Expat advice: Breaking out of the ‘bubble’

We received all kinds of suggestions from well-wishing friends as we prepared to leave San Diego. The advice that remains clearest in my memory—and in hindsight has proven the most valuable—was when our friend Kyle put her hand on my arm and said, make sure you break out of the expat bubble.  

Expat bubble?

At the time I took this to mean don’t make any American friends, which now makes me laugh at my naiveté and how I shunned native English speakers during our first months in Bogotá.

Once I realized I wasn’t ruining my experience by having friends from my home culture, I branched out. One night I was invited to dinner with a group of American women, all co-workers from the international school where they all worked and initially met.  Besides my friend, none of the women could speak Spanish.  I was astounded because they had all lived in Bogotá for almost two years!  Taking in the conversation from the evening, the idea of the ‘expat bubble’ finally sunk in. If you can’t (and aren’t trying to) speak the local language, if you frequent places where you don’t need to utter a word of Spanish or if you find yourself more often than not surrounded by people of a similar cultural background, you’re probably in an expat bubble.

It must be said that depending on where you’re living, there are varying degrees to the expat bubble and things that will inevitably limit how far you can break out. For some, security protocols can be incredibly constricting. I have a girlfriend here who can’t take a walk or ride a bike.  If she does go anywhere it’s with her driver/security guard in an armored vehicle. Outside of a certain area, the place must first be vetted by their security team.  How can you form an organic relationship if you can’t leisurely be out and about in your own neighborhood?

Cultural factors can be limiting as well. Westerners living in conservative societies may not even have an option of making local friends, which is why Saudi Arabia and Kuwait often rank last in expat studies regarding feeling welcomed and an ease of settling in.  I think a third consideration must be made for those living in very poor countries, where an economic gap may create a stark divide between locals and foreigners.

Compared to other countries, I think Cody and I have had it pretty easy.  One of the principal influences away from the expat bubble has been our work: Cody is one of two expats in his office and my volunteer jobs and classes have given me an opportunity to meet and work with Colombians.  Also in our favor is that Bogotá seems to us (and a lot of other people if you look at the expat study above) as a very inclusive, welcoming place.  I’ve talked a lot in the past about what a lovely surprise it has been to be so warmly included in people’s lives, without which we would have had a much different experience.

Living in a city where it’s relatively easy to break out of the expat bubble, there are big drawbacks to not doing so. Principally, I think it hinders your ability to feel at home and be happy.  I mentioned in a past post that letting go of your home culture is an important part of assimilating to your new one and the example I gave being how no one bats an eye when elderly people to jump lines.

I’ve also noticed that when friends who come from a similar cultural background all get together, the conversations tend to drift toward griping about the differences between the U.S. and Colombia.  The way some things are done here can be frustrating at times and I feel like it’s fine to vent once and a while, but this isn’t a mental place I think anyone should stay for long.  Consistently making generalizations about a particular group or characterizing behavior as stupid creates a dangerous us vs. them thought-pattern and has the possibility to sour your experience.

I’m not saying that you have to have all local friends to be happy or find the grittiest back alley bar to have an authentic experience—I’d say that Cody and I are around 50/50 as far as our friend mix goes and I’m not ashamed to say that there are parts of this city that seriously intimidate me.  But doing your best to assimilate into the local culture will only make your life richer.  I wouldn’t have been able to feel settled and at ease here if I hadn’t learned the language and left my own mores behind—and of course, rubbing up against another culture has softened some of my rougher edges.

Even though there were difficult bits, I’m glad we built our life and found happiness in Bogotá that doesn’t rely solely on the expat community.  It’s funny how much I romanticized the idea of living abroad—I was chomping at the bit to just go, but as soon as I was gone I ached for the familiar and I see now how I could have easily built my world firmly in my comfort zone.

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