I spent my whole life trying to fit into the world around me. Moving from China to England at 4, England to China at 7, China to the US at 10, and then the US to France at…a whopping 22 (just kidding). I always started as the outsider looking in; there was me and then there was them. Overtime though, I began to feel like one of them. I adopted their habits and cultures, to the point where I would ruthlessly defend their country (all their countries), even if I ended up sounding hypocritical because they were all so different. And so my boyfriend never understood when I said moving to Europe was the hardest thing I did in a long time, because he thought fitting in was something I was good at, something I had done all my life.
To explain this, I have to begin by defining the extraordinarily large yet nuanced difference between living abroad as a student or expat versus moving permanently and attempting to assimilate into one of "them". Expats and students often form their own communities, some that even extend beyond social circles into physical boundaries. Expats remain almost exclusively within their social circles, most with an understanding of local culture and ways of life. But it's just that - an understanding. One that very rarely becomes part of their own.
As Lauren Elkin once wrote, "leaving home does something to your sense of identity. Either you become more of that place than you ever were...or your identity calcifies around the rejection of this place. It is challenging to inhabit the space between these two positions".
Moving permanently as a child, there's always this notion that this country could very well one day be your own. Especially where there does not yet exist people like you (my Connecticut suburban town was 97% White), assimilating and adopting the new way of life becomes essential in your survival. This is all quite normal for children who move abroad, except what if there were several countries with different values that conflicted with each other? As an elementary school student in China (after moving from England), I was enrolled in the Youth Communist Party and tied a corner of the communist flag to my neck every morning as I sang the communist anthem to the rising flag. After I came to the US, I was told that democracy was the foundation of American society and that communism was horrible and bad (I also started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance). Yes, I was open to both cultures. Yes, I loved both countries. But my ideology could only be one. I could only have one set of values and morals that I believed were "right". While most people believe that moving abroad makes you a more open minded person, most people also don't realize that moving permanently also means a clear rejection of one of the two competing cultures (especially when they are so different).
And so as you grow up and form your morals and opinions, you lose that naive and openness you had as a child, that ability to see things for what they are without any judgment. You not only form moral values, but a general expectation of how things "should be" - such as the fact that people shouldn't cheat, or steal, or lie (but in Turkish culture for example, there is actually no shame in lying). This expectation also comes in cultural customs that you abide by without even thinking (in the US, it would be smiling whenever you speak to someone; in Paris, saying hello and goodbye whenever you enter and exit a store; and in China, the insignificance of personal space because there just isn't the luxury for one). And so when you move abroad as an adult, you can feel uncomfortable or even offended in certain situations.
While most people adapt to this change through getting to know locals that eventually lead to (hopefully) logical explanations for these behaviors, they accept by ignoring. They accept and understand, but they never incorporate these values to be right or their own (just think about what foreigners in China think about information censorship). Ignoring works because most "foreigners" are also sanctioned by locals as being, well, foreign; and vice versa. This mutual understanding allows for peace and communication.
And so for me, moving to Paris was difficult. Moving to Paris with a French boyfriend was even more difficult - because the idea of permanent ties with this country made it impossible to remain an outsider. I had to assimilate. I had to accept, whole heartedly accept, and not by ignoring.
So my question then, is not one of whether it's possible for every person to accept another for their behaviors, but whether it's possible, as a third or fourth culture child, to truly be a global citizen by incorporating all these values as your own (not just moral values, but cultural customs)? And if not, is it okay to reject one for another without feeling like you are despicably narrow minded? Is it possible, that there exists a space between cultures in which your values can be fluid, undefined, oscillating depending on the context, because things are more nuanced than we humans always make them out to be?