Our translation intern Katie talks about a few of the cultural challenges she has experienced whilst living abroad.
„When in Rome, do as the Romans do.“ This is something I believe strongly in, but it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. I have previously lived in India, and over the past year, as part of my degree, I lived in Austria and France before moving to Germany to work on my German, and of course, learn more about the world of translation at the Sprachenfabrik. As I am near the end of my year abroad, I have started to reflect on the different cultures and traditions I have encountered, and I thought I would share with you a few difficulties I have had whilst trying to fit in with the locals.
Cultural challenges arise from the get-go. Even in England, I am not always sure how I should greet people. In work settings, it is obviously a shake of the hand, and with family, it’s often a kiss or two on the cheek. But with friends – and friends of friends – it can vary from a hug to a simple “hi!” and anything in between. So I was dreading the daily struggles of the bise (kissing on the cheeks) that awaited me in France. But I soon got the hang of it, as it’s pretty much the same in all situations– with work colleagues to friends of my flat mates who were just popping by, and even when saying thank you for gift. It became so natural that I even stopped reminding friends who were visiting from home, which led to a few very awkward moments as they ducked and dodged people attempting to greet them with a kiss. And yet when you know what to do, it’s simple. Add in the customary “Ça va? Ça va?” and you’ve passed your first cultural test. But one Saturday, I left this custom behind, kissing my French flat mates goodbye, and, eight or nine hours later, shaking hands with my new German ones here in Bielefeld.
Another thing I have noticed is that one of the first questions I am asked is normally, “oh so you’re from England?” The tendency to refer to the UK as England became particularly apparent, when a Welsh and a Scottish friend visited me in France, and I told everyone they were from “Angleterre”. My friends were not amused. Coming from a country with many names can be difficult. Searching for my nationality in drop down boxes in online forms can take a good minute, and on a few occasions whilst abroad, I noticed that the only option was “England” or “English”. In India, this problem extended even further. My students always referred to me as “UK Madam”, but at the same time, no one seemed to understand, when I said that I came from the UK. So, to everyone in my tiny village in Andhra Pradesh, I was from London.
One of the initial challenges in India was eating. The majority of Indians eat with their hands (or rather their right hand). After weeks of providing three-time daily entertainment as I struggled to eat rice and curry with my hands, I eventually grasped the unwritten rules of eating without a knife and fork. A quick tip for those of you who are wondering is that you shouldn’t put your fingers in your mouth; the secret is to press small amounts of food together with your fingertips, before using your thumb to push the food into your mouth. But of course the first step is NOT to ask where the cutlery is! The first Prime Minister of India alleged once said that eating with a fork is like making love through an interpreter. I’m not sure I’d go quite this far, but eating with my hands, sat cross legged on the floor in my sari definitely made me feel like part of the family.
Whilst some Indian habits were easy to adapt to, others were definitely not, in particular waiting. Punctuality is not a strong point in India, and I am sure you have heard of Indian time. I have memories of waiting in police stations, shops and the head teacher’s office for hours and hours in the boiling heat. Here in Germany, on the other hand, I have encountered no such problems. Although the Germans may not be as good at queuing as us British, I will admit that punctuality is definitely their forte. Another thing which surprised me here in Bielefeld, perhaps because it goes against the stereotype, is how friendly and open people are. Waiters and waitresses have often taken the time to chat with me, my tandem partners have introduced me to their friends and even on the Stadtbahn here in Bielefeld some students struck up a conversation with me. The latter was most unexpected for me, as the London tube is definitely not somewhere you would start chatting to a stranger. In contrast, on trains here, it seems common to say goodbye to your fellow passengers with cheery “Tschüss!” As a foreigner trying to improve my German, I have to say this friendliness is something I really appreciate and the conversations I have with strangers always give me an extra confidence boost.
My time abroad has almost come to an end and it will definitely be sad to close this language learning chapter. But I am of course looking forward to seeing my family, who have already planned to welcome me home in the most British way: with a barbeque…undoubtedly in the pouring rain. You can’t beat the Great British Summer!