As odd as it may sound, I am actually cognisant of the first time I heard the expression ‘going native’. It was in an introductory social anthropology class I took during my first year of university. We were a group of budding sociologists, seven or perhaps eight women (back then it was only women as real men did not study the social sciences), huddled over texts by Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Margaret Mead.
Going native, it was repeatedly concluded, was something very bad indeed. Examples were given of sociologists who had gone to Africa to study ancient tribes deep in the jungle. Rather than observe and report on the natives’ activities, said sociologist, oddly always a man, would take up with one of the local tribal ladies, put on a grass skirt, and partake in the local lifestyle. Objectivity and professionalism was lost. It was a scandal to go native, somehow comparable to having an extramarital affair and being untrue to your profession.
How odd as well, that twenty-five years after learning about going native, and nodding in agreement with the list of failings it represents and tut-tutting on its moral laxity, I find myself publicly confessing to having gone native. Granted, I did not come to live in Austria to study the natives, so to speak. I came here to marry one. However, I did not know fifteen years ago the extent of the cultural peril to which I was subjecting myself via my GloLo husband.
Gone Native Confession # 1: I eat pizza with a knife and fork. I grew up in Canada where pizza, extra-doughy crust with double cheese please, is a popular meal for kids, students, grown-ups and grannies alike. Canadians eat pizza with gusto and we do so with our bare hands. In fact, pulling away one cheesy slice from the hot pizza pie, which lies in its cardboard delivery box on the table, often in the living room in front of the TV by the way, is an art form.
Well, that was then. After several years of intense exposure to and then deep immersion into Austrian culture, where a casual meal is a three course affair with cloth napkins, pizza is enjoyed sitting at the dinner table, eaten with a knife and fork and even a glass of Chianti. Accusations by fellow Canucks about getting hoity-toity are valid enough, but pizza actually tastes better this way. Just try it, I suggest to my critics.
Gone Native Confession # 2: I grew up as a hugger but now I am a kisser. Canadians are huggers. When friends and family re-unite after a period of absence, they hug like bears, arms enclosing each other with full front on contact. This is no time for timidity. That silly cheeky-cheeky air kissing portrayed in what Canadians call ‘foreign films’ is considered affected and unnatural. Once again, after years of immersion in a kissy-kissy culture, I have converted. Now I am a kisser, and this is the clincher, I strongly believe in it. I like the formality of the kiss-kiss and how it signifies the beginning and ending of a social gathering without full frontal contact. Hugging is still an option after all.
Years of living abroad and being in a GloLo relationship take their toll on one’s cultural identity. Cultural adaptation is a natural part of surviving and thriving in the host country and in a GloLo family. Often it is really just being polite and respecting local norms and values. Western women dressing to cover up miscellaneous body parts, even when it is really, really hot, not mowing the lawn or doing ‘noisy’ garden work on Sundays, and bowing very low when arriving at the office in the morning, for example, are all part of cultural adaptation. We may not like it much, but we do our best to blend with the local cultural environment.
With increased globalisation and so many of us wandering willy-nilly around the world, working here, marrying there, and generally creating multicultural chaos, going native is on the rise.
All of this begs the question, what is the difference between cultural adaptation and going native, and is going native really all that wrong?
Here are two simple tests. First, look in the mirror and ask your twelve year self if you are proud of the person who stands before you. Twelve year olds are ruthless in their judgement. If your experience living abroad and going native has been an enriching and enjoyable, the twelve year old will smile.
Second, look to your family and friends. Do they relish, admire, and perhaps joke a bit about your new cultural identity, practice or belief, or do they ask, ‘what happened to you’ in an alarmed fashion and whisper together conspiratorially in the kitchen afterward? If you have no contact with friends and family and are on the FBI/Interpol Most Wanted Criminals list, you have likely gone too far with your cultural integration. It is probably advisable to call a very good lawyer as well.
Going native is just one of the many challenging, fun and frustrating issues of living abroad and being in a GloLo partnership. With that, I will sign off. Kiss-kiss.