The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: No apfelstrudel? Try some Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte!

CST apfelstrudel collageToday we welcome a new columnist, H.E. Rybol, to the Displaced Nation. The product of a German dad and a French mom, H.E. has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. (She currently resides in Luxembourg.) After 16 years of the Third Culture Kid life, she feels well equipped to handle any culture shock challenge that may come her way, and recently compiled these tools in an e-book. In her column for us, H.E. will be sharing some tips for handling the inevitable through-the-looking-glass moments every international faces—albeit with a certain finesse—through excerpts from her own writings and interviews with other cross-cultural experts.

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers!

Today I’m going to be talking about how our expectations shape our experiences. While that is something we all might know, we may not always be aware of it when it comes living life in other lands.

I am reminded of when I spent a bit of time in Dortmund, Germany. I spent my afternoons writing in a small boat-like cafe: blue sky and fluffy clouds were painted in the “portholes” on the back wall and ceiling, there were railings, two fake palm trees, maritime decorations carved out of wood: a seagull, a lighthouse, a sailboat.

Corny maybe, but I loved it.

One day, two women walked in with immaculate haircuts and fancy jewelry, conversing. They seemed excited, as if they’d really been looking forward to this moment. They ordered, merry faced and with their arms firmly planted on the table….an apfelstrudel.

The waiter, a young German-Egyptian, seemed bewildered: “A what?”

Apfelstruuuudel.”

Apfelkuchen?”

“No, no!” The women insisted.

This place offered an array of creamy and luscious cakes, but not apfelstrudel.

The women were incredulous. They turned to me, and said: “Apfelstrudel is SO German! How can they not have it?!”

They tried a different cake but kept shaking their heads in disbelief. They were disappointed. It seemed like in their minds, a cafe in Germany that didn’t serve apfelstrudel just didn’t fit.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. We have all had moments where we set our minds on something we didn’t get. Consider this though: How would the experience of the two ladies that afternoon have changed, had they let go of their idea and simply embraced what they had found?

Dear readers, may I ask what would you would do in this situation?

Toolbox Time!

Now, were any of you at all inclined to select the first answer? Be honest! Because it’s time for me to get out my toolbox.

Why is it a good idea to leave preconceived notions behind?

1. (She powers up her blowtorch.) It’s more exciting! Of course it’s a good idea to prepare, but once you’re on the plane (train/bus/bike), let go of those ideas. Replace expectations with anticipation.

2. (She exchanges vise grip pliers for needle nose pliers.) Let go to avoid disappointment. I think it’s a great idea to try local specialties and show interest in another country’s culinary traditions. But be flexible. If there’s no apfelstrudel, try a black forest cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) or any other local specialty. (Or if your heart is still set on apfelstrudel, why not ask people on the streets or in shops or restaurants for apfelstrudel recommendations?)

3. (She picks up the crescent wrench.) It helps us be more open. We don’t travel to confirm an image that we have. We travel to learn and grow as human beings. We travel to connect. In order to do that we have to let go of stuff we don’t need…such as preconceived notions. It helps us embrace new experiences and see things we wouldn’t notice otherwise.

4. (She turns on the overhead light.) Reality is often so much more interesting and stimulating than what we picture in our minds….and if we cling to the picture, we miss out. Culture shock is already a lot to deal with, we don’t need to add roadblocks by clinging to preconceived ideas.

5. (She invites a German-Egyptian carpenter to do a demo.) As travelers our expectations shape our experiences, but we should remember that the reverse is also true. Other people’s preconceptions also have an impact. Be open, flexible and learn from each other.

I hope that has you fixed until next month.

Prost! Santé!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of H.E.’s advice about developing some flexibility from those times when you’re feeling displaced? Or is that too tall an order when you had always pictured yourself eating apple strudel in a boat-themed German café?

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

STAY TUNED for another fab post.

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