Learning about a new culture

January 12, 2012 – Learning about a new culture means deepening the knowledge of your own.  When I was 8 years old, this phrase didn’t mean anything to me. I had spent the first 8 years of my life in Germany raised by German parents. Yet, it was then when my cross-cultural journey began.

Invited to a social of the local Lions Club introducing French families of the partner club in the south of France, I sat at the table with two girls of my age, sisters, who conversed fluently in both German and French with their German father and French mother. I was green with envy for the opportunity of having parents from two different countries and just being able to “pick up” another language like that!  How boring to have parents who spoke the same language!

Envy is far from a heroic emotion, but as our human history has taught us, it can be a life changing motivator. So was my envy. I picked French as my first foreign language. In Germany, foreign language classes begin in the fifth grade. At age 12, I went on my first home stay in the south of France. While my hosts were so nice to me and I practiced the French pronunciation to near perfection, I noticed that language alone was strangely not enough to feel at home. The beautiful setting of my host family’s provencial summer house right by the Mediterranean Sea, the wonderful weather, beaches, food and company all couldn’t prevent me from falling desparately homesick. Something was missing. It was my family I missed and my comfort zone - in the middle of paradise. How strange! I couldn’t control my depression and felt ashamed at the feeling of happiness when I could finally leave paradise to go back to my familiar place.  For a long time, I attributed the homesickness to my young age at the time. But the timeframe in France was short, just 10 days, the family known to me and the place just splendid.

Decades later, after many travels and stays in different countries, I finally realized that my age had not necessarily been the main factor, but I had simply experienced my first severe culture shock and with it all its symptoms.

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