Learning ‘Home’: 6 Ways to Settle into Life Abroad

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.

George Santayana, The Philosophy of Travel

We’ve talked about this before: culture shock is hard. Making friends is hard. Moving abroad is so, so hard.

It’s not all bad – I have lived in different countries before and absolutely plan to move again, so don’t be discouraged! Think of all the friends, cultural understanding, language skills, food and general joy that will be added to your life from this experience.

But let’s not be too flippant about this – we need to have realistic expectations. Be kind to yourself, because humans do struggle with uprooting and replanting in totally unknown territory. It’s confusing and overwhelming and a little scary.

So these are my tips for making that process a little easier for yourself.

  • Build a routine. Depending on your reasons for moving, this might be harder for some people than others! But how about setting aside every Saturday morning for a cooked breakfast, or Sunday afternoon for an outdoors walk? Could you honour a simple routine – like watching a movie once a week, or meeting a friend for coffee – that would give your crazy schedule some structure, or at least a little treat to look forward to? You can’t be stressed every waking moment of your day, or you will be miserable. Commit to a routine that includes rest and recuperation.
  • Eat familiar food. Not all the time – your host country probably has amazing dishes on offer that you definitely don’t want to miss out on! But don’t feel bad about eating something you’re comfortable with every once in a while. Make yourself feel at home, and find that balance between cultural immersion and your comfort zone. When I lived in China, I loved the food! Chinese people are so proud of their cuisine, and rightly so. I tried new things, and braved unusual delicacies, from raw pig’s cheek to barbecued duck’s tongue. Did I also go to McDonalds every week for some oh-so-familiar fries? Absolutely.
  • Find people you trust. You’re going through a huge, emotional transition, and you shouldn’t try and do it alone. Find other ex-pats who know your struggles, and who can help you straighten out your confusions. Talk to locals who have lived abroad; ask them what they found hard, or helpful, and how they dealt with it. No one can fix your homesickness or culture shock for you, but it will help enormously if you have people you can vent to!
  • Stay healthy. Maybe this is obvious, but eating a balanced diet, getting outside, exercising, and drinking plenty of water will make you feel good, and improve your mood. Don’t let those things slip just because everything else around you is changing. You are only human, and you need to look after yourself holistically if you want to make a healthy adjustment to your new life.
  • Be brave. Try the things you’re nervous to do (within reason!) Talk to locals. Try out your language skills on shopkeepers. Figure out the public transport. Set yourself little, achievable challenges that will keep you learning and engaging with the host country.
  • Sleep. You’re body needs sleep, so let it sleep! You might be jet-lagged, or overwhelmed, and in need of a little extra rest – so rest! Have a nap. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little more time to sleep when you’re in a new place. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Bonus tip: It’s going to be okay. Keep going – you’re doing great.

Love, Dani

  • How have you dealt with culture shock in the past? What would your advice be for people moving to a new country?

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

5 Ways to Make Friends in a New Place

Whether you’ve moved to a new city or a new country, being the ‘new kid’ can be so lonely. It can be hard to know how to relate to these people, and you might be left feeling very foreign, and out-of-sync with everyone else.

You do need friends, though. You need community. So I promise you, all of the awkwardness and miscommunications are worth it in the end.

For the first few weeks or months, your friendship-building might just look like forced friendliness and slightly stilted interactions. And you know what? That’s ok! Persevere through the awkwardness. Take the time to get to know the people around you: what their interests are, how they spend free time, what their lives are like. And give them a chance to get used to you, too!

Making friends looks a little different from culture to culture, but I wanted to share my tips for finding people to connect with when you’re new to a place. I moved to Scotland just last month, and forcing myself to do these things not only helped me meet more people, but feel settled much faster!

  1. Smile at your neighbours. Chat, be friendly, ask for and offer practical help. Don’t become known as the person in your building/on your street who doesn’t interact with anyone! In some communities, neighbours are practically family. Don’t forget that in some cultures it’s polite to give your neighbour a small gift when you first move in, or at least knock on their door and introduce yourself. Try and find out what might be expected of you in that culture. If in doubt, do what you would do in your culture (don’t forget to explain that to your neighbour!), and let that be a talking point to break the ice. Your neighbours will be invaluable sources of information, too – they know the area, the landlord, and the language, so they might be willing to help you out if you have any problems!
  2. Find a hobby. It doesn’t matter what it is – rock climbing, choir, calligraphy…do something that will both help you relax, and let you meet people with similar interests! It will not only make you a more interesting person to talk with, but having some ‘scheduled fun’ will do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel much more settled.
  3. Be a good colleague/coursemate. When I’m the new person, I get nervous and tend to withdraw from people. Because I know that that is my first reaction, I try to catch myself in that habit, and reject those negative actions. These people are often very willing for you to join in their community, they just need to figure out who you are and what you’re like! The sooner you can build good relationships with the people who are naturally around you on a day to day basis, the better an experience your work/school will be.
  4. ‘Take me to church’. Are you religious? Get stuck into a mosque/church/synagogue etc as soon as you possibly can! Visiting your place of worship in a new place might just be the key to discovering these people aren’t so different from you after all. These places can also be incredibly welcoming, so get stuck into that community and enjoy your family away from home.
  5. Volunteer. In my opinion, the best way to integrate into a community is to serve it. So, what’s going on in yours? Is there a soup kitchen for the homeless, or an after-school club for disadvantaged kids? Is there a litter-picking group, or English classes for refugees? Find something you can help with. You’ll not only feel the sense of community, but you’ll know you’ve used your time in a really worthwhile way!

Making friends cross-culturally is hard, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if things start off slowly. Persevere, be patient, and keep smiling! It will happen.

“If you want a friend, be a friend.”

Love, Dani

  • What has your experience of building cross-cultural friendships been?
  • What other tips would you give to people who feel lonely in their new home?

What’s ‘culture’, anyway?

We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?

The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)

Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?

If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.

In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.

“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti

Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.

The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.

Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman

So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.

Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)

But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.

Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.

So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?

You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?

Again, you tell me.

Love, Dani

  • What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
  • If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
  • Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)

Wait, You Too?

I’m Dani. I’m biracial – Scottish-Latina, to be specific, although I never lived in either of my parent’s countries as a child.

I spent most of my teenage years (and a little of my adult life) wrestling with insecurities: I was never Scottish enough to be Scottish, and never Latina enough to be Latina. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, like I’d been made wrong, and that I would never be able to fit in.

I remember one day at university broaching that subject with a British-born Korean friend. She looked at me wide-eyed for a second, then said, “Wait, you too?”

Living between cultures is a huge blessing – think of all the food, language, and travel people like us get to experience thanks to our multiple heritages! But it’s also a confusing place to be in. Having a friend to talk about these things with was a huge help for me, even just to recognise that those feelings and insecurities are actually pretty normal.

So maybe you’re a TCK, maybe you started travelling as an adult, or maybe you’ve grown up in an international home. Whatever your situation, my hope is that this blog might be your ‘Wait, you too?’ friend – a place where you read stories that you can relate with, and that will help you work through all the challenges, tragedies, and joys of living a globally mobile life.

I hope you’ll stick around. And I hope this content will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.

Love, Dani