First Impressions in a New Culture

Three friends who have not seen each other since high school twenty years ago are chatting late at night.  One has since moved to Canada, US and now France.  One has lived in Geneva, New York and is now back in Romania.  The third has lived in the UK, Germany and Greece. 

Friends' Reunion

They are comparing notes about their first impressions of their new cultures – and their first impressions whenever they go ‘home’ to their birth country.  What did they find most ‘different’ at first sight?

1) Rules of hospitality.  How to behave as a guest, how generous (or not) to be as a host, subtle rules and assumptions about present-giving and receiving – these are the most immediate eye-openers.  Food running out at Western parties is often mentioned by Mediterraneans and East Europeans as an example of lack of hospitality.

2) Gallantry.  How men behave towards women in public.  All three of them said they missed the gallantry of having doors opened for them and seats offered to them, even the odd wolf-whistle, in the Anglo-American or Germanic cultures.  The feeling was that these latter cultures were not necessarily less sexist, but just less interested in women.  Particularly in those that were not available.

3) Levels of friendliness can be hard to interpret.   You have to be prepared to deal with rejection and not take it personally.  And not confess too much to the first person who wishes you a nice day.

4) Speaking the language of your host country is tricky, even if you previously thought you were fluent in it.  Regional accents, colloquial expressions, new slang and cultural allusions that you are unfamiliar with (cricket or baseball metaphors, anyone?) can make you feel like a beginner all over again.

What about your own big ‘eye-opening’ moments when you moved to a new culture?  What did you find interesting, exciting or perhaps frustrating?  And did your first impressions change after spending more time in that country?


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Why Going to Conferences Pays

Or ‘The Remaining 6 Things I learnt at the Washington conference of FIGT’. (For details of the Families in Global Transition organisation, see this website:  This is Part Two from yesterday’s blog and I couldn’t resist this beautiful image of the cherry blossoms, although they did not quite look like that last week, more like a hesitant pink mist. *

Spring in Washington DC

7.  No matter how many coffee breaks, working lunches and dinners there are, you will never get a chance to meet all the interesting people you want to meet (including all your Twitter friends).   I keep looking at the attendee list and saying: ‘Oh, no, he was there too?  Oh, no,  how could I have missed her?’

8. One group of expats that was under-represented are the academics.  So, Ph.D. students,post-docs and lecturers from different cultures who meet abroad, get married and then move on to the next position.  They do represent a different kettle of fish than diplomats or missionaries or army personnel, because in many cases the spouses want to continue their research careers as well, so the ‘trailing spouse’ scenario is even more unacceptable.  On the other hand, I wonder if there are differences in how these highly-educated parents are talking to their children during these global transitions. 

9. You go there for the big ideas, but you come back with lots of little practical tips.  I now have a clearer understanding of how to add the pesky Twitter button on my blog, where to find excellent stock photos and what refreshments to serve to your international writers’ group.

10. You might even find yourself a job.  Having exchanged business cards and kept in touch, a number of participants at previous conferences were top of mind when companies were looking to recruit specialists.

11. Don’t forget your camera !  I did and was cursing about it daily.  It would have been an excellent opportunity to capture images of all the friends I made, to conduct short interviews with the numerous experts there… and perhaps to have my own pictures of cherry blossoms.

12.  Take a little bit of time off.  No matter how passionate you are about your subject area, the long days in an enclosed space, overdosing on caffeine, will wear you out.  Do recharge your batteries and see something of the town you are in, especially if you are as fortunate with the weather as we were last week.  I used to work a few months a year in DC, so I didn’t feel the need to go to all the museums this time, but I did reconnect with some dear friends, go for walks in old favourite haunts and enjoy authentic Mexican food (which is a bit harder to find in the UK).  It felt like a mini-break and I am sure helped with the digestion of information!

What do you like best about international conferences?  And what annoys you most about them?  Perhaps next time I will talk about that.

*  For the original image and more details about the cherry blossom festival in DC, look at this website

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12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!

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Mini United Nations of Parenting

Only a couple more days to the Families in Global Transition conference in Washington DC and my excitement levels are already up in the attic and threatening to break through the roof!  If you don’t know about the FIGT organisation and its annual conferences, here is the link:

My talk will be about how to combine and harmonize different parenting styles when you are a bicultural family living in a third or even fourth culture.  For instance, what happens when the grandparents come to help out with the childcare but have quite different values from the parents, the children and the society they are currently living in?  In an ideal world, we would be able to choose the best bits of each culture and its approach to discipline, education, self-esteem and communication strategies.  But in real life, things can get messy, overwhelming, even openly hostile.

Are there any parenting universals?  Is it possible to simultaneously hold different values, even contradictory ones? Does this lead to cynicism or is the the opportunity to create something completely new, a global tradition?

I have borrowed liberally from my own family’s examples and from friends who are in similar situations.  I’ve created a pleasing taxonomy of parenting issues (which I expect will be demolished by the audience, because all taxonomies are reductionist and a little too neat for their own good).  I have lots of stories to share and hope to hear many more and learn from them.  And, in the process, I have realised that the issue is far too complex and there is too much material there for just one talk or one article. 

Uh-oh, I know that ‘ruminating cow’ feeling (as I used to call it in my teens whenever I was about to come up with an idea): I can feel a book coming on!

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International Women’s Day: Equally Celebrated?

