Breaking the Mould

When I was 12 years old, I remember looking around and being asked: “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” While I deeply love my family and friends where I was raised, I felt something deep inside me stir, as I responded: “I don’t know what I want to do, but I know where I want to be: Not here!” And so it was that at the age of 19, I moved out, of the house I was raised in, out of the country I grew up in. Nowadays, I tend to go back home for vacation every once in a while, and in doing so, I have noticed a disturbing tendency: at the same time as I am part of that place I call home, I am also just an outside observer looking in.

Most of my school colleagues decided to stay at home, go to university, and are on the best way to getting married and producing children. What always got me about them was the ideas they had about living abroad. They tended to take a 6 month internship somewhere, and then proudly proclaim (once back home) that they now had earned “experience abroad”, a vital part of any CV. Yet, they were essentially the same people that left! What was that experience they managed to hide so well from me?!

Recently, I started reading “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” by Gregory Bateson. In one of the essays, he talks about anthropology and the nature of groups. While determining different factors of analysis in groups, Bateson wrote:

“We may say that the patterns of thought of the individuals are so standardized that their behavior appears to them logical.”

What does that have to do with “experience abroad”? Well, think about it. Usually, people spend about 6 months abroad at any given time. This gives them enough time to observe (sic!) another culture, another way of doing things and thinking. Yet, they are continuously evaluating it from the standpoint of their culture, from what seems logical to them. And when they go home, they talk about “how different they do things over there”.

Let’s imagine the same situation, only this time the person spends 1 to 2 years abroad. This time, the person will not observe what is going on, this is actually enough time to fully try on a new culture, a new set of beliefs and values, and to explore a different thinking space of what is possible. When coming back home, the individual in question will evaluate the culture it grew up in from the mindset of the foreign culture. “This is how we did it back there, how come you do it like this here?”

Mother culture is continuously whispering to us about how things got be the way they are, and why how we act is completely logical. Yet, it never occurs to us that it is only logical for us. Leaving the country for any prolonged period of time gets that tune out of our mind, and lets us listen to a new one, with its similarities and differences.

Breaking the mould of thought that we grow up in is the single most important determinant of our success in becoming individuals. Why do you think the Aboriginals made their youth walk through the country for a year before being allowed back home? So, what are you? A copy of what mother culture expects, or have you broken your mould yet….

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2 thoughts on “Breaking the Mould

  1. CJ says:

    Interesting… having lived abroad – or away from my “mother culture” for most of my life, I’m what some have come to describe as a TCK or “Third Culture Kid”. Only until two years, upon moving from the West to Asia, was I really confronted with a culture so foreign to my own. Living in an Asian metropolis I soon realized I wasn’t alone – there were others like me. And yes, most of those others were seeking that, “experience abroad” to complement their CV’s and took it much like many of us took bootcamp – something we simply had to do for a finite period of time. An endless succession of parties with fellow expats help numb the experience for these individuals until it is time to return to the comforts of the lives they have predestined to live in their homes.

    I believe, however, that those, like myself, who stay away longer have no garauntees of “breaking the mold”. Much of our western culture is built around logic and the use of logic (or so we like to believe). Most of us are not anthropologists, so it is difficult to understand other cultures by applying the use of basic logic, benchmarked on our own culture. In this situation, I have observed that one of two things will happen: The individual will either live for years in the midst of this foreign culture by creating a buffer of comfort through – expat friends, expat clubs, expat food, expat pubs, expat holidays, etc. They will continue to complain about the foreign culture they live in – many times mocking it and dismissing it as… I dare say, uncivilized. The other set of individuals will try to find a balance through acceptance – “go with the flow”; “I don’t understand why this is as it is, but it’s not my position to question a culture far older than my own.”

    By accepting – and not questioning every nuance – we move on with our lives… and bit by bit, things begin to fall in place; bit by bit we begin to understand the culture we are living in. We break the mold and move forward without stalling at every challenge or uncertainty. And it is precisely this acceptance to to the alien – this open-mindedness, flexibility and adaptability that is the great treasure and asset one gains from living abroad. Precisely this is what a company will look for / should look for in an individual who claims to have, “experience abroad”. The broken mold becomes your true asset. The six month internship, beyond being one great eye-opener and one great party, just won’t do it. Neither will several years if you don’t let go and open yourself up to the unknown.

  2. Phantomias says:

    A very interesting response, and I do think there are many points in there that really add to what I wrote. I think you are very right in saying that there is not guarantee for breaking the mould…just looking at the history of American’s living in the “Canal Zone” shows how they tried to hold on to American values in a foreign country. Some of them even flat out refuse to learn Spanish….

    I think I need to refine the original thesis then: We can break our mould, and in doing so, we allow certain aspects of our thinking to transcend culture. This can then lead to what you called a “Third Culture Kid”. I find that term and the presuppositions in it very interesting. Can we cope with two conflicting cultures at the same time?? Is the third one that makes or breaks our beliefs?

    Another point, which I will soon develop further in form of a full post, is the question of time. We tend to measure everything in this dimension, and yet is this really a good measure for what we want to measure? Can time adequately represent experience, which is usually what we really want to know.

    CJ, in a final note, you should blog yourself, and post about your experiences. I think it might be really interesting to see Asia and Asian culture through the eyes of a Third Culture Kid with an open mind…..

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