Why knowing your local community matters when you’re an expat
Published on October 28, 2020 / Updated on January 10, 2024
Becoming an expat has its ups and downs. The adventure of learning a new language and culture can be thrilling and a huge confidence boost. But other times it feels isolating and frustrating. Here is where knowing your local community helps a lot.
If you’re an expat that has moved to a new country separate from your family, then you absolutely need to get to know your local community. I know from personal experience that no community quickly leads to loneliness like none other. So, it’s a good idea to get to know your neighbours, which can be your literal neighbours or other groups in the city. When you build a community around your new life, this helps you feel so much more at home. You also get support when you need help and you’ll likely also find that your community quickly transforms into a new family.
After hearing countless visa stories, I don’t think there’s any country on the planet where bureaucracy is simple. When you become an expat, you have to learn a completely new system, including visa and citizenship issues, taxes, insurance, bank accounts, how to find a flat and set up utilities – and these often in a foreign language. In these cases, I truly believe that your local community is essential for getting through these challenges. When I moved to Hamburg, for example, no one in the foreigner’s office would speak English with me, even though I had no German language skills. If I didn’t have my German friend to help me, I don’t think I would’ve even got my visa to live here. I’ve worked hard to improve my German skills and can manage on my own now, but I do still consult German friends for help with complex forms to make sure I’ve understood them properly.
The best place to learn a new language is to spend time with the locals, particularly if you’re doing so with immersion, because you learn the language directly from the source. When I was learning Spanish, I spent a few months in Spain with a host family for a true immersion experience. Even within the space of a few days, I learnt to have full conversations with people. While this may sound daunting if you’re living in a new country long term, the more time you spend with locals, the faster you’ll learn the language.
As an expat myself, I always found that I gravitated towards other expats when making friends. They understand how weird it is to be in a cultural identity transition, can complain about the same weird aspects of the new culture, and have this wonderfully beautiful cultural diversity that isn’t quite the same with people who aren’t expats. In Hamburg, I’ve been able to make many friends through local community groups like Girl Gone International (GGI) and Meetup (both are in most major cities). I can honestly say that making friends like this is a major part of being able to survive my new expat life.
When you have local friends and begin to learn the language, this is how you learn how to integrate. We learn by watching others and by having local friends, you’ll inherently begin to reflect these new behaviours. However, being an expat doesn’t mean that you need to forsake all of your roots and take on a whole new identity. It’s more of a flowing process. In order to enjoy living in a new country, you do have to change some things about yourself to fit there. But you can also keep parts from your original country as well and merge them into something new and spectacular. That’s the beauty of being an expat. We create cultural identity in the way we want.
One of the main reasons for moving to a new country is to work there – either you found a new job, are relocated, or want to search for a new job. In all cases, being a part of your local community has major career benefits. It’s the same concept as networking. Who you know is always beneficial in the future, because you can find better job opportunities. Plus, the locals will also help you to understand local work culture, such as how to dress, whether to use formal or informal business language, and how concepts like holidays and meetings are handled.