One reason I love other cultures is the possibility that they will be more familiar than the one I’m currently living in.
I grew up in a microculture, one with its own way of dressing and thinking, its own news services, textbooks, cultural heroes, way of speaking English. Since the moment I set foot in the wider world at 18, and was able, for the first time, to drive somewhere without asking permission, to listen to mainstream music and movies without feeling guilty about it, to participate in a culture that I’d only ever seen from a relative distance, I felt out of place; curious, but like some foreign person posing as a native.
Perhaps this is why I immediately wanted to travel somewhere else. At 19, I went to China and experienced rather severe culture shock; at 20, I decided to go live in France for a semester despite only having taken the language for a few months. The great thing about living abroad was that everyone assumed you were starting with zero linguistic and cultural knowledge, and they patted you on the back for learning quickly, for mimicking what they were doing so adeptly. And sure, it was hard, but it was all pretty straightforward. After all, people were perfectly willing to explain the minute details of everything, down to the way your tongue was supposed to be shaped when you pronounced tu. They didn’t pressure you to make small talk, except on quotidian topics such as how many brothers you had or what you were studying.
And people did things the way I liked. They sat at the table for dinner, they didn’t plaster on the makeup, they didn’t go the mall for fun. They walked the cobbled streets and ordered little pastries and bought inexpensive yet delicious cheese and wine. It was very easy to feel at home doing that. And if you didn’t feel at home, that was normal. Nobody was going to hold it against you if you didn’t get the reference to the cartoons and the comics of their childhood.
Over the years, I traveled all over the world, suspending myself, still that foreign person posing as a native. I always tried to learn phrases in the language of the place, enough that I could get by. When I could, I kept my mouth shut, dressed to fit in. I sat quietly on benches, journaling as I had journaled all throughout my childhood. It was magical, this suspension, this ability to find home (or homelessness) anywhere and everywhere. It was magical, being able to quantify cultures and languages and gain some amount of control over them, tuck them into my repertoire, make them familiar, bring their familiarity back into the ever-changing oddness of mainstream American culture. I went to grad school and studied linguistics, and then continued to travel two and three times a year for work to Asia, Europe, wherever, listening to lectures on culture and language and global business. I specialized in cultural and linguistic differences.
Increasingly, the homeschool culture, what I had grown up with, was something I questioned and tried to make sense of. As one woman says of her upbringing in Kathryn Joyce’s article “The Homeschool Apostates,” I felt “like an expat from a subculture that I can never go home to, living in one that is still not fully mine.” And while I have learned the language of this foreign place, watched 80s movies and sampled Top 40 for a decade, it’s still never quite my own. When I meet people who understand both the homeschooling culture and the process of living outside it, it’s like I’m meeting someone from my own country.
Not long ago, I became instant friends with a Korean-American who was biking cross-country to raise funds for MS. We talked about our upbringing, our grades in school, our family, the microcultures we experienced and were still part of to some extent. I went to the East Coast and visited him. We talked some more. I started wondering if companies that wanted to bridge the gap between American and Asian corporate culture should start hiring formerly homeschooled people as project managers. Many American homeschoolers would instantly get patriarchy, hierarchy, community, politeness, tight family dynamics, perfectionism, conformity. They could suspend themselves, see the differences, keep their mouths shut when they didn’t know something — or at least, they could if they had regularly experienced being lower in the hierarchy. If they were the oldest female children of large families, they would likely also have a knack for organizing the people and tasks in their care.
I put together a survey that attempted to test this theory, comparing choices and attitudes for both groups. It seemed that my hunch was accurate, but I didn’t get enough responses for it to be statistically significant. Whatever the case, my Korean-American friend’s mother was happy to list my positive attributes (in Korean) upon meeting me: I was skinny, but I ate plenty of what they offered me; I was pale, and I attempted to politely address them in their native language. And I was apparently a hard, fast worker.
It remains to be seen concretely if the oldest female children of large, traditional American families make good cross-cultural businesswomen. But the idea is ironic. Many of these females have been told their place is at home, only at home, and that they are rebelling against their true nature if they desire anything else. The way these natures are molded, however, certainly can contribute to other careers. Once they have stepped outside the boundary of the home, it’s a short step to take on the rest of the world. When nothing is quite as scary or as antagonistic as you’ve believed growing up, you start getting curious about all kinds of things.