Cultural Adaption and It’s Setbacks: When Expats Fall on Their Asses

funny parrot

“How much is the parrot” a woman asked. “Wow, ma’m,” uttered the owner, “this is a very expensive parrot, because he speaks both Spanish and English.” “Oh really? Can you get him to speak in both languages?” “Sure you can. Look, it’s quite simple: If you pull the left leg he speaks English.” And he pulled the parrot’s let leg. “Good morning,” said the bird. “And if you pull the right leg like this, he speaks Spanish.” And the parrot said: “Buenos Dias!” At which point the woman asked: “What happens if you pull both of his legs, will he speak Tex-Mex” “Noooo,” answered the parrot. “I will fall on my ass”.  – Mexican-American Folklore by West, J.O 1988

Well, my expat friends. How about you? Are you still 100% made in America, or are you already part Mexican (or wherever it is you come from and wherever it is you moved). Can you switch between acting the way of your original culture versus the way of your host culture? Research says that expats use four different strategies in terms of cultural adaptation. They are:

  • Integration: you identify with both cultures
  • Assimilation: you fully adapt to the mainstream culture where you live
  • Separation: you fully stick with the non-mainstream culture (in that case your own)
  • Marginalizion: people who feel marginalized are the one’s  who fall on their asses. Those who don’t identify with either culture, struggle with the question who they really are and simply feel lost.

But hey, falling on your ass is okay – we all do. Just make sure that you get up at some point. It all depends much on how you see the two cultures you know: are they contradictory, or do they complement each other?

I personally love to think about this is terms of Ying and Yang. The world consists of opposites, but all opposites also complement each other and create a new whole.  So even if it feels like the Asian culture is completely different from my own, German culture, I feel like there is always a way to make both work together.  For sure I personally haven’t reached the point where I can fully adapt to the Asian way, but at the same time I also do not feel like 100% made in Germany anymore.

What was culture again? Well, Benet-Martinez and Michael W. Morris say that culture is a system of creating meaning, “an associative network of ideas, values, beliefs, and knowledge that is shared by individuals within the same culture”.

Well, this is not a new thought. What is new, however, is that cultural knowledge can be separated into different networks of domain-specific knowledge. In other words: culture is less of one complete worldview, but instead it consists different areas of shared knowledge. This means that multicultural people can be oriented more strongly towards their original culture in one area, but at the same time more strongly towards their host culture in another.

Take me, for example. I used to live with an Indonesian host family for the first year when I came to Indonesia. While I liked them a lot, yes, I even see them as part of my own family, I wasn’t able to develop the collective feeling that Indonesian families have, where the parents take care of their children and protect them. I didn’t really want to be protected – I wanted to be autonomous, just like what I learned back home. Until today, individualism is one of the things I value the most.

fitting-in 2

On other dimensions, however, things are different. For instance – I have learned to speak much more indirectly, considering the feelings of the other party, and to be much more flexible in terms of ambiguity. Not everything has to be perfectly planned anymore, like my German nature would tell me. In fact, In this case I have turned into the complete opposite. Almost nothing is planned anymore in my life.

So yes, expats can adapt to the local culture in some ways, but stay more true to their origin in others. Yet the most fascinating fact is this: people who are truly multicultural can be primed to think either way. If you show them a picture of the statue of liberty, American expats will be more likely to act American. But if you show them a picture of a parrot wearing a Mexican Sombrero, they will be more likely to think the Mexican way.

Ehm…that’s nice, but… so what? Well, the amazing thing is that the prime can be just about anything that acts as a cultural symbol. So obviously, somebody who looks Mexican works just fine. So by simply being around Mexican people, an American expat who has developed intercultural competence should be able to adapt their behaviour and think the local way.

Only one question remains: how about you? How much have you adapted to your host culture?

If this topic interests you, I recommend you to read the following journals:

  • Benez-Martinez, Leu, Lee, Morris 2002. Negotiating Biculturalism (special thanks here, their journal inspired me to write this article, including the story of the parrot)
  • Angela-MinhTu Dinh Nguyen 2010. Expatriate Effectiveness and Cultural Intelligence Among Multiculturals and Monoculturals Aborad
  • Hong, Morris, Chiu, Benet-Martinez 2000. Multicultural Minds. A Dynamic Constructivist Approach to Culture and Cognition



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *