By Marja

One of the themes Zilka Joseph is conveying in her anthology is dealing with experiences of living abroad.  According to my understanding, she describes the challenges of being different and feeling alien in a strange country.  Here I refer to the following citations, among other things:

“Suddenly there’s this vacuum – absolutely nobody in the city knows you,” she recalls. Intensely lonely, she volunteered –.  Three years later they moved to Rochester Hills, where John had a job in the auto industry. Once again, she felt “like an outsider.”  “Very few people looked like me, walked and talked like me,” she recalls of her time in suburban Oakland County. She was stared at in the grocery store, and people asked about the color of her skin.
– Ann Arbor Observer, June 2018

Moreover, Zilka Joseph is writing about living between two cultures.  As the above quoted article puts it, “her poetry often explores how her lives in India and the U.S. intersect.  Settled in America, she still longs for her homeland.”  Yet, she appreciates Ann Arbor’s diversity.

Whenever one moves overseas to another country, one needs to adjust to new surroundings by adapting to a set of cultural codes and social norms.  Sometimes this adjustment period is so tough that it is referred to as culture shock. The degree of “shock” depends on such factors as length and purpose of stay, flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, degree of difference between home and host culture, prior experience abroad and one’s own expectations.  It is particularly hard to accommodate if one does not properly speak the language of one’s new country, if one is missing meaningful activities like work or studies, and if one comes from a very different cultural environment or climate zone. Sometimes the relocation is involuntary so that one cannot keep in touch with one’s family and friends in the native country, which further complicates the situation.

Challenging the Old Paradigm

Let me now shift the focus to my personal experiences and subjective observations from my long expat years in several countries.  Whenever I encountered talks or concrete efforts to help foreign residents adapt to a new culture, those tip lists and country introductions focused on typical greetings & salutes, food & drink, folklore music, historic heritage sites, celebration of religious or national festivals, rhythm of life (e.g. degree of punctuality) and other lifestyle aspects.  Adaptable settlers were advised to be open-minded, curious, respectful, polite and patient.

The latent assumption underlying this kind of discourse seems to rest on a concept that treats national or ethnic cultures as relatively homogenous, uniform monoliths where people are sharing the same traits, habits, likings, ideals and collective memories, which can be derived from their background.  Respectively, you may hear similar stereotypic expressions among the national media addressing its native citizens. To cite an example, Finnish TV journalists tend to generalize feelings and preferences of the Finns by making claims as follows: “The Finnish people are devastated by the Lion’s (national team) defeat in ice hockey.” “The Finnish people love tango and sauna.”  Such all-inclusive generalizations sound most annoying to those Finns who care about neither ice hockey nor tango.

It is commonly acknowledged that the age of the homogenous uniform cultures is gone, belonging to the past.  Still in the 1960-70s, people used to watch the same TV shows, read the same books and spend their holidays in the same places (at least in small nation states), but that is no longer the case.  In the current mosaic-like society, the deepening specialization due to economic complexity causes splintering into numerous subcultures. Media has accordingly popularized the notion of the social ‘bubble’.  At the same time, contemporary research is pointing out how many traditional national symbols are in fact relatively recent artifacts which were heavily mixed with foreign influences.

If we cannot define any comprehensive culture of a country, how could we face a culture shock?  Isn’t it logically inconsistent? Instead, a bubble shock is more likely to occur. I aim to question the meaningfulness of unilaterally talking about cultural collisions at an individual level – at least if you move between advanced industrialized countries in the 2010s.  I am not rejecting them categorially but, instead, trying to show why today’s complex reality contains further dimensions to be taken into consideration. Simplistic, outdated statements no longer work for everyone! Yet, I admit willingly that my point of view is likewise limited, partial and subjectively biased.

From Stereotypes to New Paradoxes and Dilemmas

My friends, family members and I have all worked in large multi-national organizations employing a number of different nationalities.  However, one hardly notices this international work environment since the employees are sharing the same professional standards, and they are identifying with the common goals.  Ethnic diversity is no issue while colleagues have similar perceptions of their work roles, and they are devoted to their pertinent projects, technologies, etc. rather than to external identity questions.

Industry-academia cooperation, public-private partnerships, as well as interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial collaboration are fashionable buzzwords since the 1990s.  These strategies are actively promoted by supranational organizations, governments, regional authorities, universities and also by many firms. Although their visions appear most advisable on paper, the implementation often turns out to be slow, cumbersome, inefficient and frustrating.  It takes a lot of time to clarify the implicit premises and the contradictory objectives of the various parties, as well as to coordinate the different ways of working and thinking until all project participants are brought on to the same page. Communication among professionals who approach the given problem from divergent angles is tricky and time consuming despite their wish to cooperate.

When a street-smart, city girl moves outside the metropolitan area within her own native country, she may face a corresponding culture/bubble shock in the countryside as if she had relocated abroad.  Especially if the city girl has always worked in a white-collar office environment where most employees have higher education, getting along with the locals may bring surprises. This observation is congruent with the accentuation of the rural–urban division in politics.

