6 Ways to escape the expat bubble
Updated: Oct 28, 2018
For diplomats and other embassy employees it’s easy to be totally consumed with work. There is always something important going on, and you’re never truly off duty because you always have to be ready to deal with urgent issues.
Personally, I don’t mind the long embassy hours per se. I don’t love spending 45 hours a week in an office, but I love the work, especially when it’s urgent and I have to work late. What I don’t like is that long days take away from the experience of living abroad–it leaves less time to really experience and explore a new country.
Of course you can experience a country without a lot of travel, as long as you speak some of the local language and socialize with people who live there. But it’s not super easy to make local friends, I’ve noticed. The problem is not that there aren’t enough nice people to befriend–it’s my own tendency to look for people who are similar to me.
Living and working abroad in a totally new environment is exhilarating and draining at the same time. When it’s time to relax, I like to talk about my impressions and experiences with people who are in a similar situation because they can relate. This means I often hang out with colleagues during weekends and days off.
And even when I don’t want to hang out with colleagues, or expats in general, I tend to run into them anyway. As it turns out, expats are all attracted to the same restaurants, tourist sites, supermarkets, and gyms.
This situation–not really experiencing much of the country (and the people) during a tour–is not unique to me. Lots of diplomats I know say they feel like they are “living in a bubble.” To some extent, it’s impossible to avoid; we live abroad for work, and we rely on each other to settle in and feel comfortable.
But I don’t want these special years abroad to pass me by without truly finding out what other people and countries are about. So I make a conscious effort to chart my own course. Here are some of the things I do to escape the little expat world and how I get comfortable in each new country.
1. GETTING OUT OF THE HOUSE – A LOT!
To really get to know a new city, I think there is no better way than to drive, walk and bike around a lot. In fact, I recommend walking most because it really allows you to see the city as a 3-dimensonal place and for you to take in all the details–it’s how I constantly discover new neighborhoods, cafes, shops, parks, and playgrounds.
It still takes several months to truly get familiar with a new city and to learn the important street names, but the time investment is totally worth it.
2. LEARNING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
It makes all the difference when you can communicate, even on a basic level, with the people around you. I noticed that it makes me feel more comfortable and secure, and of course it’s very practical to be able to read menus, street signs, etc.
Of course, not every language is equally accessible. Some are downright impossible. So far I’ve been successful in learning Spanish and a little bit of Russian, but when I worked in Pakistan I never picked up Urdu despite weekly lessons–the script was just too hard and the words too unfamiliar. Then again, it wasn’t really useful because lots of Pakistanis speak English.
3. GETTING INVOLVED
Just because you live in a less developed country doesn’t mean you can’t continue with your hobby or learn something new. For example, in Nigeria I knew nobody so I joined a running group and I danced salsa twice a week. I knew nothing about running or dancing salsa, but I had a great time, learned a lot, and met some awesome people.
In Uruguay, I took a sewing class at a fashion school and auditioned for a local movie in which I ended up featuring. In Pakistan, I joined a newly-created theater troop that put on a play for the entire diplomatic community. I planned none of these things in advance, but boy did they make my life abroad more interesting.
Whether you’re a diplomatic spouse or a diplomat, you can always find opportunities to volunteer. It’s usually easy to find something within the embassy, but to escape the diplomatic bubble it’s better to look beyond that.
For example, I’ve seen diplomats teaching English to the host country’s diplomatic corps and to underprivileged girls, host football and basketball pick-up games, work in orphanages, support refugee entrepreneurs, stock medicines at health clinics, and much more.
The best way to volunteer, I think, is to team up with locals because they know best how to go about things, and of course because it gives you the opportunity to befriend them!
5. TRAVELING AROUND AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Many diplomats joined the Foreign Service in order to see as much of the world as possible, which makes sense. But I've noticed that many diplomats are constantly looking for opportunities to “check off” a country or two. Whenever they have a long weekend or vacation they travel–like visiting a neighboring country or going on a "dream vacation" to the Maldives or whatever.
Instead, I think it’s a much better idea to explore the country you are posted in, if you can. When you really give it a chance, you might discover there is a lot more to it than you thought. Really getting to know the country will enhance your overall experience of living there.
6. MAKING LOCAL FRIENDS
I love having people in my friend group who know what’s hot and what's not. Whether I need someone to tell me where to eat or explain what a certain political development means, it’s always the locals who have the most interesting things to say.
But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s harder to make “real” local friends than I expected. It was a little bit easier as a student when I had more time and worried less about who I hung out with. Now that I’m older and busier I find that there are (sometimes too) many cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic barriers to overcome.
So instead of making “real” local friends I typically befriend semi-locals: people I have something in common with but who are not expats, like locals who speak English well, or Americans and Europeans who are local residents.