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There’s No Such Thing as Normal (and Other Lessons from Living Abroad)

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ~Mother Theresa

By passport and birth, I am Romanian. By soul, I am a citizen of the world.

I’ve always been fascinated by cultures, traditions, mentalities, and different ways of doing things and perceiving the world. So when I got my first working contract in Sweden seven years ago, I embraced it with tremendous joy.

Four years later I took one of the biggest steps in my life and moved to Shanghai. I was an Eastern-European woman leading a Chinese team, in an entirely new environment, so different from anything I had experienced before.

Today, I am sharing these insights from my current home in South Korea, knowing that I will start a new, very exciting chapter of my life in Mexico in a few months.

Looking back on my life, I’ve come to realize I was very judgmental of others. I expected others to behave in certain predefined ways, and I stereotyped people based on their country of origin. For example, I assumed that all Italians would speak a lot and loudly. All Swedish would be blond and shy. All Greeks would be cheese lovers, and all Chinese were supposed to eat dog meat.

The truth is, I was putting labels on people and seeing the world in black and white. As if I was the only one holding the absolute truth and the “right” way of perceiving the world, and anything else was either strange or abnormal.

Cognitive distortions like labeling or stereotyping separate us and shut us down. When I was meeting the world with a “my way or no way” approach, I was stuck on my ego. My mind was too busy judging, so it had no time to listen or understand other points of view, and everything outside my comfort zone scared me.

The real shift happened the day I decided to meet new people with the eyes of a child, with curiosity and a genuine interest to know them and connect with them, from the heart.

I started to ask questions, like: “What makes you say this?” “What makes you do that?” or “I’m not sure I understand. Can you tell me more about that?”

New insights and new perspectives came to life that I’d like to share with you today.

1. We judge what we don’t understand.

During my first year in China, I was outraged to see people spitting in public spaces. I saw this behavior in the middle of the day, right on the streets, and at work, in the ladies room. I found it extremely rude and disgusting.

Later, my colleagues explained that this is how people clean their throats from extreme pollution. I didn’t have to like it, but understanding the reason helped me become less judgmental.

All behaviors are attempts to meet needs. We might not condone the action, but we can usually relate to the need a person is trying to meet, whether it’s self-protection or something else.

When you find yourself in a blaming or judging mode, act as an observer. Get curious and ask questions. Look at the situation from this perspective: “I don’t have to agree with this, but I know where this comes from. I understand.” See the difference and how much lighter you feel.

2. Normalcy is an illusion.

As babies, we know nothing about the world. We’re all shaped by the societies we grow up in (family, religion, and schooling system), and everything we know to be true comes from the environment that raised us.

In reality, things are as they are. Not good or bad, normal or strange, ugly or beautiful, stupid or smart. “Normal” is relative to each individual because we all filter the world through our own lenses and system of belief.

To me, knowing this was such a relief! I’ve stopped trying to impose my views and convictions on others. I’ve also stopped judging silly little things that seemed odd to me—like how the Chinese eat tomatoes with sugar because, to them, the cherry tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit.

3. Beauty is subjective.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I believe this is true. Knowing this helped me stop judging the Chinese, South Korean, or Japanese for hiding themselves under big umbrellas during summer.

As an Eastern-European woman, I was raised to believe “summer beauty” was all about getting a nice, sexy chocolate-like complexion. However, during my stay in Asia, I was always complimented on my “gorgeous white skin” because here beautiful often means “white.” So if you visit this part of the world, don’t get surprised to see lots of whitening products in beauty shops.

Each time you think you’re not beautiful enough, your nose is too long, or your hips are too big, remember that beauty is a norm, shaped by societies and cultures. Spend your precious time by finding your own kind of beauty. You are what you believe. Decide you are gorgeous and see what happens.

4. Feedback is just an opinion.

If you are concerned with what other people think about you, know this and set yourself free: If they find you intelligent, stupid, ugly, or average, that has nothing to do with you. It’s all about them and what they see in you after they evaluate you through their personal standards and expectations.

