Should we hide our foreign origins?

As an expat, I’ve asked myself many times if I should hide my foreign origins or not. I wonder about how people perceive my background and if this is going to be helpful or not. I know I am not the only one who worries about this. A few days ago, I came across an article explaining the positive effects of showing your foreign background in the workplace. I was pleased to read some good news on the topic; my expat experiences have not always been so positive. However, I really think that the decision to hide or not to hide your foreign origins is a lot more complicated than it looks. I believe that this decision may depend on the stereotypes attached to your cultural background and specific circumstances.

I lived in Canada for almost ten years, a place famed for its cultural diversity. Canadians try really hard to be tolerant of cultural differences, proud of being more cultural mosaic than melting pot.  Most immigrants feel they are treated with respect most of the time. But cultural stereotypes are always present and – even in Canada – you can sometimes feel discriminated against because of them.

For example, as a hiring manager, would you prefer to hire a German or a Colombian? You would probably go for the German as they have a reputation of being extremely organized and reliable. Does that make you discriminatory? Yes. Stereotypes are part of our human condition but it does not always reflect on our true intentions. As I see it, it is possible that you had some good experiences with Germans at work. This will surely affect the way you perceive the culture as a whole and therefore an individual. It doesn’t mean you are right in your assumption, this only explains how your sterotypes are built.

The more cultural similarities you share with your new country the easiest it will for you to adapt . I am not saying that if you come from a very different culture people will reject you, in fact, at first people will be very curious about you. But curious does not always mean that they are going to invite you to their house or be your friend. Curious means that they want to learn more about you because you are new. On the other hand if you already share some cultural similarities, as in the case of Brits and Canucks, it becomes a lot easier to find common ground.

That said, I think stereotypes are very difficult to overcome, because most of the time we are not even aware of them. The same situation applies to other contexts, such as finding a place to live, finding a school for your children or getting into university. The list of my anecdotes is long and I do not belong to any visible minority, go figure. Nevertheless, I do not want this to sound as a complaint. There is still a lot to be learned in regards to multiculturalism and tolerance. But at least it is becoming research material and we talk about it openly.

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Laurel says:

Great post and being Canadian myself (although living in Germany) what you’ve said is true and like most people, Canadians tend to befriend other people who are similar to them. That doesn’t mean that they won’t befriend immigrants, just that in order to be accepted the immigrant will have to make some behavioral adjustments.

Living in Germany I find myself making cultural adjustments all the time. Germans rarely ask “How are you?” and they find it’s strange when asked this question if you don’t want a long winded answer, so this is one of many habits I’m trying to adjust to make it easier to make German friends.

Nozxa says:

So True!, thanks for putting your thought to paper about this issue, which shouldn’t be an issue if we all just accept and try and get along. sighhhh, I was born in Papua New Guinea, grew up in Australia and worked all over Asia, and I’m a Filipino. So imagine the routine explanation I have to do everytime I have to face a class of people who want to learn something about culture, language etc and gets turned off because 1. my skin is brown, 2 I’m not a native speaker, 3. I’m female, 4. They believe my cultural heritage belongs in the kitchen, being a nanny or domestic helper or worst prostitute.

I don’t require respect if its not in people’s heart to give it but I do hope for understanding and open mindness. The world is growing to small for discrimination and big enough for multiculturalism.

Carola says:

Hi, being a ‘foreigner’ myself in my adopted country (United Kingdom) I can only say that from my experience, understanding cultures, is a matter of being knowledgeable and/or educated. Living abroad for so many years now, have giving me an invaluable understanding of the world itself. I have learned to respect other religions and cultures and accept people from different backgrounds as well as understanding that not everyone can have this benefit in life but I am glad I do.

Ainara says:

Alicia, this text is great, rich and powerful. I truly encourage you to keep exploring this subject and posting your thoughts. I’d like to know your point of view about the main reasons to hide your origin or not, like: what happens when one feels slightly different than its own culture stereotype. Have you ever felt that way? Is one being sort of “auto-discriminatory”?