5 Books to Help You Adjust to a New Culture (And Improve Your English!)

If you're reading books to perfect your English, there is a good chance that you're not satisfied with just learning the grammar, the syntax, the pronunciation.  You want to make the language--and the culture--your own.

There's also a chance that you find yourself living in more than one language, more than one culture. 

You'll have to decide who you are in English. Which parts of your native culture you will hold on to. Which parts of your new culture you'll embrace. 

You will have that singular experience of feeling foreign--not just in a new culture, but also when and if you return to your country of origin!  Language changes you, as does travel and living abroad. 

No matter where you make your home, you may have to ask yourself where, exactly, you fit in. 

Books can help. 

And by the way, when you tackle a challenging task in English--such as interpreting a novel, understanding a character in a book or understanding yourself, you are challenging your English to live up to new standards. 

So don't view asking life's big questions in English as a sort of distraction to your progress in English. It is essential to your progress in English.

Finding YOUR Story in a Book.

I've said before--improving your English is ONE of the many great things books do for us.   But books shape us in other ways, don't they?  They can help us make sense of our lives. 

I recently came across this passage while I was re-reading The Interpreter of Maladies a short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly, I am not the first.
Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

The story is about a man whose culture and experience were completely foreign to me--that's part of what I loved about this book: experiencing a new culture through the eyes of an insider!

But there was also something very profound hidden for me in these pages.  This is my story too.

It gave me words for the way I feel all the time.

Because picking up and moving to another culture and country is both mundane and monumental.

Maybe this story is about you as well. 

Two short story collections to get you started:

A quick word about short story collections when you're making English yours.  Short stories are a great way to start off your reading habit in English. 

Short doesn't always mean easier!  But it sometimes can seem more manageable reading just one story at a time--particularly if you're stopping to look up word, note expressions or reading the story more than once. 

The Interpreter of Maladies--by Jhumpa Lahiri

The stories take place sometimes in the US, sometimes in Calcutta--but all of them will make you experience the sites, sounds, tastes of Indian culture--and will soothe you with beautiful writing! 

I personally loved the way the stories show the challenges people seem to face in their cultures whether they were living in the Boston or Calcutta, whether they were immigrants, children of immigrants, or natives of one culture or another. 

If you're just starting out reading in English, you'll probably appreciate:

  • the vivid language (spices, colors, clothing come alive!)
  • the writing style, which is poetic, understated AND simple.
  • the fact that the stories also all take place in real situations--there are no surreal moments to confuse you and make you wonder if you've read the story right!

The Secrets of a Fire King--by Kim Edwards

This collection of short stories was our first pick for the Vagabond English Book Club. 

Not all of the stories are about travel, living abroad or immigrating.  Still, you will have plenty of opportunities to ponder what it means to fit in (or not to fit in!) in a new culture. 

These stories will leave you to decide how much a person should try to assimilate to a new world, how much our cultures hold us back, and if we are better off when we travel to new places.

After discussing this book twice in the Vagabond English Book Club, my sense is that it will challenge you as non-native speakers of English, but also reward you for your efforts!

  • The writing may take a bit more effort to understand, but it's worth it!  Edwards has a way of packing so much imagery, beauty and meaning into one simple phrase. 
  • Do you like stories that keep you guessing? Do you like to take on the role of writing the story yourself?  If so, these stories are for you. 
  • The stories take place all over the world, some are perfectly realistic others are more whimsical, fantastic or surreal! 

Two short novels that will remind you--we all have to find our place. 

Read Books Learn English

 I picked these two short novels for you because:

  1. They are great books!
  2. The writing is beautiful and elegant, AND a good place to start when English is not your first language.
  3. They will make you travel to parts of the United States that might seem foreign to you (as they did to me!)
  4. They will remind you that even people who are born in a country and culture have to decide how they fit in--and that you can feel out of place--even inside your own country.

The Bean Trees--by Barbara Kingsolver

I love a good road trip story and I fell in love with the main character Taylor Greer who realizes she doesn't quite fit in her hometown in Kentucky. 

