Can you ever really fit in socially when living overseas?
As my great quest at social integration when living overseas draws to a close here; I find myself looking for answers to prove me wrong. Call them my last desperate attempts at understanding the psyche of trying to fit into a new country, society and culture in the long-term. Of which I have failed. But, believe I know why.
Is knowing why you’ve failed at something a precursor to succeeding?
For those that have not read my first article: here are my initial thoughts on social integration and trying to integrate.
Everyday I think about what has gone wrong, and where I have made mistakes and what new thing can I do to make things work.
How not to live in a new country
There needs to be a few criteria set up here. Let’s eliminate backpackers and tourists setting up camp for a few months to half a year. Also volunteers who’ve been in country for a year or under. Why? Well, most of these good people are not
looking for a permanent place to live, simple as that.
The backpacker is welcome
Most are looking for cultural immersion and stimulation. A backpacker is also looking to enjoy themselves in going out, party, make friends, see new places and learn a little. They and not settling down. And, this is great for them and what they want. But, they do usually have a ticket to move on.
The volunteer is welcome
A volunteer leans more on the cultural side of things. But again I’ve seen it countless times, they jump in hard and fast. Normally associated with dressing like a local, and trying to swallow the whole country in one giant gulp. And, this is good, to a point, for them.
The expatriate contract worker is welcome
Filled with a big salary they move amongst a different social trend. A mix of management, diplomatic invites, and new families. Again, a contract says the length of time they’ll be here. Invariably it’s extended. They’re almost in a different world here. Shuttled around in big cars they have “lived in The Philippines“. But, perhaps not The Philippines the majority of the country knows.
Yet, those around them will make them feel like they are.
The common thread that makes you think you are accepted
But, for someone trying to put down roots, the above springs up a host of problems. Namely the fact that you are new.
As such, you will be treated as a mini anomaly for quite some time.
Local people will also treat you differently whether you realise or it not. Why? Because be you backpacker, tourist, or volunteer you have a set time frame. One day, you will leave. Hence, people know, and will treat you differently as such.
This can be great, and wonderful friendships made. But, the key thing in this article to remember in regards to this is; “you are leaving”.
Common threads of trying to fit in overseas:
- Eat locally
- Learn a language
- Become involved in the community
- Show interest in other people’s hobbies
- Offer to help with things you know
- Ask for help in ones own projects
- Help people in business
When locals realize you are here for the long-term
The trouble sometimes starts from the beginning. But often times only emerges after many months, and certainly once you move over the one year mark.
Remember, they’ve known from the start your intent is to move into, and live in their country.
The human elements of trait and hate
No matter the culture, humans share similar traits. From racism, prejudice, misconceptions, and peer pressure there are many underlying factors not often spoken of.
Breaking the misconception
Take The Philippines as my example. A foreigner is automatically assumed to be American and rich. You now have the battle of convincing people who you really are. All this has to be done without insulting anyones intelligence.
Next up as a single male the assumption is you are here to find a wife or to party on a beach. Again, explanations are needed.
Now it gets utterly confusing for many people. Why then are you really here?
Why is it confusing to live in this country?
Because you just came from a country many people here want desperately to get into. The concept of you wanting to live in a place they see as inferior rises suspicion, and non-understanding.
This all happens behind human natures closed mind. It is never said.
And, if one tries to explain it, then it will make little sense. For the grass is always greener on the other side.
When locals turn their back on you
So now you’ve been here a while, proving your point. You eat locally, you speak some local dialect and you take an interest in the local community. You even dip your feet into national events, and politics.
But, it simply does not impress good things upon anyone in the long-term. Again, why?
One might on the outset think it is because you were not born here, so therefore could never understand said country well enough. A sliver of national pride seeps through here too. This is slightly closed-minded, but I can accept it to a point.
The problem occurs when your efforts to live in a country make you more knowledgable about the place than a local!
embarrassment, rebuttal, and conflict
Open a discussion on politics or a local business and hear the points being made by a local. Go away and learn all you can about it. Come back to the same conversation and dazzle your “friends” with the correct information, laws, and past examples.
The table will go silent. Why? You’ve just challenged and proven that you know more about a national subject than they should. Bad, move. The gossip has already started to oust you.
