I am half Asian, but I was born and grew up in Europe. I was never sure how much in me is European and how much is Asian, so I was curious to see what it will be like for me to move to an Asian country; Taiwan. Once I moved there, I quickly became friends with my classmates at university who were from other Southeast Asian countries. They supported me enormously and helped me transition to a life that was very different from what I knew before.
However, although they were also foreigners in Taiwan, I often felt that we are foreigners in different ways, since they are still from Asia whereas I am from Europe. Here are some things that I learned through my cross-cultural friendships and how this helped me grow as a person.
Individualism vs. collectivism The first thing that stood out to me right away is how important family is for my Asian friends. Although I believe family is important to every human being, its role is fundamentally different in Southeast Asian countries. This cultural difference is often referred to by the terms of ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’. An individualistic society is one where the worth of the individual is emphasized and his or her needs and interest are prioritized. It is commonly said that most European cultures are individualistic. In contrast, in a collectivist society an individual is viewed as a small part of a bigger picture, like a family, a social class, a race or a state. Many Asian cultures are said to be more collectivistic than individualistic.
I was surprised to notice how strongly I felt this difference in approach to life once I got to know my Asian friends more.
Their everyday worries showed to me that they deeply care about their family and their parents’ future well-being. Many of my friends seem to have a set role in their family and with that role came many responsibilities for them that they had to keep in mind when they chose what they study at university, which country they will settle in or even who they will marry.
As a European, although of course I care about my family, I do not think about them when I consider my future because I think that ultimately it is my own choice what I want to do.
So it was very eye-opening for me to realize that many people cannot and will not only think of themselves but think of their parents and other family when they plan their own path in life.
Communication Another difference that stood out to me from very early on was in communication. At first, my friends would tell me things that I would misunderstand or I would not understand what they mean until they explained very elaborately. I was surprised and confused by this; how come we are both speaking in English but I cannot understand what they mean? Then I realized that although we use the same language, the way we use it is very different. They are much less direct with what they want to say, especially if it something unpleasant or may cause conflict. In contrast, I realized that sometimes the way I expressed myself was too blunt and direct for them and I may have unintentionally hurt their feelings. So from then on, I tried to think more carefully about what I will say or sometimes decided that saying nothing at all may be better.
It can be frustrating or confusing to be surrounded by friends from different nationalities who differ in so many ways from you. However, if you keep an open mind and heart, you can learn many new things from them that will help you grow as a human being.
1. Be more patient and tolerant of others When many people surround you who view life differently from you, you can learn to accept that what they think is their opinion and respect this. In this way, you can become more tolerant of people who are different from you.
2. Be more open-minded and question your own behaviors By becoming friends with people from other countries you can get an insight into how people from other cultures think, live and what they value. Discovering differences between your own values and behaviors and that of your cross-cultural friends can highlight to you what part of your own behaviors is a product of your culture and upbringing. In this way, you can gain self-awareness and you can try to challenge yourself by trying out new behaviors.
3. Embrace experiencing something new Humans like familiarity because it is safe and comfortable. New things can be scary and difficult but without change and novelty, we cannot gain life experience and grow as human beings. Thus, having cross-cultural friendships can help you step out of your comfort zone and gain experiences that will last for a lifetime.
Author: Zsofia Sophansay, 24, Hungary
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