Taylor takes us on a strange journey through the Ozarks, the Cherokee Nation and all the way to Arizona.  On her journey, she makes friends that begin to seem like family--even finds herself suddenly responsible for an orphaned baby girl. 

There is a playful, "stranger than fiction" quality to the places in this novel that reminded me of the strangeness that you can encounter on any true road trip across the US. 

Despite its whimsical side, this novel asks some serious questions about fitting in.  It explores a culture that alienates its natives and can be hostile to foreigners. 

And it challenges the main character to find her place. 

I think you'll enjoy this story because:

  • The writing is fun, playful, and colorful.
  • You'll experience some unusual places in the US--and some unusual accents!
  • You'll see that you don't have to be from another country to feel foreign in the US. 
  • You'll discover some really wonderful imagery and symbolism that gives the novel a deeper meaning... it will all make sense to you once you've read it--I won't spoil it for you now!

Another Brooklyn--by Jacqueline Woodson

 Here is the story of a place we can never visit--Brooklyn in the 1970's!   It is also the story of a young girl whose family is forced from their home in rural Tenessee.  Brooklyn is an entirely different world, it's own universe.  In fact, it would seem to be an inescapable universe for the kids growing up there at the time.

Why you will love this book:

  • Jacqueline Woodson is also the author of Brown Girl Dreaming--A highly regarded Young Adult novel.  Another Brooklyn is definitely an adult read. But Woodson's writing is so clean and clear--I felt like I wasn't so much reading this book as just living it.  In short, the writing is perfect for non-native speakers who want to be inspired by what they read.
  • You will travel--you will find yourself discovering the tough and vibrant Brooklyn of the 1970s as a local!  You will experience the sights, the smells, the hairstyles, the music, the history. 
  • You will feel for August, her younger brother, and her friends as they come of age in Brooklyn.
  • And you will understand the strange experience of leaving a place like Brooklyn.  What it is like to be from there: to be from more than one culture. 

One last book to help you put it all together.

The first four books are all books I mentioned are books you can enjoy whether you are a native speaker of English or are just starting out with your reading habit in English. 

But I'm going to recommend one more.  Read this book

  1. If you already have a very high level of English
  2. If you are up for a challenge and lots of ambiguity.
  3. Or read it once you've read a few others, to get you started.

It does an excellent job of dealing with the question of who we are--how our cultures (among other things!!) play a role in our lives.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours--by Helen Oyeyemi

I read this collection of short stories not really knowing what to expect--the reviews and book covers didn't really prepare me for what would be inside.  But I sensed that people seemed to love this book. 

What makes this book so unique, gripping and interesting is precisely what makes it challenging to read (but worth it!)

  • Oyeyemi will keep you guessing.  She'll make you do some serious work writing this story.  You will want to read carefully.  For example, in one story, it took me several pages to discover if the narrator was a man or a woman.  As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again!
  • The stories will send you whirling through space and time--some of them seem to take place in 'old countries' others in contemporary London--others in mythical places or fairy tales.  The real and the impossible, the surreal and the mundane come together to play throughout this book.
  • This book is playful and surprising.  Characters appear in different stories, at different ages and times, in different roles.  There are humans who seem like ghosts and ghosts that live among the living.  I could go on!

In the end, perhaps what I loved about this book the most is the feeling that Oyeyemi takes apart our ideas of who we are: our cultures, religions, genders, sexuality, affiliation with a certain university. 

This leaves her characters free to define themselves. And they do. 

You get the sense that you can by anyone you want. 

So if you're reading to make English your own, and if you have to navigate different cultures, language, and identity and you want a fun and challenging read--this book may be for you!

Oh, and if you read it, let me know.  I'd love to chat about it. 

Join the Conversation

What do you think?

Have you read any of these books? 

Do you feel like adding any of them to your 'to read' list?

Do you like the idea of reading books help you deal with living in more than one culture?

Are there any other books you recommend?

Leave your comments below or stop by the Vagabond English Book Club and tell us what you think.