Settling down in a foreign culture is a truly exciting experience. It changes you in many ways. But what does it mean to integrate – really?
Once upon a time, 18 years ago, I embarked on a life abroad. Getting on a plane and just going out to Austria to see what would happen and try and make my way…it was all so exhilarating and adventurous and wonderful and new!
And, because I was 22 at the time and wholly untouched by any kind of cynicism (or life experience for that matter), there were lofty goals at play too. I was not going to be the stereotypical Brit who is terrible at languages and forces everyone around them to bend to their mother tongue “because it’s the world language”. Oh no. I was going to become fluent and live my life in German. I was going to make a point of getting to know my adopted home of Austria, participate in their customs and traditions, be able to hold conversations about their history and politics and allow the whole experience to change me as a person. In short: I was going to integrate.
Fast forward 18 years and I can safely say I have achieved all those goals I set for myself as a youngster. And I am proud of that! Yet, as time goes on, the long-term consequences of my youthful decisions are becoming ever more apparent. Although I have no regrets, everything comes with a price tag and making a life far away from your home country is no different.
When you integrate, you acquire a sort of hybrid, blended identity — i.e. the original with elements of the adopted mixed and matched in. Sometimes you notice yourself changing in real time, while other transformations are so subtle that you only notice what has happened to you years afterwards when you consciously take a step back and take stock.
The process is exciting, but also emotionally charged and psychologically complex. Almost two decades into my own integration process, my own blended identity feels at once established and yet a complete paradox — ready to collapse at any moment under the weight of its own contradictions.
Sometimes Katharine-the-Austrian and Katharine-the-Brit sit nicely side by side, agreeable to (and indistinguishable from) one another. Other times — or when certain subjects crop up — it is impossible to contain the two Katharines within one person. In those situations, it’s always British Katharine who prevails in the ensuing power struggle. No matter how long you’ve been away and how sincere your efforts to integrate have been, your home identity stays strong and instinctive.
It’s hard to describe this inner reality accurately. But, when I ask myself “what does it mean to integrate?” – here are a few things I find to be true.
What does it mean to integrate? Integration is:
…being proud of your new identity but still being absolutely sure of the original and that it forms the bedrock of who you are.
…feeling at home in two (or more!) different countries, and yet feeling somehow unmoored and like a foreigner wherever you are.
…going “home” to your home country, but, when the time comes to leave again, saying “time to go home”.
…having an ongoing internal conversation with “the other”, i.e. the foreign reality of your adopted home, and distilling out which parts of that “other” you find good and wish to make part of yourself — and which ones you can’t stand and want to give a wide berth. Like picking dishes off a menu.
…spending so much time learning and speaking a foreign language that its idioms and grammatical structures start to bleed into your mother tongue when you speak and write it.
…using the word “we” when talking about both cultures without even thinking. You belong in both now — and they belong to you.
…reading so much of the literature of your new home that you reach a point where you really, really “get it”.
…having so many traditions and celebration days from two cultures to keep track of that you feel like something is going on every second day.
…feeling joy and pride that you’re acquiring a new identity, but also sadness and grief when you realise that a piece of the old one has fallen away.
…about feeling like you have sunk roots deeply into the soil of your adopted country, but that your mother country is still keeping a seat warm for you.
…realising that countries are a little like the cells making up the human body — after about 10 years, they have completely replaced themselves. Your first home is still there in fact…but it isn’t the one you left. That has disappeared. All that is left of it is now a room of memories existing only inside your head — but which you can visit any time you want.