The message of the three illustrations above maintains that the factors causing differentiation are highly complex and cannot be explained by a single variable, such as ethnicity or national culture.  The last two examples pinpoint that people are indeed different, which should not be considered problematic but, by contrast, natural. When one goes down to individuals’ fundamental basic needs, portrayed by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is clear that all human beings appear alike.  However, when one is dealing with the need for self-actualization and transcendence at the top of the pyramid, the variation is much greater, which can be conceived in everyday life.

A seed for intolerance can be planted whenever a bubble member claims to represent everyone, assuming that everyone is alike and thus demanding like-mindedness with him/her or taking it for granted.  “Everyone” must love tango, ice hockey, sauna, gardening, or whatever. I also find it arrogant if a person draws conclusions for another person in matters of taste. When I was looking for a furnished flat in Europe in the past, some realtors believed to influence my decision by saying: “This is a beautiful flat! You will LOVE to live here!”  The more serious challenge concerns the agenda setting. Who will control and determine the topics of discussion?

As for an average liberal, it is more difficult to tolerate a value cleavage which reflects interpersonal differences in interests, worldviews, ideological beliefs or mental models of thought than to disclaim racism and religious intolerance.  It is easy to point finger at political extremists and express moral disapproval towards them from a distance. The real acid test is nevertheless how you behave when you come into face-to-face conflict with a fellow human whose opinions or claims annoy or confuse you.  What is your reaction? The irritating person probably looks like you and speaks the same language although her/his ideas or proposals sound like “Greek to you” (foreign/ strange/inconceivable). Will you try to silence the dissident voices by sweeping them under the carpet or by attacking them directly?  Or will you listen to them constructively and try to understand them, hoping to find a compromise?

The plea for diversity, which absolutely deserves to be supported, should not overshadow classic pluralism.  Pluralism denotes a diversity of views and stands rather than a single approach. To my mind, our narrow-minded era suffers from a shortage of pluralism.  The factors undermining pluralism are related to such phenomena as bubble filters (cf. cognitive dissonance), the prevalence of social media, the decay of interactive conversation, and the degeneration of humanism.  Egocentric monologues, purposeful misunderstanding, victimization and getting offended by any deviating opinions are effective methods of killing sound debates. When the common ground of general education is missing and knowledge is not sufficiently appreciated, banal clichés and shallow stereotypes are dominating the discussion. Paradoxically, the level of formal education is higher than ever before but still critical observers are talking about the stultification of society.  The present Zeitgeist (i.e. spirit of the age) favors physicality over intellectualism, as well as fast solutions over in-depth contemplation.  The business slogan “keep it short and simple” (KISS) is ruling over other fields, as well.

Misfit with Your Bubble or the Entire Era?

As a consequence, a sense of abandonment, alienation and isolation can reach anyone anywhere irrespective of one’s place of residence in case the good old ‘melting pot’ is no longer boiling.  If one relocates, one will not just enter a country or a region but also a landscape of exclusive bubbles. It is not necessarily the conventional national or regional context that makes the newcomer an outsider but it is the one-eyed system of restrictive bubbles where only one truth prevails in each of them.  It depends on luck whether one immediately arrives in a comfortable, inviting community, like Zilka Joseph did in Ann Arbor. Zilka Joseph found a sense of belonging in Ann Arbor’s writing community. Respectively, International Neighbors (IN) members have found a wonderful safe haven at International Neighbors.

Assimilation and identification are nowadays much more diverse, abstract and intangible than in the past.  They rely on one’s preferential choices as much as one’s ancestry, gender and social position. To put it succinctly:

  • I may feel connected with other museum visitors who share the same enthusiasm as I do.  While I am enjoying a great exhibition together with my co-attendees, I am simultaneously aware that the random man-in-the-street is not likely to understand this passion of ours.    
  • Accordingly, I develop a tribal in-group feeling with other listeners of my favorite radio program, knowing that it appeals to a marginal niche segment only.  It is both exciting and comforting to think that there are people like me even though nobody in my neighborhood is keen on those themes.
  • Furthermore, 55-year old family fathers may keep on associating with the rock music genres of their youth, which they are demonstrating through their habits.  They still wear juvenile clothes typical to that subculture, cut the hair according to their idols, and drive appropriate cars or motor bikes as part of their lifestyle.  They regularly meet other like-minded fans in rock festivals and concerts.

What if you are a non-conformist who feels like home nowhere but, instead, are relating to James Dean in the movie, Rebel Without a Cause?  A possible hypothesis could be that you are alien to this era.  That is to say, your values, your aspirations or your socialization are in conflict with the mainstream tendencies characteristic to the prevailing Zeitgeist.  If you keep on looking resiliently, one day, you will hopefully detect the suitable bubble where you fit in. Or maybe you will work on changing the world!  Either way, don’t let anyone suffocate you by telling you that your views are automatically wrong simply because they are different.