Is social integration possible when trying to live overseas?

Lone Cellist from Budapest
Lone Cellist from Krakow

I don’t have the answers to everything. If I did I would have found a place called home a long time ago. All I have to go on is what I’ve learned so far. One of those things is the importance of social integration with local people.

Why is social integration important?

This one is easy. You simply can’t live in another country and not be social. You are the outsider, you need to fit in. If you don’t, you’ll have few friends, and probably be labeled as something you might not want to be called. It’s also hard to claw back a reputation.

What’s so hard about making friends overseas?

There’s a difference maker here. Making friends is easy, but making long-term genuine friendships is very different. In many places I’ve come across, countless people will chum up to you for different reasons. Mainly for money, some out of curiosity and others for more dubious intentions.

To many a local I am just another tourist, and  therefore I ‘must’  have money and are looking for tours, guides, hotels etc,. Fair enough. I get it. Once my story is told, a few still hang on, still 99.9%  don’t believe me, or quite truly get it.

To others I am an expat looking to buy up their business. Some will hate me, others will inflate (the prices) in their curious optimism. I don’t have the money to buy any businesses. Once that is said, people start to get suspicious. What can he really be doing here so? He can’t really be serious about wanting to live here?!

This again I’ve learned to accept.

What I am finding now is difficult to come to terms with – genuine social integration.

Even in places I have stayed a while, or a long time. One is still an outsider. Again, I get this. But in doing so, you are left out of the inner circle.

Morning socializing on the Ganges, India
Morning socializing on the Ganges, India

There seems to be a limit to the conversations you can have. Similar interests may exist, but they are rarely acknowledged.

There are exceptions in all this I know. Expat communities as an example. But again, this is not social integration with a local community. In truth, it’s a welcome break in some places.

I’ve lived in a local community, given my time, money, and experience. In return I’ve been treated very well, I’ve been awarded great prestige and honors. I’ve been invited to houses for dinners, parties, celebrations. But, I still have not been able to grasp true social integration with local people. Maybe it never happens. There is always a missing link that neither side can manage to cross over and truly grasp.

Hippie’s in India claim they integrate, long/short-term volunteers dressing like locals think they do, and NGO workers … well … maybe in their own little world.

Perhaps the answer lies with long term, non diplomatic nor corporate, expats. People from a different culture born into another country and having an ordinary life. I’ve met them. And still, even with a full average life in said country, they are still outsiders.

What’s the answer for a guy traveling around the world in search of home?

Language and culture are two main factors. In a country where you speak a different language it is harder. In europe I found this to be very true … but … even with this I found social integration a little easier. While in developing countries I have found with or without a language barrier social integration is still not possible.

So in developing countries I think that leaves culture, and I am including socio-economic statuses here. And yes I have found culture to be a huge obstacle. One will never be from the culture you are trying to live in. You will always be the outsider no matter how hard you try. You will never be from that place, even if excepted in.

Smiling Chinese faces (click to enlarge)
Some smile, some don't - Chinese faces (click to enlarge)

This is important because I am not trying to be a local

I am not the Hippie in India, nor the root finding traveler found else where dressing like a local, eating like a local and trying to be something they are not. This is not me. I simply wish to have a more genuine social interaction with local people as described above.

I’ve lived on less than my local neighbors in some countries I’ve worked. But still, I was the foreigner so I ‘must’ have money. The question of why I am carrying buckets of water to wash with at 4am with the cleaning staff goes unanswered. Perhaps I don’t know I can pay for someone to do this? This was once said to me. So I deem it as close to an answer I’ve come across.

The only thing I have not done is join the religious groups that welcome you into a community. I haven’t done this for many reasons, and I don’t think I ever will join a religious group just to have social integration.

In the Philippines this has especially struck me. We speak the same language, there is a western touch to the country. And, Filipinos are friendly people. But, no matter how hard I try, there is a cutting off point that says “the conversation is over.”

But then, I see expats living here and I wonder how they do it?

These are the ones that are married to locals. But yet, when I see them out, they are either with their wives or, alone. Or, in some cases, spending money on the new family.The internet also seems to be their best friend and not a local. So maybe they are not really “doing it?”

A table full of beer cans with a foreigner in the middle of locals does not do it for me in regards to genuine friendships. Though for others maybe it does.

