Sara Sokolowska-Katzer - Authorsara.firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Sokolowska-Katzer - Illustratorsara.email@example.com
Coming to a new country you're the odd one out. I've been in school in 4 countries and every time I end up comparing myself to the “locals”. There is a huge impact of cultural comparison on mental health and self-confidence. This is my perspective and why I think being yourself can feel bad sometimes.
“Be yourself”, they say. Be yourself and everything will work out! Will it though? Being “yourself” can be risky, lonely, or even worse: make you the odd one out. I am an extrovert that would consider myself quite confident in their personality—most of the time—so theoretically I am in a blessed position to be able to easily interact and adapt in a new environment. Although this is true to some extent, I do have to say that being yourself in new social and glocal situations does have some unexpected negative impact.
After graduating from high school, I moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland to study my BSc in Architecture. There I knew the language. I was also familiar with pop-culture and history of that region thanks to my linguistic education in Poland. Yet there came moments when I still felt out of the loop. My micro-expressions differed from those of Northern-Irish background. Their general lifestyle was different to mine. Despite being authentic to myself and what I’m like, I still longed to be accepted and liked by the people coming from the country I moved to. I had a lovely group of friends that probably rarely thought of my differences, but I was giving myself a hard time trying to be more like them. By the end of my three years studying in this Northern-Irish environment I found myself changing my mealtimes to match the UK-dinnertime. I found myself changing my attitude to more banter and less emotional friendships. I caught myself going out on a Tuesday, cause it’s a thing. To a certain level this could be a sort of subconscious and conscious assimilation. It was me slowly “fitting in”. By the time I received my degree, my accent changed to an English-sort-of twang, I was grabbing a chippie round the corner and owned a bottle of self-tan.
When I accepted my KTH offer for my master’s degree, I didn’t think much of this gradual process of “Belfastication”. Actually, I didn’t think much of it until a year later. Not until I realised the same was happening, now in Sweden. “Stockholmisation” if you will.
After a year of studying in Stockholm I found myself gravitating towards the colour blue, buying myself cinnamon buns and picking seats in the most empty wagons of the metro. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that after watching many Stockholm-influencers online for those 12 months, I actually considered bleaching my hair more blond. And I already AM blond! I think that’s when it reached a new low. That’s when I realised I was somehow subliminally observing and comparing myself to people I was surrounded by.
Another occurrence I observed is that the closer you become to someone, whether it is a friend or love-interest, the more risk there is in you comparing yourself to those they surround themselves with. In my case I saw their Swedish friends as the “bar” for the look or behaviour I should be matching. This comparison sparked a certain sadness that their deep local roots are something I can never catch up on no matter how much I try. I thought that my lack of their common culture, similar upbringing and language would interfere and create issues in these deep interpersonal connections. This insecurity seemed to grow as time passed. It might seem silly to some that one would even WANT to achieve this level of similarity, however it is a real, though irrational, desolate feeling.
Something that took me many conversations to truly accept and realise is that my differences are an advantage. My accent, my journeys and cultural habits are mine to share and not fix.
Now it’s important to note that, what this doesn’t indicate is that change or adaptation is bad. The crossroad of cultures, languages and backgrounds is where we can learn most. However, as long as it’s respectful and harmless, staying true to you and your lifestyle despite the contrasting surroundings is important. Testing out local traditions or adapting to certain customs might help you discover something about yourself or even improve your life. I now see it as a way of testing your virtues, core values and character development. And sidenote: learning Swedish doesn’t make me any less Polish.
Your cultural heritage, your ancestors and language are your assets. Your story is not less or more than another. It just makes you uniquely you. And unfortunately—irony—I have to say that people do tend to be attracted to confidence and self-asserted personalities. Being authentic also makes other people feel comfortable being themselves. I do agree with encouraging “being yourself”, but also add the warning and acknowledgement that it’s not always easy.
So to those who are being authentic to themselves in a place foreign to their origins, I commend you. You are doing something people don’t realise is brave and difficult.