It still astonishes me that within the space of one working day I can hop on an airplane and wake up in another world. Travel times are so short that we have no time to segue gently from one scene to another. Instead we are dropped abruptly into a play where the actors and the scripts are entirely different. How we react depends on the individual. Some are content to observe and learn. Others bravely try to improvise. A few become completely discombobulated and react with defensiveness and hostility.
I contend that it's not the big exotic things that shake us. It's the rhythm of daily life that we find hard to manage in the beginning - the small but necessary interactions that are required to fulfill our basic needs and desires. They are like miniature plays and we are actors who must insert themselves into a script that we know perfectly, imperfectly or not at all. Only by becoming a hermit or by throwing ourselves on the mercy of cultural natives can we completely avoid them. Most of us are not rich enough or well-connected enough at our destination for that to be a realistic option.
Let's take, as an example, shopping for food. In the three countries I have lived in for any length of time, the experience and the scripts are completely different. . Here is how I have experienced the "shopping script" in France, Japan and the U.S.
France: Enter store, pick up shopping basket, wander the aisles, select items, avoid eye contact with other shoppers unless we know them in another context, wait in line without talking to other shoppers, say "Bonjour" to the clerk, move quickly to bag the groceries that the clerk is passing through the scanner, pay by inserting credit card into device, say "Au revoir" or "Bonne journee" to the clerk and exit store with purchases. In this context it is entirely possible for me to participate in this play without anyone knowing that I am a foreigner since I don't look any different from the average female person (my origins are European), I am dressed in the same way and I don't have to say much so I am not betrayed by my accent. Since I have been shopping there for a few years, some of the clerks do smile at me or give me a nod of recognition when they see me.
Japan: Enter store, pick up shopping basket, wander the aisles, select items, avoid eye contact with other shoppers, wait in line, smile at other shoppers in line with me, say "Konichiwa" to the clerk who bows, scans the items and re-loads them carefully into my shopping basket, give my credit card to the clerk with both hands, the clerk bows and takes it with both hands, enter code, take basket, nod to clerk who bows again, take basket to another table to put items into a sack, exit store. In this context I am painfully aware that I am a foreigner and a discordant note in this play since I don't look like anyone else in the store and my Japanese is limited. I have the impression however that I am being treated with the utmost indulgence and that everyone is doing everything possible to make my experience pleasant and to avoid anything that might cause me or them to be embarassed.
U.S.: Enter store, pick up shopping basket, wander the aisles, am asked more than once by a store employee if I need any help finding something, select items, make eye contact with other shoppers and nod to them, wait in line, smile at and talk with other shoppers in line with me, say "Hello" to the clerk who asks me how I'm doing today, scans the items and passes them to a second person who loads them carefully into a sack, insert my credit card into device, tap code or sign, take basket, say thank you to clerk who tells me to have a nice/good day, exit store. In this context I am, in theory, "home" but since it has been a few years since my last visit things have changed and I'm not sure what to do. The device for the credit cards, for example, annoys me because I am not sure how to insert the card (don't laugh but I had to ask the clerk for help) and then I had to sign on a pad on the device. I also notice that I am a bit disturbed to have someone I don't know walk up to me with offers of help and it takes me a few seconds to formulate a response. And, finally, I realize that my "smile muscles" are rusty and I am afraid that my facial expression is more of a shaky grimace than a real grin.
What is really interesting is how any deviation from the script in any of those places causes the other actors involved to react almost immediately. For example, if you do not exchange "Bonjours" with the clerk in France, she/he is quite likely to be very resentful. Not smiling back at another American can lead to a similar reaction. And I don't even want to think about what would happen in Japan if you just slapped down your credit card on the counter though you might get a pass if you are obviously not Japanese.
Are people just being unpleasant, lacking patience and discriminating against you, because you are a foreigner? Not knowingly, would be my answer. A cultural script is something that the natives have absorbed and learned as children and they don't necessarily even know that it's a script that can be very different somewhere else. For them this is what "normal", "polite", members of the human race do, and the vast majority, in my experience, don't even recognize the play they are in and their role in it. So, learning a cultural script for a particular context almost always has to be a matter of trial and error. When you do it right no one notices because you are acting like a "normal person". When you do it wrong, the cultural natives let you know immediately. It's a negative feedback system that may be pretty painful to the individual but is very efficient for the culture as a whole.
However clumsy and ignorant we are in the beginning, if we stick around long enough in one place, we will find ourselves one day doing exactly the right thing and slipping into our roles without even noticing it. Sometimes I find the power of the dominant culture to mold and shape and change, really really frightening. On other days I'm able to summon my powers of observation and look at it, wherever I am, with a certain admiration and take pride in my ability to play my part gracefully.