What No One Understands About Internationals, Culture and Identity
Tl;dr: being an international is not as fun, exciting nor practical as we’re being told it is due to cultural differences, loneliness, and financial fragility.
“International student party”, “international study”, “international bachelor’s”, “international environment”, “international fair”.
The word “international” positively resonates and gives to events and education a fresh outlook and open-minded dimension, which justifies its over-usage.
After all, who can refrain from their feelings of excitement thinking about meeting people their age from Brazil, Canada, Australia, Thailand, South-Africa, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or China?
Unfortunately, the reality behind “international” events, people or experiences, does not appear in practice as it does in theory.
The picture you see (most of the time for university studies or language schools) of three young and handsome people of different ethnic races and gender, smiling and having a good time, does not exist.
The reality hiding behind the word “international” is rather bleak, dark, empty, and lonely.
To understand the reality of internationals, we need to take an academic approach and start by defining what an international person is.
What Is an International?
I must have been in the middle of my studies in Rotterdam when I understood one day (to my surprise) what the reality of an international person was.
An international is someone that left her country because she didn’t find what she was looking for.
Within five seconds, the word international switched from being associated with a happy feeling to a sad one.
An international person is first and foremost a sad story.
It is someone that had to move out because what she had at home did not suit her.
It may have been the culture, the customs or religion, the lack of democracy, and the corruption, the absence of study and work opportunities, war….
I once met a girl that had immigrated to Belgium because the mafia was after her dad in her home country.
As such, there are as many reasons to change countries as there are people that do it.
And guess what: it sucks.
It sucks because you’re taken out of your environment with its codes and practices and get immersed in a brand new environment with different codes and practices that you suddenly have to learn all over again.
Or to be more specified, you don’t, and simply dive deeper into your own culture, the last stable pillar of your life reminding you who you are.
Let me tell you a story.
The Story of the Nepali Girl
As I had started studying for a master’s in Rotterdam that I would quit a week later (but more on that later), I met a girl.
That girl was from Nepal although she had not grown up there.
Her dad was working for a big international organization and the girl and her family had been living in the Netherlands for about 20 years now.
When she turned 18, she went to live two years in Nepal to learn more about her culture and people.
What she experienced there shocked her.
It wasn’t at all like she had been told.
When this girl’s dad left Nepal 20 years earlier to move to the Netherlands, Nepal was how it was at that instant.
The dad took with him his cultural practices and artifacts on his way to the Netherlands and kept them (a) not to lose his own identity and (b) to hold onto cultural landmarks in an environment that was foreign to him.
We all need a minimum of structure.
He transmitted these cultural artifacts and practices to his daughter and kept them unchanged for 20 years.
However, during these 20 years, Nepal evolved as all countries and societies do.
Practices changed. New ones appeared, others were abandoned.
Nepal the dad had left 20 years before was nothing like Nepal his daughter entered 20 years later.
Incapable to identify neither to the Dutch culture she grew up in nor to the local Nepali culture that had changed and was different than the one she had been given, the girl experienced a cultural and identity shock: she did not recognize herself as being part of either community.
She was “culturally stateless” and experienced what is called “acculturation”.
This story opened my eyes to a variety of phenomenons I had experienced myself and led me to think deeper about the cultural complexities surrounding immigration.
People and communities, when exiled from their original land, don’t only conserve their culture from back home because it is the last bit that they own that tells their stories and identities – they dig into it and reinforce them.
When I went to Australia, I suddenly took an interest in the story of my country so that I could tell people where I was from.
That’s how I discovered about myself, about my culture, and about how proud I was to be from Belgium, things I had no clue about.
On the opposite, the people that stay in their own country do not feel this urge to hold onto their culture because they live in it, so the culture changes and evolves.
Similar to the fish wondering what water is, culture becomes visible only when you’re taken out of it.
My friend, upon entering Nepal, felt a very special and unpleasant feeling: the one of not being completely part of what she thought was her own culture while not being completely part of the Dutch culture either.
Psychologically, that can lead to rather severe identity crises.
Growing attention has been dedicated to the political behavior of the diasporas in the elections of their country of origin.
Should I tell you what I think about this, I’d say that I have noticed that diasporas are particularly supportive of strong nationalist parties in their country of origin: living-abroad Poles are strong supporters of the PiS, living-abroad Hungarians support the Fidesz and living-abroad Turks support the AKP.
You’d think that migrant communities supporting nationalism in their country of origin wouldn’t make sense as they are themselves enjoying an open-mindedness they’re voting against at home.
