When I first left my home country (England) and went to live in another culture (South Africa), I knew I would experience ‘culture shock’ and things would be different. What I hadn’t considered was how much the ‘simple’ act of living somewhere else would transform what I thought, believed and behaved. Transformation sounds exciting, but the process is painful, difficult and confusing.
It felt like every little thing came under the microscope. How much did culture shape the way I prayed, expected to hear God, treated people of different backgrounds or ethnicities and disciplined my children? I felt like an alien from outer space – not knowing the rules; not knowing how much of ‘me’ I get to keep.
A small example: I needed to learn to ask: ‘how are you?’ every time I greeted anyone. Easy with friends but more difficult when you’re asking a question of someone in a supermarket. In the UK it would be odd to start a sentence with ‘how are you?’ to a stranger but in South Africa it’s rude not to.
I frequently needed to change my behaviour, my language and my expectations to consider my new cultural norms. Sometimes, however, I needed to resist adjusting. We had a street WhatsApp group and many times people would make racist comments encouraging others to think the same – a hangover from Apartheid days. We would need to hold on to different values; ones we had learnt from an alternative culture. In these instances, we needed to be comfortable in ‘offending.’
As time went on, I started asking myself different questions. What did I need to change that wasn’t helpful in my own culture? What did I need to resist adopting from the culture I was living in? What would Jesus do? Living according to biblical values is the obvious ‘answer’ but sometimes the Bible has been used to argue a point either way. Life isn’t that black and white, and I needed to learn to live in the grey.
A friend of mine explained that South African laws require companies to have a certain percentage of non-white workers. This was problematic for my friend’s company as it was much easier to find white applicants with the right skills, due to a history of preferential education. The company decided to try harder and spend more time looking. They resisted the urge to be impatient. They hired a black lady – not just for her colour but also for her skill. My friend recounted: “We now have someone in our team who brings a different outlook, a fresh voice and sees things from an alternative position. It has made our team that much richer and we are so grateful we took the time to find her. Now everybody wins.”
I learnt that my culture doesn’t have all the answers. It’s not better to be British or worse to be South African. It’s also not better to be South African and worse to be British. I needed to take responsibility for the cultural failings of my home culture and learn new ways of living. This is the most interesting and exciting part of living elsewhere. You learn things you cannot read in a book, understand on a trip or have explained to you by someone else. Investing in deep friendships with locals brings a richness to life that has changed me forever.
Today, after six years in South Africa, I am living back in the UK and I find I feel more an alien than ever before. Starting a conversation with ‘how are you’ gets raised eyebrows! I could easily slip back into conforming to all cultural norms, but instead I find I continue to question if they are helpful. I realise the experience of living in a different culture has changed me and taught me to be a global citizen, always considering culture as an influencing factor. England no longer feels like home like it used to and I miss my ‘other’ home in South Africa. But I am richer for the experience. I seek out people from other cultures, I make the effort with people ‘not like me’, and I hope that means that everybody wins.
I am now an alien wherever I go, and I love it.
Having arrived unexpectedly earlier this year after six years in South Africa, Ali currently lives on the south coast of England with her mum, her husband and her two young children. Ali serves as OM’s Internal Communications Director, working part-time and spending the rest of the time making puzzles, painting and enjoying the English countryside with her kids. She previously worked for global companies in the telecommunications and film industries, joining OM in 2013.