Being a Cultural Chameleon

Scientists call a baby’s brain the ultimate tabula rasa, or blank slate. Everything that makes our culture uniquely ours, such as language, traditions, customs, etc. are imprinted on a growing child as part of the nurturing process. Children that grow up bilingual tend to pick up a third and fourth language easily; similar to this, I believe that a child that grows up immersed in more than one culture is more readily able to adapt to a new country and culture. We are created to be able to adapt to any situation and culture – it is really amazing. I could go on and on about the plasticity of the newborn’s mind…but I will save that for a more technical neuroscience entry in the future.

Back to this article: having spent my formative years in Singapore and on Long Island and being forced to adapt again and again in new cultures such as the armed forces, Rochester, and now London, I like to think of myself as a sort of cultural chameleon. What do I mean by “cultural chameleon”?

Chameleons, as we know, blend into their surroundings; likewise, what I try to do when I arrive in a new country is blend in. In the case of moving from Singapore to New York or New York to London, the languages appear to be the same at first glance (English), but they are in fact many variants on the English language. Singapore inserts a bit of a local flavor by mixing in some local dialects, such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Tamil, and Malay, into daily speech, whereas British English and American English have many different words for the same objects/ideas.

Now, when moving to a new place, you’re definitely going to stick out at first. However, you always have three choices when arriving somewhere new:

1.) You continue using your old vocabulary and behaving the way you normally would at home even though customs and language are completely different and wonder why the local people aren’t conforming to you (not recommended);

2.) You continue using your old vocabulary and behavior, but learn certain words and customs of the new country and will sometimes use them when you remember, but have no intention or are incapable of making yourself one of them (most people will usually choose or be stuck with this);

3.) You embrace the new culture wholeheartedly, shifting your speech patterns, vocabulary, and mannerisms to match the locals since you believe in the old idiom, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” People sometimes mistake you for a local and are surprised when you inform them that you are not native and/or spent more time elsewhere than in the present location.

Generally, people in category 2 and 3 don’t suffer from severe culture shock because they go in knowing that things are different from being at home. You may have deduced by now that most cultural chameleons fit into category 3. I personally strive to always do this; since I grew up in both Singapore and the US, adapting to a new place is easier for me than for someone who has lived in one place their entire life. I always confuse people because people are surprised when I’m in the US and I tell them I’m from Singapore and people are surprised when I’m in Singapore and tell them I’ve spent most of my life in the US. My current goal is to for people to be unable to tell if I’m from the US, Singapore, or London, but that may be difficult to achieve in just one year.

Perhaps some people wish to fit into category 3, but simply lack the ability to completely immerse and adapt in order to blend in. It requires strong observation skills – for example, I notice that Americans and Brits pronounce and emphasize vowels very differently; I make it a point to remember that you stand on the right of a British escalator but on the left of a Singaporean one; a subway in Britain is an underpass in Singapore – the list can go on and on. The thing is that not everyone notices these things and even if they want to blend in, they can’t because they don’t know what they are and aren’t doing differently (or similarly, I guess) from the locals.

Why would you want to completely blend in? Well, people treat you differently when you sound like you’re from “around here”. A story a friend of mine once told me (and I can’t confirm or deny its truth because I’ve never been to Hawaii) is that when you are in Hawaii, you get charged for things at different rates if you’re a local or if you’re a tourist. This is just a minor example, but in most cases, I think that people will trust you more because you’re not an “outsider”. It sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?

I’m not trying to say that not everyone can be a cultural chameleon; I’m just saying that it may be more difficult for people who have only grown up in one culture, just like it’s difficult for someone who was raised monolingually to pick up a second language at a later time. All it requires is a little flexibility of tongue to mimic pronunciation and awareness  so that you can see and hear all the differences. With a little practice and observation, you’ll be on your way to being a cultural chameleon yourself.

Photo courtesy of: Miami Every Day Photo

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