During my senior year of high school, I came to the States as an exchange student.
One day, no more than 48 hours after my arrival in Rocky River, Ohio, my host sister said, “You know you’ll never get a date if you don’t shave your legs.”
Shave my legs? What for? And ask me if I care about dating. But, to pacify Debbie, I made a valiant attempt to shave my legs. The end result wasn’t pretty, and I wore pants for several weeks in muggy August heat while the gashes and slashes healed.
“What does it matter,” I enquired after my legs were healed enough to get into a skirt.
“This is America,” she said. “Here, you have to shave your legs and armpits to look ladylike.”
“Really?” I asked.
I didn’t have a clue how I looked to others in this place where I am living.
When I tell this story to non-Americans, they tend to think Debbie was a little hard on me. I certainly didn’t take Debbie’s feedback well at the time. But I look back on this lesson, through more mature eyes, with more understanding. Because I know that she was trying to help me start to fit in. She made me realize, even then, that flexibility and a willingness to embrace a totally alien practice is necessary if you do want to “fit-in” and not make others around you uncomfortable.
Leg-shaving was one of many changes for me that year. When I returned to Malaysia, I dropped some of them; leg-shaving was one.
There were other changes that I continued with because they made sense.
I credit Debbie and her family, my host family for the entire year, for starting me on a path toward being a more adaptable person — being less rigid, and more creative in accepting change.
Recently, I read a study on the effects of living in another country. Researchers found that exposure to a different culture may help explain why some artists did their best work while living abroad or after returning home. Think about Hemmingway and Picasso. Experiencing another culture can, they found, make you more creative, more willing to embrace change.
The study goes on to quote a slew of examples, but the bottom line is: multicultural experience can benefit the brain in areas ranging from complex thinking to mental flexibility to interpersonal skills.
Speaking from personal experience, these effects likely have to do with acquiring what is called “reflected knowledge” — understanding how you look from another culture’s point of view — as well as how much you internalize that view. Reflected knowledge allows you to see things as an outsider. Once people live abroad and learn to see themselves and their culture from afar, those things never look the same again.
This shift in perspective can be a painful process. For me, it started with the leg-shaving, followed a day or two later with a gentle chiding for dumping ketchup on all my food. In my mind, I accepted the chiding and kept replaying the image of myself as an unappreciative dinner guest who gave little to no credit to the cook by spoiling what subtle flavors the cook had intended with the ketchup. Growing up in Malaysia then, ketchup was the common denominator in Western foods. By Western, my narrow experience was then limited to the British colonials in Malaysia.
I swallowed my pride, went back to my host mother, and asked her to teach me the proper American table manners.
I learned the rules: taste the food before adding more seasoning. Don’t belch. Don’t reach across the table. Don’t put your elbows on the table. And when you are finished, remain at the table until everyone else is done. This last rule I had to quickly ignore as soon as I got back to Malaysia. Politeness and consideration in my own family of 12 meant eating quickly and making room at the small table for someone else.
Taking my first tentative steps outside my own Malaysian Chinese culture, I began to see my language and beliefs and customs as not inherently right or wrong. Once I started down this road, there was no turning back. It became easier to understand other views, other mannerisms, in the way an actor tries on different characters. Along the way, I learned a great deal in the year I spent with my host family and host community in Ohio. This carried on in nine more years of overseas living — outside of both Malaysia and the USA.
But, in the end I got much more: I found myself in a world that felt rich and full of possibilities that, if I could find a way to imagine them, were mine to create.