Most of us have a tendency to stick to the familiar or at the very least we are always seeking after some level of routine, but all of that gets turned upside down when we move to a new country. For many of us when we move abroad, we leave behind our support systems which we have been building for years, if not from infancy. Then suddenly we are stripped of all those common faces and customs and thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and likely functions in a different language and by different rules.
While the natural response is to seek any level of familiarity, it also hinders many from truly adjusting to their new country. Think about it. How do you think London ended up with China Town and New York with Little Italy? Those folks moved from their homeland, sought the familiar, and hung on hard to one another. It offers a lot of benefits, such as providing a group to connect with who likely understands your heart language and home culture, but it can also create barriers, leading to a “them versus us” mentality many times.
Every time we have moved to a new country, we have always made an effort to avoid falling into the expat American circle, but it has always meant a much harder road and at times a lot of loneliness. We just always believed that if we lived in Spain, Morocco, or Denmark that we should strive as hard as we could to speak, dress, and act like the locals (obviously with some limitations since we did not convert to Islam when we moved to Morocco, but I hope you understand what I mean.)
To truly connect and create a new support system, we have always tried to join activities hosted by nationals and they are most likely the ones you would expect to see at the kids’ birthday parties. Of course we have some American friends and love them dearly but we know ourselves too well to trust our ability to adapt and learn a new language if we spend all of our free time with Americans.
It can be a real challenge for anyone moving to another country for a short period. Why would anyone spend endless hours trying to learn a new language that they will never use again when they leave after a year or two? And it does not really matter what country you are moving to, people tend to value your friendship less if they think you are just passing through. We have known quite a few embassy families over the years who are deeply connected with their fellow embassy friends and it totally makes sense.
What I really want to point out, though, is that for families moving to another country with the intention of a permanent move, it can be tough to adjust and leave what little familiarity they find in their new home. Sometimes finances dictate where a family will live when they first move, such as here in Copenhagen. We have a few neighborhoods that have lower rents and that is also where the highest concentration of immigrants live. Most of them try to move up and out, but that can also leave them feeling alienated from their newest familiar stomping ground.
Some great ways that I have seen families connect and create a new support system with the host culture are:
1. Join extracurricular activities with nationals who only speak the national language with them.
2. Attend a church with locals rather than an international church.
3. Enroll small children in preschool.
4. Speak the local language in public, even with their own family.
6. Learn how to cook local food.
7. Commit to rarely speak against the local culture, avoiding the “them vs. us” tendency because we all do dumb things!
8. Commute to work like a local, whether by bike or public transportation.
9. Hold an event and invite nationals.
10. Make an extra cake or cookies and take it to the neighbors.
How have you created a support system? Even if you move within your own country you may need a new one…what have you done? What ideas or resources have helped you?