Is this cultural difference the reason I am finding social integration so difficult in developing countries?

What then of places like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK?  They all share a similar culture, have I overlooked the obvious? Are these the only multicultural countries that have social integration more to do with a diversity of culture rather than economic status? Or is it perhaps a mix?

Again I don’t know the answer. But as my travels continue in a bid to find a place called home I am seeing these things become more and more evident, and relevant in my search.

Either that; or I am missing a very big piece of the puzzle …

Coming Soon:

Anyone seen George Clooney today?

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26 Replies to “Is social integration possible when trying to live overseas?”

  1. What a brilliant commentary with some great points. Even if I don’t want to concede that social integration in developing countries is not possible, you created a pretty solid case!

    I am from Canada originally and have found myself feeling quite “at home” in Australia. Because of similarities in language (as well as a few cultural parallels), it is an easy transition to have made. I won’t stay here forever, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t contemplated it.

    To that end, I think that indeed your search for home may be amiss if you omit the countries that seem a little “too similar” to your own. You may just find in that little town that’s out of the way and filled with genuine people, that it’s just different enough that you aren’t reminded of your previous home, but it’s also similar enough to have genuine connections with genuine folks.

    I’m still known as “the Canadian” in my Aussie neighbourhood, but it’s a fond nickname that stuck and I can guarantee you that despite my foreign nationality, I have friends for life here.

  2. I have been following your blog/journey for some time and have to say this is my favorite article so far.

    Social integration with local is either not possible or really hard if you come from totally different culture/race/ethnicity.

    I come from Asian background and been living overseas for a while. Saying that, I have been staying in different cities in USA and some Asian countries for several years. Even in the developed country such as USA, it’s not easy to mingle with local. In places with more diverse community, such as LA or SF, it is easier to mix with the local community but it’s not the real ‘Social Integration’. You can hang out with locals, still it’s really hard to fit into that community, you always know at some point that the conversation is over especially if you come from totally different culture. New York on the other hand is different, maybe it’s really different kind of city on its own, and you can find people from different culture and background that hang out together.

    For outgoing or chatty personality, ‘Social integration’ is indeed very important; however for those introverts, maybe they don’t care about this issue at all.

    In developing countries, this is not an issue for foreigner only, even within certain ethnics in that country or different social-economic status, this problem does exist.

    Having genuine friendships from overseas is not an issue; I think all you have to do is give your heart out. If you show yourself being sincere, people will feel it. Of course you’ll meet those who are into your money nevertheless there are still nice people out there.

    Maybe you have to stop trying so hard to get into the inner circle in some developing countries or else you have to find some countries that have similar background with your own country to be your home.

    Good Luck on your journey! :o)

  3. i love this article. this is one of the best i’ve read on intercultural acceptance. as someone who’s lived overseas, i think that probably true social integration will not happen. there are too many cultural barriers. that doesn’t mean that i didn’t have friends (for life) or felt at home there. there was just some invisible barrier that seems insurmountable.

    if cultures are more similar (us/canada/uk/aussie), then maybe there would be less issues? not sure. great, great food for thought!

    1. – Nora – Thanks Nora. I think the Aussies like to “rag” (if that’s the right phrase), so I wonder, if you are “the Canadian” what they’d call a guy with no home? :)

      However you do bring up many valid points. In about 6 seeks or so I’ll be writing about the “Australia question”. It’s bouncing around in my head as we speak. Lot’s of things for me to consider that I haven’t written about yet. Cultural parallels may way well be needed soon.

      yee – Very glad to hear you’ve been following my journey along, and glad you like the article. You’ve touched on something that I’ve not come across so openly. Many Asian’s don’t speak about such things, at least not to me, so I find it fascinating to hear the polar affect of similarity that I’m experiencing. An Asian in U.S.A having social integration similarities to by own in Asia. And why not? It makes perfect sense.

      What’s more you bring about a good point I too notice in terms of certain places like New York or LA that are so culturally mixed and possibly easier to integrate with. In this case I wonder though – is this because one finds people from a similar cultural background as your own or, is it a general acceptance from everyone in such cities?

