How to make the best of your first impressions
One of my all-time favorite movies is the Wizard of Oz. For those of you who didn´t grow up in an area where this was popular, it is an iconic film from 1939, where young Dorothy from Kansas (USA) gets swept up by a tornado and lands over the rainbow in the Land of Oz. As she takes her first step cautiously onto this unfamiliar terrain, she looks around in awe at this new world and says to her dog Toto, “We´re not in Kansas anymore.”
I´ve had many “not-in-Kansas” moments in Ouagadougou, and I´m guessing that if you´re reading this then you may have had your fair share – or they are just around the corner.
It doesn´t matter if it´s Dar es Salaam, Tokyo, Boston or Kiev, when everything looks, smells, and feels different – it captures your attention.
When I first arrived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in August 2013, I delighted in the stark contrasts between my former home (Bern, Switzerland) and my new life. Instead of orderly traffic, I experienced an adrenaline rush from maneuvering through erratic traffic, bikes and babies on my right and motorcycles zipping by on my left. There was novelty in witnessing large live animals being transported on top of an already weighted down van. (see above photo)
Based on my own experiences, and professional training, I want to share with you an important tip on how you can focus this “not-in-Kansas” attention in way that can help you down the road.
When you first arrive to a new place, it is natural to initially pay attention to the differences. In fact, I advise you to not only pay attention but actually take notes, either through a journal, Facebook posts or simply snapping photos. It is so important to capture your first impressions because much of these glorious attention grabbers will feel commonplace in one year.
Take it from me, once you have seen a motorcycle carrying 50 live chickens a dozen times, you tend to forget how special this seemed when you arrived.
As soon as these moments move to the “new normal” category in your brain, you risk losing a rich level of detail that says so much about your own cultural expectations as well as that of your local context. These first impressions hold treasures of deeper cultural understanding.
At the same time, we cannot lose sight of the fact that whenever we look at culture, we are well served by paying attention to what is similar AND different. There, too, is delight in noticing how your surroundings, the local culture and the country itself has many things in common with “home” – no matter where you are. You simply have to pay attention. These similarities have the added bonus of giving you some security when you feel out of your comfort zone.
Taking note of what captures your attention in this way has practical benefits:
- You will have a rich catalogue of interesting photos and cultural nuances to refer back to as time passes and your memory fades.
- You will be able to support fellow expats when they contact you about the location and are eager to understand what to expect.
- You will have a host of interesting and informative bits to share when you´re asked in a professional or social situation, “So what is it like in (fill in the blank).”
- You can look back with pride on all that you´ve adjusted to in 6 months, one year or when you leave.
Take heart, within a year all that seems “exotic” to you now will quickly become commonplace. What may initially seem “different” may surprise you when you discover how it is actually quite similar to something familiar from home. This is an important part of the journey along the yellow-brick road of adaptation.
Sundae Schneider-Bean is an intercultural specialist, coach and trainer based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). Sundae helps individuals and organizations meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom. Sign up for free expert insight and you´ll receive a gift – the Expat Trump Cards – a unique set of digital cards aimed at helping you tackle the toughest aspects of global life.