But taking into account my proposal that when one leaves their country, one simultaneously becomes more attached to it, it is all but normal to see them supporting political ideologies affirming the strength of their nation.
I believe this mechanism to be similar to religions, taking Islam as an example. In Europe, migrant Muslim communities went back to wearing traditional clothes including the hijab at the beginning of the 2010s, while inhabitants of Muslim countries, and particularly of traditional Muslim countries (Iran, Saudia Arabia) were pushing to become more liberal with clothing.
“But why do you say that moving to a new country is making people miserable when my friend Lisa lived in Canada for a semester and loved it and wants to go back and live her whole life over there!”
There is a difference between moving somewhere because you can, and moving somewhere because you have to.
While one is voluntary, the other one isn’t.
And teenage international experiences can’t be taken into account for that matter any way because of one defining variable: you know you’ll go home eventually.
You see, most people’s first international experience (aka living in a foreign country and culture for at least 1 month) will be “amazing”.
You eat different food, talk to different people, get (really) drunk in different venues, and if you go to a country where your ethnicity is rare, it’s easier to get laid because being different increases your sexual market value (people want what they don’t have).
BUT, and this is what makes the whole difference, and this is why your friend Lisa is full of sh*t: when people go live in other countries, they don’t live with the local people.
They live with people from their own country.
People’s Intellectual Dishonesty
There is a phenomenon that shocked me at first when I moved to Australia. However, after having observed it on multiple occasions in every multicultural place I have lived in, I discovered this phenomenon was the rule rather than the exception.
People don’t join different cultures when they move abroad.
It is in fact, the opposite. They not only join their own culture but reinforce the importance that their culture occupies in their identities.
As such, “internationals”, the “real” ones, don’t exist.
People that move to new countries, whether for 6 months, 6 years, or their entire lives, don’t hang out with locals when the culture (usually a matter of language) is too different.
They hang out with people from their cultural group.
For example, Erasmus students moving for the semester to, let’s say, Spain will hang out with the people from (a) their own country, (b) their university, (c) other Erasmus students. They won’t make friends with other Spanish people, and hardly with other international people.
The German/French/English/Swiss/Spanish/Greek/ Italian/”insert nationality of your choice” backpackers moving to Australia hang out with (guess who)…the Germans/French/English/Swiss/Spanish/Greeks/Italians.
That’s in fact, and rather ironically, what makes the “international experience” amazing: you’re going through a time of discovery and adventure that you get to share with your people.
As such, the “international” experience of anyone (be it student, workers, or backpackers) will only be as good as the possibilities that they have to find someone from their cultural background.
Sharing a year in Australia with fellow citizens is much better than sharing it with people from another culture/continent.
That’s a paradox, and that is why I argue that there is no such thing as truly open-minded people (people that go with an open mind and a spirit of acceptance to learn about other people’s culture without imposing theirs).
That is therefore what makes most “positive” international experiences…fake: people that enjoy their international experiences are the ones not speaking with any international people at all.
Oh yeah, maybe they’ll have sex with one or two of them, experiences from which they’ll feel entitled to generalize about the sexual capabilities of the entire country’s population, but that will be about it.
When I moved to Australia at 19, I was shocked to see the French dating other French when they had access to 50+ different nationalities. My face when I saw them writing on Facebook about their “Australian experience”…!!
“Come on, ain’t you a bit curious?”, did I think for myself, looking at the cultural clusters.
People may trick themselves into thinking they like the unknown, but in fact, they don’t.
The setting may change (it’s sunnier or colder), the food may be different (actually, I remember my French roommates asking to be sent cheese from France…) but foreigners will always remain within their own culture, within their own “people” and their cultural boundaries.
That’s why when you meet an Italian in a non-Italian city, you meet them all!
They don’t hang out with other cultures, but with theirs, and to their defense, everyone does the same (even though the Southern countries do it more than the Northern countries).
That’s how you end up with culturally and ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods: the Chinese neighborhood, the Turkish neighborhood, the Arabic neighborhood, etc.
So much for cultural diversity…
To push this ignominy a bit further, I’d love to take you on a tour to the touristic destinations of Spain, but let’s be more specific and indicate Arenal, a neighborhood of Palma de Mallorca, a Baleares Island.
In Arenal, the name of the restaurants, the language of the menus, and the vulgar plastic decoration are designed to remind you of…Germany.
Arenal is the German quarter of the Baleares, where German people go party and drink Spanish beer (with a German name?).
Marketers are well aware of this phenomenon, and so set up the scene so the average German can feel at home in Spain: the menus show no sign of paellas, but of good old Schnitzel.
