Comparing the experience of adjusting to different cultures for an American living abroad
I have a pretty cool job.
Well, I suppose the job itself isn’t all that interesting or special, but the opportunities it affords me are pretty cool, at least.
You see, I work for an organization with offices all over the world and what I do is in demand at basically every location; so, I have had the chance to move around and experience living in a few different places around the world. I spent a couple of years living in Seoul, Korea, a couple of years living near Tokyo, Japan, and I moved to Stuttgart, Germany with my family in the early autumn of 2013.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we moved to Germany from Japan. It’s difficult to articulate. On one hand, because my native U.S. culture has so much more in common historically with European culture than it does with Asian culture, I expected that adjusting to Germany would be much easier than adjusting to Northeast Asia. On the other hand, having experienced fairly significant culture shock in both Korea and Japan almost immediately after arrival, I was expecting at least some level of culture shock when I arrived in Germany.
Since it is difficult to describe the difference in magnitude of culture shock experienced by an American in Asia vs. Europe, here is an attempt to provide a visual example:
See what I mean?
When you get off of the plane in Asia as a native English-speaker (assuming you haven’t first learned to read and write the local language), you are immediately smacked in the face with the reality that you are essentially illiterate. You can’t read anything unless there is a translation made available to you. You can take a guess at what something means if you’ve got some sort of visual aid, but forget about even trying to read the text without years of study.
In continental western Europe everything is written using Roman characters and there are usually some word similarities (e.g., für/for, unter/under, und/and, etc.), which makes getting around a little bit easier, even when you’ve just arrived in the country and can’t really read or speak the language.
The difference in difficulty decoding the meaning of the signs above is a good analogy for the difference in difficulty adjusting to the overall cultural differences. European culture is much closer to American culture than is Japanese or Korean culture, but each present significant challenges for someone with little study or background.
The ways that Northeast Asia differs from the United States are numerous and obvious, but in some ways I found life in Japan and Korea to be much more like America than Europe. For example, in Korea and Japan many businesses are open 7 days per week and many businesses (e.g., convenience stores and restaurants) operate 24 hours per day. The pace of life is generally fast and access to goods and services is fairly consistent.
In continental western Europe almost nothing ever really stays open late and pretty much everything is closed on Sundays (except some bars and restaurants). You can pretty much forget about easily finding late night munchies anywhere in Germany and you can forget about doing pretty much anything even remotely consumer-oriented on Sundays.
Oh, by the way, I would not recommend sharing that observation with your European acquaintances, unless you enjoy experiencing the condescension of others. Many Europeans are very proud that everything is closed on Sundays. They will often quite happily (and smugly) let you know that Europeans have life all figured out and anyone wanting to do anything consumer-oriented on Sundays, or late at night, is pitiful and misled. In my experience, most Europeans believe that Sundays should be exclusively reserved for enjoying nature, dining alfresco, drinking to excess and/or chatting endlessly about how culturally deficient those poor, ignorant Americans can be.
Love of Nature
Don’t get me wrong, in my experience both Japanese and Korean people love nature and do a pretty good job preserving nice green spaces, but I’m not sure anybody protects green spaces to the same extent as they do in Germany.
In Asia housing density is high and private land spaces are small out of necessity. There is limited space for housing because of the population density per square meter, so sprawl is kept to a minimum. In Germany, housing density is also high and private land spaces are also small, but not for the same reasons. Population density is not nearly as high as in Asia, but Germans love their public green spaces and go to great lengths to protect them.
I could prattle on for many hundred more words on this subject, but I’ll save more for another post. It is probably obvious, but I have found that living for a year or two in a place with a different language and different customs than your native culture can be wonderful at times and terrible at others. Adjusting to a new culture can be challenging, but it is also rewarding.
So, which is more difficult (for a dumb American), adjusting to life in Asia or Europe? In my opinion, they’re about equal. For me, adjusting to life in Asia was difficult because it is was so different from my native culture, but adjusting to life in Europe has also been difficult because the similarities have had a way of masking the differences right up until I do something really dumb and embarrassing.