Of Fitting in and Assimilation

by multilingualmania on April 4, 2011

in Culture, Immigration


Australia has been very welcoming to immigrants for quite some time now. In fact, the country’s immigration program has been going strong since the end of World War I, all the way into the 21st century. Though it historically started off as a penal colony for the English, today’s Australia is one of the most developed countries in the world. And a significant contributor to that achievement is the success of its immigration program, attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

And, as anyone who’s ever moved to another country and started a whole new life there knows, it can be very a challenging task. Many come to Australia’s shores envisioning a better life, a better job, a brighter future, but not all of them manage to turn their vision into reality. For every immigrant who has found success in their new home, there’s another struggling to make ends meet. Some, after a handful of years working in low-paying jobs that squander their education, intelligence and experience, decide to call it quits and leave the country, severely disillusioned.

While it would be nice to imagine that we can continue living and communicating with people the way we did in our native country or last country of residence, the reality is that without it is far harder to good opportunities in the new country unless we assimilate a little. Of course, the old ways are comfortable, but as the oft-quoted saying goes ‘When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do.’

Employers around the world don’t just want their employees to do their jobs; they’re also looking for people who are the best-fit for their work environment. Someone who is great at their job but lacks the social skills to get along with other people might be passed over for someone who is merely good when it comes to technical skills but who comes equipped with a great personality.

After I completed my degree in Australia, I applied for my permanent residency, and once I received that, started sending my resumes out in order to land my very first full-time job. Although my academic credentials secured quite a few interviews for me, I did not land a single full-time job.

After trying for almost a year, I decided enough was enough, and that I would go back to my home country, Malaysia, to get some experience, before returning to Australia to find a good job. And the irony of the situation was not lost on me when I immediately managed to secure job offers from the most prestigious of companies as soon as I returned to Malaysia.

And so I toiled for almost three years in Malaysia, before deciding to try my luck once again in Australia. I had picked up bucket-loads of experience and skills in those three years, skills which would prove very useful to me when I returned to Australia. I could say that I’d earned yet another degree, one from the illustrious School of Hard Knocks.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew what I had to do. There was little point living and working in Australia if I wasn’t going to bother fitting in. Working for three years had taught me the importance of fitting in: most of us would like to be true to ourselves, even when we’re at work, but no one enjoys sticking out like a sore thumb.

After having thought about it for quite a while, I decided that some assimilation can increase an immigrant’s chances of getting a great job and doing so also helps when it comes to communicating and interacting with colleagues, customers, clients, suppliers, vendors and all the other parties that are usually involved in a business’s operation. It would be just enough assimilation to fit in, without the need to throw the old stuff away. For why should you discard your old life and the customs of your own people to fit in? No one would ask that of another person. In computer terms, it’s like getting an update for your Operating System, rather than changing your entire Operating System.

This time, the interviews were a breeze. It seemed as if 3 years of full-time work experience had added a huge dose of confidence, and knowing how to ‘play the game’. The interviewers, as most interviewers do, all noted how I would feel really at home in their companies. I had finally done it; I had managed to hit the green light and ticked the box for ‘Is the candidate a good fit for the company’s culture?’

And when I finally made my choice and started my first full-time job on Australian soil, I made the maximum effort to fit in. Whereas I was introspective and reserved three years ago, personality traits that are very common in Asia, the wiser, more mature me made an attempt to become more outgoing and social. I was open to the idea of making new friends, whereas before I mostly kept to the same community, the same circle of friends. Instead of just keeping to myself, I would chat with my colleagues about their weekends, how their kids were doing, whether they were planning to do anything for the next weekend, whether they enjoyed the game of Australian Football last night (a game that still mystifies me but one that I still try to keep abreast of).

I responded to jokes and humor with wit and charm, whereas before I would have merely kept quiet. I had thicker skin, and realized that the quips and jokes thrown my way by fellow colleagues was an Australian way of trying to build a better rapport, and not vitriolic verbal volleys which my sensitive self would once have taken for straight-out insults.

I also had to just loosen up a little and be less uptight or nervous about things. The working life in Asia was very different compared to that of Australia’s. In those three years in Malaysia, I had to work incredibly long hours and put in a lot of effort to earn a positive review from my employers, and there was always a need to finish all tasks as soon as possible. But in Australia, being able to balance work and play (also known as ‘Having a Life!’) was very important as well. Many times I found myself the only one stuck at the office after 6 pm, and realized that I was being offered a more relaxed lifestyle compared to the one I had before. They say that old habits die hard, but that was certainly the fastest one to go!

The approaches we take to fit in are not merely limited to the office. They can be applied to all our dealings with people in our new home country, whether it’s meeting new friends, doing our weekly grocery shopping, getting along with people from all walks of life including the old lady who’s trying to strike up a conversation with you on the bus. In Asia, people would tend to be suspicious of anyone trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but in Australia, it’s definitely far more acceptable for people to start pleasant conversations wherever they are, especially if commiserating over some shared misfortune, like when the train to the city is 10 minutes late.

Does this mean that sometimes you might need to look at things from a different perspective, one that is wholly new to you and might feel a little strange or unfamiliar at first? Sure, but the advantages are worth it: you’ll make more friends, get along better with your colleagues and generally live a happier life.

And the best part is that you don’t need to throw away the history and culture of your own community to do so.

About the Author: Timothy CM Heng is a freelance writer who spends most his time writing for charities, surfing Facebook for business opportunities, and getting lost in his own dream world. Not content with having an imaginary friend, he has eleven.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ruslana April 5, 2011 at 7:41 am

I really enjoyed reading your reflections on your journey of navigating both cultures, negotiating both selves…. I do it every day. I came to the United States 15 years ago, married a well mannered American (Swedish descent), and argued when he made comments about my directness using the defense “This is my true self. This is my culture.” My opposition to his continued for years (we’ve been married since 1998). It still waxes and wanes. At least now, I am listening. We live in Minnesota, the land of the Minnesota-nice people, where directness equals rudeness, and honesty is not the best policy. You see, in my culture (I’ll make a generalization here), we value honesty, we hate facade, pretense, beating-around-the-bush talk, we love directness. But what does it do? Directness hurts people’s feelings, but we do it anyway. Harmony is a value in Minnesota, Honesty is a value in Ukraine. How does one reconcile those? How do you pick which one is better? I could write a book about this, and I think I will. Thank you for writing from your heart, it evoked something I’ve been meaning to write about myself.

multilingualmania April 5, 2011 at 7:59 am

Thanks for your comment! Well, I’m a native Californian and I have the same issue when I go to the midwest to visit my grandmother in Ohio. They think that I am very rude because I am very direct. On the other hand, when I am around people from New York I feel like I belong because of precisely that-they are very direct but they also are seen as rude by other people. Sometimes it’s not even an immigration thing, it’s just a regional thing. I’ve learned to sometimes be blunt when I need to, and learn how to put on another mask in other situations. -Melanie

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