When you move to a new place, it’s all about discovering your new home.
Whether it be the best dishes, the cutest little coffee shop, or finding out where all the locals hang; finding your place in your new home is essential. But what if what you’re used to is completely different? Do you try to blend in or do you stick to what you’re used to and stick out? Everything from your clothes to your body language can easily differentiate you from the rest as an expat. But is this a bad thing? Or does it prioritize as a portion of your self-identity?
When I first moved to Italy, it was August. It was hot and it was humid. Doing as I had always done, I broke out my sundresses, picked out my favorite one, and continued right out the door. I didn’t notice any stares, but whenever I ran into someone I knew there were always little comments like, “Wow! You’re so elegant!” I soon realized it was because the women here don’t wear sundresses. Skirts, yes. Formal dresses for formal occasions, yes. But no sundresses! WHAT?!
After I discussed this with my boyfriend, he told me that I did in fact stick out as a foreigner and that if I did indeed want to feel more “normal”, I might want to consider adopting the local fashion a bit more. After I gave the whole “I do what I want” speech, I begrudgingly caved and put on some shorts for the remainder of the summer. But one problem persisted… I didn’t feel like me.
As the months passed, I started noticing more and more subtle differences between myself and the people of the town.
Whether it be the way I say things, my enthusiasm, or lack of blow-drying my hair before leaving the house, there was always something separating me from the crowd. I was always a kind of “spectacle”. Whenever I met someone knew, people were always very interested in me and my personality. This is not because they thought I was super great, but because I behaved according to my customs, and not theirs. I was enthusiastic and talkative; something that wasn’t overly common for the people from the town I moved to. I continued to try to fit in as all the questions and laughs with good intentions started becoming a bit beyond annoying; blending in was something I began to crave.
Time went on and I did what the local people expected of me. But one thing kept popping into my head; I was different than everyone in more ways than I could even put on paper. There wasn’t any way to argue it. Soon after this realization, I began to embrace my differences. One day I woke up and said to myself, “I’m American. I’m not from here and that’s okay. I’m allowed to be different because I AM different!” That day, I put on what I wanted regardless of whether I would fit in. I wore my bootleg jeans with pride and I’m SO happy I did. I’ve accepted that I will never 100% fit in here, but guess what? I’m loved anyway! I’m loved BECAUSE I’m different. And best of all, I’m comfortable because I’m being myself.
Your motivations may vary, but for, I wanted to be comfortable in my new home. My advice? Wear what makes YOU comfortable, eat what and how you want to, act how you want to (as long as it’s still respectful to the culture!), and be different. If you moved to a country where this is okay, embrace it. You can still experience the culture of your new home while keeping your personal identity. Will you receive stares? Definitely. But don’t let that stop you from maintaining your roots and being comfortable.
Embrace your culture and embrace the differences that distinguish you from the rest.
Standing out is what will put you ahead from the rest. It’s the very thing that will get you that job. It’s the very thing that will make your future friends walk up to you and start a conversation and it’s the very thing that could even bring love! Even more importantly, it’s the thing that will bring you peace with yourself as you experience your new home.
The beautiful thing about traveling is the possibility to exchange cultures. This is what makes us unique, and this uniqueness gives the opportunity to learn. We get to learn about their culture and values, while they learn about ours. It’s a beautiful thing. Our cultures shape how we think and view the world, and sharing these perspectives with each other provides for an infinite supply of knowledge. It’s far beyond the knowledge required to do math problems and write correctly; it’s about obtaining and sharing knowledge that enables us to live in harmony.
Understanding each other is not a simple task, but the path to understanding is an admirable one to take. It is very humbling to see another culture and see how small we really are in this universe; and we owe it to each other as humans to provide that humbling experience through the retention of our own cultures.
Retaining your culture is not always easy, and it’s definitely not easy being okay with sticking out. It’s really really hard. But do you and be the unique person you are. Now go out in your sundress, get yourself an ice cream, and be the bad ass you are. You won’t regret it!
(Psssst: For my honest take on being an expat over the past two years, check out one of my recent articles- It’s True, Being an Expat Can Be Really Damn Hard!)