It’s fairly common to feel like an alien at times, while living in a foreign country. But now, when I come home to Canada for my regular summer visits, I often feel like a bit of an alien here too. In recent conversations with family and friends at home, I am finding that my opinions and perspectives about both everyday and fundamental issues are differing from theirs, sometimes to the extreme. This has made me stop to consider how my expat life has changed my views on certain issues, and how it may be affecting my various relationships. Being “worldly” and “cultured” are often touted as beneficial, but how does one learn to incorporate such qualities into relationships with those who have lived their entire lives in the land you left?
I have experienced many changes in my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives as a result of my six years in German-speaking Europe, one of which has to do with nudity. Since my posting about my “traumatic” experience in the coed locker room of a wellness center in Davos, Switzerland, I’ve, let’s say . . . loosened up (I’ve since visited another wellness center and partook of the nudity. It wasn’t so bad.). I guess a person can only take so many breast-sightings on the front page of the newspaper, on the beach, in the locker room, etc., until it just starts to lose shock value. As noted in that original posting, in Canada, public nudity is almost unheard of, thus the naked form has become a much bigger deal on this side of the world than it is in nearly all of Europe. It’s not that I return home to visit my mom and wish to whip off my top to sun bathe on her deck, but I find that my opinions on nudity, and subsequently those regarding sex, body image, physical health, even breastfeeding, are sometimes conflicting with those of my peers. These areas, of course, can become very touchy subjects, and so when conversations start to veer into cultural conflict and discomfort, I have had to remember to keep an open mind. Though I may have a different perspective on certain subjects, they are no better or more right than those of anyone else. As expats, we are fortunate to have access to more multifaceted perspectives regarding the world, but being respectful of the ways and views of all others, both home and away, is essential to fostering and maintaining our various relationships.
Another difference in perspective that I often come across when back home, pertains to the simple act of walking. When my husband and I have friends or family over to our house in downtown Montreal, with plans to go out for dinner or a drink, most of them assume we’ll be driving there. After years of living in Europe, however, my husband and I have become accustomed to walking most places, even if it’s a half hour walk away. Friends and family in Canada are not always so keen on this practice.
Additionally, the idea of walking to the grocery store and buying food on almost a daily basis tends to floor most of our peers. This simple custom of regular walking has led to changes in my opinions and beliefs regarding bigger issues, like health and the environment. Again, learning to incorporate my new perspectives into my old relationships takes effort, such as the constant self-reminders that while some may be open to the novelty of trekking to and from the pub, others may not, and so it may be best to call a cab.
Finally, another perspective that I must be ever flexible with as I travel between my home and German-speaking Europe, regards service. As anyone who has traveled to Europe will know, service, whether customer service or, even more so, restaurant service, is very different than in North America. Whereas my friends in Canada expect to have a beverage on their table within two minutes of being seated, my husband and I have grown accustomed to not “being seated” at all. Dining out in German-speaking Europe is much slower and perhaps more relaxed than here at home. On the other hand, the attention paid by servers in North America, I find, is much greater than in Europe, and so you are rarely in need of something for more than a moment. Coping with these two differing customs has led me to question and adopt differing perspectives on areas of social decorum, social status, and the speed of life. So again, when joining friends or family in Canada for a day of shopping, an evening of dining, or a night on the town, I must recall that expectations regarding service are high (and subsequently, so are the tips).
While I feel fortunate to have an increasingly broad and multicultural view of the world as a result of my expat life, in practice this can sometimes be a challenge. Learning to find a balance between my home culture, the worldview I was brought up with, and the German culture and new perspectives I now have, has been an ongoing process. Though I may at times feel like an alien in my own home, and can often feel that with each visit I am differing more and more from my friends and family, the key is to maintain that same open mind at home, that was and remains so crucial for life and relationships overseas.