      -jessiev- Hi Jessie, glad you’ve found some food for thought here. It’s also interesting to note about true social integration not being possible. I wonder if this is a reflection on society or if there is something else involved. Makes you wonder about the statement “can’t we all just get along”

  4. Hi Dave. Been awhile! I agree with you on almost every point, but I do think of all the countries I’ve (and you have) been, the philippines is the best case ‘social integration’ scenario: the people are warm and inviting and genuinely want you to be a part of their lives. I’ve not witnessed or felt the same in most other SEA countries (Thailand, Malaysia, etc) nor in South America. Agreed with prior commenters that places such as the UK and Oz are fairly hard NOT to integrate into: we already speak the same language and the food is often from the same base. However, that’s why I don’t want to live in those countries! :)

  5. Great post Dave. Like Nora, I’m not willing to concede that social integration isn’t possible when living overseas, but I do think that being amongst people who are unlike you, or who view you as different, makes authentic social integration very, very difficult.

    Social integration is actually hard right at home for many people. Thinking of the kid in high school that just doesn’t fit in. For whatever reason, some people are considered to be different — and they often consider themselves different as well — and thus find it hard to fit in. When you’re in a foreign environment, surrounded by people who look different to you, talk different to you or dress different to you, how can you NOT come away thinking you’re a bit different? I’d think it’s very hard to not feel like an outsider.

    My personal experience with this has been as someone who moved around a lot. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where I would feel like an insider. I’ve lived in Australia for over 10 years now — the longest I’ve ever lived in a single place — and I still don’t always feel totally integrated socially. I still say some words differently, or I have a different outlook on some things in life. Granted, since getting married a few years ago I think that Australia has been solidified in my mind as my home, but I guess the lesson I’ve learned is that it takes a lot of time — and there will still be times when you feel like an outsider.

  6. dave,
    for me, it seemed I had to know what home is within myself first. then, I had more useful perspectives to think about belonging or not, being accepted or not, and the other issues you’ve raised. not saying that’s an easy journey, though, or the path that’s right for everyone.

    1. -Jodi- Jodi!! Yes long time, great to hear from you :) Yes I agree that the Philippines has some of the warmest, nicest people out there. So maybe I struck it lucky by not doing the SEA thing first … time will tell. I also see your point about fitting into ‘western countries’ more easily. And can appreciate your views on why you don’t want to live in those countries. Maybe a happy medium? …

      -Eric- Thanks for that comment Eric, you certainly have raised some very interesting points.

      being amongst people who are unlike you, or who view you as different, makes authentic social integration very, very difficult.

      Completely agree. I think this is where cultural differences come into play alongside, socio-economic backgrounds and individual personality’s as well. At least during the early stages of living in a new country. Which are often the hardest.

      I think your example of the outsider kid at school is a good one when it comes to fitting in with another society. There’s give and take. I think if one realizes this, and initiates it in daily life, which may take one heck of a conscious effort, one can make good inroads.

      Very insightful to read your thoughts about living in Australia for 10 years, and still having moments of feeling like an outsider. I guess this is to be expected if you have family and friends back where you grew up. I wonder how different this is if you don’t? I have a feeling there’s not much difference …

      -kathleen- Kathleen, thanks for your comment. I agree that none of this is, or will be easy, it never was meant to be. What I’ve learned so far is that home is relative to the person. In my case I’ve felt that feeling only once, which I’ve already written about in my journal here. Once this is found though, there’s a myriad of other factors that come into play. One of which, is social integration.

      -World Nomad- Thank you! Yes all the top (header) photographs are mine. 99.99% of all Photographs on this site I have shot.

  7. What a great blog! I love your stuff. So true. I am an American living in Germany now and it is HARD work.

    1. -Abby- Thanks you! Yes it’s very hard work to relocate.

      -Ling- I think you have a valid point. Cultural presets do indeed need to be adapted to the culture you are asking to be a apart of.

      -Linda- Thank you for stopping by. I hope you get a chance to some back when you’re not at work! For me I actually hope home is not one of many places. I’m really looking for only one. It’s a learning process though, so who knows. Either way, I’m glad my reflections resonates with your own experiences.


      I think the goal is to become familiar but not part of the local culture

      This is very true. You bring up some very valid points in your comment! And yes fitting in can indeed be made all the easier by the subtle things.

      -Amber Hayes- Hi Amber, glad you enjoyed. The Ukraine was actually on my list of countries. Unfortunately it never happened. I wrote about it here.

