Joining a local expat community provides a huge social boost

Hua Hin Swedish Restaurant

While the notion of shipping yourself off to a foreign land to make new friends there sounds fine on paper, in reality it’s not always that easy. If you don’t know or have a shared background with anyone in your new home town, social isolation is likely, even for very outgoing people.

I was reminded of this last night when I went to a restaurant and bar here in Hua Hin in Thailand. Not counting the employees, I was the only one speaking English. Everyone else, as far as I could tell, was speaking Swedish. Evidently Hua Hin is a popular retirement and holiday destination for Swedes, and for Germans as well. In one small area there are several restaurants with Swedish flags out front, and Swedish dishes dominating the menu.

A social connection is invaluable

When living in our home country it might sound very romantic to move to a new land and start fresh, making new friends of the locals there. Depending on the destination it might work out okay sometimes, but after two very contrasting experiences I’ve been through recently, I think it is not an ideal move.

I lived for over a year in a small town in Turkey, largely because I almost instantly stumbled into a large expat community of mostly Brits and a few other Americans. Not only did it make everything easier from finding housing to finding the right shops for what I needed, but having a support group with several scheduled meetings each week was really fun.

After leaving Turkey in summer, I wound up living in a town in Serbia for close to 5 months. At first it seemed really nice because I found many people who spoke English fluently (unlike in where I was in Turkey), but I discovered there is a difference between a common language and a common culture. Even among the Serbs who spoke English, few of them had traveled much, and none had visited America. I could talk to them about Europe, or sports, or computers, but really we had almost no common reference points, so conversations tended to be short and shallow.

Find a community before you move, if possible

If you are being transferred by your existing company to a new country, hopefully a community of some kind will be there waiting for you. But if you are a future English teacher, or retiree looking for a warm place to live in a cheaper part of the world, it would be wise to research places where there are groups with whom you have something in common. Fortunately the internet makes this quite easy these days, with expat forums being popular on individual websites as well as on Facebook.

Some might say that forcing yourself into a situation where you have to learn the language and make friends with locals in order to get by is the best way to assimilate. But from my own experience, I think at least having the option of a nearby community of fellow expats from your own part of the world makes much more sense. You can choose to run in your own social circle if you prefer, but at least having the fallback option is something you are unlikely to regret.

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