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Leaving the US

You can visit 100 countries but you likely will never consider assimilating to those country’s customs and conventions.

You might learn a few phrases, buy a few curiosities, and gain a better picture of how the locals live.

However, you are visiting on a temporary basis and your mind is not focused on adaptation; it’s focused on entertainment or business.

Most Americans who undertake an emigration are not reluctant to assimilate. If anything, they are conflicted. Their challenge is often times a dichotomy between their work life and social life. You see, Americans are very good at business methodologies and the development of systems. We are much further ahead than many parts of the world. This may be the result of any number of factors, but most importantly, Americans take their work seriously and it shows. This is partially reflected in the way the rest of the world views time off from their work. 

Typically the worst cases of Americans not fitting in seem to be with those on short term work assignments in other countries. To a minority of these Americans and their families, living in another country is treated as an occupational sacrifice and it shows in their actions.

I ran across an American Family that did nothing but complain about how the food was different and that nothing seemed to go well for them. I also noticed that I was among a series of Americans who were befriended by them and soon chose to distance ourselves. It’s not a good idea to start a new friendship based on negative actions and grievances. Your energy will get drained and nothing good will likely come from it. Just keep in mind that if you run across other Americans overseas whom you would not befriend stateside, being in another country shouldn’t change much. Misery loves company as they say

The process of assimilation cannot be learned in a book. It's more of a deliberately acquired taste. A genuine effort must be forthcoming. The best you can hope for is developing your sense of awareness and sensitivity. By doing this you will become more efficient at picking up subtle clues and becoming assimilated. Assimilation ultimately requires just two things from you; time, and a conscientious disposition. The less conscientious you are, the more time it will take.

I’d say on average it takes about 3 years to adequately assimilate to another country. When I say “assimilate”, I do not mean become a fellow countryman, I mean, feel comfortable in your movements in a new country. During those three years its best to defer judgment, remain circumspect, and listen more than you speak. In other words, “act British and think Yiddish”. You will be given the benefit of the doubt should you make a faux pas. But consider it a 3 year training course.

To speed up the process I’ve added some thoughts to consider that may help. Keep in mind that these thoughts are the result of observations I have made over a 10 year period from leaving the US in 2001 and living throughout New Zealand during that time; with a few jaunts over to Australia. They are principles that pretty much translate to any country whose origins trace back to European or British Colonization.

The 5 things you should consider when it comes to cultural assimilation:

1. Understand that you are not being judged as an individual but as an American first.

All of the independent successes and failures of America get factored in to what people's initial impression of you is all about. It’s a subtle form of discrimination, but it’s all that most people have to go by until they get to know you better. Don’t worry about what you may have heard about anti American sentiment. People do separate the government from the people’s actions, and by virtue of you residing in their country, you are viewed initially as someone who wants to be there. It is therefore important that you avoid saying anything negative, however honest you want to be, about the country you are residing in. Imagine a Frenchman stomping out of an Applebee’s in disgust, complaining that the food is pedestrian and bland. Get the picture? The context you are viewed in and the context you may think exists can be entirely different.

For some, this may become the first time in their lives they will have experienced discrimination. People discriminate, and many times they aren’t mean spirited, they just have pre-conceived notions of how you are supposed to be. Don’t take offense, just roll with it.

If you move to a country with a devalued currency to the USD you will be viewed as wealthy and will likely be overcharged to what the locals pay. If you move to a country like Bangladesh where every Tom Dick and Sanjay wants to live in America, you will be viewed with some suspicion as you are going against their migratory tide.

Even though people will ask you for your opinion, what they really want to hear is Americas opinion, at least until they get to know you better. So for the first few years avoid complaining. It will solve nothing and you will only put people off by insulting their nationalistic tendencies.

2. Determine whether you should assimilate in the first place?

In some cases it may be better to avoid the topic altogether. How long are you going to be in your new country? Is the purpose of your move economic or a lifestyle choice? How uncomfortable will assimilation be for you and your family? Do you tend to rub people the wrong way? Some people are so easy going that just being themselves is enough to fit in.