Travel, foreigners and the everyday soap opera of life
Why are soap operas so successful? Gossip, and scenarios of looking into other people’s lives without it affecting your own.
Many people trudging through week after week of working all day or night need an escape. A look at someone else’s life or something more to distract from their own. Even if only for an hour in the evening.
So what happens when a foreigner comes to a new town? Well, you too are now a distraction.
“Who, why, where, what” questions shoot around like no tomorrow. People will go through the usual stages of is he/she a tourist? Volunteer? Expat Worker? No?! What are they doing here so?
“What!? They are not here to find a wife to take home with them?”
And, so you start to make friends. Weed out the ones looking for free beer and ‘investment opportunity’s’ quickly, and now you are looking at a brand new set of rules.
When gossip goes wrong …
The foreigner has been here a while. They are not moving. People continue to find this confusing. By now they know all about you. They know your past, present and future history. Interest is waning.
A friend comes to visit them, and all of a sudden you are the constant topic of conversation. Why is he here? When is he leaving? What does he want?
The chain of gossip leads to the train of exaggeration, miscommunication and … finally aspects of spite.
Don’t hate me because I learned more about your place, and want to live here
Invite the foreigner over … no more. Why? Well, your other guests will soon learn that the foreigner has taken the time to learn just about everything about the place that you don’t know. You’ll be showing them up. Not good.
Instead gossip dictates that all the foreigners faults, be they genuine or misconceptions or even misconstrued rumors, are brought up.
The foreigner now becomes the subject of spiteful quips and snide remarks behind closed doors. The foreigner living in their town is more popular, more knowledgable than they who befriended them in the first place out of curiosity and possibly, obligation.
Now the tide has changed and the underlying current of talk is – for you to leave.
Fighting it only brings more resentment, this is human nature. You are after all at a disadvantage here.
Exceptions to the rule of fitting in
There are always exceptions to this. The gentleman expat who keeps his mouth shut, and pretends he’s never heard of the country’s problems or never speaks of them openly will always be held in high regard. They challenge no one, and are even seen as being understanding and knowledgable themselves.
The missionary who’s been here for years is working under God’s name, so thou shalt not question them. For they must know best, and are here for will of the people’s creator.
The rich person who can afford to buy “friends” either charitably, for “love” for “investment” or just because they can.
The one who does not socialize, and keeps to the expat community and or buys a lot for their “friends”. Such people, are always right.
The foreigner who has little to do with locals, or uses his partner to shield them from the reality of where they are living.
And so it continues …
Idle gossip is not the fault of any one culture or country
Gossip like this is human nature. It happens everywhere. To the Indonesian worker moving to London and treated as though taking jobs from locals there. To the Frenchman looking to work in New York and treated similarly.
People are territorial by nature, and it does indeed seem to span globally and manifest itself in making things even harder for the foreigner. No matter where they are from; when trying to fit in.
What’s the answer to fitting in?
Great question, I do not know the answer. Other than to stay silent, not have a voice, and do as expected. I have not found it.
What I can say is that a comment left here a few weeks ago was maybe half the answer. They said to look to one’s own in the big cities. In other words socially integrate with expats.
This would mean taking an odd dip into local life, but mainly live and make friends with people from your own culture.
Is that the answer, only dip into locals lives and run your own separately?
Perhaps the expat route is the right one. Maybe true acceptance is not possible in a new country.
Then again is this a Philippine only phenomenon? Or Asian? I know it happens in West Africa, so maybe it is global. Or, possibly only in developing countries?
Do people moving into developed countries experience the same problem with social integration? I think so.
To the victor: experience in trying to integrate socially in a new culture
There seem to be more questions than answers yet again. Though I must say, at least I have experienced this first hand. Rather than just hypothesizing.
That might just be over half the battle in trying to integrate as a foreigner. Useful or not, I take with me the knowledge I’ve learned and experienced here as I move forward.
If real acceptance truly is not possible, then I know what awaits elsewhere. Perhaps the biggest battle has already been won.
N.B: If you are looking for a new place to live, or having problems fitting in abroad, you might like to read my article on “the definition of home“. It brings many of the points raised here to new level.
Who gets the next Great Modern Traveler Award??
36 Replies to “When locals get tired of you: social integration gone wrong”
Great post! The only thing I can really tell you is that the situation can be the same if you are in a country similar to your own. I am American but have lived in Australia for the last several years. I still feel like an outsider here to a certain extent. People are always going to see you through the veil of their own assumptions (whether correct or not) and it will be extremely difficult to see you as an equal. What you have to do is embrace your position and situation. Make an effort towards them as you have, but just look to see how you can be you and still have a place in that society. It is impossible to be something that you aren’t but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have some excellent things to offer – you just need to find your niche. Good luck! =)
Thank you for the comment. It’s interesting to note Australia and Canada for people moving there from Europe etc and their experiences. Perhaps cultural divide there is not so great? As in multicultural societies.
enjoyed the article.
It is in realizing that is the community perceptions and norms that rule not the outsiders
Yes, perceptions can be good or bad. Depending on where they are pointing at and why!
Dave, sad to hear that you failed to adapt in The Philippines.
I understand that the above is your personal experience and as I lived overseas most of my life, I’d to like to share my experience, if I may.
I was born and bred in a beautiful Portuguese island, Madeira.
When I completed 21 years old, I didn’t see myself settling in the island so decided to search for a home elsewhere: England.
Learned the language, got a job, paid my taxes, rented a flat in London and found a pleasant routine. Every time I’d meet someone new, I’d get the same questions: What are you doing here? Why are you here? What do you want? When are you leaving?
My stock answer would always the same: “I fell in love with a British girl.”
That always ensured laughs and compassioned nods.
After nearly 10 years in London, I moved to sunny Spain. Again, learned the language, got a job, paid my taxes, rented a flat and found a pleasant routine.
Same questions. Same answer. “I fell in love with a Spanish girl.”
Three years later, in my never-ending quest to find a home, I moved to rainy Amsterdam. Same questions. Same answer. “I fell in love with a Dutch girl.”
Maybe it was luck but all three countries embraced me with wide-open arms. I never felt discriminated against nor had angry fingers pointed at me for taking their jobs/women/houses/etc.
What happened with the “falling in love” bit? Those relationships didn’t last and I def didn’t go to the countries to get married – I still don’t see myself walking up the aisle, – and I always had an opinion regarding local politics, – Mind you, I even registered to vote in Barcelona so I could have a proper say.
Everywhere I went, I got a job, befriended local people, – two of my close friends are Catalans – and lived in the country with the idea of staying forever.
That didn’t happen yet – I’m currently in the Guatemalan jungle – but I know I can go anywhere and find a job easily, get a girlfriend, rent a house, etc.
Do I have the answer to fit in? No. I never gave it much thought, really. I just knew that I could fit in, and that’s what I always did.
I hope I helped somehow…Best of luck on your next stop.
Ciao 4 now
~ Paulo ~
Hi Paulo, thanks for your great comment. It made me laugh, in a good way. Which I actually needed!
Euro culture is indeed an interesting one. I had little problem in Spain either. Linguistics aside. There’s a huge Euro mix there, likewise with London. Fitting in is not so much the problem. One can do that near anywhere if need be. The problems occur when you want to stay. Or live in a place.
It’s something that does not really manifest itself until after the one year mark. Or, perhaps if you state this claim earlier. In my experience, at least here, from what I’ve done, it’s a 6 month to 1 year thing. In West Africa the divide is huge. And, for the most part it’s a whole different world.
Getting a girlfriend, a job, a place to live is not a problem. But doing all of this in a place you want to permanently live in. Then there can be issues. Some of which don’t manifest themselves for well over a year.
Good to hear your story though. And enjoy Guatemala!
Totally agree that no matter the culture, humans share similar traits such as racism, prejudices and even suspicion of the unknown or living in fear that everybody is out to rip you off. i think once u trust people and open up and really take an interest in the country/people and extend a genuine helping hand, then ppl will accept you, no matter what country you are trying to live in.. including muslim, non-muslim… etc.
I wish the argument to trust could be taken easily. But, trust is not a human trait easily come by. I’ve seen many a foreigners open a hand of help, just to see others take advantage of it. And, visa versa, I’ve seen foreigners interfere in place that is not there’s and wealth foreigners treat local people as if slaves of old. That said, I’ve seen local do the same to each other too.
dave – i love this latest series of yours, deep thinking about intercultural issues. you’ve touched on so many here – and what is most sad to me is that people just won’t accept another. UGH.
