You Are What You Eat: How Our Food Culture Defines Us

Think about the first time someone shared food with you.

Maybe your best friend offered you his dessert at the school lunch table.

Maybe your neighbor had you and your family over for afternoon tea.

You probably felt more connected to that person, and it wasn’t just about the food. It was about the generosity of sharing and the ritual surrounding it.

Across many cultures, food traditions are ritualized and social.

So, it would stand that when you’re living in a foreign culture, joining in a meal with local friends can serve as a litmus test for how far you’ve come in your integration.

The Importance of Food

Just how important is food to culture?

If you’ve ever been to a cultural-based festival – like a Russian festival in America or an Italian festival in France – you’ll find that food is usually the festival’s focal point.

A culture’s cuisine and the traditions surrounding it (making the food, presenting the food, when and to whom it is served, etc.) are all integral to our cultural identity.

But we are not born with food culture etched into our DNA; it is learned.

Our Culinary Cultural Code is Written

University of Indiana Anthropology Professor Richard Wilk puts this learning process into perspective: 

“Your first relationship as a human being is about food. The first social experience we have is being put to the breast or bottle. The social act of eating, is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human.” 

The type of foods we eat, our preferences, are all learned. They’re programmed into us during the early stages of primary socialization.

Food norms and behaviors are taught early on as a matter of survival. Parents strictly enforce what is to be eaten and what’s NOT to be, so that baby isn’t stuffing whatever he finds on the floor into his mouth.

And the things we are taught not to eat often later repulse us.

Eat This; Don’t Eat That

For instance, in Western culture, insects are for the birds.

As humans, we’re taught not to eat them.

If you are later offered a plate of Korean Beondegi, Japanese Inago, or some other fried insect dish, you’re likely to have a physiological response – and not a positive one.

SadiaK123 from Pixabay 

In fact, just looking at this picture, you might feel a little nauseous.

Culture is powerfully influential when it comes to food likes and dislikes. And the results are fairly permanent.

This is why, when you move to another culture as an expat, immigrant, or refugee, food preferences are often amongst the last cultural habits to go (if they go at all).

And these habits involve not just WHAT you eat but HOW you eat.

Next week, we’ll take a deeper dive into the how.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 3: Transfer & Alter Cues

Think back to your first few weeks in your host culture.

Although excited for the newness of the foreign environment, you felt discomfort.

Out of place and homesick, you sought anything that was familiar – that might make you feel at ease.

Videocalls to your friends and family back home.

Your favorite sweater or blanket.

Even a familiar homegrown location, like Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Whatever made you feel at home again, you chased it.

These are what we call “cues.”

They’re little things that make you feel comfortable and familiar with your environment.

And they will come in handy when dealing with reverse culture shock.

What are Reentry Cues?

As you did when moving to a foreign country, take something of your host country home with you.

This “something” can be physical, from traditional objects that you’ve accumulated to your favorite herbs and spices of the cultural cuisine.

Or it can be intangible, like routines, customs, or values or norms that you’ve adopted from your host culture, like late night dinners or family-centered customs.

Any type of cultural cue can help you adjust to your reentry.

Bring & Alter Cues

You can either bring these cues directly from your host country, for instance a traditional dress, a favorite book, or your favorite chocolate bar.

Or you can alter existing cues in your home country to mirror those from your host country.

For instance, you might alter your diet, adjusting for more veggies, more spices, etc. – whatever reminds you of your host’s foreign cuisine. 

You can alter your surroundings – laying down a carpet or mat made in your host country, for instance.

Or you might alter how you host people in your home or how you approach being a guest in others, according to some of the customs you’ve adopted.

There are many physical and psychological ways to transfer and alter cues that’ll help you transition back into your home country without fully renouncing your adopted one.

You will eventually have to fully re-adapt to your home country, but you don’t have to altogether abandon aspects of your host country that you adore.

The bottom line: introducing new cues will allow you to ease in, just as it did when you moved to your host country what feels like a lifetime ago.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 1: Getting Closure

Imagine spending years of breezy beach time in the slow-paced life of a tropical island…

Only to return to your home: a fast-paced city where everyone is in a rush.

Imagine spending years in a country where food never goes to waste…

Only to return to portion sizes that are two times too large, and excess food is frequently thrown out.

Imagine spending years cultivating values and norms that are centered around honor and family

Only to return to an individualist culture that values self-reliance and independence

Returning from life abroad can feel like jumping into a familiar but cold pool of water.

