Miniature Expat Guy
The Expat © The Preiser Project

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.

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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!

© Martina Lanotte

Ex-Pats Understand You

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.

Thai Elvis in Bangkok, Thailand
Thai Elvis, Bangkok © mark roy

Locals Educate 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.

Study Time, Zurich © Thomas Leuthard

When You Might Need To Look Up Some Ex-Pats

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!

  1. I think I have a different perspective on this. I’ve lived in China for almost 2 years. I mostly hang out with expats. For the most part I really like hanging out with the expats. We are all very different. We’re from different countries and I love learning about their countries. I don’t feel guilty about hanging out with them instead of Chinese people.

    I’ve also found it very difficult to have Chinese friends. Our cultures are soooo different and it makes for a very difficult relationship once you get past the initial conversations. I wish I had more Chinese friends but I don’t feel bad about it because the relationship can be so frustrating.

    At work I have Chinese ‘friends’ but I don’t see them outside of work very often. They have taught me so much about the Chinese culture and I enjoy talking to them about the differences in our cultures. This is enough for me. I’m ok having expat friends and Chinese coworkers.

  2. Having lived in London for nearly 3 years now I can say that even though we ‘speak’ the same language(mostly) it has been very hard to make friends with the locals. Our group of friends has been 98% expats. We have broken through that tough British exterior and gotten to know a few but they aren’t the most social people. Even here at work I’ve gotten to know the other expat and an Italian who spent a few years in the US. The other people here are from all over the world which makes for a mini-UN but they are just as social as the Londoners.

    I think it has something to do with the city, not just London, but the fact that expats tend to be in larger cities, for obvious reasons. I suppose if we had to move to a small town we’d figure out that there aren’t many expats and those country folks will be much more welcoming?

    My partner’s company has offices in Singapore and there has been talk about going there. I’d love the chance to go, mostly for the warmer weather, but I do think making friends there will be even harder than here in London.

  3. I definitely agree with a lot of this – as a current expat in India, I’ve had to balance the expat community of our residential (international) school with my interactions with the local community. What aggravates me the most is people who insist that there’s no need to interact with the locals, or refuse to adjust to the culture (yes, I’ve seen it!). It’s dreadful to watch how often they spiral into misery and depression because they’re “stuck in some terrible place”, but they’re not getting out and experiencing it, or interacting with local people, and it drastically impairs their adjustment.

    If you haven’t read Craig Storti’s “Figuring Foreigners Out” and “The Art of Crossing Cultures”, I think you’d enjoy them.

  4. Keeping the balance between ex-pats and locals is very important. As you have mentioned, ex-pats understand you and you have always more in common than with locals, but on the other hand, locals teach you and inspire you more than ex-pats. I have been living in China for 10 months surrounded by Chinese only. After 6 months I felt so isolated and lonely. Now, I am living in Siem Reap where I am in touch with ex-pats only and I feel like having more interactions with locals. So, I guess the balance is the key. Thanks for sharing it with me. I found it very interesting.

  5. I think making friends in general is a tough part in being an expat. Not necessarily making them but keeping them. I meet people all the time and seem to make loads of friends, both locals and expats. But it seems they are always leaving! Expats only stay for about a year and even the locals my age seem to want to experience life abroad as well. That is the trouble with befriending fellow wanderers!!

  6. I’ve also lived overseas for many years, in many different countries, and your article is spot on. If you’re not spending time with the “locals”, you might as well stay home. At the same time, especially as my kids grow older, I do feel a need to re-connect with my own culture from time to time, so that they have some idea of where they come from.

  7. Great read, Amanda. While living in Latin America, I worked side by side with locals and depended on them as they did on me for earnings, progress, business development, etc. I think that “inter dependence” made for an easier connection with the locals. And i found in my experience i kept the balance (like a good Libra) between the numbers of locals and expat friends which I had. Joy’s comment regarding China is interesting. when the culture is so different and stagnating. This happens sometimes too, so maybe in that case expat is cool, or better yet, make friends with people from around the world. You did a great job weighing both sides, and I totally concur with the philosophy of “make friends with locals or stay home”. All the best to you

  8. As a former expat, I also think it is important to find a good balance between having expat and local friends. Living in South Korea, it was great to learn about local culture, customs,and traditions from my Korean friends while also learning new things about the Korean language. It was nice to have foreign friends too that I could share my experience with about being an expat!

  9. I agree with you. Having lived in Oman for a year, I loved interacting with locals but expats I could relate with more on culture. It was beautiful to find cultural commanalities with locals but they never quite understood my pov at times.

  10. well, where do i start, this is offensive on so many levels, in so many ways.
    immigrants from any country in any country are guests. even the ones who marry natural citizens in their new country, as guests. this particular group of immigrant guests who insist on being called “expats” seem obsessed with the fact that they are immigrant guests. they seem to think they are different from other immigrants. they seem obsessed with differences, rather than similarities among humans. what a bore… as if they never noticed that where they were born, where they live now, is all incidental, random, and has dire little to do with them and their fabulousness… OMG this might have been excusable in a previous century… “your expats with your locals” ??? meat and potatos??? OMG and we wonder how it is we are entering into another world war??!!

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