Take my example: a Swedish colleague once told me I was “scary”—“too emotional, too talkative, and too intense.” I wanted to know more about myself, so I asked colleagues from Romania what they thought about that feedback. They found it funny: “What? You, scary? You, intense? Who told you that? You must be kidding!”

To them, I was normal. Showing vulnerability and expressing emotions at work was not common in Sweden, but it was normal to me.

That’s where the differences came from. It wasn’t right or wrong; it was just different. Every time people tell you that you are “too little of this” or “too much of that,” know that it has nothing to do with you. It’s about how they’re reacting to you, so don’t take it personally.

5. We’re all influenced by our culture’s values.

Every culture holds a set of primary values that influence the way we act and think. In Sweden, for example, I learned the word “lagom” (meaning “not too much”), which is an expression of humbleness.

In other words, one should not stick out and be too much out of anything, or believe they are “some kind of special.” On the opposite side, if you were raised in a country that puts a high focus on acknowledging and praising your individuality, acting and thinking “lagom” about yourself might be hard.

Countries such as China or South Korea value harmony: let us all agree and collaborate, so it’s a win-win for everybody and no one has to lose. Kind of “me happy, you happy.” So don’t get surprised if people tell you they agree with you when, in fact, they don’t. It’s all about avoiding conflict and “keeping face,” for the sake of the collective harmony.

Knowing the cultural values in a given country is another way to understand why people behave differently.

We all have our own historical, social background, but diversity doesn’t have to be scary. Imagine how boring life would be if everyone thought the same: no learning from each other, no brainstorming of new ideas, no evolution and growth.

It’s essential that we embrace our differences with compassion and accept diversity as a reality of the world we all live in. Souls don’t hold a passport. In spirit, there’s no separation, no nationality or religion. Those have been assigned to each of us at birth. Hurting you is hurting myself. Loving you is loving myself. We are all one.

About Sara Fabian

Sara Fabian is a women’s career and empowerment coach and inspirational speaker, on a mission to help professional women to discover their unique strengths, gifts and talents, boost their confidence, find their calling and live a meaningful life of purpose. For weekly inspiration, subscribe to her free newsletter at sarafabiancoaching.com or follow her on Facebook.

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  • José de Jesus Juárez Ayala

    Thank you Sara I think the same, we shouldn’t judge. Everybody has their own history, and if we don’t know that history we can’t understand why they are like they are.
    And welcome to Mexico.

  • Carli Mills

    Thank you Sara for a great article. I love the part of thinking we’re gorgeous. I struggle in that area, so tomorrow I’ll try re-thinking your way. Thank you and I look forward to learning more about you and reading more of your articles. I need to be empowered 😉

  • Sara Fabian

    Hi Carli, the way we define ourselves is a matter or self-perception. We are whatever we believe ourselves to be. I’m glad it helped. Sara

  • Sara Fabian

    Right. Everyone is on a journey. I am looking forward to knowing more about the Mexican culture soon. Thank you.

  • Sarah

    This is such a beautiful post, Sara. How wonderful that you have written this at this time in space. We are all learning to become more conscious, more aware of our thoughts, more mindful and with that, less judgmental! That is a beautiful thing. I am looking forward to a world where we all accept each other for who we are and can love each other for our similarities AND our differences! Thank you. Love and light, Sarah

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you, Sarah.

  • sian e lewis

    very inspiring, but I think we should remember that it is not only cultures which make us different but life experiences, wherever we live

  • Sara Fabian

    That’s right. Blessings!

  • Perfect timing Sara. My wife and I are just 4 days away from our adventure in Ethiopia. Being from Canada, my only expectations are that of culture shock. I’ll be taking your points with me as I travel.

    Thank you.

  • Sara Fabian

    Ethiopia, Wow! What an adventure! Enjoy!

  • Rubab Zuberi

    I like the article it focuses on embracing differences when all what we like to do is judge others based on our preconceived notion.

  • Sara Fabian

    Glad you like it. Blessings!

  • Arlene Switzer Flynn

    Such a wonderful post. It’s so nice to meet a kindred spirit

  • Sara Fabian

    Thank you, Arlene. Blessings!

  • Rohini Anand

    “Feedback is just an opinion.” Thank you for saying this!