Although you think you remember everything about this pool and belong to this pool, the reality hits you like ice.

The fact that you’ve acclimatized to another culture’s warm waters is startling. Your own culture’s temperature catches you off guard. 

You may not know what hit you.

As we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, this is reverse culture shock.

Expect to Feel Shocked

If you want to get out ahead of reverse culture shock, knowing that it can – and likely will – happen is first things first.

You are here, educating yourself about the issue, which is a GREAT way to equip yourself with the tools to face it down when it does.

Just as you equipped yourself to adjust to a foreign culture and dealt with your initial culture shock, it’s always better to be prepared and expect that you may feel discomfort upon returning home – almost like you’ve missed a step coming down the stairs.

Step 1: Get Closure on Your Experience

Before returning home, prepare.

One essential part of this preparation is to say goodbye and gain some closure with a place and a people that has been your home.

As mentioned in a previous post, those who are ripped unexpectedly from their host culture and forced to return home have a harder time with reverse culture shock.

So, if you expect to return home and have the opportunity to gain closure, take it.

Shared by the U.S. Department of State, actions you can take that will allow you to feel closure include:

  • Getting a proper goodbye in with friends and/or hosting a “going away” party prior to departure; this will allow you to gather your friends’ contact information, if you don’t have it already, so you can keep in touch
  • Snapping pics and videos of your home, your place of work/school, your favorite haunts, and your favorite people
  • Picking up or hanging onto keepsakes that mean something to you
  • Creating an in-country bucket list of sorts and making time to hit up all the sites you’d regret not visiting

These are just some ways to gain closure from this significant experience. 

Leaving can feel a bit like a relationship break-up, so be prepared for a bit of heartache and nostalgia.

Tune in next week for Step 2: Managing Expectations.

Homesick for Your Host Country: How Reverse Culture Shock Manifests

You expect coming home to be euphoric.

And it is…for a minute.

But after that minute is over, in euphoria’s place is a feeling of unease, discomfort, and even sadness.

What you’re feeling is reverse culture shock, and it’s even stronger than the culture shock you experienced in your home country.

As described by the Founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions Dean Foster on expatica:

“[Reverse culture shock] is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated.”

Foster explains that the “patterns of behavior and thought” that an expat has developed to fit into his or her host country have now become part of them.

The change is gradual and not necessarily always conscious.

So, upon returning home, the expat is shocked to find the changes within themselves. 

Their home culture may have changed as well. It can seem a bit off, making it appear uncanny or surreal, like a funhouse mirror.

Readjusting to both the changes within oneself and within one’s home culture can feel like a double-whammy.

Another Thing: No One Cares…

What’s more, as an expat, you’re often excited and bursting to share your experience abroad, particularly if this was your first experience.

You are expecting a curious audience of family and friends awaiting your arrival.

You have great expectations.

But what you more often find is that no one cares.

Your family and friends have been living their own lives while you’ve been off living yours.

They are wrapped up in the day-to-day back home; not so much concerned with the many “monkey moments” you had in a world they’ve never visited.

You may get an odd question here or there out of courtesy – not much more than an open-ended “so, how was it?” or a “did you have a good time?” – but no one is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting attentively for your tale of life abroad.

All of this might make you feel a number of things: annoyed with your family and friends, alienated from your home country, and homesick for your host country.

Your relationships may have changed back home too, having lost out on some experiences (weddings, births, or other family/friend events, for instance) while you were away.

What can you do to reduce the shock of all these changes and feelings?

Find Your People

One, you can find your people.

Other expats who are experiencing the same reverse culture shock as you often hold support groups either online or in person in major cities. You don’t even have to be from the same host country; you have a shared experience of returning from a foreign land and feeling these same effects.

Moreover, those with this shared experience are more likely to be that rapt audience you were searching for. Curiosity about the world is built-in, so you’ll be able to share your experiences and swap stories about life abroad without feeling like your audience is uninterested or disconnected.

As for homesickness, you might find ways to embrace your change in personality and continue in the lifestyle you’ve developed abroad at home. 

Cook up some of your favorite meals from your host country, continue with your language lessons, stay connected to your host country friends – keep in touch this other part of who you are.

You’ve enriched your life with this experience abroad, and even though you may not be encouraged to unload your memoir on everyone in your life, you should nurture it and let it continue to be a quiet new branch of your personal baobab.

