Living Abroad: How to Balance Your Ex-Pats and Your Locals
I’ve lived in three different countries outside my own, working as an English teacher. Each time I’ve been fascinated by the different possibilities for friendships there, both with fellow ex-pats (who were astonishingly easy to find) and locals you meet through work or hobbies.
I’ve also seen foreigners who spend all their time with ex-pats and wondered if maybe they should have just stayed home. Having said that, ignoring the ex-pats and hanging out with only the locals is probably also not the right balance.
So if you’re living abroad, or thinking of moving abroad, have a look at my tips on how to balance the friendships and time commitments with fellow ex-pats and locals. I hope it’ll make your experience an even more worthwhile one!
The main reason that we love to hang with other ex-pats is that they’re more likely to understand us in many ways, but let’s look at the obvious sense of sharing a common language. When you are struggling every day to communicate in a language other than your own — even if you’re proficient enough to work using the language, it can still be exhausting — then it’s a welcome relief to be able to slip back into your native tongue.
I remember this feeling all too well and it’s one of the reasons I make an effort to speak German here at home, so my (German) husband can spend some time speaking his language rather than always being the “foreigner”.
The less obvious way that other ex-pats understand you is that they tend to come from a similar cultural upbringing. That means they are ideal sounding boards for problems you’re having with fitting in to your new country, or for delicate cultural questions that may not be appropriate to ask of a local, or simply because you can refer to some famous pop cultural icon of your culture and not have to explain it in detail. (All Australians end up talking about the movie “The Castle”. It’s SO Australian — go look it up!)
When You Might Have Too Many Ex-Pat Friends
So, ex-pat friends are great, and I’d argue almost essential, but could you have too many? If you’ve lived somewhere for more than a few months and are spending all your free time with fellow ex-pats, it’s probably time to make an effort to connect with some locals.
Of course, it can be harder to make friends with locals if you have a language barrier or stark cultural differences, but these can be overcome and you can learn so much about the local people and yourself in the process. There are often organisations of locals who reach out to ex-pats to help them integrate.
For example, when I lived in Japan there was an amazing group of volunteer housewives who’d studied how to teach Japanese to foreigners, and getting in touch with them opened all kinds of cultural and friendship doors for me.
You can also try taking up a hobby or sport at a local club because you’ll then naturally find locals who have an interest in common with you.
So, why did I particularly love making friends with locals when I lived abroad? There are so many reasons but as a whole I’d summarise by saying it’s what made me feel like I was really living in another country, rather than just passing through.
In Japan, it took a few months before I made local friends (it didn’t help that the adult language school I taught in had a strict-sounding rule about not fraternising with students — it took me a while to get the courage to break this rule!) but once I did it was incredibly rewarding. The Japanese I met were so generous in sharing their country and culture and I could write a book about the exciting outings we went on together — and the never-ending hours of karaoke I got to enjoy!
When I lived in Slovakia, I was fascinated by the fact that the local friends I made seemed so much like me but they had grown up and gone to school during communist times. We spent a lot of time discussing the differences but also embracing how they could now travel freely and that I could come and live in a country like theirs and meet them. The amazing changes just my generation has seen are pretty impressive!
In a country like Germany where the historical and cultural differences were not so extreme, I still loved the chance to make friends with locals rather than just hang out with other ex-pat teachers. I found I had more subtle things to discover there — for example, really trying to understand the difference between when to use “polite you” and “informal you” when you’re speaking German — a tricky concept which turned out to be much more fluid than my high school textbook had suggested.
This problem is something I witnessed much less frequently than the foreigner who has too many ex-pat friends, but it does exist, particularly if you’re an ex-pat who has lived somewhere for many years, perhaps married a local and become competent in the language. But also amongst very conscientious short-term ex-pats who are focusing on meeting only the locals.
I found that everyone needs to reconnect with their own culture now and again, to have a break from the constant feeling of being somehow different to everyone around you. And that’s why having at least some regular contact with other ex-pats is still important. After all, they’re the only ones who will ever properly laugh at all your jokes, I think!