In my post Why experiencing culture shock rocks I talked about gaining perspective through travel. We get to know both others and ourselves a little better.

Part of that is being confronted with other people’s perception of our own culture. So I thought I’d share a few things with you that happened to me in this context.

When I was 18, I moved to England for a year. I was living in a house with a bunch of other people and remember a conversation that went more or less like this:

Others: You’re half German? Uuuuuuh…..!
Me: ?
Others: Well, you know…Germans are known for….you know…
Me: ?
Others: Germans are known for porn.
Me: ?!?!?!?

For me, Germany was about my grandparents, big family reunions with great-cousins and great-aunts that talked a lot, laughed a lot and danced a lot. It was about bakeries and an unrivaled choice of breads. It was about my grandma’s cakes. Porn? Not so much.

A year later I moved to California. There, a few people joked about my German side. Apparently, it meant I was tough, you know, because the Nazis were tough about 40 years before I was born.

Me: ?!?!?!?

Of course I was also half French, so there was the French side to consider. The French were sissies.

Me: ?!?!?!?

But not to worry, my tough German side compensated for it, so I really had the best of both worlds.

Me: ?!?!?!?!?!?!?

All of this may be meant in good fun, but whether people are joking or not, it does impact us. We are taken, if only for a moment, outside our own culture to view it through different eyes. It is a split. A step outside ourselves.

So we begin to:

  • see how other people perceive our country
  • realize what aspects of our country are emphasized abroad
  • understand what stereotypes other people may have about us
  • realize that history doesn’t lie in the past but affects people’s perceptions and behavior today

And this in turn leads to a whole mess of questions:

  • how do I perceive other countries?
  • what aspects of this country I’m visiting or living in are emphasized where I come from?
  • obviously, these aspects don’t tell the whole picture, so how skewed are my views of other places?
  • how does my own country’s history and the history of other countries affect my perception of cultures today?

And then of course:

How does all this affect my relationship and identification with my own culture? How does this affect my sense of belonging? What happens to ‘home’?

But that’s part of the deal. You share, you discuss, you learn. They’re emotionally loaded lessons, for sure. But they’re some of the best in the world!