Returning Home: What Impacts the Degree to Which You Feel Reverse Culture Shock?

You are returning home after spending five years living in Ukraine – a country to which you’ve adapted and adopted to a certain degree.

You’ve had to balance your home-grown values with your host country’s; you’ve altered your norms wherever you could in order to integrate properly.

For instance, you don’t smile in public as much anymore. It was drilled into your head that those who smile at strangers in Ukraine are believed to have a screw loose.

And now you’re returning home. Back to the familiar.

Home sweet home.

And you’re still not smiling.

Home is NOT So Sweet

Reverse culture shock is the upset that you feel upon returning to your home country.

When you step off that airplane, everybody is smiling. But your face is stuck in its deadpan of Ukrainian stoicism.

It’s like returning to your childhood bedroom after college – everything comes flooding back to you and, yet, feels distant and detached.

After all, it’s all familiar, from the language to the people to the foods and the streets.

There’s only one problem: everything is the same, but YOU are different.

You are returning from your second home: your host country – a place to which you spent a lot of time and energy adapting.

You learned the language, you learned the history, you learned the religion.

You knew and began to understand the culture.

So, now, upon trying to sleep in your old bed, you’re like Goldilocks.

It just doesn’t feel right.

It may be the case that some things have changed too – new pillows, a scratchy bedspread – and your once-familiar bedroom wasn’t what you were expecting.

You realize your home no longer feels like home.

This complex mix of feelings all contributes to reverse culture shock.

Degrees of Reverse Culture Shock

The U.S. Department of State details some aspects that impact the degree to which those who return from abroad feel reverse culture shock.

Taken from Craig Storti’s book, The Art of Coming Home, the following may affect your experience of this shock:

  • Voluntary and expected reentry – whether you voluntarily or involuntarily reenter and/or whether you expected to reenter or did not can impact the degree of shock. Involuntary and unexpected reentry results in greater shock.
  • Experience – if you’ve had previous reentry experience from a foreign country, the shock is generally milder.
  • Age – older people often have an easier time at reentering due to more experience with general life transitions.
  • Extent of differences between the two cultures – the more different your home culture is from your host culture, the more difficult reentry can be.
  • Length of time spent in host country – the longer your duration overseas, the harder the return may be, as you will have adapted to your host country to a greater extent.
  • Amount and degree of interaction with your host country culture and your home culture during your time abroad – the more time and intimacy with your host culture, the harder it will be to leave; likewise, the more time and the degree to which you’ve interacted with your home culture, the easier it will be to reenter.
  • Environment of reentry – supportive and familiar environments make reentry easier. Returning to conflict, instability, or uncertainty will increase the shock, as will the lack of a support system.

Consider these aspects to gauge how difficult it might be to return home. This will help you prepare for the impact.

Let It Happen, and Drink Strong Tea: Factors that Affect Cultural Integration

The process of integrating into a new culture has its ups and downs.

We talked last week about the U-curve – that theoretical interation period that comes in four clean stages: 1) Honeymoon, 2) Crisis, 3) Recovery, and 4) Adjustment.

While many do experience these four stages when moving to a new country, they often aren’t as clear-cut as the chart would suggest.

Instead, they might look more like this:

This is what Marie, an expat culture blogger, drew to represent her cross-cultural experience.

She wrote:

“Even when I was completely in love with my host country, there were tough times. It was a lot like raising children, in fact: I love my kids more than life itself, but there are plenty of days when I’m convinced I’ll never get the hang of this parenting thing. And then the sun comes out again, and life is good.”

Like Marie, you might feel a true love for your host country, but you’ll most certainly experience failures and setbacks.

But, don’t worry, the sun will come out again.

Factors That Impact Integration

There is no time table for cross-cultural integration.

The process may tie you up in knots, and it won’t happen on a predictable schedule. 

And that’s because many factors come into play that can be out of your control.

These factors include but are not limited to:

These are just a few factors that play into the process of cross-cultural integration.

Some are within your ability to control; others are not.

Adapt at Your Own Pace

Each person adapts at their own pace, and the process is unpredictable.

While you will definitely have moments of happiness and bliss in your new culture, you’ll also face challenges you’ve never faced before which may fill you with dread and uncertainty.

Speaking another language. Making foreign friends. Adapting to social norms.

You will see progress, but sometimes, you’ll feel stalled.

This will make you frustrated and even depressed.

