Understanding a new culture, adjusting to life in a foreign country, finding the right balance between adapting to a different environment and remaining true to yourself… Successfully fitting into your host country is a major expat challenge. The integration process can be more or less difficult, depending on the country. Expatriates in Mexico City, Lisbon, and Valencia, for example, feel particularly welcome in their adopted cities. But newcomers to Germany, Vienna, and Shanghai admit that it takes longer to feel at home there (1)... Here are the keys to finding your place in your new country:
If you leave without knowing a word of the local language, or with only a very basic knowledge of it, you will inevitably need to fight the language barrier. Though speaking English allows you to manage in many non-English speaking countries, in the long run, the more language skills you gain, the better off you will be. It’s not just about practicality: becoming fluent in the local language is a big step towards fitting into your host country. Expats who make efforts to communicate in a language which isn’t their mother tongue are also often more appreciated and better welcomed.
Language learning may begin well before expatriation, but can also occur once you are abroad in an immersion environment. You will be learning a great deal upon arrival, but if you are a complete beginner, you should consider taking a few classes. Choose a suitable method to get the basics down, improve your knowledge of the language, or become fluent: take crash courses, watch local TV channels and read newspapers, take part in various group activities, or join a language exchange club…
Getting lost in a new place might be the key to turning it into a familiar place. Memorising your route to work or visiting the top ten sightseeing spots, like a tourist would do, isn’t exactly what will make you feel at home in your host country. Getting off the beaten path by progressively travelling to less touristy places, exploring the city with friends or experienced expats, or going on a road trip: to get to know a country and find your own favourite spots, you need to be adventurous.
You’ve barely set foot in Thailand, but you’ve already made a few trips to an ethnic grocery store, hoping to find foods you used to buy in your home country. It has been a few months since you settled in Argentina, but you have mainly been watching your native TV channels, looking for other expats, and spending hours on Skype… When you arrive, it might be reassuring to stay in your comfort zone, but this isn’t what will help you adjust to your host country.
To get to know a culture, you need to become part of it and let go of the misconceptions you might have about it. Curiosity is your best friend. Avoid staying glued to your group of expat friends, try the local food, attend cultural events, and get acquainted with new behaviour rules… In other words, welcome surprises. The idea isn’t to become someone else and to agree with all of the local customs, but to embrace your host country’s culture.
Could the ability to build relationships, both with locals and other expats, be the secret to a successful expatriation? A newcomer might learn as much from expats as from non-expats. Spending time with experienced fellow expats who already have a good knowledge of the country will not only help you avoid post-arrival isolation, but will also allow you to get a great deal of handy advice: how to open a bank account, lists of good doctors, understanding the healthcare system and expatriate insurance solutions, schools, renewing a work permit… Find expat groups or clubs, and share your experiences!
Once the excitement and stress of your arrival begins to wear off, getting to know the locals is what will help you fully understand the country and stop feeling like an outsider. Depending on the country, blending in with the locals may be more or less easy, but seize all opportunities: join a sports club, meet other parents while picking the kids up at school, make friends at work, couchsurf, or have your friends introduce you to their friends…
Expatriation will change the way you see your home country, but integrating doesn’t mean rejecting your culture of origin. The tricky part is actually succeeding in building a bi-cultural identity. Don’t neglect the importance of staying in touch with the friends and family you have left behind you, often temporarily. Network, send emails, and make short trips back to your home country… These also are ways to help reduce the shock of future repatriation.
To find out more about fitting in as an expat:
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(1) Expat Insider 2022, InterNations.
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