You always hear people talk about how much they loved their Erasmus experience, how much they love to travel or how much they enjoy meeting new people. But what happens when you actually decide to leave the environment you’re so familiar with – forever? When you decide to immerse yourself in a new culture head-first, without the safety of knowing it’s temporary?
Four years ago, I made a decision that radically changed my life, namely to move abroad. And while it might not be that big of a change for a German to move to the Netherlands – both well established Western countries – moving from Romania to Austria certainly was. That is not to say that I find Austria in any way superior to Romania as a country, despite it being a wealthier state. The problem I’m addressing is the cultural and social barrier. And I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way:
1 – The notion of home is as subjective as it is subject to change.
My family is in one country, but entire my life is happening in another. My passport says Romania, but I speak German well enough to pass as a native speaker. I grew up with the customs of an Eastern European culture, but have spent my most important, formative years – adolescence – in a Western one. Where is home to me, then? In all honesty, in both of them. My Romanian friends feel betrayed when I share these thoughts with them, but I disagree with their mentality. You can be at home in more than one place, as there are different things that can evoke that feeling. Romanian evening air, the dim lights of my room at night and my family make me feel at home in Romania. Viennese streetlights in winter, the best hazelnut ice cream at Tichy’s and my community of friends make me feel home in Austria. They’re both parts of who I am – parts that coexist and don’t alternately replace each other depending on where I am.
2 – Differences lie where you wouldn’t expect them.
Do you ever spend a lot of time thinking about how you greet people you haven’t met before? Well, I know I never used to. The etiquette is pretty simple in Romania; you shake hands and, voila, you’ve made a new acquaintance. Well, things are slightly different in Austria. People here prefer cheek kissing. Now, you have to understand that in Romania you would almost never do that with someone you’ve only just met, or at least in my town you wouldn’t – that would be a breach of privacy. I didn’t know that, of course – this isn’t something anyone thinks about. Ever. Let’s just say that it lead to many awkward moments and bad first impressions on both sides…
3 – Your brain starts working in a mixture of different languages.
Oh, were you looking for that specific word in German? Well, “Pech gehabt” (bad luck) as the Austrians say. Thankfully, I can come up with that exact word in every other language on the planet. This can happen several times a day in many different languages. Eventually, you find friends who are in a similar situation as you (the only good part about boarding school) and you connect spiritually thanks to your mutual ability to speak three languages simultaneously. Yes, it does seem odd to anyone who hears you talk, but the efficiency is worth it. Who has time for translations, anyway?
4 – There is more to language than just vocabulary.
Being a proficient German speaker, I can confidently say that I understand 98% of all the words that are used in both common written and spoken language. However, just because I understand what a word means or how it is used does not always mean I understand exactly what a person is trying to communicate. That’s because the culture we are exposed to during our upbringing affects the way we associate words with meaning. So, when receiving assignments at school, there would always be some minor detail of the task I left out because I had never even thought it was part of the assignment.
My classmates, however, never had a problem in understanding the unspoken part of the message. Sadly, I don’t think there is much anyone can do to overcome these minor gaps in communication. Despite them not being all that important, it’s quite frustrating when you try to explain to a native that you do understand the language but are having difficulties with the cultural barrier. People sometimes simply assume you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying, unfortunately.
5 -You change the way you view your own country.
I don’t identify as a patriot, because I find it slightly strange to be proud of something you can’t take any credit for. I do, however, strongly identify with Romanian culture, which I hold very dear to my heart. Even so, before I moved away, I didn’t feel this way at all. Romanians usually think of themselves worse than others actually think of us, and I was no exception. I just assumed that, because I was unable to identify with Romanian morals and values, I couldn’t identify with any part of my culture either. Furthermore, I felt like Romania wasn’t a place anyone would
want to be from – I felt angry because I couldn’t understand why it was my country that every other European state was making fun of for being poor.
However, after moving away, I started having a much more objective perspective of my home country and myself. Every time I would learn something new about Austrian culture from my friends, I would immediately want to tell them something similar about mine. I slowly realized that there was more to my country than I previously could see. I started looking at it in a different light and fell in love with the music, the culture and the people as if I hadn’t lived there for 14 years (the first fourteen years of my life, to be precise).
6 – Sometimes it is difficult being the odd one out.
