Brussels: The myth of cultural norms

Brussels, Belgium is the capital of the EU and is home to many expats and employees of the European commission as well as the European Parliament. While the most commonly spoken language in Brussels is French, you can hear a plethora of languages just by riding the bus or going grocery shopping. All these international influences shape the dynamic of Brussels and make being an exchange student here a truly educational experience both in and out of university.

For example, in my exchange program, I am the only person from the United States. The other students come from all over the Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada. At first, questions such as “Who am I going to find things in common with? How will I communicate with the other students?” caused me a lot of stress. During the orientation week, I found out I had more in common with this diverse group of people than I had originally thought. Tarantino movies, Studio Ghibli, getting lost in the city, and a mutual love of shopping are what originally brought my friends and I together. Now, the people I am usually going for coffee with, having movie nights, and traveling around Europe are from all over the world: Argentina, Britain, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Korea. They are teaching me about their cultures while I teach them about mine.

While there are similarities, there are also huge differences in cultures. For example, my housemate is a local Belgian, and told me that people tend to make Europe seem like a country, using the term “European” to describe the people living in the European Union. At first, I was guilty of this as well. I think we try to understand other people by fitting them into a norm, by finding similarities between cultures so we can make sense of our differences. As I speak to more people and learn the different cultural nuances between countries, I am realizing it is impossible to create a “typical” European image. This goes both ways, when I say I am American, a person from Argentina can just as easily say “So am I”. Cultural identity is closely tied to personal identity, it takes patience and paying close attention to discern true cultural patterns. When visiting a new place, it is amazing to have a friend from that country pointing out cultural patterns and why the country is set up the way it is.

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