“I changed the way I spoke so I could fit in.”
One part because of the otherness. Ninety nine parts because of the cruelty. It’s a familiar rhetoric for expats, born out of this desire to be socially accepted as quickly as possible by those around them in a foreign country. Yet, perhaps almost simultaneously, they face a very similar kind of pressure back home from their family and friends who urge them to, “never forget where you come from.”
The biggest caveat to international relocation, then, is this fear of losing your identity as you explore. This may be why so many cities around the world have Chinatowns, multicultural festivals, and hipster-like creative spaces. Nevertheless, the irony is that these are starkly juxtaposed with vernacular architecture and deeply entrenched cultural norms designed to remind expats that they’ll never really be ‘local’.
However, Petr believes that there’s a subtle difference between integrating and assimilating into your environment. Whereas assimilation is defined as adopting the mannerisms of another culture and fully becoming part of a different society, integration is better known as incorporating individuals from various groups into a society by treating them as equals.
I have to accept these cultural shocks for what they are, and try to learn from them. It’s being curious, not judgemental.
Last week, we had the chance to sit down with Petr to try to make sense of this dilemma presented by international relocation. It’s learning how to walk a tightrope, with your legs tied together. He shared with us how it’s important to respect the inherent dissimilarities across cultures while accepting that ours aren’t always right, to discover novel ways of doing things while retaining a sense of integrity, and to connect with people who share disparate perspectives from us while remaining firmly anchored to our core values.
At the end of the day, change is inevitable. So, staying true to your roots may be near impossible; staying true to yourself, on the flip side, is always possible.
Moovaz: Hey Petr, really appreciate you joining us. Let’s dive right into it.
You’ve got such a unique relocation journey. Being someone who’s moved so frequently, what’s it like making friends?
Petr: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Initially when I moved to San Francisco, making new friends was fairly difficult, given I came from a vastly different culture and language background that pertained to Russia.
However, upon relocating to Sydney, Australia, and eventually Denver, the US, I found that it becomes easier to adapt to new environments every single time because I’ve learned to diversify my approach to people based on my internationally aware background.
While many have challenged my opinions, I’ve grown to treat these as exciting moments to actually listen to what people have to say. This is how I expose myself to fresh ideas and question what I think I know.
In addition, I noticed that people are often fascinated by my global past, which makes it so much easier to relate to their aspirations of travel or cultural immersion (and vice versa for myself).
Moovaz: That’s such a humble approach. Apart of this, how did you deal with the cultural shock of moving to multiple countries?
Petr: That one’s always tough. Just as suspected, moving from Russia to the United States of America was quite a culture shock indeed, given that they are almost polar opposites in terms of history, culture, and societal standards.
Aside from the ongoing political tensions between the two countries, I noticed minor discrepancies between the people and their attitudes, where Americans would always smile and attempt to be as nice as possible (even if it was noticeably ‘fake’), as well as exercise their consumer privileges, where the “customer is always right” (something that isn’t very obvious in Russia).
Despite this, I found that the best way to adapt to this cultural transition was to observe American behavioural patterns and adapt only some of them into my own behaviour, without entirely omitting the Russian traits that I have gained throughout my childhood.
Ultimately, I just have to accept these ‘culture shocks’ for what they are, and try to learn from them. What really helped me was simply being curious, and not judgemental. I’ve come to understand that these differences aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just… well, different.
Be kinder to yourself. You don’t have to like everything.
Moovaz: That takes a lot of empathy, which is always hard to come across. In what other ways did you find it challenging to adapt when relocating, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Petr: Of course, it took a great deal of practice on my part to develop an empathetic mindset like that, and even more patience. I think it’s too easy to brush aside people’s culture as irrelevant. But when we take the time to learn about ‘how they do things around here’, we will stumble upon pleasant surprises more often than not.
To answer your question, usually, each city would have minor local differences that were at first confronting and odd, but often would passively integrate into my character without me noticing. For example, when I moved to Sydney, the dialect and vocabulary differences were pushing me out of my comfort zone, since my accent, intonation, and word choice were noticeably that of an outsider.
In a way, I had to purposely change the way I talked in order to fit into my peer groups, which initially tarnished my cultural autonomy. However, this eventually rewarded me with greater social integration/acceptance and helped me meet some of my closest friends to this day. So no, this isn’t something I regret, but rather feel very grateful for.
Today, I can code switch easily, so never feel like a foreigner in my own home country or in the country of others.
Moovaz: That’s really great. Seems like you’re an expert when it comes to these kinds of stuff. So what’s one advice you can give others who are about to move to a new city?
Petr: Right off the top of my head, while you adjust to your new environment and adapt to the local culture, do not do so at the cost of your personal culture and your individual history.
Relocation isn’t just about having this amazing time; it’s about learning how to step out of your comfort zone, and being comfortable with it.
It’s very convenient to forget not so much where you come from as what your core values and traditions are. I think if you can manage to just grasp little cultural snippets of each country you’ve lived in or visited, it’ll definitely make you a diversified and globally aware individual. And this, by the way, is something a lot of people look up to and respect (which, in turn, can make adapting to multiple environments even easier in the future).
Specifically, when I moved to San Francisco from Moscow, I tried my best to not forget myself (who I stand for and what I believe to be right) and retain my foreign individuality, which paid off significantly in my schooling career, as well as social acceptance later on.
Moovaz: Losing yourself or losing your identity is a frightening thought. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel excited for all the experiences that’ll await you in your new city.
On this note, were there any misconceptions you had when it came to relocating? What’s a better perspective to have instead?
Petr: I feel that the news and social media outlets often shape our perception of a given county or city in a very positive light, and therefore portray relocation as something glamorous. They sensationalize all the diverse people you’ll meet, the cool places you’ll discover, and the unique lifestyle you’ll experience.
This significantly raises our expectations to an unrealistic territory. And when our expectations aren’t met (and they most likely won’t be), we feel like we’re short-changed. But I think we’re missing the point here. Relocation isn’t just about having this amazing time; it’s about learning how to step out of your comfort zone, and being comfortable with it. What matters, then, is knowing how to deal with adversity and making the most out of your situation.
In this way, we’re able to truly enjoy ourselves, because our happiness isn’t grounded on whether we’ll have this perfect time in a new city, but rather on the lessons we learn.
So, I would suggest prioritizing the perspectives of a new country which are shaped by the feedback from the local residents or people who have actually lived there, as opposed to immediately believing anything you might read or see on the Internet (Instagram posts, CNN, Snapchat Discover Stories, etc.)
[Relocation] isn’t something I regret, but rather feel very grateful for.
Moovaz: To wrap up, how would you reassure someone who’s extremely opposed/afraid of moving?
Petr: I would say that the best way of avoiding regret of relocation is to have an open and accepting mindset. It’s knowing that you’re going to be surrounded by a new culture, people, and politics. A crucial part of this mindset is understanding that you do not have to like everything about the location or do everything exactly as the locals do. Be kinder to yourself.
Retaining a sense of cultural autonomy will help maintain your self-confidence and re-affirm your sense of identity within a foreign environment. This, I like to believe, allows you to feel less ‘forced’ to accept the new way of life, which subsequently removes the fear of an unfamiliar lifestyle.
Moovaz: That’s amazing! Thank you for your time, Petr. I think we’ve learned so much from this conversation.
Petr: You’re most welcome! Glad that sharing my story was helpful.
This article is part of an ongoing project to share relocation narratives. We are collating first-hand accounts of expats’ relocation experiences in the hopes that it will provide you with valuable tips.
You can play your part in this story by sharing a page from your life with us. Reach out to us today
Other stories in this series: