When I was fourteen years old, I started my freshman year at an international boarding school. I arrived at my dorm room, hands full with all of my belongings, and soon after, I met my future roommate, Casey. Casey was quiet but spoke in a breezy and cheerful manner. Her dresser was lined with postcards and trinkets from Beijing, her hometown. Rooming with Casey would be my first experience living with someone from a different culture, and it taught me more than I expected.
When you meet someone from another culture, you might notice they do things a little differently. It might be what they eat, how they dress, or even how they relax with their friends. Well, a Dutch social psychologist named Geert Hofstede was so interested in these cultural differences that he created one of the first and most popular frameworks for measuring cultural values between countries. Today, you can compare hundreds of countries online with his six different dimensions.
One of his dimensions to compare cultural values is “Individuality vs. Collectivism.” In individualistic societies, you’re expected to take care of yourself and your immediate family. In collectivist cultures, you can expect your relatives or other close relations to look after you in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The United States is one of the most individualistic countries with a score of 91/100.
In my experience rooming with Americans, that individualistic nature shines through. When buying groceries, everyone usually buys their share. In college, all of my roommates had a specific place in the refrigerator where their things went, and to me, it felt normal. I was surprised to learn that in France, almost all roommates buy their groceries together and plan meals together as a group. Just little cultural differences like this can change the dynamic in a roommate relationship.
After I lived with Casey, I roomed with other Americans until I moved to France, where I moved in with a girl from Bolivia named Tati. Tati and I became fast friends as the only two foreigners in the small French countryside town we worked in. We cooked dinner together, exchanged conversations in a mix of French, English, and Spanish, and shared stories from our home countries.
Finally, I would move in with a French friend named Thomas for a few months while I looked for an apartment during my second year in France. During my experiences living with these three different roommates, I learned a lot, but here I’ll narrow it down to the top 7 lessons I learned.
1. You’ll learn to adjust your routine.
When you live with someone from a different culture, you might notice they have different routines. In Bolivia, people still enjoy a good siesta, so sometimes I would come home expecting to head out into town with Tati to find our apartment completely silent. I wasn’t used to the afternoon naps, but seeing Tati slow down for a little in the afternoon, made me start taking things more slowly. I would sometimes make some tea or read for a little before jetting off from work to doing something in town.
2. You’ll get to try new food.
If you can believe it, the Andes mountains that run through Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador have over 4000 varieties of potatoes. One of the most popular types of potatoes in Bolivia is the chuño, a freeze-dried potato with a high shelf life and high nutritional value. Because of their high shelf life, Tati brought chuño with her to France, and I was able to give them a try. When living with Casey, she let me try the famous Chinese moon cakes, and with Thomas, I tried things like the crêpe Bretonne and a Tarte Tatin.
3. You’ll learn about new holidays.
Casey helped me discover mooncakes, and with that, I learned all about the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), or the Moon Festival, in China. The Moon Festival is a harvest festival celebrated through Asia that usually consists of a large family meal, including the famous mooncakes. I also learned about Día de Muertos with Tati, a holiday popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, which celebrates family and friends who have passed away.
4. You might learn a new language.
Living with someone from another culture could help you learn their native language. Casey’s English was so perfect that we never spoke anything but English to each other, but when I moved in with Tati, and then with Thomas, I tried to learn some Spanish and French from them. There are many language-learning benefits when talking with a native speaker, so this was a massive plus for me! Tati and I spent a lot of mornings interchanging between Spanish, French, and English.
5. You can challenge your status quo.
Earlier, I talked about how the US is a much more individualist country with a score of 91. Well, Bolivia is one of the most collectivist societies with a score of 10, which is lower than that of China (20) and France (71). As someone who left home at fourteen and left the country soon after graduating from college, I always considered myself independent. But after hearing Tati’s stories about living with her parents and grandparents, and how much she valued it, I started wondering why we’re so quick to move out of our parents’ homes in the US. Ever since becoming friends with Tati, I’ve been keeping in touch with my grandparents more and considering settling down closer to my family.
6. You can break your stereotypes.
Stereotypes are everywhere, but when we interact with people of a different culture, we can help break them. I grew up in a city that didn’t have a large international population, so I didn’t have a lot of firsthand experience with people from different cultures—so I had stereotypes too. When I ask my students about American stereotypes, they say things like, “fast-food obsessed,” “big houses,” and “fat.” There’s a chance you or someone you know is one of these things, but these stereotypes aren’t true for everyone.
I had stereotypes about French men. I thought they wore tight pants, smoked cigarettes every morning, and weren’t very appreciative of deodorant. After living with a French roommate, I can confidently say that the only stereotype that is consistently true is their love for a delicious pain au chocolat in the morning.
7. You’ll want to visit them in their home country.
To be honest, I’d never really thought about visiting Bolivia before I met Tati. I loved my travels to Central and South America, but the country wasn’t on the top of my list. After learning more about Bolivian culture and seeing some of Tati’s photos, I got an itch to visit the salt flats, taste more of those 4000 varieties of potatoes, and witness a car baptism in Copacabana.
If you ever get the chance to live with roommates from another culture, it is definitely an experience I would suggest!