The first time I got off the train from Vienna to Salzburg, I think it was 7 in the evening, I was with two of my classmates. Then we met three others who were waiting for us at the station. We had to quarantine for 5 days and get tested after, because COVID was still there (I hope it all ends soon). Thanks to our other classmates, we were able to get some groceries from the supermarket at the train station.
I was hungry and exhausted, so seeing all these food made me happy. I got some bread, fruits, vegetables, yogurt. Then I went to the checkout.
I’ve learned German in high school for a year, continued learning it on and off through my college years using Duolingo, and lately, for a few months before going here, I used the DW course.
But when I got to the checkout, I couldn’t seem to form sentences in German.
So I used English.
The checkout guy didn’t look happy. But maybe he’s just tired. Or maybe he’s an unhappy guy, I’m not sure.
He told me to get a paper bag. He told me it was cheaper than any other shopping bag in other supermarkets. Then he scanned my things and threw them away. It was a small platform, the checkout table. So I had to keep up, throwing my things in the bag before he started throwing them away to the floor.
But I survived.
It took me a few days to recover from this ‘incident’. I talked to a few people about it, even to the Europeans, and they said it’s common here. The rumor is, the people who work at the supermarket are paid by the number of the items they scan, and not by the hours they work.
Hearing this really helped me understand. Helped me emphatize. Led me to forgive the poor checkout guy.
But still, when I was experiencing it, I was so shocked. If that happened in Indonesia, he would be fired right away. It would be considered rude and impolite to throw something, especially in front of your customers.
Things are done differently back home. People are so warm. Supermarket or minimarket employees always greet us and smile. If you have a bad day, you can come out of a supermarket smiling. Here, if you have a day that’s too good to be true, you can go to a supermarket and have a bad day.
Well, now you may think all people in Salzburg are rude. That’s not true either. You can’t judge the whole city only from my story. That’s just one person in Salzburg, and he probably was really tired.
And actually, my faith in Salzburg’s humanity and hospitality has been restored since then.
What happens to my identity?
According to a chapter of a book that I read for my course (this book by Stefan Strauss), identity is ‘the very concept describing and representing the specific characteristics of an individual.’ But, it also ‘can be seen as a construct that maintains itself, distinct from others, but at the same time, it is shaped by every interaction with its surroundings. Thus, identity is continually progressing, based on the dynamics of its relations and interactions.’
So, what happens to your identity when you move to a new land with a new set of cultures and norms?
I can say that I have adjusted to the way people act and live here.
In my experience with the checkout guy, or any other checkout in any stores here, I’ve learned from my mistakes and ‘act like locals’. Now, I make sure that I use the shopping cart, so I have somewhere to throw my things away before I put them in my shopping bag. I make sure I greet the checkout person and say goodbye to them, even if they don’t say those things back to me. In a way, I bring my ‘Asian warmth’ to my interactions with the checkout person.
So I retain some of my habits, my identity, but also I have to let go of some things, in order to make space for what’s new.
At the same time, these experiences that I’m having here in a foreign country, are shaping my identity. That’s why there’s reverse culture shock. I’ll be bringing some of European habits and culture back in me, so when I get back to Indonesia someday, I’ll experience another culture shock.
It might be easier to adjust in some places
It’s not always hard to live in a new city or a new country.
It actually depends on what’s called cultural distance. When your culture is similar to a culture, the cultural distance between your culture and that culture is close. For example, for me, it would be easier to adjust to moving to another Asian country, compared to moving to Europe.
Studying abroad without losing your identity
In a nutshell, what I’ve been doing to thrive and keep my identity and culture alive:
- Keeping an open mind to let myself experience things that I’ve never experienced before, to not quickly judge something that’s done differently.
- Holding on to some principles, lines that I won’t cross, ever, to protect myself.
- Talking to my family and friends almost every day.
- Talking to a friend (a local) that I can trust, so that I can understand why people do things the way they do it and have more empathy.
- Understanding that my culture is not the greatest in the world, that there are so many other ways to live a life.
- Sharing something about my culture with my friends (food, language, clothes, habits, etc.).
You can’t really lose your identity, even if you live your life differently, in a new place. Because then you’d bring some pieces from the place you live in with you, and they become a part of your identity.
How about you? What’s your experience moving and living in a new place?