InterNations guest blogger Benjamin wonders if the self-imposed isolation of the “expat bubble”, which might seem like a blessing at first, is actually more of a curse…
I’m sure everyone on this blog, as well as in the InterNations Community, would agree that one of the greatest aspects of traveling is the ability to meet new people and learn about new cultures. Living and working abroad has the added advantage of providing you with more opportunities to get to know the local society on a much deeper level than a holiday ever could. You have the luxury of time, which allows you to really probe and explore another point of view, instead of just scratching the surface with superficial understanding.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed many foreigners and expats who only surround themselves with friends from their own countries, who speak their own language and never mingle with local people in their new home. It is especially common here in Hong Kong, and I must admit that I’ve been guilty of it from time to time.
I understand the rationale behind this phenomenon completely. You’ve just arrived in a new city with an unfamiliar language and culture. The experience can be intimidating. It’s natural to seek out people who are from the same country and speak the same language as you, people who are, in general, more “like you”. And once you find each other, you bond.
As you slowly settle into your new environment, go to your new job in giant glass and steel towers, figure out your daily routine and spend your free time with friends that are “like you”, you lose the impetus to meet local residents and understand the culture you are supposedly emerged in. That is when you have fallen into the “expat bubble”.
The “expat bubble” is just so easy and comfortable. You think, “I’ll be here for a while, so I have plenty of time.” But then the days turn into weeks and months, and after a few years, you realize, “I don’t even know the local language.” By that time, you figure, “I’ve already survived here for so long and I am doing fine, so why bother trying?”
However, I feel this is a big mistake that many expats make too often, including this particular expat. Living in the “expat bubble” deprives you of so many eye-opening and memorable experiences. You get to understand the local mentality and are able to see the world through new eyes. And most people are happy to share more about themselves, you just have to ask. It is as simple as befriending that one person who is willing to open the door, take you into his or her world and show you what it is really like.
Being willing to learn the local language is a great start to opening that door. Not only does learning the language offer you the tangible benefits of communicating in your host country, it also conveys your willingness to understand people on a deeper level. Even by knowing a few simple words or phrases, you demonstrate genuine effort and respect, and barriers will come tumbling down.
I remember my first winter in Poland when I didn’t have a great relationship with my flatmate. All my friends were other expats, and I spent most of my free time with them. When we were in the flat together, we basically kept to ourselves, but when I started asking her how to say certain things in Polish, suddenly the floodgates opened and we became good friends. I was even invited to spend Christmas with her family and experience an authentic Polish Christmas. It was a truly spiritual occasion.
When you find yourself in the “expat bubble” for too long, I encourage you to escape!
(Photo credit: Benjamin W.)