It is important to make the conscious choice on whether or not to assimilate. Once you’ve made this choice, it will act as a reminder whenever you find yourself questioning how to respond in some circumstances. After all, you agreed to fit in, or not.

You should question whether or not you should bother assimilating because in some cases it is an exercise in futility, especially if there are religious overtones to the new country. In these cases it sometimes might just be easier to do your own thing and remain on the periphery of that society.

There sometimes is a misunderstanding with assimilation versus non assimilation. Platitudes such as “When in Rome” seems to cloud this understanding. When in Rome, figure out how to thrive in Rome.

The bottom line is to be you and part of you is the customs and conventions you bring with your emigration. These traits are a refreshing relief to many foreigners because they act as a looking glass into how things from somewhere else are done, especially in the work place where American exceptional-ism is well known.

In western countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the cultural differences are less pronounced and it will be easier to feel at home. However, your peer group will have grown up on slightly different TV the older you are and definitely have different preferences in sport.

In other countries where it is clear that you and even your children will always be viewed as a visitor, you may find that other Americans have enclaves where they feel most comfortable. Panama is a country that comes to mind. I would imagine that countries in East Asia would be similar in this regard.

3. Where are the hidden clues to understanding the culture?

They are mostly in the aesthetics of the country; the art, the music, the language, the entertainment. It’s kind of like 3D handwriting analysis.

Listen to the music and differentiate it from the US, It’s different for a reason. Is the art about adoring the political leadership, celebrating humanity, or separating fools from their money?

What are the ambitions of the young people? How is success defined in their minds?

What is the language and how does that language differ from English in conveying thought? Volumes have been written on this topic and the advice I would add is that if you are moving to a country where English is a second language, the process of assimilation will require an even greater effort than from an English speaking country.

Understand the holidays and what they mean; no more 4th of July, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and MLK Day.

The aesthetics get to the heart of a country’s psyche and as you start to appreciate those within the country you live in, the closer you become to understanding the culture.

4. What are the no go areas

You are the new comer, you haven’t developed any credibility yet, so don’t express views that could get taken the wrong way. Its just best to stay clear of religion, politics, the taste of the food, and any of the country’s piety's to include their sports teams, military, and royalty. Be especially mindful of what the economic drivers are. This is the source of their livelihood and is a touchy subject in many countries.

Wait till you know when its safe to enter the subject. Early on, its best to bite your tongue. And yes, there are no go areas that its just plain common sense not to breach.

Understand the laws before you settle in. In Singapore spitting on the sidewalk is a punishable offense. There are 68 capital offenses in China that make you eligible for the death penalty.

Understand the political structure. Is it a Parlimentarian type? What does this mean to you?

Your political views of Liberal and Conservative hold different connotations in other countries. The far right in some countries is communistic whereas the far left in the US has been viewed this way.

5. How to check your progress

You’ll know you’ve become more assimilated based in a small part, by how you feel and how you notice people treating you. Fewer will ask if you are American or they may even wonder if you are Canadian. You will become less of a curiosity because your body language, movements and motives will resemble theirs. The tone, rhythm and volume of your voice will more closely resemble theirs, or at least you wont be so loud.

You will know you are fully assimilated when you laugh at the jokes. That is the easiest way to determine where you fit on the spectrum. Once you get their sense of humor you understand the culture.

Assimilation is not about agreeing with the habits, customs and conventions of another culture, it is about empathizing with them while maintaining your own identity. It is being able to project where you stand while acknowledging where they stand and maintaining a polite discourse in between.

Those who emigrate have their formative years behind them. It’s futile to think that one can be reprogrammed into another culture. It’s best to bring what you have to the table and acknowledge what the new country has to offer. It’s also no secret that the rest of the world on some level would like to emulate many facets of the American Experience. They too, may be attempting to assimilate.

