Understanding a new culture, adjusting to living in a foreign country, finding the right balance between adapting to a different environment and remaining true to yourself… Succeeding to fit into the host country is a major expat challenge. Integrating processes might be more or less difficult depending on the country. According to the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey 2012, 72% of the expats in Australia found it easy to integrate whereas only 11% of the expats in Hong Kong agreed that they had blended into the local community… Five key points to fitting into your host country.
1) Learn the language.
Whether you leave not knowing a word of the local language or with only a very basic knowledge of it, you will inevitably need to fight the language barrier. Though speaking English allows you to manage in many non-English speaking countries, in the long run, the more language skills you gain, the better off you will be. It’s not just about practicality: becoming fluent in the local language is a big step towards fitting into the host country. Expats who make efforts to communicate in a language which isn’t their mother tongue also often are more appreciated and better welcomed.
Language learning may begin well before expatriation but can also occur once you are abroad, in an immersion environment. You will be learning a great deal upon arrival but if you are a complete beginner, you should consider taking a few classes. Choose a suitable method to get the basics down, improve your knowledge of the language or become fluent: take crash courses, watch local TV channels and read newspapers, take part in various collective activities, join a language exchange club…
2) Explore the country, your city, your neighborhood.
Getting lost in a new place might be the key to turning it into… a familiar place. Memorizing your itinerary to work or visiting the top ten places to see as a random tourist would do isn’t exactly what will make you feel at home in your host country. Getting off the beaten path by progressively traveling to less touristy places, exploring the city with friends or experienced expats, going on a road trip: to get to know a country and find your own favorite spots, you need to be adventurous.
3) Live like a local.
You’ve barely set foot in Thailand but you already have made a few trips to an ethnic grocery store hoping to find foods you used to buy in your home country. It has been a few months since you settled in Argentina but you have mainly been watching your native TV channels, looking for other expats and spending hours on Skype… Upon arrival, remaining in your comfort zone might be reassuring but this isn’t what will help you adjust to your host country.
To get to know a culture, you need become part of it and let go of the misconceptions you might have about it. Curiosity is your best ally. Avoid staying glued to your group of expat friends, try the local food, attend cultural events, and get acquainted with new behavior rules… In other words, welcome surprises. The idea isn’t to become someone else and to agree with all of the local customs, but to embrace your host country’s culture.
4) Build a social life.
Could ability to build relationships both with locals and other expats be the determinant of successful expatriation? A newcomer might learn as much from expats than from non-expats. Spending time with experienced fellow expats who already have a good knowledge of the country will not only help you avoid post-arrival isolation but will also allow you to get a great deal of handy advice: how to open a bank account, lists of good doctors, healthcare system and expatriate insurance solutions, schools, renewing a work permit… Find expat groups or clubs and share experiences!
Once the excitement and stress experienced upon arrival begins to wear off, getting to know the locals is what will help you fully understand the country and stop feeling like an outsider. Depending on the country, blending in with the locals is more or less easy but seize all opportunities: join a sports clubs, meet other parents while picking the kids up at school, make friends at work, couchsurf, have your friends introduce you to their friends…
5) Keep in touch with your home country.
Expatriation will change the way in which you see your home country but integrating doesn’t mean rejecting your culture of origin. Succeeding in building a bi-cultural identity actually is the tricky part. Don’t neglect the importance of staying in touch with the friends and family you have left behind you, often temporarily. Network, send e-mails and make short trips back to your home country… These also are ways to help reduce the choc of future repatriation.
To find out more about fitting in as an expat:
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