There will be many articles and vociferous comments today, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever International Women’s Day, about whether women have indeed achieved true equality, all over the world. I  do not plan to add to those articles (my thoughts on the subject would probably burst out of their blog corset and rearrange themselves into a book, if they could).  Instead, I would like to explore how Womens’ Day is celebrated around the world.

I had no taste for so-called Communist rituals while living in Romania in the 1980’s.  Military parades, Young Pioneers, Labour Day demos were events they would try and force us pupils to attend and that we would try to avoid at all costs.  Women’s Day seemed to my uninformed adolescent mind to be just such a Soviet invention, made worse by the fact that we had to pay homage to the Mother of the Nation, that ’eminent scientist, politician, wife and mother’ Elena Ceausescu.  My parents would make me buy flowers for the female teachers and that was that.

Perhaps it’s a sign of old age.  Although I am not exactly growing nostalgic about International Women’s Day, I am considerably more concerned about it now than in my (more visibly feminist) youth.  And of course, now I am aware that it wasn’t a Communist invention in the first place!

First of all, I think it’s a shame that Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day gets such prominence in the Western Society, while Women’s  Day goes largely unnoticed.  Are we implying that women only add value in their roles as mothers and lovers/spouses, that they can only be defined through others?

Secondly, however hateful and hypocritical the public cult of Elena Ceausescu was, I think it’s significant that, unlike the spouses of political leaders in much of the Western world, she was celebrated not just as a wife and mother, but also as a politican and scientist in her own right.  She was equally applauded for her career and her contribution to society (fake though those claims were, obviously).  While Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Sarkozy and Mrs. Brown had to at least temporarily suspend their careers so that they can more fully support their husbands, that kind of rhetoric was never present in Romania.  Sexist society, where women get wolf-whistled daily and then go home to do all the cooking and housework?  You bet!  But more equality in the job market and career expectations at least.

Thirdly, looking at the official International Women’s Day website, which is designed to bring together information and listings for events around the globe, I notice a huge number of events listed for UK, US, Canada and Australia, which almost seems to contradict my first point.  But if we look closely at the type of events, many of them are quite small initiatives and have been uploaded conscientously by their organisers.  In other countries only 1-2 events are listed (usually organised by the English-speaking community), so I am  not sure this list fully captures the range of global events and thoughts on the topic.

Fourth and final observation, I notice art and music seems to be one of the preferred ways of celebrating this day.  I can’t help pondering if that is because women prefer to express themselves that day (or are perceived to prefer it), or because it is a less controversial way of approaching the subject.  What do you think?

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Here comes the Spring…

… or not, if you are based in the southern hemisphere!  But for us up north, it is the joyous official first day of Spring and this is celebrated  in different countries, in spite of snow and gloomy weather.  Happy St. David’s Day for the Welsh!  Happy Martisor in Romania and Moldova, or Martenitza in Bulgaria!  Other countries may need to wait a little until the Spring Equinox to officially recognise the arrival of Spring…

A few examples of Martisor decorations

Check out some more lovely pictures of Martisoare on this website:

In Romania we also have a tradition called ‘Babele’ or the ‘Old Ladies’.  You pick a day from the 1st to the 9th of March.  Then, the weather on your chosen day is supposed to predict what your whole year will be like: stormy, sunny, depressing…  Well, I am certainly not picking today (cold, grey, miserable)!  No, the truth is I’ve always had the same Baba ever since I was a child.  And no, I’m not telling! 

Besides, if the weather is ghastly that day, I can always console myself with that politically incorrect old Romanian saying: ‘Whoever heard of a beautiful Baba and a good child?’

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Valentine’s Day Around the World

Call me an old grumpy boots, but I don’t like Valentine’s Day.  I don’t see the point of spending a lot of money on overpriced chocolates, flowers and cards, when the best way to show your love is to be thoughtful and helpful the remaining 364 days of the year!

Yet last night I managed not to laugh as my little sons painstakingly wrote and illustrated their very first Valentine’s cards.  I suppose my ‘bah-humbug’ attitude has something to do with the fact that I grew up in countries where this day was never celebrated.  It was a shock to the system to arrive in the UK at the age of 25 and have to comfort grown women crying on my shoulder because they hadn’t received any secret Valentines…

Of course international florists and confectionery companies have tried to expand the tradition worldwide, but some countries are still bravely holding out.  In China, for instance, the day of love falls on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and it’s more geared towards the celebration of daughters and hoping they will find a suitable marriage partner.  In Romania and Bulgaria the 1st of March is celebrated, both as a way of thanking women for their contribution to the family and society, and also to celebrate the arrival of Spring.  In Japan, traditionally it used to be the women who were pampered with gifts on the 14th of March, but in recent years women have started giving gifts to their lovers as well.  When?  Well, conveniently enough, a month earlier, on the 14th of February – reciprocity being, of course, very important in Japanese culture.

Although even the above countries are succumbing somewhat to the commercial phenomenon of Valentine’s Day, Brazil is still steadfastly against it.  They have a ‘love day’ in June, but February is just too busy with carnival to worry about anything else.

Symbol of Sprin

Martisor - symbol of spring

So I’ll neither encourage nor discourage my children to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  After all, they have to fit in with their schoolmates.  But I will subtly let them know it’s not important if you don’t receive any Valentines, and that there are other days in the year too for expressing their feelings.  And they’d better learn to give me a Martisor on the 1st of March, or else…!

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