by Erin Elaine
This is the latest in my series regarding advice for living abroad. Past entries include: Language
Keep in mind I’ve only lived abroad in one country – Spain. My advice will be colored by that experience, but I think in general, living abroad is about getting outside your comfort zone, so this advice should apply regardless of where you’re moving.
What do I mean by “Culture is all in the details”? By this I mean, culture is so much more than what you read about in books. This may sound pretty obvious. But for most people in the world, who haven’t experienced a culture different from their own, they can’t even understand what I mean. You have only experienced other cultures through books, so how can you grasp the intricacies?
Take food, for example. You might know that the typical dishes in Spain are paella, tortilla, tapas, olives, jamón, etc. You might know that Spanish people eat tiny breakfasts, huge lunches, and small dinners. You might know that they eat breakfast at 11am, lunch from 2-4pm, and dinner from 8-10pm. You might know all this and more, but there are no details. There are no personal experiences to color your understanding. For instance, the word sobremesa means to sit around the table and have a conversation with the people you’ve just shared a meal with. In English we don’t even have a word for this. Another example is the way Spanish people will sit at a table around 8pm and just order drinks for an hour, to save their table until they’re ready to order dinner at 9pm. Then they’ll eat from 9 to 10, while talking. Then they’ll continue to sit and talk until 11pm or later. Truly experiencing this, being a part of it, is so much different than simply knowing about it. Another cultural detail is the way people perceive the food of their own country. Spanish people absolutely love Spanish food. They will eat it 365 days a year. In the USA you can find a good selection of foreign food, but it’s rarer in Spain because the demand simply isn’t there. On the other hand, if you go to Berlin, they don’t eat traditional German food very often, they enjoy foreign food. But go to Bavaria, in the south, and traditional German food is everywhere. Spaniards also think differently about spices. They hate spicy foods, they will go hungry rather than eating spicy food. Most of them won’t even eat the bland Mexican food that is here, because they perceive it as spicy. If a Spaniard were to visit Thailand or Korea, they would be so shocked by the level of spices that they would probably eat nothing but steamed rice the entire time. Another cultural difference is related to the types of food that are available in a place. Olives are cheap here, so they are a common ingredient. You can also find figs, which I had never eaten fresh until I came here. But there aren’t very many berries, which is different from the PNW where I grew up. There are places in the world where insect larvae are regularly eaten. There are places in the world where people have never seen an apple before, because they can’t grow in that climate and the country is too poor to import them. Availability of food definitely affects culture. Last year, when I told people I was making a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, I was asked questions such as “It’s a dessert, right?” “Is it sweet?” “Why pumpkin?” or just blank stares and nodding. That’s what I mean by “culture is in the details”.
Now that I’ve bored you to death talking about food, how does this connect?
What I mean is, when you move abroad, you really have to pay attention to the details. Really try to learn about the deep roots of culture. Why do people eat lunch so late? How do people feel about having so many religion-based holidays in a country that is slowly becoming less religious? How do people treat their elders? How do people greet friends? How do people greet strangers? What words exist in the native language that don’t exist in English? What are their attitudes towards health care, education, maternity leave, abortion, corruption, etc? Have conversations with local people. Learn about their lives and their passions and their families. You will learn more about the culture from this than from visiting monuments and statues.
Family is another big one that’s all in the details. Obviously I’m not from Spain so these are only my observations as an outsider. In general, people here feel an incredibly strong tie to the place they grew up. Many people have no desire to leave the city they’ve lived in their whole lives. It’s common to live with one’s parents until the age of 30 or whenever you get married. And when your parents are elderly, they move back in with you. Teenage students will talk about visiting “my village” over the weekend, which is often a 1-2 hour drive away. When I ask them when they moved from their village to Getafe (where they attend school) they say they’ve always lived in Getafe. But they have such a strong connection with the place their parents grew up in, that they refer to it as “my” village. That is something you can’t learn from a book or from a museum. You have to have conversations with people to discover these intricacies. I’m sure there are countless more examples just on the topic of family. This is what culture is all about.
So, my advice is to try to absorb the details of culture. It’s not really something you can learn. You absorb it, given enough time and enough conversations. It will help you feel more at home when you live abroad. Being able to understand the local people a little better will not only give you a deeper understanding of the place you’re living, but it may also make you fall in love with it.