How Tied To The Expat Ghetto Are You?

First of all you’ll have to consider whether you count as an expat or not, but even if you don’t (or you don’t care), I think it’s relevant to lots of us living abroad.

I’ve really taken to the Guardian Abroad and have been meaning to post about this article on expat ghettos for a while. The author brings up the normal points about why expats seem to seek each other out – similar language, shared understanding of the challenges and frustrations of being an expat (sure, there are joys, too, but you don’t need to commiserate about those – you can brag to family and friends at home!), and often just a similar socio-cultural background or something.

While again I will refuse to go into much detail, I think dating a guy who was not an expat for some time left me in a weird sort of limbo. It’s also possible I’m just weird.

On the one hand, I did find myself pretty happily involved in an “expat in the city” type situation last year, with a regular group of – gasp – American friends. As Americans are wont to do, we even worked out a regular weekly schedule to meet on. It was super and I expect to see at least one of the gang (two if her husband counts, which I suppose he does despite his irregular attendance) when I return to the US. But aside from conveniently falling into that situation, I don’t find myself seeking out other foreigners.

Why in limbo? I think blending into local life is not always as easy as we’d like to think. I’m all for having local friends and seizing whatever opportunities come your way to integrate into local life. I think having a steady (ie not a one-year contract) job somewhere, and especially being in a serious relationship with/married to a local, helps a lot. But, while the author’s choice of words (retreat) implies people have this access but actively chose to step back, I think there is very frequently still some line that few people cross.

For most locals, their lives are in that place. And in many countries, often those the most different from EFL teachers’ home countries, people’s mobility potential is severely restricted. It’s not just about visas but about language and culture and, very practically, jobs. Some expats do really end up staying in a place, but others – most – are going to leave, and some others still, even though they haven’t left, are kind of always on the fringe of it. Just because you want to make close friends to improve your temporary stay there …the prospect may seem less attractive to locals if you are likely to leave in a year.

As usual, I’m hanging at the end of my post feeling cynical. I’m sorry! I certainly don’t think it’s impossilbe to make local friends. I do think plenty of expats (and/or EFL teachers depending on how you count us) succeed in making meaningful local ties, and plenty do conversely consciously chose to stay embedded in the expat community. But I think it’s more than just a conscious choice to make friends that separates those who seem to integrate and those who don’t.