      I think you are on the right track if you are already talking and making friends with people using social websites, and skype etc. Things and people can be quite different in person though, so I wouldn’t depend too much on them. However, they are still great for breaking the ice so to speak, and to get some momentum into building friendships for the future. Nothing will beat face to face communication though. The atmosphere, culture, linguistics, food and daily life. I certainly wish you the best.

      -jennifer- Your very welcome. Sometimes it doesn’t matter about the size of the country. Even in small countries people are often different from one state to another. Someone from Milan may always be the person from ‘Milan’ even if they’ve live in Rome all there lives. That said, coming from a big country made of a lot of different states, one is still classed as American. And will often have generalizations to deal with when trying to integrate. Throw in personality and/or local pride, and things can get complicated after that :)

  8. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s more like researching how friendships are mad in other cultures and following those conventions instead of going by your own cultural presets on how things should be done.

  9. I think the goal is to become familiar but not part of the local culture. What I mean by that is you always carry your background with you and accepting that makes it easier to feel at home in a foreign culture.

    On top of that it’s important to take the time to study the culture as well, so much about ‘fitting in’ is in the subtle details.

  10. Hi! I really enjoyed your blog post. My husband and I have spent some time in Ukraine, a place I highly recommend you visit, and have built some “friendships” there. It is definitely hard to integrate socially and living here in the US make it hard to keep up with friendships. My husband and I hope to spend more time in Ukraine in the future. Do you have any ideas or advice for relationship building before we go? What kinds of questions are good to ask? We tend to use Skype, facebook, and email a lot with the Ukrainians.

  11. Yes, so true, thank you. Before I traveled abroad, I never really thought about being from the USA as a specific nationality, b/c it encompasses so much. I have also moved around within the usa so much that I never quite feel like I belong anywhere to begin with, but if going abroad made me realize one thing, it was how absolutely “American” I am. I realized how “other” I really was…

  12. Hi! This is such a beautiful and interesting blog! I discovered it thanks to La Repubblica ( I’m from Italy). I believe that your plan to find your real home is “crazy” and brilliant at the same time. This is to say that I really appreciate all! This post about social integration is interesting and it made me think a lot. I was born in Italy, but in a town near the Slovenian border. So sometimes I feel to be closer to people from Slovenia rather than to Italians from other areas or cities. But at the same time I find so hard to socialize with Slovenian people, bacause there a lot of differences and divisions(that come from facts happened in the past). It’s hard, but I believe that social integration is still possible when you find the right place and the right people to stay with. You are what you are and the different features that characterizes you are also the only resource that you have to build your relations with other people. Maybe your journey will be long, but you will arrive to the goal!!
    Bye bye

    1. Hi Wally,

      Thanks for your kind words! I think you touch on a really interesting point about being born into a place yet being brought up in another cultural environment. Or at least close to one (Slovenia). I’ts unique and veritable point you raise about being closer to the Slovenian people.

      And yes, you are what you are. Not only are cultural aspects an important part of integration, but at the end of the day we are all individual personalities too!

      Thanks again!

  13. You,ve raised some interesting points and I really stumbled across your blog today but after this reading this beautifully written post I have subscribed.
    I think it is always going to be tough to fully assimilate into a culture like the ones you mentioned because they are so very different, no matter how deeply you understand them or respect them it’s not YOU that ultimately reaches out it’s them. I think also a community can easily charm an individual but when the roles are reversed it’s go to be much harder, good luck and I’m sure with a bit of time you will make some headway.

    1. -aaron- You actually bring up a valid point that not many people get. A lot of the time it’s also up to the locals to make an effort too. Otherwise it turns into a one sided effort.

      Thanks for subscribing, hope you enjoy; feel free to comment any time!

  14. I’m a Brazilian living in Toronto and I guess it took me a while to realize that – that social integration with Canadians would never, ever be 100%. At first this didn’t seem obvious to me because in South America we are very much under the influence of North America’s culture – movies, sitcoms, music. But there has always been this huge gap. It’s not hard to socialize, Canadians are really open and nice people. But every time I hung out with my Brazilian friends – that was me, the real me, talking. Talking my own language, talking about cultural differences, talking about issues from back home and still trying to absorb Canada’s culture.
    After 5 years living in Toronto, I decided to go back home. Because I need a sense of home, because even though at times I do find my culture very annoying, I miss it. I miss speaking my own language, I miss understanding the values, I miss the food, the party, I miss being Brazilian!
    So, who knows, maybe after your round the world trip, you will find out that your home is really right where you started… or not :)
    Best of luck!