Thank you Jessie. Yes, there are sad elements here. Some positive too. I really believe that unless things like this are said, then there will be no improvement, anywhere.
Just reading through for the first time. This is certainly the most insightful blogs I have come across. Almost like a social experiment for a single person. Or perhaps you are todays real explorer. Pushing the boundaries of our planet. I hope others notice you.
Thank you Steven for your words. I’ve spent a lot of time on social integration, not just here, but in other countries too. There are many levels to it. I don’t mix words. It’s not a candy shop, but then eating too much of that can be bad too!
What happens next? I mean are you saying that you will never fit in anywhere?
No, not saying that at all. It’s on going. Each place, time and scenario can be different. This is what happened to me, through what I’ve experienced. There could well be an expat here with a lovely wife / husband who thinks differently.
What happens next? One takes the knowledge learned and uses it to improve, better, or make good on a situation or apply it elsewhere.
So will you be spending two years in Australia?
I highly doubt it. But, you never know. And, again, Australia may not be my next destination.
How do you know if a country is worth spending two years in?
I don’t settle on a time frame. I will stay longer in a country if I like it. Or get a good feeling that it could be a place to live. From there, I try to explore it further.
Very interesting insight Dave. I think social integration is never going to be 100% successful, no matter how well integrated a person thought he/she may be in a community and in whatever culture/ part of the world it will be. Most societies are always wary of persons they don’t consider as their own. Acceptance may be a possibility, but that would take years and decades. Tolerance, at most probably for someone whom a society has considered as having lived with them for quite some time, may be a more common trait after the novelty has passed on.
This post actually got me thinking about individuals who migrated to other countries or got married and lived in other countries. It would come to a point where it seems that they have assimilated, but to what degree? And their children, who are of two cultures, often speak of not being able to belong or if they do, have considered the other culture (be it with either parent) as foreign.
Nice to hear from you Sealdi.
Yes, tolerance is a very good word here. Quite sad to be tolerated though.
You bring up a good point about people who marry in other countries. Quite often I’ve found the foreigner spouse struggles more than they like to admit. Or, many opt to go home for months at a time. Dividing up where they live so both partners can have a place of their own. This is not a bad idea given my own feelings and experiences here. While not ideal on the outset, it’s a viable option that works for many.
The children however, if not raised with this in mind can often have cultural identity problems. I’ve only really seen this from teenagers, and those who’ve had issues during childhood. If brought up simply knowing your background, then a lot of this is relived.
I am a Filipino and now live in US. I love travelling, but short (not enough vacation time). I think I would like to re-phrase saying ” they ask when you are leaving” rather than the purpose of your stay. When I travel, or even living here in US now… we usually have a purpose. Maybe be upfront, and really tell them your intention… if you love the country and want to live there ( but for now, just want to live single), say so. They must be just wondering simply… why are you there. I went to Nepal last month, and one of the foreign guys I met said he went to Philippines to look for a wife, he did not succeed because he said he probably should be looking in the province (maybe he meant , they are more naive). I was quite humiliated, but then I thought, well, the guy is just saying his real intention.
So, why are you in the Philippines? If you are looking for home (any country, to make your home… really just be honest to yourself too, what your real intention, and it is ok).. just my opinion. – Peace!
Though, I agree, Filipinos love soap and gossip… I wish, they would find more useful things for their time.
I think you missed a part of the article headed ‘Why is it confusing to live in this country?’
When I talk about living in The Philippines the two most common answers are. ‘you want to get married?’ or you ‘want to buy a house’ aka the retirement thing. If I talk about living and working here. I get the flurry of ‘you want to open a business!’
And so it goes on. When the discussion goes deeper things like tourist visa vs working visa, sponsorship etc get mashed up into a sea of why? Again i refer to the article above and the grass is greener part.
Interesting you mention Nepal and the men looking for wives. This is a huge thing over the part few years. Mainly visa economic linked. With many bad endings. Nice on the outside but the Nepalese men once married have a different set of rules as culture dictates. A seperate topic to here. But one that makes local newspaper headlines the world over. And this I say as someone who puts Nepal as their favourite country.
sorry, for the confusion, I was in Nepal, but the guy whos went to Philppines was a tourist in Nepal and he is from Portugal. I love Nepal and respect their culture. I will go back their for more trekking. Nepal is actually not part of this discussion, just for clarification.