The following are 10 tips for those in the early stages of a selection process

1. Read Everything As I stated, read everything. The travel guides, the yellow pages, the newspapers which are likely online these days. Read the classifieds for insight into pricing. For some reason, Toyota Pickups cost a mint in New Zealand and Australia but are reasonably priced in the US. While you are at it, listen to the county’s talk radio. You may be surprised what you can find online.

2. Visit more than once and at least in the worst time of the year Its that simple. Visit but don’t go there as a tourist. Stay off the tour buses if you can. All you are going to meet are other American School Teachers from the Mid-West and German Chemical Engineers.

3. Differentiate the economies strengths and weaknesses What drives the economy? It will be different from the US in most cases.

4. Is it young or old country Ever since 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, the world has started to open up. The BRICS came to life and smaller feeder fish country’s as well. Its important to understand that while a country may embrace Capitalism, be mindful that those in their 40’s 50’s and 60’s within that country may have been bought up in the old regime and are of two minds when it comes to free markets. The younger the generation the more likely the legacy of “old school” “old country “ ideals persist.

5. Import Export The worst business idea I saw was of an American here in New Zealand attempting to import organic food to sell to the masses, not realizing that a good portion of the food here is free of many pesticides and is not genetically modified. In addition, He was importing from the US which had a much stronger currency to the NZD at the time. Another was of a Chinese couple who decided to set up a sushi-yes I know Japanese) shop selling to the lunch crown in the center of Auckland. The Chinese couple was assuming the same flow of traffic they considered would exist in the city as dense as Auckland- it didn’t work Don’t take a business that works in one country and assume it will work in another.

6. Where are they on the life cycle Counties like any organism have lifelines and cycles. Generations of growth followed by decay. Look. Japan, in 1975 only about 8% of the population was over the age of 65. That number has tripled and close to a quarter of their country is over 65 years of age. Contrast that with Brazil where today only about 7% of the population is above 65 years of age. What does this all mean to you and your family?

7. Understand who you are What kind of country fits this person? This has more to do with being honest with yourself and figuring out what has motivated this disruption to your life. Call it “having a meeting with yourself”. If you are reacting to circumstances, attempt to understand what this ultimately means. If your motivations are for wealth and opportunity, consider what this means to you and those around you. In short, do a whole lotta self reflection because once you start down this road, you will get to a point along that road where you may question your motives. If those motivations weren’t properly understood you could open up the flood gates of self doubt, undue stress and a myriad of other problems. I advise my clients to treat any migration like a 3 year sentence. Get through the 3 years and then decide if you want to return from where you came. None to date have left New Zealand but its important that they consider it somewhat temporary. It also helps to avoid burning any bridges. You never know if you need one of those upon your return.

8. Avoid other peoples input While its hard enough for you to understand the magnitude of this move, how can someone who has never walked in your shoes understand what's best for you?

9. Accept that there are no systems/don’t rationalize Do not create a checklist of positives and negatives as if the country with the highest ranking wins. This is what those guides and articles of the best country are all about. I know of people who would absolutely thrive in one environment over another based on the type of work they do, however, they may select a country that has beautiful beaches over a good working climate. It think most people get caught up in rationalizing their decisions. Interestingly, the US used to be a perfect place to pick and choose what fits perfectly among the 50 states. I think that has changed over the past decade but if you wanted warmer weather and lower taxes you moved to Florida.

10. look at what you are leaving behind For those of you that are minimalists you’ll find very little left behind, but for those who aren’t or who are tied to holidays and traditions and family gatherings, a move may be a bit more stressful if the country is outside of your time-zone or flight-path. Think of being as close to the hub city that has the best flight back. Early on, try to avoid having to catch two or three flights just to get out of the country if you anticipate a lot of travel. Countries in central and South America offer a closeness in some regards but some areas may require extensive small stops prior to getting to an international Airport. Food will be your biggest change early on. Consider whether the new country’s cuisine can become a staple or are you going to seek alternatives.