Last summer I wrote about how important it is to not get trapped inside the expat bubble. In our first months in Bogotá, I resisted getting too involved with other expats. I thought that making American friends meant I would not “experience” Colombia. Oh, the naiveté.
There is truth in that sentiment. You will short-change yourself if you spend all your time in Starbucks, never venturing past the main streets filled with familiar shops to try the mom-and-pop cafe. On the other hand, there are gaps that only someone on the “outside” can fill. Keep reading for three reasons every expat needs other expats.
They’ll help you find your feet.
No matter how many blogs you read or how much you research, you can’t know everything about your new home. Having an expat buddy is like being friends with an upperclassman—they’ve been around awhile and can show you the ropes. For instance, my lovely pal Darleen is the one who explained Día de Las Velitas to me. Another girlfriend made sure I knew about the sano y salvo letter I was required to present to our doormen in order to move my belongings out of our building. On moving day I was so glad I didn’t toss that one in the trash.
Your fellow expats are good for more than just recommendations and advice. It was so comforting to hear from others that the bits of culture shock I was feeling were completely normal. And, not every culture may be open and welcoming to outsiders, but expats usually are—we’re all away from our native home without family or a support system.
Communicate without cultural barriers.
I thought that once I’d learned the basics of grammar and some Spanish vocabulary I’d be set. Turns out, there’s a cultural aspect to communication as well and the list of lessons I’ve learned is long. Don’t make fun of yourself, because it makes people uncomfortable. The #1 small talk question in the U.S. (what do you do) is impolite, but asking if you have kids or are married is just fine. Add in the subjunctive and whew, it’s a lot to juggle. I quickly came to appreciate the ease of communicating with friends from the same cultural frame of reference, where both our language and taboo topics were shared.
They’ll understand what you’re going through.
Moving abroad, though exciting, is a huge life change. For a trailing partner, the loss of a job is a big shake-up to your personal identity. Being in a place where you know no one besides your kids and spouse is isolating. And there will be days that your adventurous life is more of an uphill slog.
It can mess with your head to make a choice, know you want it, but then struggle with adjusting to it. That grief is a natural part of change, but you may feel sheepish turning to your friends and family for comfort. From the outside expat life can look like a dream come true—endless free time and social media snapshots of new food and places. But that’s just what those are: snapshots.
An expat friend is a lifeline in these moments of struggle. Keeping all those weird feelings inside is a perfect breeding ground for the kind of mental chatter that makes you wonder if you made a mistake or question your self-worth. She’ll understand exactly where you’re coming from and you won’t have to worry about resentment when you put all your feelings out there. There’s no quick fix for these moments, but being heard and understood is a big part of moving through those feelings.
Like so many things, finding a balance between both worlds has proved best for me. Where do you fall with your friendship philosophy? Did you find it easy to integrate into your new culture and make friends? Do you have an expat community you rely on? I’m anxious to hear about your experiences, so please share them in the comments below!