Same Same But Different
Culture Shock from my fellow ex-pats
There were many surprises when I moved from China back to Australia. As I started interacting with Australians again I realised I’d taken on some foreign habits without being aware.
“You’ve been to America,” my uncle exclaimed while we were eating a roast dinner.
I have never been to America. I had no idea why he made that comment during the meal, out of nowhere.
He explained that I was using my knife and fork like an American, rather than eating the Australian way. I hadn’t even known that there was an Australian vs American way. (He lived in America for a year.)
I guess I unknowingly developed this habit while I was in China. There was a small group of ex-pats in my town, mostly American. On Tuesday night I would usually eat at one of their places.
Apparently the “American way” is to cut food up with a knife in your right hand and fork in your left. When you’ve finished cutting put the knife down and hold the fork in your right hand, use it to get the food to your mouth. Australian way — cut and eat as you go, keeping knife and fork in their original hands.
Being in community with Americans was memorable even though I had been oblivious to the different fork methods.
Most of them, like me, were white, native English speakers. Compared to the millions of Chinese people around us, they were basically the same as me.
My American friends were the ones I talked to about most things and hung out with for fun.
They were the ones I freaked out with when a strange new disease (SARS) shut the city down and caused chaos. (Should we leave? Should we stay?).
They were the ones who had good things like butter and Christmas celebrations.
They were the ones who helped me work out what my job was. What did the university mean when it told me to teach “British and American Culture.”
But turns out they seem to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when I used the Aussie word for flip flops.
I still remember the way they looked at me when I offered them coffee that I had made in the plunger. (They say French press, the word “plunger” is reserved for what they use to unblock the toilet).
Over a decade later, now in Cambodia, I’m getting the hang of it. I have been known to say “cookie’, “candy” and “diaper” as if they are normal words.
I still quietly freak out when a friend tells me her son has a temperature of 102. It’s a lot less alarming when I remind myself she means 39 degrees.
And I may look a bit confused when I hear “going back to school in the fall”. I’m scrambling to translate to myself what that means. Aside from the fact that “school” can mean university, there are a few other things to convert as well.
This is what goes on in my brain: “So that means Autumn, which is March. No wait, their seasons are all back to front, must mean September. Why would they start school in September, that’s only a couple of months until the end of the year? Oh no wait, that’s the start of their school year.”
I had thought I might need to learn some Chinese to live in China- turns out I also needed to learn American.