I was never bullied for being a foreigner. When I first came, I had the luck of finding a group of amazing friends who made me feel welcome and at home. I adapted in no time. Still, there would be moments when I felt like I couldn’t fit in. For example, whenever people would gather together and start singing an older Austrian song everyone knew the lyrics to, I felt so awkward standing by the side having no clue what to do. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t about the song. It was about the fact that they were enjoying something I would only understand by association. Moments like those are the ones that put a glass wall between me and the rest. While that doesn’t happen too often, it’s something you must prepare yourself for when you decide to move abroad.
7 – You’ll start doing weird stuff to fit in.
And I mean this in the funniest way possible. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, let me tell you about my Latin classes at school. Obviously, with Latin being a dead language and so on, it is difficult to try to recreate the way it was pronounced because there’s no way to know for sure. What usually happens instead is that people just read and pronounce it the way they would their own language. See where I’m going with this? So, after 4 years, I believe I’ve perfected the art of speaking Latin with a German accent. Why, you ask? I think it’s hard to convey in words the awkwardness of being picked by the teacher and starting to read out the text with the most beautiful Romanian accent (which technically is closer to the actual pronunciation, considering Romanian’s origin as a romantic language and being of direct Latin descent), with everyone looking at you as if you were an exotic bird. And I wasn’t the only one who started doing this – in fact, all my non-Austrian friends do the same thing without it being something we commonly agreed on. The things we do for social acceptance, amiright?
8 – Makeup.
This may seem to be an odd one, but – again – it’s not a difference I anticipated. The modern Romanian woman sees makeup as a part of her identity and would rarely leave the house without putting at least some mascara on. I simply assumed it would be the same everywhere else. Well, not exactly. While the Austrian woman sure likes makeup, she treats it as something she wears for special occasions. Her attire during the day is casual unless she needs to attend an important event. To be honest, while I much prefer a natural face to the foundation-caked ones I had gotten used to seeing, I do miss the creative aspect of makeup. I used to hate the way Romanian women covered their faces in it and found it almost disgraceful.
Then, when I came to a country where women seldom wore any, I realized I was more “Romanian” in my heart than I’d like to admit. I started seeing a different side to makeup – no longer something “slutty”, but rather another medium to express myself. Something feminine, flirty at times or even elegant when you need it to. Makeup is one of the few things I consciously do different to Austrian girls, even though it might make me stand out negatively. I refuse to comply to superficial, social standards just to fit in, because I don’t want to give up such an important part of my identity. As much as I like being in Austria, I always enjoy being in Romania so I can let my inner makeup artist out for a couple of days, without being afraid of mean glances. So, for all the ladies, maybe do some research regarding aspects such as this one before making a big move. You never know what might await you.
9 – Most people won’t care, and the ones who do don’t matter.
As I’ve mentioned above, I used to be insecure about my country of origin as I had a very bad opinion of it. So, when I came to Austria, I actually expected people to treat me badly because of it, or at least because of my status as a foreigner. Well, turns out, most people genuinely don’t care. Of course there are some who seem to mind – and they’re not afraid to show it. But I can console myself with the fact that they’re mentally stuck somewhere in a past century when globalization wasn’t “a thing” yet. That aside, Austria is an incredibly accepting place. Whether this is the result of it having been a multi-cultural empire not so long ago or not, I don’t know. But I do know that Vienna is the best example I have ever seen of how an array of different cultures only make the native culture richer, and in no way threaten it.
10 – Your passport does not define you.
(Or your lack thereof) My life is very un-extraordinary. I have the same access to education or medical care as my Austrian friends, we like similar things and face the same sort of everyday problems. I used to wonder what role my status as a Romanian played in my relationships with people around me, but that seems so ridiculous and shallow now. People are people. When you look at a person, you don’t see a nation. You see a friend, a stranger, a boy or a girl and not an Italian or a Slovak. And while I am aware of the fact that stereotypes DO exist, I believe that the European Union is the first step to a future without – or at least without negative ones. I think my life is a great example of how the EU promotes inter-cultural awareness. I came here and got to learn so much from an incredible place full of traditions – but the people around me learned a lot about my country too. I have had several friends come visit in Romania and they genuinely seemed to enjoy being there. Any experience that involves culture is an exchange by definition: a “Give-and-Take” and not just a “Take”, as many maliciously imply. My friends also told me that Romania was very different to what they had imagined because of the mean things they had heard. That goes to show that ignorance is the only real obstacle that stops inter-cultural acceptance. As much of a cliché as it is, we are more similar than different.
While your origin does define certain aspects of your personality, you’ll learn more about a person through a hand-shake than by asking them where they come from.