There’s no avoiding the hurdles altogether; they’re there, and you will have to find the will to jump them.

So, when faced with them, take a breath of African fatalism:

Let it happen, and drink strong tea.

Remember that this process is normal, and in a couple of years, if all goes according to plan, you’ll feel right at home in your new home.

And those hurdles that seemed like abrupt speed bumps at the time will look like nothing more than rumble strips in your rearview.

Adapting to a Culture: The U-Curve Adjustment Theory

Week 1.

You land in your host country. You’re in love.

The energy, the climate, the newness.

It’s all so fresh and bright.

You are thrilled to be here, and you can’t imagine ever NOT being thrilled.

This is the honeymoon period.

Week 2.

You’ve been trying to get your WiFi set up for over a week now.

The service guy hasn’t dropped in yet, even though you’ve called several times.

How are you supposed to work? How are you supposed to talk with your family back home?

You’ve never been more frustrated.

You’re missing home, where things are straightforward and service is immediate.

No waiting around, no wondering what to do. No communicating in broken Spanish.

No confusion.

You’re also feeling lonely, missing your friends and family, and wishing you were back in their comfortable presence.

This is the crisis period.

Week 9.

You’ve been living in your host country for three months.

Your WiFi has long been set up, and you’ve managed to put that crisis in your rearview.

You’ve faced several more in the past few months but, bit by bit, you’re figuring things out.

You’re making friends, eating the local foods, finding great places to go. Some that even remind you of home.

You still fell twinges of homesickness, but you haven’t researched one-way tickets back in weeks.

This is the recovery period.

Week 27.5.

You’ve been in your host country for two years. 

You’re well adjusted, and it almost feels like your second home.

You’ve established yourself, have your group of friends, new routines. You’re learning the language, you know your way around.

You’re adapting.

And you’re beginning to admire this new culture.

Things that used to irritate you about it are becoming easier to manage and even endearing.

This is the adjustment period.

Lysgaard’s U-Curve

Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard’s U-curve is a widely used model for cultural adapting and adjustment. 

Lvsgaard hypothesized in 1955 that the inverted bell-curve is a common expat experience. 

He writes:

“Adjustment as a process over time seems to follow a U-shaped curve: adjustment is felt to be easy and successful to begin with; then follows a ‘crisis’ in which one feels less well adjusted, somewhat lonely and unhappy; finally one begins to feel better adjusted again, becoming more integrated into the foreign community.”

These highs and lows might sound familiar to expats and international managers alike.

When adjusting to a culture, you’re bound to face days where you’ve had enough and feel that you’re at the end of your rope.

You may even hide inside and refuse to venture out of your safe space to interact with the locals.

Why? Because going outside will provoke you; it will remind you of all the things that are different about your host country: everything takes longer, people drive insane, you’re sick of the food, the language barriers…

You’ll contrast your host country with your “more civilized” home country, where everything seems right and makes sense.

You’ll resent the illogical nature of this new culture and feel angry about it.

Does this sound familiar?

The Consecutive Cycle

Although many do experience the highs and lows of an adjustment period, subsequent studies found that only 10 percent of those surveyed actually cycle consecutively across these four stages.

For the other 90 percent of expats, things are more confusing.

The feelings may ebb and flow. They might not follow in this order – or you may skip out on some stages altogether.

Or perhaps you won’t experience any of this at all.

Some expats have no honeymoon period whatsoever. They are disappointed and unhappy from the very first day they set foot off the plane.

And for some, that feeling may never change.

But keep in mind, research has shown that the first few months of expatriation are the most stressful.

If you can get over the hump, your honeymoon period just might come later.

Next week, we’ll talk about what to do if your U-curve is actually a knot.

Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

Americans vs. the Swiss: Defining Friendship

An American sits down beside a Swiss on an airplane. 

After some initial friendly banter (one-sided from the American), he asks, “Where are you off to?”

The Swiss, slightly uncomfortable, is reluctant to respond, but the American doesn’t take the cue.

Without prompt, he proceeds to share his entire trip with the Swiss. He was visiting his son who lives abroad in France. They went on a bike journey across the Baltics together. He’s now heading home to Minnesota, where he’s retired. He and his wife have three other kids, all of whom are newly out of the nest. Their absence has been particularly hard on him, and he’s been trying to find new hobbies – like biking – to fill that empty void where activities with his children once stood.

“Enough about me…” he wraps up. “What about you? What do you do?”