I am sorry to hear that things seems to be not going so well with you there. Just from my own experience, it was easier for me to travel, or able to mix easier when there is culture similarities or same skin color. If you are white, it would be ok to be traveling to New Zealand, Australia or Europe for example. When I was in Nepal, I find it it not so foreign for me because of skin color, it is living in third World country and I can relate to their environment and hardships that they go through.
However, I always find your journey, travel very interesting. I can only travel 3-4 weeks (for now) and really can’t tell you much as I have not been in any country long enough to experience what you are discovering on your journey.
Bit confusing alright. Either way marriage outside of Nepal for Nepalese men is becoming more commonplace, with many cultural backlashes to unsuspecting people. The same can of course be said of other countries too. But it’s very much on the rise in Nepal for many reasons.
Interesting points about “looking” similar to the place where you are living. There is no doubt that plays a part in any form of integration. Sadly or not, as the case may be. Though as I am sure you have noticed the historical gene pool of Nepal is quite diverse and not linked to any one type.
Much like the Philippines though, there is a huge gap between the rich and poor. Oxygen bars in Kathmandu for a breath of fresh air as an example of what money can buy there. Air.
actually, it’s not just foreigners that are treated this way, especially in the provinces. even Manilenos, when going to rural areas in the Philippines, get treated with a mixture of awe and resentment.
these people have been living a sheltered life in the provinces, and are very weary of people from the outside who come to observe/accept/admire/destroy their way of life.
most of them only finished elementary school, and some haven’t even gone to school at all. oh, the government has programs for education and such, but most children are too busy working the fields or helping their parents to go to school that is a couple of hours’ walk away. the only people they see and interact with every day are those living in the same village… the same people who have lived there since the time of their great-great grandparents.
it is this lack of contact with people from the “outside” that cause them to think like this. what would they know of life beyond their borders if the mentality ingrained into them come from people who have never had much contact with foreigners, let alone stepped out of the borders of their ville?
sadly, armed rebel groups take advantage of this, and they, living in the mountains, and having more contact (and clout) with the locals, use this to spread their ideology and philosophy to the people. the locals, on the other hand, accept this as gospel and join their cause without knowing the reality of life in the outside world.
once that changes, i believe that their views toward foreigners in general will change as well, sure, there will still be some racism and resentment, but at least then they will realize that not all stereotypes are true, and that they, in turn, could go beyond their comfort zones and experience the culture of other peoples as well.
keep travelling and keep writing!
peace, love, and good vibes
-Yanyan, Manila, Philippines
Thank you. And a great comment which brings up an excellent point.
I’ll be covering a little of this in one of my final posts on The Philippines. maybe the week after next. It’s not quite on the same points you rightly bring up.
There is indeed an internal / domestic social integration problem in The Philippines, and indeed in many other countries. It’s at a level few foreigners or tourists get to see.
These days outside of Luzon it’s difficult to raise the question that Tagalog is the National Language of the Philippines. Regional languages are still a strong part of Filipino culture and life here. In Mindanao Visayan is the most widely spoken language, followed by English and then Tagalog (though I am sure it’s an arguable point)
Your points about education, and people taking advantage of those without it are very valid, and insightful. Not only that, but they are very true. The question I would have here is that will such “brain washing” become endemic within this group of people before education can reach them. If it does, the road to recovery will indeed be a very long one. Then again, is there an alternative?
Again, many thanks for your eye opening comment, and good wishes.
Interesting essay about what it’s like to be a foreigner/expat abroad. Kudos for starting a discussion on this topic and including the negative aspects, which don’t seem to get much coverage in blogs.
Thank’s Leslie. It’s the raw reality of life over here :) It’s apart of this journey too. I think I mentioned it before: but the Raw Reality of travel is not the travel channel. But that’s okay, we can go to those places for a look at the “ideal life” and a break from the 9-5. Right here is what’s really happening out there as part of real journey on the road to finding a place to live. Plus a few nice places and people!
Truly an excellent piece.
It is my experience that the only way to even come close to being integrated in a foreign community is to not try to be integrated — to just be yourself and don’t try to force any social connections, and make sure you keep some distance. Keeping yourself always at arm’s length is a protective strategy, it keeps interaction with people more formal, more respectful.
