Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, January 31, 2011

Alien

A very old and dear friend of mine (American) once said to me, over too many glasses of red wine, “I don’t like you very much when you speak French.”  When I asked her what she meant, she replied that she thought I had changed and had become someone completely alien to her.
Alien.  I was thoroughly shaken by that comment.  Is this what happens to someone who has lived a very long time outside of his or her culture of origin? Is there a part of us that becomes odd and unrecognizable to our oldest friends and family as we become more and more competent in the ways of our host culture?  Is there something “foreign” in our outlook and our mannerisms that disturbs our oldest friends and family?
To take it one step further, did something very fundamental change in our personalities when we crossed over into another culture and language?  I am not talking about surface assimilation and I am not talking about getting over culture shock.
This is the question I ask myself:  if I had stayed in the US and not moved to France in my early 20’s, would I be today, at 45, fundamentally the same person with the same character and personality?  Are the changes that come with integration/assimilation so deep that whatever it is that makes me an individual is someone radically different from the hypothetical person I would have been if I stayed home?
It is impossible to test this hypothesis. I did leave and I could not have spent the last 20 years in two places.  But here are a few ideas that I play with.
Deep assimilation into another reality is a radical destruction of the old persona and the gradual reconstruction of a new one that is more appropriate to the context.  Does one ever consciously think that, no, here I draw the line and I will not change?  Yes.  I think this is why immigrants hold fast to their religious beliefs or, in my case, a visceral attachment to the concept of “free speech”.   
Wherever you draw the line, the whole process is very destabilizing to those of us who live it.  It makes me question every single damn day, “What am I?" There are moments I crave the ignorance of those who have never ever left home.  Where is my center?  Where is the part of me that will never change wherever I am?  Every person an individual, says my North American upbringing.  But how unique is the individual molded by culture?
We adapt so well.  It is frightening how quickly we change to suit the circumstances.  
And how we become strangers to our compatriots.
“...the image of a constant human nature independent of time, place, and circumstance, of study and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is and what he believes that it is inseparable from them... Whatever modern anthropology asserts - and it seems to have asserted almost everything at one time or another - it is firm in the conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist.”

Clifford Geertz
The Interpretation of Cultures

6 comments:

med said...

Alien?

Did I really change after more than 5 years living in Germany? I think I did. I think I would be a different person if I didn't go there, well slightly different. Because I think that the core of my person and my deep character didn't really change. Besides, I'm not sure if one can ever change in the deepest essence and soul. It seems that the actual Character is something written somewhere and you can't get rid of it, just like the fact of beeing blonde or having green eyes :)
More seriously, changes accure and happen, but in my opinion they remain peripherical. Actually my journey outside my own culture made actually learn more about myself, and about who I really am. I became more aware of the good things and the bad things about my own culture, because it is very difficult to be critical toward a system if you're inside of it. I mentioned before the language ambiguity in my country, I only became aware of when I lived abroad. On the other, the more time went by in Germany, the more peripherical attributes and ways of thinking from my culture were shut down, so that I met myself. I was in peace. When i came back to my country few months ago, a reverse process was taking place. I was confronted to my culture, but this time I had a critical position. Things that appeared to be natural before, were revealed to me as biaised behaviour. I took my distance to certain types of behaviour, mainly due to mediteranean/arabic culture. I also saw objectively the positive side of it, and things that are worth holding on to.
A very strange thing happend though, few weeks after my arrival, childhood experiences came back to me. Mainly negative ones. I don't know why. I think I'm done now with this remembrance phase...

Pascal said...

From 60 to 75% of what we are comes from genes, 15-20% from chance & relationship, 10% from upbringing says Steven Pinker, Psychologist and Harvard College Professor.
25.000 genes and an undetermined number of memes inside the grey substance create your conscience, which ask : ‘what am I ?’

I think that whatever you live in your life, you have a destiny (that you may feel or not) and except tragedy, you have to go. Genes are stronger than anything else !
Don’t you think ?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That's a very good point, Med, that when you stepped out of your own culture you were able to take a more objective view of your own. And you see both positive and negative things. Just to be able to do that kind of analysis makes it all worthwhile. I've noticed though that sometimes people in your own culture feel uneasy when you talk about your experiences. They don't want to hear it especially if they feel that you are being critical. That can be very lonely and make the process of re-adapting to home all the more difficult. How long ago did you come back home? How long did it take you to re-adapt to Morocco?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Pascal, I like the idea of having a destiny. Makes me feel less like a piece of wood floating in the middle of a moving river :-)

Just after I wrote this post I stumbled upon someone I think has done some very interesting work in this field. Professor Andrew Molinsky of Brandeis studies the psychological side of cultural integration. There is a very good article posted on the dialogin site (see "Links We Like")

It's called "Cross-Cultural Code Switching: the psychological challenges of adapting behaviour in foreign cultural interactions." Really interesting read.

We all seemed to wired for culture in the same way we are wired for language. It's so strange that we learn both so effortlessly the first time around and we struggle so mightily later on. There must be more going on than we think. Genes? Yes, that must be part of it.

med said...

@Victoria
I came back home about 6 months ago, and i was preparing myself for this return long time ago. I was aware of the problems that I may encounter, and the main differences between the 2 cultures. I also knew the things that changed in me and the possible conflicts that may appear. When i came back, I decided to be as detached as possible, and not to interat emotionaly with the awkward behaviour or communication that we have here. The difference between now and before, is that I am able to identify what's wrong, if the person in front of me is enough openminded to hear my reserves then I'd make my point. If not, then it is useless to go into some "dialogue de sourds". that's it. I consider myself sometimes like a scientific observer who would watch the society like he would do if he observed a natural phenomenon. It's hard not get emotionaly involved, but it's the way I found so I don't go crazy :)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I understand what you're saying about going crazy and stepping back, Mehd.

I like to think of myself as an amateur anthropologist (whether it is another culture or my own). If you can strip some of the emotion out of it and take on the role of "observer" it helps to maintain some distance between you and your subject.

I had to laugh at your description of the "dialogue de sourds". I have regretted more than once being trapped in such a discussion. Almost always ends badly...