Intercultural Dialogue Part II: Ideas about personal independence

Part II: Ideas about personal independence

A serious cultural difference that Lillian and I both struggled with is a clash between the level of personal independence we are used to at home and the level we are expected to conform to abroad.

Studies have shown that uniqueness, freedom and independence are all strongly valued in American culture. In many East Asian cultures, however, conformity is valued because of its association with interconnection and harmony. Obviously, these two ideals are at odds.

Lillian said that “in Taiwan or other Chinese culture countries we respect our parents or teachers, and we don’t want to offend them,” and explained how for her this idea extended to living with her parents even while she was a university student. “If we are in the same city with our parents we think that we should live with them to show that we are respecting them,” she said.

She noted that moving to the United States meant that she had to learn how to balance her time between studying and daily chores, which her parents did for her when she lived at home. She has found it difficult to have so many personal responsibilities in the United States.

I experienced the opposite problem in Spain. As a child, I started doing my own laundry and cooking for myself when I was nine years old. I could drive when I was sixteen and was expected to move out of the house when I started studying at UW-Madison, even though I would be living three miles from my parents. When I went to Spain, I lived with a host family who cooked for me, washed my clothes, and expected me to tell them when I was coming home at night. I found it extremely difficult to conform to what I saw as my host family’s restrictive way of life, especially when I didn’t know them very well.

Navigating cultural differences between Spain and the United States was at times difficult for my friends and I.

Navigating cultural differences between Spain and the United States was at times difficult for my friends and I.

I also experienced judgment from Spanish university students about my level of independence. They were shocked to learn that although I go to university in the same city that my parents live, I don’t live at home. I was asked numerous times whether I “hated” my family, just because I didn’t live with them.

I think that for Lillian and I, ideas about personal independence have been some of the biggest cultural differences we have had to reconcile. It was hard for Lillian to understand why families would live separately by choice even though she said she knows that in the U.S. “it’s not that they offend them, but they have more equal relationships.” On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine living with my parents now that I am legally an adult.

(To learn more about adjusting to American university life check out Channel C’s episode Our Freshman Year?)

Stay tuned for the last segment of intercultural lessons I learned while talking to Lillian: academic rigor.

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