the masks we wear

July 26, 2013

 Masks

On the back of our last post about second languages and multiple personalities we want to explore further the changes we go through when acquiring other languages. What defines us as individuals from different countries? Which characteristic would you say is most common when describing a person from a different background than your own?

I often wonder what people I meet are really like on their own or surrounded by family and friends from back home. This specifically happens when I come across someone from a different background than my own. The reasoning behind this is that most of us act in a different way depending on the situations we find ourselves in. This is true for social events, work meetings, etc. It is also true and more noticeable in people who travel and/or reside in a foreign country. Among other reasons people act differently because they have to adapt to that society, its language and customs. It is difficult for us to show our native side in a foreign society because it is unfamiliar to us. We are forced to modify who we are in order to blend in and cope with change.

But what happens within us once we become used to that society? What becomes of our old selves? For one, the more time we spend in the new culture the more we embrace it and adapt to it. It is common that after some time we begin to feel less foreign and more a part of the new society.

There are different types of foreigners:
1. Visitors
2. Residents
3. Citizens

Visitors are somewhat less affected by different customs and language since they are in that country for a short period of time. However, residents and Citizens (nationalized) have made the decision to stay in the new country and form a new life. It is this group of individuals who at some point, little by little shed some of their old customs and become acclimatized to the new culture. This shedding of our culture is a consequence of the acquisition of a new language. It is a consequence in cases where people migrate to a different country.

With an acquired culture and language we now succumb to the new society around us. We reminisce about our old lifestyle less often than before and at times do not miss it as much because the new country, language and culture are now our new home. What then happens to the world we left behind and how do we react to the customs and language of our old selves?

Reverse Culture Shock

They say time heals all wounds. But it also makes you forget what you no longer practice or live. Reverse culture shock often happens when a person has spent so much time out of their environment that when they go back they feel l ike outsiders. Feeling like an outsider in your former home can be very confusing and it often helps us understand cultures better because we look at them from a different perspective. We perceive people in a different light and suddenly what used to be foreign to us is now closer to who we have become.

It has been extensively documented that individuals who go through this process oftentimes feel as if they do not belong to either culture. There is a separation from both because in a way we become hybrids of the two societies.

We experience other faces of the world and its people through all the changes entailed with acquiring a language and culture. The fact that we adapt to our surroundings means we must alter the way we engage people and the environment. This means that not only our spoken language changes but our non-verbal communication as well. In most cases it also means an altered version of ourselves. A mask we put on to blend in. So the question now becomes: Where do we belong? I like to think that by default we belong everywhere. Humans are easily adaptable creatures and have the ability to learn other languages. Hence we are potentially able to communicate with any individual from across the globe. So we have the obligation if we can, to experience every aspect of this world in order to understand it better.

We cannot look at the masks we wear as a negative. Instead they must be seen as a tool we use to better comprehend the world through experiencing it like people from different cultures do. 

Until next time!