.com/ Danielle Wheeler

    Many of these (especially #1) have stuck with me since I first heard them from you 8 years ago. :) Love seeing your wisdom shared here!

  • Jennifer

    The one which speaks most strongly to me at the moment is that of being an “acceptable outsider”. The times when I have managed to do that in small ways have been significant to me. Coming to grips with what this means.. is to me an important dimension to adjusting to living here in China, without being constantly frustrated by “being outside”. Beginning to recognize that it is which helps to make one an “acceptable outsider”, is an important lesson, I know I am only beginning to understand.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Great list Joann and fun to see your work here!

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