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??