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Category Archives: Living abroad

Different is Different

September 22, 2012

An apple among oranges

During our year in Switzerland, we experienced many differences between things there and what we were used to in America. Everything from the smallest details of daily life like greetings and food to large cultural and value differences like the language and the education system. There were thousands of differences of varying degrees, which is a big part of what makes living abroad such an amazing experience. There is value in opening your mind to different ways of doing things, adapting your own behavior, and eventually understanding the underlying reasons for the differences and making informed decisions.

It is very easy to be judgmental about cultural differences. Some Americans travel abroad and complain about everything. They believe that the good ol’ American way is the best, and that the rest of the world is just wrong. They wonder, “How can people live like that!?” They refuse to change what they wear, or what they eat, not to mention the nuances of how they talk or the language they use. “Doesn’t someone around here speak English?” As you can imagine, it can be somewhat off-putting to the people around them.

Fortunately, not everyone is like that. Many people enjoy experiencing other cultures and do their best to integrate and try different lifestyle choices. We tend to be on the extreme end of this continuum, assuming the best about the cultures we visit. Different is good, right? The food is… fresher. The people are… more loyal. The transportation system is… amazing.

Of course, there are other adjectives, good and bad, that could be used to describe each of those things in Switzerland. (Well, except the transportation system… that really is amazing). And the more we experienced the Swiss culture, the more complex our descriptions became. The food is fresher, more local, pretty bland, and very expensive.

When you have a deeper understanding of something, it is much harder to categorize it as “good” or “bad.” It just is what it is. Different isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different.

Coming home, we had this experience in reverse. Now we see American things with new eyes, and it is easy to jump to judgements about which is better, and I keep reminding myself, “It’s just different.”

Anyone who is married knows this feeling. Integrating into a new family is a lot like integrating into a new culture. It’s amazing how different two families can be! The dynamics, the expectations, the values and beliefs, how they talk, what they eat…. It takes time to embody the ways of another family and understand them fully, or as fully as possible. After 10 years, I love my in-laws like my own family, but it is still different.

Just like I love both Switzerland and America. I wouldn’t want them to be the same. That would be so boring! Then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience differences and challenge ourselves to understand them.

So maybe different is good after all.