When we embark on a new expat adventure part of our vision, understandably, is that we’ll meet and befriend locals and ensconce ourselves in their culture. While this is understandable, it’s not necessarily as easy as you might expect.
In all of the places I’ve lived, I’ve found the locals to be nice, amicable people and in each country I’ve learned to ‘crack the code’ and gain insight into their cultures and ways… but still, deep friendships have for the most part alluded me.
I have a few local connections that I’m still in touch with, but never reached the immersion I might’ve been looking for. So I’ve asked myself why.
To be clear, I was not a long-termer in any of these places. I was passing through for 2-6 years so the mindset is important to note, both on my side and for the people I met.
Now, if you’ve moved to your new country to plant roots or your partner is a local, it’s a bit different. Nonetheless, for the first 6 months, we’re all in the same boat.
In the beginning, connecting with other expats is not only easier, but far more helpful in adapting to your new life. Other expats understand what you’re going through. They’ll have insights into the culture from an outside perspective, they’ll be able to help with all the small things you need to do when you first enter a country, they can tell you which stores to go to and which to avoid...etc. They’ve been there and know how lonely and hard it can be. Just as it's hard for the folks back home to understand what you're going through, how you experience their culture is foreign to them, so the empathy and connection you need when you’re starting out is found in people who've had similar experiences.
Language is clearly also an issue. I’m English speaking so it was easier to find locals I could converse with. However, the minute I joined a larger gathering they all, of course, would speak their own language. They weren’t being rude, simply having fun at a party.
Nonetheless I felt somewhat excluded.
I only have a handful of friends I met locally, but I was able to find other ways to learn about the culture I lived in. But what's equally important in the expat experience is the aspect of being introduced to other cultures through friendships. I’ve been embraced by many cultures. My friends in Italy were mostly Dutch and English, my friends in Tokyo were for a large part Israeli and Venezuelan. Throughout my moves I’ve made friends with Indians, Aussies, Kiwis, Mexicans, French, Italians, Spaniards, Greek and the list goes on. I’ve had the privilege of getting a glimpse into a plethora of cultures throughout my expat life which has broadened my world in unimaginable ways.
All of this doesn’t mean I don’t think consciously reaching out to your local community and working to establish bonds with them isn’t worth it. I absolutely do! However, in the beginning when you’re struggling, embarking on an upward journey to make those connections might be disheartening.
To start, look for your local expat community to help you adjust.
In almost every city, large or small, if you look you’ll find some sort of expat association, casual coffee group, or networking group that supports foreigners coming into the country. It might not be a large group, but connecting with even one or two people that share your challenges will make all the difference.
When it comes to connecting with locals, give yourself a little time to adjust to your new home and learn a bit of the language first.
Then find a local club or activity doing something you love.
And when I say ‘a bit of the language’, take it literally. Don’t wait until you’re perfect. Once you’ve got some basics under your belt, get out there!
If you’re living in a country where you already speak the language that's a huge advantage but it can still be tricky. Although language is a big barrier in the quest for local connection, cultural differences are equally tricky. By allowing yourself space to settle in and speaking to fellow expats who have been there a while you'll gain valuable insight into cultural differences from an outside perspective.
Take time to settle in, find friends who share your perspective, then put yourself out there!
Friendships are built on common experiences, so try out a local yoga class, take horseback riding lessons at the local stables, join a volleyball team, play bridge or volunteer at a charity. In the beginning it will expose your vulnerability somewhat as your language skills might still need some work - and they’ll talk so fast you won’t understand much at the start, but hang in there. Not only is this a fast track to proficient verbal skills, but if you stick with it, the gang will accept and welcome you. It might take some time, which is why it’s important to choose something you're genuinely interested in.
Above all, be patient with yourself and your local community.
Take time to start learning the language, understand that they aren’t consciously excluding you (they probably just don’t know what to do with you) and once you’ve found your own new identity in your new host country, join some local activities that align with your interests.
Being an expat is one of the most mind-broadening experiences you can have, but change is hard. Once you've found your footing and have developed a support network, it all gets a whole lot easier! Welcome to your brand new world!
Tanya Arler is the author of the book UNPACK - a guide to life as an expat spouse and founder of A Happy Expat. A HAPPY EXPAT offers expat spouses practical tools, mindset coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.
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