Do #1: be a learner


“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime. . .”

Remember this profound little proverb? You’ve probably heard that part of it before, even if you aren’t a teacher. But (very) few people know the rest of it: ” . . . unless he isn’t interested in learning to fish, in which case he will starve.”

True fact: the new place will always be different from the old place. Thus there will be many things to learn if you ever want to be at home there. Repeatedly I have found that my entire new community seems uninterested in changing to suit me, forcing me to be the one to adapt. This will probably also be your experience.

You will be tempted to begin the learning process before you actually arrive. The feeling of being equipped is frequently chosen as an antidote for anxiety and researching busily can be productive procrastination from the business of packing. While it may be a good idea to start early, a cautious word here: avoid learning about the new place from people with limited experience of it. Julia Child, in her autobiography My Life in France (2006) writes, “In Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation. My tall and taciturn father . . . liked to say that all Europeans, especially the French, were “dark” and “dirty,” although he’d never actually been to Europe and didn’t know any Frenchmen” (13). We had many similar experiences before moving to England in 2010, being offered information on everything from English culture and manners to food and health care by people who had little actual knowledge grounding their assumptions. For the record, it does not rain every day, not every English person is reserved, and fish and chips do not form the basis for every meal any more than cheeseburgers do in the States.

Remember that learning is active. Don’t sit and wait for people to come and teach you what you need to know. They won’t know what it is you don’t know and therefore need to know, if you know what I mean. You will have to pay attention. When is the salad served? Is anyone else’s bus conversation audible? How are queue-jumpers handled?

It’s okay if you don’t learn very fast. Prepare yourself to know a lot less than you used to, to come off differently than you intend to, perhaps to get it wrong at dinner parties for a while. Don’t worry that this may shatter your new friends’ perceptions of the good manners and savoir-faire of Americans (these do not exist). It may take four events before you comprehend the delicate art of the hostess gift and you will feel like a chump on the first three. Prepare for some of your best efforts to be unsuccessful. There is an elderly woman here that has become a dear friend and mentor to me, frequently helping me in many ways. True to my upbringing, each time there was occasion to, I tried to show my appreciation to her by penning a little thank-you note. Until she shook one at me one day and said, “Not EV’ry time, Dahling! You really needn’t, you know!” Lesson learned. Another true story: I have almost kissed every man in our fellowship group at one time or another due to my total awkwardness with the double-cheek-kiss. I find this both traumatic and hilarious. Traumatic at the time, hilarious later. But I am proud to say I am growing in my double-cheek-kissing ability. Alex says I have even achieved nonchalance, but he flatters me.

Being a learner doesn’t mean you aren’t true to yourself and where you come from. Don’t confuse cultural adaptation with pretending to be something you’re not. You adapt to societal norms to show respect for how things are, to fit in as best you can, and to ensure that not every conversation in which you are involved ends up being about your differences. And to those of you that say we’re gaining English accents, that is an accident.



This post is first in a series: Starting Again: Five Things To Do and One Don’t

This entry was posted in Keep Calm and Carry On. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Do #1: be a learner

  1. Sarah says:

    Haha, ah, the double-cheek-kiss. Living on an American military base in Europe, my experience with this was limited, but I still had one experience that was traumatic-then-hilarious enough. I’d like to think I’ve caught on well enough to get along better now that our son, born and raised in Germany for the first 10 months of his life, somehow adopted that as his goodnight/goodbye kiss. Our secondborn, however, is a fully brash American, preferring to grab one’s face with both hands and plant one right on the mouth.

  2. Cara says:

    This is so great, Betsy. You are already a million steps ahead, knowing and doing this. We are life long learners, or should be! You are gonna be great where ever you end up.

  3. Madeline says:

    This comes at an opportune time as I’m writing from Kilkeel, Northern Ireland and have been dealing with these things the past few days first hand and in the UK as well. Helpful! Comforting! Encouraging! Thanks.

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