    1. -Isabella Formiga- Thank you for your insightful comment. It’s always good to heard from people who have and are living abroad. What’s more, you certainly bring up some interesting points. 5 Years in a new culture that’s not a total opposite of one’s own is long time. As such it’s interesting to note your feelings of Social Integration.

      The Philippines is also quite western in one sense. Certainly more so than the rest of Asia. So yes, a cultural thing it is more over than the physical. A shopping mall, fast food, big cars and a common language does not make it the same as any other.

      What’s interesting is that both Brazil and Canada are huge countries. I wonder if you moved to another town in Brazil where you did not grow up, would you still feel the same? And the same for a Canadian? Is it home that makes Social Integration possible, or is it the Country?

      As for me, I will not be returning to where I grew up. That is part of my journey, as noted in the book ;)

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  15. Dave,
    thanks again for your blog. Its very interesting, and mind-teasin’. The subject you are handling I believe is a global problem, and if it didnt exist, aggresion would be much less.
    Maybe its just a behavior of human species, to devide people in groups, big and smaller ones, to categorise, and label them. Once that is done, you never get out of that group, even if you want to, and even if you dont belong in there… like you maybe ;-)
    I wish you all the luck in your search of home..

    1. -Bruno- Thanks for your astute comment. Yes, you bring up some very good points. I certainly see how & why people divide each other up into groups. I also know that stigma internal / external psychological aspects can dictate this too. But I do believe one can move from group to group. How this is done when you bring in cultural differences is another matter :)

      Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment

  16. integration would depend mostly on you. remember that youre the one who needs to exert more effort. you need to genuinely care about the people around you. accept that you will always be different from everyone else because not one in every community is the same anyway. each person has a role to play. one will be the barber, another a butcher, and youre the expat. that doesnt make you not part of the community. id hate to sound like mother theresa but you need to love the people around you

  17. Hi, this is a really interesting post, I’m thinking about moving to the Philippines myself. I can tell you this, I moved to the US from Eastern Europe when I was 8 years old without knowing a single word of English, by age 14 I was getting straight A’s and better at spelling than the American kids, By age 17-18 noone could tell I wasn’t native born and I scored higher than 80% of american kids on English SAT’s. My parents who lived there from age 30 – 50 still have a heavy accent but completely integrated into american society with numerous friends, successful careers, etc. So of course social integration is possible, but it will take approximately 15 years if you’re an adult and highly depends on the individual. My parents still do get some discrimination from some Americans for being foreigners but it’s really a non-issue since they are successful and integrated into society. Learning the language is the key, in the Phillipines English is not their native language, they only use it to speak to foreigners, I had a girlfriend there who told me that she wishes I would learn their language so she could talk to me normally instead of in English. So you would have to learn the local language even in the Philippines and then after about 10-15 years you would be completely integrated, although some people would still consider you a foreigner, but you would have a network of friends and family that would make this unimportant. Good luck

  18. Hello,

    I think Marco get the point for Phils: Tagalog is a key, maybe the key.

    I speack tagalog and that’s a huge help each time i go back there. My feeling and experiences tells me that english is only a way to communicate with foreigners. As in other countries though… with that difference that people are better at it in Philippines hehe
    I had the feeling, rite or wrong, that, if some pinoy’s really like to converse in sheakspeares language, most of them dont really appreciate to talk english.
    Tagalog is the native language (at least in the luzon part where i stayed, although the local dialect might be the first language), the one that identifies them as filipino, the one that makes them proud when non filipino speack it. I could see on their faces surprise and kinda happiness and pride when a foreigner talks tagalog.

    Each time i converse in tagalog, the poeple are pleased and comes along with “hey, good you know tagalog because other foreigners never learn it” or “its good to talk tagalog with you so my nose dont bleed of english”.

    It wont protect from plastic smilers and users but i believe that it gives you a different status toward non tagalog speacking foreigners.

    These are the impressions i have but, as i didnt stay long enough in Phils (2 month), i don’t know if, “in fine”, it really helps you to be a part of the community and to achieve full integration.



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