But when it does inevitably happen that your “friends” turn on you and the community that was once so nice starts gossiping, smile, sit back, and relax: this is integration.
Once you can understand the language of the place that you are trying to be integrated into, it becomes clear that people are generally always talking, gossiping, and fighting with each other anyway. So when you become the scorn of their animosity accept it fully: they are making you one of their own haha.
Didn’t you want to be integrated?
This sounds funny, but, from my experience and observations, this is the way it it. The happy little village is a myth.
I have come to the point in my travels that integration is the last thing that I want. I left the place where I was fully integrated because I did not like it — why would I want to leave one society just to join another? They are all, more or less, the same.
Traveling is an alternative to integration. It is an alternative to being sucked into petty social spats and the downward spiral of becoming PART of a place. If things go belly up, I just leave. Or, more strategically, I leave a place before this happens.
It’s very true “the happy village” does not exist. Sure it can for a few weeks, or even a few months. But after that, the revelations of everyday life like elsewhere around the world come out.
Herein lies the difference between you and me though Wade. You are happy to be a perpetual traveler, always on the move. I am looking for a place to be permanent. A place I don’t want to leave. Except on holidays of course!
I don’t expect to be totally accepted here. I think you may have identified a big reason and that is most Filipinos want to live in the West. Why would a Westerner want to live here? I’m also a constant source of curiosity and a target for beggers. I knew all this before I moved so it’s no surprise and I’m not particularly concerned about it. I’m not about to try and explain why I’m here other than I like warm weather and I can live quietly and cheaply on a small farm which I could not do in the US. There are more reasons such as objecting to the US confiscation of my money to fund wars and other nonsense but I don’t discuss that outside of the family. I could use the “I fell in love with a Filipina” line though.
Good to hear from you on this Tim. Yes, there’s no doubt many people you can live quite happily in The Philippines as foreigner. And, I certainly don’t want to be a person “dressing like a local” etc, which I’ve discussed before. Certainly unless we change skin tones, language, and education we will never be Filipino. Then again as much as I enjoy Filipinos, and the Philippines, I also don’t want to loose my own self too.
Hence the amount of time I’ve put into this here. “If you can’t make it in The Philippines, you can’t make it anywhere”. Well … something like that. No better place to try though. And certainly there are many other places that wouldn’t even let one get this far. It’s a case in “being so close, you can taste it”, but still it alludes one. At least for me.
Glad to hear you’ve found yourself a place though! I am sure there are many people around the world who’d swap with you in a second. Glad to hear you also “fell in love with a Filipina.”
Perhaps you should stop trying to be too hard on yourself. Social integration abroad is really very hard thing or nearly impossible. As bad as it may sound, you will never be fully integrated in one’s country with different culture from your own.
In lots of Asian countries, people are not as straight forward as those in western culture. People tend to beat around the bush most of the time, I’m sure you already know about this with your experience in the Philippines.
Try to learn about some taboo things in a country; try to understand what can be said and what cannot be mentioned and it will make it much easier for you to communicate with locals everywhere.
Gossip, it’s inevitable, it happens all over the place, not only in new place where you try to integrate. If people start to gossip about you, it means you have something that make them interested. Doesn’t that mean you are already being accepted indirectly? If they are not interested in you, no one will bother to talk about you.
You can always ‘integrate’ with lots of people; however to really make friends; look for those who has the same value as yours and that does not necessary those who come from your own culture.
Yes you bring up good points.
My point has always been few people have documented this. And the reasons why. That, and of course social integration. One of the problems about just being yourself is that you can isolate and insult people by doing that.
But yes, the way forward will be quite different. Thanks for your contribution, it’s always welcome!
I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines. I am now an American and have stayed in the U.S. longer than I have anticipated.
Philippines is a homogenous country. The country has many outside influence and western pop culture is big there (they lap it up). Yet still, a vast majority of the Philippine population are not used to face-on-face action with foreigners. It is their friendly nature and sociability that makes them accommodate a foreigner amidst them. But don’t expect the interest to last. Friendships are sustained through common bonds and it’s the same anywhere in the world. For whatever is that common bond is a common bond. Can simply be a complete openness and acceptance of another. Before you ask of someone, be.
That’s why you and I call it integration. Never happens overtime.
Home is wherever you are.
True that :P
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