Here’s a nice simple guide for US teachers (or anyone) travelling or working abroad, on how to adapt to a culture and not reinforce cultural stereotypes (right-hand column half-way down: “download free abridged version”). Many expats may find it obvious or simplistic but for newbies it’s a good start. (Via Fast Company Blog).
I managed a language school in Buenos Aires for 8 of the 18 years I lived in Latin America, and probably recruited over a hundred teachers directly from the US. It was interesting to see how each individual adjusted to the new culture and managed the inevitable cultural baggage that they brought with them. I think language teachers in general are culturally flexible, for a variety of reasons: sensitivity to language, facility at SLA, cultural curiosity, etc. And because they are in the new culture for longer than the typical two week vacation, they are more motivated to integrate.
What was also interesting was to see how longer-term expats differed in degree of cultural adaptation. Some fit so easily into the Argentine culture that they essentially “became Argentine”: friends, activities, partner/family, language level and sophistication, L2 primarily for interactional as well as transactional goals, understanding and assimilation of folkways. Other long-term expats encircled themselves in a US cultural bubble: other ex-pat friends, only watched CNN and Sony Entertainment Television, ate at Mickey-D’s, limited (and mainly transactional) language ability. One 10-year expat I knew (worked for a big US multinational) refused to learn or speak Spanish for the entire 10 years he was there – a truly amazing feat.
I was somewhere in the middle, tending toward assimilation but keeping some personal idiosyncrasies that are archtypical of US culture (is “archtypical idiosyncrasy” an oxymoron? …probably). One of these idiosyncrasies: I refuse to accept the petty abuse that individuals receive from large institutions and corporations. Anytime Citibank or Dell or American Express or my insurance company or a government agency tries to step on me I don’t let them: I politely point out the mistake and work my way up the supervisor sequence to get a solution or register a formal complaint.
I encountered two problems with this when I lived abroad. First, when in another country, this behaviour isn’t seen as a justifiable defense of one’s individual rights – I was seen as an example of US arrogance and entitlement. So, in order to not appear as the ugly American, I would usually just shut up and take it. But as a result something bad happened, so slowly and insidiously that at first I didn’t notice it: after several years of suffering in silence I started thinking, subconciously at first, then overtly: things aren’t this bad in the States, big companies aren’t as screwed up in the States, they treat their customers better in the States, etc. And that’s the second problem, because this line of thinking is dangerous; the “it’s better at home” thought is a huge barrier to understanding a culture.
Well, I moved back to the US a year ago: it’s just as bad here. Institutions and corporations try to abuse the little guy just as often. The difference is that I can complain incessantly without fear of reinforcing the ugly American stereotype. They just think I’m a jerk, not an ugly American.