Blending In While Living Abroad
Have you ever walked into a public bathroom, only to realize that you’re in the wrong one? That man at the sink is looking at you like you have three heads (or that you’re definitely missing a required part to be in this particular room). You are immediately embarrassed, and suddenly, you’ve forgotten how words work. The best you can do is back out slowly and hope that he doesn’t tell his friends (whom you’ve never met anyway, but still would rather them not find out). Well, living abroad in a very foreign country can feel a bit like that sometimes.
Beginning the second your plane lands, you’re going to realize that you are in a place where you have never been—an unfamiliar land with strange people and strange cultures and strange food. It is apparent in the airport food kiosks, the language written on the baggage check and above all, the looks on everyone else’s faces that clearly state, “What are you doing here?”
The difference between walking off of a plane in China and walking into the wrong bathroom is that you absolutely do not belong in that bathroom (no matter what you went in there to do), but you DO belong in your new home country. You just have to figure out how. Fortunately, it’s not that hard, and I have had to do it (twice), so I can give you a bit of advice on how to blend in while working abroad.
This is the first and most obvious thing you should do while trying to become comfortable in your new country: Go out and find some friends. This requires you to be a little bit social, but almost every city with foreign teachers will have an expat community, and they will not be very difficult to find. You can meet people in bars, in parks, at the gym or even online. Try to see if there are any groups or clubs you can join to meet people. Join a pottery class and learn to make something and at the same time, make friends with the person sitting next to you. Go to Thirsty Thursday at the most popular bar and meet someone over a beer (just make sure you make it to work on Friday). Having people in your life will make it exponentially easier to feel at home in your new country, and you will be able to begin to blend into a community when you actually make yourself a community to blend in to.
The longer you are in a city, the more friends you will be able to find, but it is important to take that first step and put yourself out there. You will soon meet friends from countries all over the world as well as a great group of locals who are excited to have you in their country. Which brings me to my next point…
Be Open to Local Cultures, Customs and People
You are not in your hometown anymore. No one abroad is going to root for the Cleveland Browns (or understand why you do. Seriously, the Browns?) or understand your love of tailgating for EVERYTHING. You can’t expect people or things abroad to change for you, so you’re going to have to open your mind for them. Look into what sports the locals are fans of; go to a celebration or parade that is hosted in your city; explore the markets and eat a bunch of local food; interact with the cute local guy (or girl) behind the counter at the tea shop. In short, completely immerse yourself in the culture of the city you’re now living in. You don’t have to enjoy everything that you see, but you’ll find that you’re into more than you thought you’d be. You’ll start to like the taste of stinky tofu, and every once in a while, jamming out to K-Pop can be kind of fun. Your style will change to accommodate what is sold in your country, and you may even enjoy those neon tights soon (I know I do).
The more local things you allow into your life, the easier your life will be. Your new hometown will become a home rather than a place where you happen to live. People will notice that you’re a part of the culture, and they will want to befriend you and interact with you. By keeping an open mind, you will blend in without actually having to do much of anything.
Use Some of the Language
It doesn’t matter if the only thing you can remember how to say in your new country’s language is “Hello” and “Goodbye.” Use it. Keep using it. Keep listening to how locals talk. Listen to how people communicate. Try to pick up on it. Learn and learn and learn. You can take formal classes or you can pick up key phrases simply by living, but try and learn some of the language: the more the better.
You’ll have a much easier time blending into your new community if you can communicate with people there. Granted, people in other countries are MUCH more patient with non-native speakers than westerners are with foreigners who can’t speak English (you should all be ashamed for that, by the way), but you will find you will be much more accepted if you at least try. People abroad will want to talk to you, and you will find the benefits of trying are numerous. I’ve had cab drivers give discounts for trying to speak Chinese; bartenders throw me a beer for trying to have a conversation and, most importantly, people who have become my friends. The more of the language you learn and use, the more you will blend in to your new community.
Don’t Blend In
No matter what you do, no matter how much of the language you learn, you’ll always be a foreigner, and guess what? That’s ok! In fact, it’s awesome. Most locals will still accept you and befriend you. The expat community will be excited to have you join their ranks, and you will find a myriad of groups to be a part of. One of the best ways to blend in to a new country is to know that you’re not going to blend in at all. Stand out! Be yourself! Love where you are, love the people you’re going to meet, love the things about your new home that make it unique and use all of those things to make you a bigger and better you. By knowing that you can never completely blend in, you will be more accepted than if you continuously try to be someone who you are not.
So go live abroad! Be aware that you’re about to change your life, and go change it. Go find a community where you belong, because if you accept where you are and how the communities there live, then they will, in turn, accept and love you as well.
Samantha is our General Travel Expert Sam is a writer, teacher, acrobat, fire-breather, stilt walker, athlete, coach, explorer, (sometimes) crazy person from America. She has and continues to work in everything from teaching to show business, and has lived and worked in both China and Taiwan. In her free time, Sam listens to The Beatles and just follows wherever life decides to take her.