“That’s Just Who I Am” – Assimilate Or Be Yourself?

Taking my inspiration from Bravo TV’s The Ladies of London this month. It’s a reality show starring two British women and five Americans, living the high life in London. A bit like the Real Housewives but without the face-slapping and table turnovers,- so far. LOL has sucked me in because of the US versus UK cultural differences and how the Americans are dealing with them, or not. One American (Juliet) is fairly new to the London scene and is portrayed as the “typical” American; constantly in trouble for being too loud and blunt. She can be heard almost every week announcing “That’s just who I am”.

And it got me a-thinking.When you land in a foreign country, how far should you go to assimilate and how much of “just you” should you keep? In Julie’s case, she’s insisting on being her authentic self, whether or not it causes offense. I can see her point, but I can also see where too much authenticity in such situations is inadvisable. In my own expat life, I often hear Brits in America boasting of their refusal to use American words such as “diaper” and “stroller”, and even insist that their children use the British words. Why, for goodness’ sake? We may speak the same language most of the time, but if you know Americans won’t understand “nappy”, why insist on using it? I can understand keeping a little bit of Britain alive in your life, – never giving up your morning cuppa, or always using a knife and fork for example, but when something either offends (as in Julie’s case) or causes confusion, it’s probably time to drop it.

As British blogger Amanda van Mulligen says “As long as upholding or respecting a country’s traditions doesn’t go against your personal values and ethics (women’s rights, violence etc.) then I think expats should accept the differences, even if they don’t carry them out personally. Part of being an expat is adapting. If you choose to live in a different country you have to expect and accept that things are not the same as ‘back home’. “ Amanda has lived in the Netherlands since 2000 and cites the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) controversy as an example. “Many expats find the tradition offensive but I don’t feel it is an expat’s right to jump in and try and change that. Any change must come from within, from those whose tradition it is (which is happening).”

Piers Morgan found out the hard way that trying to force your foreign views on a strongly held cultural belief is not always welcome. Passionate in his anti-gun stance, Morgan lectured his American viewers for months on his evening talk show, literally calling some of his guests “incredibly stupid” when they disagreed with him. Piers mate, you can’t pitch up in a country and start telling the people how to live – unless you want to lose said talk show. Oh, you did, didn’t you?

There are some things you can take a personal stand against however, as Amanda van Mulligen is doing with the infamous Dutch birthday circle. Traumatized as she was by the whole thing, she says “I now avoid them if I can and try and make sure my children don’t have those kind of parties if I have anything to do with it. As a Brit with a Dutch family I try to take Dutch and British culture and traditions and find a middle road through them so my three sons have the best of both worlds – we adapt to honor the traditions of both cultural backgrounds.”

In my house I swear in British English, put out a knife and fork for everyone at meal times, and make sure my kids always say please. (Please note though, I did NOT throw a party when Prince George was born). However, I would never correct an American’s child, insist they use a knife at the table or make fun of their use of the English language (which many, many Brits do). That’s not being your authentic self, that’s just rude.

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Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.


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