Crossing cultures and 12 things to make it easier

Photo courtesy of Jessica Bell (http://www.jessicabellauthor.com)

Disruptive didn’t begin to describe it. I would have a family there, I’d be comfortable materially, and I would be able to keep my father’s legacy. But every tiny thing would be different.

I’d been forced, sobbing, from my East Coast home after Dad died, and dumped in the Midwest when I was twelve and survived. I’d escaped that bleakness and settled in New York, and adapted. Hell, given the choice between twenty years shut up in a miserable penitentiary and another move, I knew which I needed to pick. I could do this.

Thus Karen in INCEPTIO, faced with the prospect of having to make a rapid decision about fleeing to Roma Nova.

She’d been through abrupt life changes before; both parents dead, her place in the world uncertain, a contrast in the physical landscape, dutiful but loveless carers and the resulting mental and emotional upheaval. But even as she thinks about the seemingly outlandish option of moving to Roma Nova, she acknowledges her ability to survive and adapt.

Most of us don’t have to make such abrupt decisions, but what should we consider if our careers or life changes mean we leave the culture we know to live in another?

Karen instinctively uses coping techniques innate in human beings since they first lived in communities. We learn from very early childhood how to distinguish ourselves from others and how to interact with to different types of people, starting with our parents and first friends. At school, we learn, sometime brutally in the playground, how to maintain our own identity and fend off those who would exert power over us. Or we adapt and accept a subordinate place. It’s a jungle environment and lessons can be harsh. But school is also where we accumulate knowledge and possibly insight about the world outside our own bubble works. And where we learn how to learn.

So perhaps we are more equipped that we think we are, some people more than others.

Realising what you don’t know
In INCEPTIO, Karen stays in the Roma Nova legation at first and realises what she doesn’t know – she unconsciously triggers her ‘survive and adapt’ strategy by identifying her needs:

I figured out Plica, Editio, Promere for File, Edit, View and Mittere for Send, but had to give up after that. I jabbed at the screen to log out. It was ridiculous; I couldn’t do the simplest thing without the language.

She starts language lessons:

“At the end of the third hour, I had mastered the declensions and simple verbs. I was relieved that I remembered some of it from Latin class as a kid.”

Importantly, she bolsters her confidence by recognising she already has some knowledge to fit her to her new environment.

Building upon the basics
Later in the legation after a few weeks…

I was getting there with my new culture – I guessed it was being surrounded by it all day, every day. […]When Conrad was on duty, and I didn’t have a class, I often retreated to the mess bar and talked to Dexia or some of the others. They were tough-talking but natural. When I tried out my Latin on them, they laughed sometimes, but weren’t too rude about my mistakes. But I couldn’t always follow the flow of the conversation, the inferences or the profanities. I needed to get beyond Grattius’s formal teaching.

So she finds that invaluable resource, a teenager:

‘Very well, Aelia, I’m trying to learn Latin – I was born here in America. I need a friend who’ll teach me everyday Latin words, normal life words. If you want, I can talk to you about America, teach you some English.’
At first, she hesitated. Maybe she thought I was joking, or mocking her. She had to know exactly who I was. 
‘Of course, you have to teach me the b ad words as well.’
She grinned. ‘Oh, I know a lot of those.’

Why is social integration important?
You simply can’t live in another country and not be social. You are the outsider, you need to fit in, not only to make practical life easier, but for your own mental and emotional well-being. Studying and working provide valuable opportunities for integration; often the most important lessons learned are outside the formal framework, for instance, from the opportunities for socializing. Ditto if you have an interest or hobby that crosses frontiers.

‘Marrying into’ the new culture means you have to deal with everyday matters, the nitty-gritty of life like running a house, dealing with the local council, the neighbours, the school if you have children, doctors’ surgery, registering a new car or a small business, banking, food shopping, holidays, etc. etc.

Sometimes, even after years, something reminds you of being an outsider. When Karen now Carina, the successful career woman and imperial councillor, flounders about a formal process in SUCCESSIO, her daughter Allegra knows the routine better than her mother does – she’s a born and bred Roma Novan, unlike Carina.

Language and culture are two main factors. In a country where you speak a different language, integration can be hard without at least some basics. Where values are dissimilar, it can take an enormous effort over years to fully understand the psyche of a new country, society and culture.

So how to do it?
Initial stage

  • Learn the language – do this before you move and make it a priority when you arrive.
  • Eat locally – much better to learn how eat local food in a restaurant than in more personal surroundings when invited for dinner at somebody’s home.
  • Become involved in the community – join a history, computer, sport, gardening or book club; if religious, a congregation
  • Show interest in other people’s lives, work and hobbies at every opportunitiy
  • Offer to help with things you know
  • Ask for help for yourself – people are usually generous if you are genuinely struggling

Middle stage

  • Accept that the new life is going to be different in both big and small ways.
  • Understand that shifting your norms of behaviour, of instinct, takes time and practice.
  • Observe closely subtle understandings and interactions learnt from childhood between native-born people.
  • Accept you are going to feel awkward, possibly uncomfortable and make mistakes. Make sure you forgive yourself when this happens – it’s perfectly normal.
  • Finding a ‘cultural mentor’ who knows both your and the new culture’s ways will ease the way considerably.
    In INCEPTIO, Aurelia, being a clever woman, has worked this out and assigns a younger member of the Mitela clan, Helena, to take Carina under her wing. Not that Helena is very happy about this, but she does her duty…
  • Talk to somebody about the disparity and how uncomfortable you feel about certain aspects of your cultural crossing. If you are staying, as Carina is, you have to accept you will have to break out of your comfort zone to some degree.
  • But, make sure you still retain who you are, your inner core, your personal values.

Final stage

One day you wake up and find you are actually more at ease in your adopted country that you were in your original one. You made it!

Troops marching hard – column of Marcus Aurelius (Creative Commons licence)

The ultimate secret to success?
The key is making an effort.

Show others you’re enthusiastic about learning their cultural rules, even though you might not have mastered them, and that you care about and respect their traditions. Yes, it is hard work at first, but if you persist you will build cultural capital that will make your life richer and more comfortable, and, if you move again, capital you can cash in in any foreign setting.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

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