The Cultural Outsider

Travelling is all about different experiences. It’s the food, the language, the music, the architecture, the way of life. Experiencing everything that makes up a different culture is what makes travelling great. Get a group of people from around the world in one room, or bus, or boat, or really any other venue I’ve found myself in the last six months, and it’ll come to life with chants, and songs, and discussions from home. But what happens when you’re from a part of the world that doesn’t really have a discernable culture? You know, that part of the world that thinks it’s the centre of the universe? The part whose movies, music, language, and businesses penetrate practically every border on earth? Well, turns out you end up just having to sit the whole thing out. You’re the designated driver of the cultural exchange, and sometimes it’s kind of a bummer.

Now it’s pretty obvious I can’t possibly be talking about Canada. Our global presence isn’t that dominant. We’re just your friendly neighbourhood hockey team apologizing for winning the game and hurrying off back to our vastly unpopulated landmass. It’s our slightly less reputably friendly neighbours to the south, the big bad United States of America that’s omnipresent in international culture. But in broad strokes, culturally, to the rest of the world? Same diff.

Having English as your first (and only) language is both a blessing and a curse. On one side, you’re an expert in the bridge language. English is how many different people communicate between cultures. It’s fast becoming a global language, and is a mandatory class is many countries where English is not a national language. Because of this, you can often travel quite easily throughout many parts of the world despite the fact that you don’t speak the language. Additionally I’ve been the go-to person on a number of communication issues. I’m a walking dictionary and syntax corrector, champion of language charades and designated proofreader.

On the other hand, it robs you of that cultural ‘cool’ factor. You don’t have a language of your own. You just have the “global” language. Some friends from Germany had to laugh at me one night in a bar, when I had to lean over to a friend and whisper something in their ear so that the rest of the group wouldn’t hear what I was saying. Despite my attempt to be inconspicuous, the visual clues were all too obvious. “We just switch to German whenever we need to have a private conversation. It’s so easy” they laughed. Later on that night I noticed them looking very serious on the bus ride home. Someone a few seats behind us was gossiping in German and they were discretely trying to pick up what they were saying. I guess the advantage can backfire when you’re not aware you’re not the only expat on the bus.

Ever heard about the phenomenon involving a bunch of people synchronized clapping in a room? Eventually, naturally, they’ll all start clapping in unison. It usually only takes a matter of seconds, and it’s a group of unorganized unrehearsed people, but it happens naturally. I bring this up because this phenomenon applies to Spanish people and chanting. I’m not sure what amount of people constitutes the tipping point in a group, but I estimate it’s about three. Get three or more Spanish people in a room and you’ve creating a chanting time-bomb. It may not always be a chant, necessarily, it could be a song, or an anthem, but it will be synchronized, and it will be loud.

Just as the Spanish have their chants the Italians have their cooking and lateness. And just as the Italians have their cooking, the Germans have their beer and engineering. And the French have their thing, and the Dutch have their thing. And all of these countries have their own languages, which is a big thing to share in casual conversations and connection. There are so many hidden gems of all of these cultures and it’s exciting to see people’s faces light up as they share things about their home and their culture. As a North American, everyone is already all-too-aware of our culture. They listen to our music, watch our movies, know our celebrities and ways of life and this doesn’t leave a whole lot left to share.

I’ve of course found a few things to share, including the obvious ones like hockey, our weird names for coins, and I’ve even successfully created one more international fan of Canadian gem Jeremy Fisher. But it still doesn’t quell the notion that some people in the world seem to have; that we think we are the centre of the universe. That we think our way is the right way and everyone else is weird. That everyone else better catch up to North America or get left behind. Regardless of perceptions, I’ll still be coming home with a long list of things I loved about Finland, Europe, and the rest of the people and cultures I experienced while I was here. Things I’ll certainly miss and wished we had back in our little corner of the world, far from the centre of the universe, and far from perfect – but always home.