Does Living Overseas Mean Freedom?

For a lot of Germans, Australia is the country of choice when it comes to moving overseas. The question is, why Australia? And, yes, you’ve probably already guessed the answer: its the perceived freedom. They associate life in Australia with backpacking, exploring the vastness of the land, adventure, independence from their social pressures back home, and perhaps a bit of escape from tall the rules and regulations as well.

The search for freedom is probably one of the most common reasons why people choose to leave their country.

That is especially interesting when their country of origin is a very strict and rule-based country. Germany can be an example for this, where you are expected to follow exactly the path that society has laid out for you. Go to university, get a good job, marry, buy a house, and live your life according to the conventional way. Now, I know that this is the case for most countries, but Germany is particularly strict when it comes to this. Small gaps in your CV can be a huge problem for potential employers. In many Anglo-Saxon countries, this is much less the case.

If you grow up this way, then it is natural that a certain number of the people wants to have an escape from this situation, at least for a while. Parents, friends, friends of family – they all have much less influence on your life if they are only dimly aware of what you are up to in the country of your choice.

Escaping  social pressures can be a huge relief for many expatriates

For people from highly collectivistic and homogenous countries like Japan, this can be an extremely shocking experience. The freedom to express their individuality- at least to a degree – is a new experience to them. Whether the person takes this in a positive- or in a negative way really depends on his or her personality and the environment in which he or she grew up.

Scientists distinguish between the independent self, and the interdependent self. When you are defined by an independent self, you are often expressing your individuality. When you have an interdependent self, however, your self merges with one larger entity. What this means is that decisions are made within a larger group than you – whether it is your family, your peer circle, or an organization you belong to.

A simple example for this would be between mother and child. In many western countries, mothers want their children to make their own choices about what to eat. Researchers have asked children what they would like to eat, and children have made choices for themselves. Chinese children, however, have grown up learning that their mother knows what is best for them, meaning that she is the one making the choice. When they were then presented with several options of what to eat by the researchers, they were much more likely not to have a clear answer to the question.

Often, this leads to wrong impressions by other people. My beloved partner, for instance, comes from Iran, which is a more collectivistic society as well. She said to me once that in her view, Australian mothers often don’t seem to take care of their children well. What I’ve realized is this: Iranian mothers will always stay close to their children and take close care of them. They are showing their interdependence. Australian mothers, on the other hand, want their children to be more independent and thus to explore their surroundings on their own much more. Thus, the values with which they are approaching their parenting is completely different.

Seeing this, is it really true then that we as expatriates can gain more freedom than if we were staying in our countries of origin?

The answer is: it depends. On the one hand, it is true that we are escaping some of the pressures that we are exposed to if we were staying ‘home’. And, since we are foreigners in our country of choice, people expect us to act foreign. What this means is that although we are entering a new culture with its own expectations of us as members of this society, they are not quite expecting us to follow the norms and values as much compared to the locals.

On the other hand, however, if we do not follow local norms and values very closely, and if we do not slowly change our behavior accordingly, we will never be appreciated as much by the locals. To what degree this is the case depends on how rule-based, collective, and homogeneous a society is, though. Japanese will probably expect you to conform to their rules much more than the Australians will. Again, that is why so many Germans choose Australia as the destined land.

So what does all this mean for you and me? How should we behave in order to remain balanced?

You and me, we all have to negotiate for ourselves to what degree we would like to adapt to local culture and norms, and to what degree we would like to act according to the values and beliefs of our country of origin. It is important here that we remain a balance that maintains our peace of mind. We want to stay true to ourselves, but we also want to appreciate the culture we are moving to. If not, at least, in order to conform the least to the country’s expectations.

Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to make this decision for yourself:

  • What are some of my values that are absolutely essential to my identity and that I will not compromise on?
  • What are the positive values, norms, and habits of my host culture that I would like to make part of my identity?
  • What are some of the negative aspects of my host culture that I absolutely do not want to take over for myself?
  • What are some essential beliefs of my host culture, which I need to conform to in order to become an accepted member of that society?
  • Do I feel a sense of loosing myself? If yes, where does this come from? What are the values that I sense are in conflict?

I hope some of these questions can really make you think carefully about your own situation. It would also be great to hear some of your thoughts about your own experiences. Does living overseas mean freedom to you? Do you feel pressure to conform to the values of the country of your choice? How do you maintain a balance between your own values, and the values of the host society?

Please do share your thoughts in the comments!


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