CAMBRIDGE, U.K. — When I first arrived in Cambridge, I thought I would immediately integrate. I thought that I would make many British friends and that I would excel at every stereotypically British task I tried. Rowing, figure drawing, formal dinners with gowns — no problem, I spoke the language and was acquainted with the culture.
Fast forward three months: I hang out exclusively with other Americans from the exchange program, I rarely speak to other people in my classes and I feel nearly as foreign as the day I came here.
By all outward standards, I appear assimilated. I row. I am comfortable with saying “take-away” instead of “take-out.” I even add x’s to the ends of my texts now. But I don’t feel as if I am a part of the British culture. I feel as if I am a mirror, reflecting the reality around me but being only a pale imitation of it myself.
As a result, I stay with the other Americans because the bond between us feels more substantial. We share similar backgrounds and are currently experiencing the same things, and that forges a deeper understanding.
Most of us often judge outsiders for not being able to integrate with people of our own culture. We look down on them for sticking to “their kind” because we do not recognize the validity of their discomfort.
Before we ever experience being outsiders, we believe integration is easy. We think that it is merely a matter of adapting to another culture’s customs — of taking on their sayings, eating their food, dressing in their styles. Somehow, actually belonging with people of that other culture will naturally follow.
But we never realize that integration is the result of more than just external behavior. It requires a feeling that stretches to the heart and mind.
We can do everything necessary to belong and still feel like foreigners. We can use the right slang, walk the right walk, but we will always think slightly differently and react in slightly different ways. This is just the result of years of conditioning to behave a certain way.
And because we grow tired of feeling like we don’t belong — or of trying and failing to fit in — we fall back on what we know: those like us.
Instead of condemning or blaming ourselves, we should give ourselves more leeway. It is natural to prefer what makes us feel comfortable. I used to voice concerns to my father about how I only seemed to hang out with the other Americans. I feared that I wasn’t trying hard enough or that it somehow reflected poorly on me.
But lacking incredibly close friendships with actual Cambridge students does not indicate any sort of personal flaw on my part. It is only a self-centered worldview that says that someone who fails to fit into a different culture is at fault, rather than acknowledging that he or she never had to conform in the first place.
Moreover, we should recognize that the responsibility for a lack of integration lies on both sides. We often shift the story to focus on “the other.” It becomes a sort of “us versus them.” It is their responsibility to fit into our culture, and if they don’t, they are the odd ones. Why can’t they, since the rules of our culture appear so obvious to everyone?
We forget that our social rules only seem so clear because we have been raised with them. Our customs are as strange to them as theirs are to us. In lacking an empathetic perspective, we increase the distance between us and minimize the opportunity others have to integrate. They don’t feel as comfortable to try because there is the shadow of rejection.
Living in a foreign place means never fully feeling like we belong. But maybe there is something good about always feeling a little misplaced.
We come to realize that there are no dominant rules or standards, and that many of the habits and customs we enforce on ourselves are relative. We develop a sense of independence from the places and societies we visit that withstands the test of arbitrary change.
And we never see more objectively than when we are on the outside looking in. That’s why we should appreciate our outsider status and view it as a chance to grow and to observe, rather than focus on it as our personal rejection.
AMY CHAN is a College junior from Augusta, Ga., studying Classics and English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Chances Are” usually appears every other Thursday.
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