“You have a speech impediment,” proudly diagnosed my college roommate. Her finger pointed at proof, an articulation disorder in her speech pathology textbook. I felt too old to have an undiagnosed speech impediment, but I begrudgingly accepted her judgment. She had evidence, after all.
When I arrived in Tokyo 20 years later, the New Yorkers were plentiful, and so were their opinions. I was yet again diagnosed. This time, the caring friend noted that I did not have a speech impediment but an accent. My circle of girlfriends didn’t hold back from pointing out my West Coast differences.
“Wait, you don’t hear it? You say ‘fir’ instead of ‘for.'”
And “You talk slower too.”
And “You even walk slow.”
I felt like I was in a Woody Allen comedy with too many people talking simultaneously; the words started blending. My laidback West Coast brain swamped with too much. Too many opinions. Too much volume. Too many words. Rather than push back, I politely adapted, just like I did with my college roommate. I tried to pick up the pace of my walk and quicken my tongue.
It. Was. Exhausting.
It can happen on a micro level like it did for me in college. Or, it can happen on a larger scale in a foreign country. Anyone bound on their first assignment should research the potential intra-American culture shock they may experience in their host city. Tokyo, for example, has a heavy New York ex-pat community, as mentioned. This is due to the banking industry in both locations. Shanghai, meanwhile, has a robust automotive sector that draws many Mid-Westerners, especially Michiganders. These Americans will find one another, bond over regional commonalities and you, the outsider, may feel like the black sheep at times.
You would think that being American was enough to fit into an ex-pat community overseas. We’re all the same; one big pot of Western culture out of our element. Having not traveled too much outside of the Canada to Mexico’s coastline, I hadn’t experienced much of my own country before beginning life in an entirely new one. I didn’t know that Michigan was shaped like a mitten and people referenced their hometown by pointing at their palm. Or that Euchre is a favorite Mid-Western past time or that Rotel was a missed food staple.
Ironically, it’s the American population who will teach you to be more authentic while overseas. You will learn to be more yourself outside of your home country by your countrymen than if you comfortably stayed inside the borders. You may realize you have a country class background which includes an undetectable accent to your own ears, like I had. Acknowledging such a difference takes vulnerability especially amongst a big city crowd. Or perhaps you value environmentalism so deeply that the level of recycle compulsion you subscribe to is uncovered when you move to a place that tests that very value. Many other cultural habits will be examined, smashed, or polished. It takes integrity and transparency to hold on or let go of these norms. But it pays off in the end by becoming unapologetically proud of who you truly are. I left our three-country tour embracing my roots that ultimately set me apart in the beginning.
There is a lot to get use to as an ex-pat: culture shock, career shift shock, and language barriers. But there’s a healthy dose of intra-America culture shock that is underestimated by most. I was not prepared and had wished seasoned ex-pat experts had sent me a warning shot about protecting my authenticity. Community is a huge element of success in any relocation assignment. Therefore, you need to know what type of community you’re joining. Don’t look at the move as just an overseas assignment with other Americans. Be inquisitive and be yourself. You’ll find a whole new America outside of the mainland … and it’s worth the visit!