The Swiss squirms in his seat. This man is a stranger, and it’s none of his business. Even worse, the Swiss has nowhere to turn. The nonstop flight is eight hours. Would it be rude to put his headphones in?

This is a marked difference between American and Swiss culture.

Small talk is a common, acceptable, and even appreciated social norm in America.

In Switzerland, not so much.

Sharing Personal Info

This chart illustrates just how uncomfortable the above American just made his Swiss cohort.

The Swiss only share small talk with buddies or friends – and sometimes with colleagues.

In fact, the American went well past small talk, sharing non business related topics, personal factual information, and even personal emotional themes, all of which are only shared between close friends in Switzerland.

To breach this wall with a stranger can feel egregious to the Swiss.

As we talked about last week, respecting others’ privacy is highly valued in Swiss culture.

Their “bubble” is much larger than that of their American counterpart.

Comfort Zone of Communication

The comfort zone of communication is considerably tighter in Switzerland and the scope of people with whom they communicate narrower.

Americans talk about anything and everything with their friends and are, more often than not, comfortable sharing more with a broader range of people as well, whether they be acquaintances or even strangers on a plane.

Swiss view friendship as intimate and permanent. Being a friend means being there, through thick and thin; it’s a life-long commitment not to be taken lightly.

Essentially, the Swiss have no “degrees” of friendship; they have a single solid unalterable definition.

Americans, on the other hand, have a wider range of friendships. They might have people they consider close friends who always have their back, others they consider fun and easygoing buddies who come and go from their lives, and still others with whom they’d be happy to grab a beer and discuss politics but not necessarily share their deepest darkest secrets.

While Americans might view “close” friendships similarly to the way the Swiss view friendship in general, they are also more often open to lighthearted, casual friendships with most anyone.

To some, they might be considered “fair-weather friends,” while to others with whom they are more intimate, they are considered loyal.

But they are willing to share degrees of themselves and their lives with even strangers, all the same.

So, how does one make friends in a culture with such a different concept of friendship?

We’ll bridge that gap next week.

Small Talk & Swiss Culture

A Swiss anchorman was traveling by train from Zurich to Chur.

A passenger sitting in the seat in front of him spoke not a word the whole train ride.

As the train pulled into the terminal station, the passenger stood, turned to the anchorman, and reached out his hand for a shake, saying, “Mr. Müller, it has been a pleasure to travel with you.” 

This is characteristic of the Swiss in general.

Respecting others’ privacy is a highly valued norm. The Swiss do not talk with strangers – even famous television anchormen – as they see this as an invasion of others’ privacy.

In this case, the passenger might have mustered up the courage to greet the anchorman, but that’s where the intrusion begins and ends.

Personal Details Are Private

The Swiss are traditionally secretive.

Whereas other cultures might chitchat while waiting in a queue, the Swiss don’t bother engaging in small talk.

In fact, if you initiate small talk with a stranger in Switzerland, you may be met with a dirty look.

Personal details are just that: personal.

Private or personal matters aren’t brought to work, be they emotions or facts.

Such matters needn’t even be deep to be avoided. The Swiss are unlikely to share where they’re from, what car they drive, or any sort of mundane detail about their lives.

An article about Swiss culture by Valentine Sergon on Expatica explains:

“As a whole, Swiss people tend to be polite, reserved, direct, and a little guarded at first. In work environments, social etiquette in Switzerland is to remain formal until explicitly told otherwise.”

Personal details and themes are only shared between friends.

Strangers and acquaintances receive only greetings and reserved niceties. It’s only until you break into the “inner circle” that you might earn a lifelong friendship from the Swiss.

But a lifelong friendship it will be, as once they put their trust in you, the Swiss are known to be loyal.

Struggle to Small Talk

An Australian expat wrote the following about Swedish people, but it could apply just as well to the Swiss:

“I can tell that they really want to learn, but they were never taught how to do small talk. When people find out I’m Australian, they try to make small talk with me, but they really struggle. They speak good English; it’s just that they don’t know what to say.”

Swiss culture is very much the same. Small talk is so foreign to the Swiss that, even if they wanted to try, they have a hard time with it.

Now that you know a bit about Swiss culture, you might wonder how it stacks up to American culture.

With such norms, how might a Swiss person survive in a world of America, a culture that typically embraces small talk?

Or how might an American fair in Switzerland?

We’ll tell you how next week.