What Being an International Really Looks Like
Let’s now turn ourselves to the people that lived a real international experience (fully immersed in a foreign culture without contact with people from their own culture): yours truly.
We belong to a large group of people that no one ever talks about or caters to because no one really gives a f*ck about who we are.
We are individuals without communities.
We are whether (a) people from small countries that find it difficult to find people from their own country abroad because their country is so small (Belgium, Luxembourg, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, etc) or (b) employees from big companies on a foreign assignment.
Now, I could tell you all about my painful experience of not meeting any Belgians but I won’t because Belgian people were exactly who I did NOT want to meet while being abroad (this persona non grata list has since expanded to a dozen nationalities. Traveling won’t open your mind, it will only kill your desires to meet foreign people once you realize everyone sucks).
Since there is no science of culturally stateless backpackers, let’s have a look at the working people on foreign assignments and see what the science says about them.
What Science Says About Real Internationals
Companies that send their employees on a foreign assignment now screen them to make sure they are culture-compatible or at least, that they have the mental traits that will facilitate integration (flexibility, openness, curiosity, etc).
This practice has been developed after a significant number of employees quit their foreign assignment which ended up being rather costly for companies.
One of the main reasons for quitting was (you guessed it) cultural incompatibility.
If we dig deeper, it gets worse.
A different culture in a new place is at first the equivalent of voluntarily breaking an arm to drive a Lamborghini: it is annoying but you can still adapt and live your life normally until you don’t remember how it was to live with two fully functioning arms while having the advantage of driving a Lamborghini.
However, after living a certain period of time in their foreign country (3 to 4 months), internationals make a new realization: LIFE IS THE SAME, and the Lamborghini is actually a Skoda.
“What? Aurélien, you just said it was different!!”
Yes, culture is.
Life though is the same.
LIFE IS THE SAME EVERYWHERE
That may be crazy, but heh, guess what?
Everyone wakes up in the morning, goes to work, sleeps during the night, and fails to get laid on Saturday night.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in Russia, North-Korea, Greenland, Sierra Leone, Uruguay, or Luxembourg, the workweek is from Monday to Friday and it equally sucks for everybody.
At that stage of their international experience, expats start thinking that if life is the same everywhere, wouldn’t it be more comfortable to just…go home?
And when a traumatic event such as a quarantine hit, expats don’t hesitate too much about leaving.
The Bottom Line
This article was not meant to discourage you to travel or to move to a new country, but to warn you: it just won’t be the amazing experience you’re being sold (in the long term).
Human beings have a surprising capacity to adapt to what is good in life and after you lose the excitement of having traded daily rain for daily sun, you’ll get into a depression over how no one is laughing at your jokes.
To be more scientific, studies have revealed for example that international students (real ones) were MUCH more fragile than regular students due to loneliness, culture, language barrier, financial situation, and absence of a family member.
Being from Belgium and wired to have with France the relationship Indians have with Pakistanis, I thought that only French people only hung out with other French.
Unfortunately, that’s not true.
Everyone does that.
Spanish, Greeks, Italians, Germans, British, Americans, Chinese…hang out with their fellow citizens.
Is it wrong? Well, it depends on what you want.
If you’re pretending to have an international experience, you’re a liar, to yourself and the world.
But if you’re just there to chill and have a good time…
When I went to Colombia, I went there to learn Spanish, so I hung out with Colombians. Was it fun? Yes.
Was I sad to leave? No.
In fact, I was happy and relieved to go home.
Even though the amount of attention I got there was nice and I enjoyed going out and live the Colombian way for three months, many things ultimately bothered me and I wouldn’t trade Colombia for Belgium (in fact, I probably wouldn’t trade any country for Belgium, but that is another story).
Would I have been happier if I had hung out with Belgian people? Maybe I would have had more fun.
But I wasn’t there to have fun.
I was there to discover the culture and learn Spanish.
It was nice, but God, it wasn’t easy.
My roommate was the worst idiot on the planet and I felt lonely many times.
That was a real international experience.
My advice, to conclude this article, would be the following: beware of what you’re being told about international experiences.
There is the “fake” one, hanging out with people from your own culture in a foreign place (fun), and the “real” one: fully immersing yourself by yourself in a new culture (difficult but enlightening).
A real international experience is like sex: everyone is talking about it, but no one is actually doing it.
The “real experience” is what everyone says they want, but people actually doing it is very, very rare because it’s not all fun and game.
It is hard. Really hard.
But it is the one that teaches you the most and that makes you understand that eventually…there is no place like home.