Back in the days of Empires, and jolly hockey sticks, one of the dangers of living abroad was the risk of ‘going native’. Going native is defined as: ‘to adopt the lifestyle or outlook of the local inhabitants’. It implies becoming less refined under the influence of a less cultured, more primitive social environment. In the colonial (and post-colonial) days it was not on to ‘go native’. Not only might one be tainted by the locals, it disrupted the edifying mission of empire building. When I was a child, we visited Kenya shortly after independence. I remember a British colonial explaining proudly how he had never learnt the local language as it was far better for his domestic staff to learn English. My grandmother, who left Spain for the Philippines in 1927, felt similarly. In the fifty years she lived in her adopted country, she never learnt the language, preferring to speak to everyone in Spanish. (She also believed that God only spoke Spanish, so maybe she was looking out for their immortal souls.) Diplomats and news correspondents would never be left long in one post, lest they go native. Local knowledge is important, but you don’t want to understand the locals too well. Famous examples of people who ‘went native’ are Lawrence of Arabia and Captain Kurz, and neither had a happy ending.
These days the term is used more humorously. To go native means to take on some (or all) of the cultural traits of an adopted country, like dress, language, accent, or etiquette. Blow-ins like myself, are often guilty of enthusiastically embracing the local culture. In fact, for most of us ‘going native’ was the whole point of moving to West Cork. Think Aran jumpers, tweed caps and wellies at the Continental Ceilli. I remember being at a terrific trad session, complete with a Seanachaí in a collarless shirt and cap, in a pub out west many years ago. It turned out that they were all German, British and French blow-ins.
Going native isn’t just about putting on a Kinsale smock, nor is it as easily shucked off as taking off a tweed jacket. It goes far deeper. It’s a slippery slope. I remember thinking that eating oysters with stout sounded disgusting the first time I came across it. Now, white wine with oysters (or salmon!) pales in comparison with a pint of the black stuff. But changes in tastes, dress and music don’t even start to reveal how deep it really goes.
Unless you live in splendid isolation, you slowly absorb local attributes that are so subtle, you may not even notice them. Going native changes you in fundamental ways. It changes the way your brain is wired. Last summer marked 25 years that I immigrated to Ireland, but I never noticed how much I had taken on the cultural norms of West Cork until I found myself on a lift with a stranger in NYC.
As I walked in I nodded. He barely nodded back and just stood in perfectly calm silence. I was standing in close proximity to another human being, as we were vertically transported together, and yet we were acting as if were alone. It was unbearable. I had to talk. The West Cork in me could not remain silent. Worse yet it wanted – no needed – to talk about the weather. I couldn’t help myself.
“It’s gotten very cold tonight.” I blurted out. My companion looked surprised.
“Yes” he conceded. That’s it. He does not engage any further.
“It was really mild a few days ago, but they’re predicting a cold snap,” I continued, expecting to spark an exchange. Nothing. He doesn’t get the cues. Now I’m desperate.
“They say it might snow tonight” I try. Surely he’ll want to talk about snow? Who doesn’t want to discuss the possibility of snow?
“Maybe,” he answers. And that’s it. Not another word. He was perfectly at ease, staring at the shiny chrome door as the lift beeped its way from floor to floor. I was fit to burst. I was both frustrated and homesick. I missed the casual congeniality of chatting with a stranger at a bus stop. Thankfully, we got to my floor and I can escape, throwing platitudes over my shoulder, still desperately trying to connect. That’s when I realised that I have truly gone native.