Whether you’ve been abroad for a month, a year or even longer (hey, there🖖🏻), you learn pretty quickly that the cards are kind of stacked against you. You can no longer speak, explain yourself, or ask questions in your native language. You don’t really know where anything is, or how to find what you need. You don’t know the way things are supposed to be done. All of the sudden, you’re making these hand gestures or noises that are apparently really offensive! Suddenly, you’re the oddball and everyone is looking at you. This sort of adventure is charming for the first few weeks, but once reality sets in that this will be normal for a long time coming, it becomes a little less charming and a lot more challenging.
Basically, you’ve arrived in this new country as a needy child in the body of a grown adult. It’s one of the most humbling things you could ever experience (yes, even more humbling than telling your spouse that they’re right and you’re wrong). I believe humility is good for the soul, though, because it builds character. But character doesn’t come easy, does it?
In this process of refinement and learning a new culture, I’m going to share what has been the most important asset I’ve had, second to my faith in Christ. That is, drum roll please, community!
I am so glad to have chosen a country with incredibly kind, helpful, and caring people. I’ve had so many Turks who didn’t even know me go far out of their way to help me when I first arrived here. I’m talking “drop all their plans to literally take me where I need to go, drop me off and then they carry on with their day” kind of help. I’ve had other foreign friends who have experienced the same! This sort of kindness and generosity really warms your heart when you’re feeling a little defeated by the winding roads, crazy traffic and lack of street names.
As you make friends with locals (who either speak your language, or you’ve finally become conversational in theirs), they can teach you so much about their world! Things you observe that don’t make sense to you can be explained by a local who can offer the missing piece of the puzzle. So why did your friend forget the meeting you planned a week ago? Because locals don’t plan that far in advance! Why did the guy tell you to go right, when you really needed to go left? Because telling you he didn’t know would have been more shameful than telling you the wrong directions, so he took his chances. Why isn’t anyone sitting at the front of the bus? Well, those seats are left open for the elderly, disabled and pregnant women. Your local friends have so much knowledge and wisdom to share! In just listening to their normal conversations, you will learn things organically that you didn’t even think to ask. This community is where you learn the culture most of all.
Aside from the locals’ kindness, extensive help and friendship, the expat community I’ve developed over the years has been instrumental to my adapting to life abroad. It’s not hard to guess why. When we have the chance to walk through something difficult with a companion, that hard thing doesn’t feel as hard anymore. Our friendships are totally unique to any other relationship. When I share about how offended I was when I was told, “Oh, you’ve put on a few kilos, huh?” or how frustrated I become by never-ending unsolicited advice, they get it. An American can imagine how those things might feel, but my expat friends live what I live, so I know they know. It’s a special bond.
This community doesn’t serve the purpose of being an audience for venting sessions, although sometimes getting things off your chest is really cathartic. The reason I believe this community is so integral to someone’s long-term well-being overseas is because you have a group of people that you truly feel known by. Isn’t that one of the fundamental desires we have in life? To feel known by others?
I have to be honest. It’s very difficult to feel truly known by your local friends, even if you’re really close. It does not mean the friendship is not authentic. It just means that your local friend really can’t empathize with all of your unique experiences as an expatriate.** Shoot, I married a Turkish man and as much as we love each other, he cannot understand what it’s like for me to live in his culture. Sometimes we have to have hard conversations about how I can’t spend 4 days out of a 7-day week with his relatives, because I grow overwhelmed and exhausted really quickly. It’s not that he doesn’t love me or doesn’t care, but he cannot understand the pressures I experience as a foreigner, especially around in-laws. I haven’t mastered the language, I don’t know all the cultural rules, I don’t see or feel the “weird” things that happen like they do, so I inevitably embarrass myself a little bit multiple times a night.
**My one caveat is if your local friend has also spent extensive time abroad in a country and culture very different than their own, then they may be able to deeply empathize with what you’re experiencing in their culture, because they have experienced the reverse of that elsewhere. It’s fascinating. I have a few local friends like this.
Others who come from your home culture (or a very similar one with the same native language) and who also live in the same host culture as you can often better understand how something affects you. Sometimes even making eye contact in a situation is enough to understand exactly how the other feels. This community can be a safe haven for you. It can be a place to speak your native language and relax without worrying about speaking correctly, behaving appropriately, or trying to remember all the cultural rules of behavior. You just get to be. These reprieves have been a major reason I’ve not had a terrible breakdown in my time abroad!
If you’re thinking of moving overseas, or you already live overseas, I highly recommend pursuing a community of people who come from a similar culture as you. It truly makes a world of difference (like that cultural pun? :D) and will help you thrive as an expatriate for years to come!
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Here is a slideshow of some of my community abroad over the last 5 years!