I love peanut butter. At one point, it was a borderline obsession. Each morning I systematically had one piece of toast drenched in Jif and jelly. Originally when I moved to Morocco, the only change in this routine was that it became Jessy’s and jelly. A change in brand, no biggie, I can deal. After two and a half years, Jessy’s peanut butter mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of every grocery store I had access to. The culture had weighed on me and I was six months away from escaping for a time. I refused to give up my mundane breakfast ritual of a single piece of toast. The solution: find a spreadable alternative that is at least bearable and not as bland as butter. That alternative became a french soft cheese called Kiri. A month in, my longing for peanutty goodness dissipated and I found myself just as content with my substitute. And thus began my thoughts on adaptation to cultures much different than my own, determining why some thrive while others wither away into a cycle of cynicism.
1.Open your ears, not your mouth
Many travelers have mastered the art of appearing as though they are listening, when in reality they are eagerly anticipating the moment they can counter with details about their glorious homeland and seasoned experiences. More simply put by Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” If you want to be respected as a foreigner, the best act is to initially just listen to the local people. Hear their stories, hear their frustrations, hear their humor, hear about their way of life. And when they are done speaking, ask them questions to gain even more insight. Consider how good it feels when others seem genuinely interested in your life. Show that interest in others and you will gain exclusive insight and possibly an indispensable local friend.
2. Be brave, even if you look ridiculous in the act of it
It was my first month in Morocco. Basic vocabulary levels in both French and Arabic were still at an all-time low, but I was determined to take advantage of the little corner shops, rather than walking the extra six blocks to the large grocery market. I needed eggs. Simple, right? I say “j’ai besoin” (I need) “des…” and my mind goes blank. I’m hoping it will come to me, but it doesn’t. And so, I take the next most rational step and begin attempting to act it out. Mechanically, my arms bend and fists go to the armpits. It appears I am going the chicken dance route until I remember that I want eggs, not chicken. So, I switch charade strategies and begin making an oval shape with my hands, proceeding to direct the eyes of the unfortunate, conservative muslim man to my rear. I attempt to make it appear that an oval shape is being removed from my heinie. He stood there in front of me thoroughly bemused and unmistakably embarrassed. Suddenly, I spotted the eggs just to his right and shamefully settled for the more elementary strategy of pointing the index finger. He aggressively nodded to confirm comprehension and I left that ten by ten foot shop with both my eggs and the hope that I would never have to face that poor man again. Presently, I could fill thirteen volumes of Reader’s Digest with my humiliating encounters of failed attempts to engage with an unfamiliar society. What is important is that I did not let those cringeworthy moments of discomfort keep me inside, or limit me to shopping only in a place where I can independently take from a shelf without assistance. If you want to feel like you are part of their world, you must engage, even if it strips you of your pride. Engagement will teach you and change you far more than keeping your distance ever would. But, if you are going to engage, be ready to be humbled. I have learned that engagement with the unfamiliar and humility go hand in hand. Over time, you develop courage, because you think to yourself, “Really, what’s one more moment of degradation to add to my book anyway?” And that courage will take you places.
3. Find your activity
Seven months into my move to Casablanca, a few fellow American friends and I were introduced to a surf instructor who proceeded to give us our first Moroccan surf lesson. It was the beginning of so much more than simply a new hobby. Whether it be surfing, crossfit, Yoga, billiards, beach tennis, dancing, crafting or running, there is more than likely a place and people for it. If you are currently without a hobby when moving to a new city, then pick something that interests you and make a hobby out of it. After surfing with that instructor for two years, he had become our Moroccan brother and his surf school had become our second home. Many of the people I spent time with on a regular basis I had met through surfing. It gave me a life outside of the job I initially moved there for, and that life was the one I will look back on with true adoration.
4. Local friends are a must
It is natural to cling to our kind and find it quite the challenge to authentically befriend people of a culture very different from our own. However, without knowing the people, how can you really know the place? I truly believe that a place cannot become dear to your heart unless there are local people that become dear to your heart first. I watched as expat after expat worked right alongside a local for months and yet were still unmistakably uncomfortable when it came to talking about their personal life in their presence. Don’t be afraid to be translucent, letting them know who you are beyond what you don’t enjoy about your job. Often, over time, this transparency will give them the comfort to demonstrate sincerity in return. You must make the effort, even if it appears nothing is initially being reciprocated; keep trying. I know from experience that it takes much time and patience to build friendships with locals that are often accustomed to the fluid movement of expats in and out of their country. Once you have built a relationship of trust, the culture seems to make more sense as a whole and becomes a part of your continually changing self.
5. In your anger, take your shoes off and put theirs on
Shamefully, I admit that time and time again I aggressively roared in my head (and a few times aloud in the artificial safety of a vehicle) “what is wrong with these people?!”, as if to say the culture in and of itself is wrong while my own is right. All cultures have evolved uniquely, and although I am entitled to my perspective of what may or may not be more effective in a society, I am not entitled to pronounce my culture’s methods and ways of life as right and theirs wrong. It is not a question of if you become angry, but rather, when you become angry, stop and think about why they function in this way. The source is often deeply rooted and may even be connected with their educational system. I have discovered that there is beauty to be found, even amidst chaos.
6. Find a few common culture mates to process with
There will come a time when familiarity seems necessary in order to remain sane. Common culture friends are those that are from a place with similar values, social structure and way of thinking. I often relied most heavily on my friends that understood my craving for bacon, Belgian waffles, Vietnamese Pho, free refills, and crosswalks. However, beyond the mutual appreciation of foods or street norms, those friends were also the ones that I began language mixing with. While home for a few weeks last summer, I was in a cafe and casually asked the barista for the “wee fee” passcode. She benevolently replied, “I’m sorry, you need what?” In Morocco, we found it easier to use “bzef” in place of “a lot” and “sans” in place of “without.” It simply became a norm; although, it was a norm that could only be understood by those fellow expat friends. You will need these friends not only while in the foreign country, but also when you return to your own culture and feel as though no one really understands you anymore, both literally and figuratively.