It seems that in recent weeks we’ve regularly been focusing on integration issues, how to avoid them and how they can cause stress for expats everywhere. But can integrating into your new life abroad really be that difficult? If you plan well, you’ve visited the nation before, you speak the local language and perhaps you’ve even lived abroad elsewhere already, surely you should be immune to integration hiccups?
You might think that an expat moving to Tokyo will have a much harder time integrating than one emigrating to Adelaide for example. Or you may feel that someone who goes to live in Saudi will find it much harder to settle in and settle down than someone moving to France perhaps. However, as you will see over the next few days in our new series of articles about expats on the frontline, your assumptions may be quite far from the truth!
The above-defined preconceptions can arise because it’s harder to imagine living in a country where they speak a foreign language or follow a different religion than it is to imagine moving just across the Channel or to another nation where they speak English. But expats everywhere face integration issues every day – often with hilarious consequences! We wanted to show you how, if you hit a bump on the expat integration road, you’re not alone! In our new series we’re going to be bringing you true (and funny) expat tales of integration woe!
Over the next few days we’re going to be publishing true expat stories that highlight how hard it can sometimes be to make a new life abroad – no matter how hard you work and try, sometimes you will always stand out as a foreigner in a foreign land. The good thing is that these experiences can make you laugh with hindsight (!) and maybe even learn a little bit more about being an expat.
Buying Bananas in Austria
When I moved to Vienna 12 years ago I thought I had a really decent understanding of the German language – however, nothing could have prepared me for Viennese German! Apart from street signs and newspaper headlines I barely understood anything anyone was saying to me, and I struggled every day to make myself understood.
I really think that if I’d taken the typical Brit abroad approach and shouted at the locals in English I could have made myself better understood – but I was determined to fit in and make Vienna home, therefore I made every effort to live my life through the medium of German!
I forced myself to watch local TV (as bad as it really was!), I poured over menus, leaflets, free newspapers – any reading matter I could get my hands on – and wherever I went I ploughed on speaking what I thought was ‘perfect’ German! I tried to tune in to the dialect, the accent, the peculiarities of Austrian German and absorb it…but as anyone who has ever lived as a foreigner in Austria will tell you, the locals aren’t that friendly – yet here was I, trying to make everyone my friend by speaking to them in their own language!
I became increasingly disheartened at my lack of ability to learn the language and blamed it for the fact that I couldn’t make any friends…the final straw came one day when I was at a supermarket waiting in line to pay. One of the most basic elements of everyday life for me was listening to shopkeepers and trying to understand numbers, the money, and what they were asking me to pay. I felt safe in this environment as there was only so much a shopkeeper could potentially be saying to me, so with logic, a bit of German and some guessing I usually managed to get through the whole payment process without resorting to English or looking confused! This was progress…
On this particular day however, I was at a new supermarket in a very busy part of the city, I was rapidly trying to catch my produce as it flew through the till, (there is no bagging area in most supermarkets, you have to catch it and get it in the trolley before it’s flung on the floor by the bored cashier), when suddenly the cashier started shouting at me.
Her tone made me realise she was livid – her disdainful looks told me I’d inadvertently done something idiotic – but I was damned if I could fathom what she (and now the shopper behind me) were trying to tell me! All I could see was that a bunch of bananas seemed to be the offending objects?
I tried smiling and looking friendly to dispel the anger, and I asked what the problem was, explained (in German) that I didn’t speak much German, and with that, the cashier let out a long sigh and sent a withering look in my direction before disappearing for what seemed like half an hour! I panicked, should I flee, should I just abandon my shopping and run? All eyes in the whole supermarket seemed to be on me and I felt as though I was the most idiotic person on the planet.
I really felt belittled, stupid, vulnerable and wholly out of place…and this was one of my lowest points in terms of my life as an expat living in Austria. I really felt like I would never fit in, and that as a foreigner, no one liked me!
The cashier returned with my bananas – which were now in a bag with a price label attached. So, I fathomed I should have bagged and weighed my produce – something I didn’t have to do in my usual supermarket, and something I’d never had to do in the UK. The rest of the transaction went as smoothly as it could taking into account my diminished sense of self and the fact that I was hugely embarrassed and on the verge of tears.
When I got home and got some space between me and the incident, I took stock of the situation and deduced the following…I was not a bad person, I was not stupid nor inferior – in fact, I was ‘better’ than the cashier and my fellow shoppers for the following reasons: –
I was making an effort to learn a new language
I was embracing a new nation and a new culture and doing everything I could to change and adapt to fit
With my experience of feeling like a complete idiot I would never speak down to someone who couldn’t speak my language
If ever I was in a situation and witnessing a foreigner struggling with language I would go out of my way to help (unlike my fellow shoppers)
I was right to keep trying because I was making progress
Next time I would hold my head up in the face of other people’s ignorance of my situation and stay calm
I didn’t need everyone to be my friend
I should stop trying so hard!
Yes, the situation was negative, upsetting and a real low point in terms of my attempt to integrate into life in Austria – but it taught me one fundamental thing, I was doing all I could to adapt and that was enough!
Over time I learned the local lingo so well that I could make myself understood in every single situation – and I even learned how to swear, insult and talk down to people as well as many of the locals! I also found that Austrians are very different to Germans – and I have many German friends! I really couldn’t make good and lasting friendships in Vienna, but that said more to me about the city and Austria in general than it said to me about myself and my inability to integrate…it also led to my decision to transfer to live and work in Germany and leave my dream of a perfect life in Vienna behind.
I think that being an expat is all about learning and expanding horizons – you can gain so much through constantly watching, observing and adapting, and even negative situations can give you great insight.
To all would-be expats out there – embrace the challenge, you gain far more than you lose. And if you want to go and live in Austria, it is a stunning nation and it does have an awful lot in its favour, but it’s not the easiest nation in terms of acceptance so be prepared!