We’re all guilty of it. Meeting friends for a coffee. Chatting at school pick up. Organising weekends away. Who are the people we are most likely to do these things with? Other expats.
Now I’m not one of those people who condescendingly heap scorn upon anyone who has no locals amongst their group of friends. From personal experience I know how hard it can be to get close to the natives when you don’t work. Not necessarily because of your own attitudes but often because of theirs: why should they be your friend when you’ll probably be off in a couple of years? Even worse, why should they let their children get close to yours when those friendships will be broken just as they finally trust each other enough with the name of their latest crush? Additionally, you’ve probably got a lot more in common with other expats who, like you, have left behind their home country and culture to strike out on a grand adventure. Even if your expat friends aren’t the same nationality as you (and to me, meeting people from all over the world is one of the best things about this life), they are still likely to have more in common with you than someone who has never left home.
So no I am not against having expat friends. I say grab whichever friendships you can – especially at the start. Loneliness and isolation is a very real and not always acknowledged part of this life, so never feel guilty for making a friend with someone just because they are not a host-country native.
This does not mean you should never leave that safe, expat bubble. After all, isn’t one of the reasons you moved to another country the opportunity to explore a new culture? Won’t you feel slightly cheated if you go home having never stepped out of your comfortable little world? But I know that sometimes doing this can be harder than it sounds. As already mentioned, most locals are not going to be desperate to be your best friend. They will already have circles of friends and/or family and as you get older and more settled, reaching out to new people isn’t always that high up on peoples’ agenda. So don’t expect to immediately gain a whole new circle of best mates from the local populace. It may happen eventually (or it may not, depending on where you are) but you could find it hard to get close to people other than fellow expats in the first year or two.
So, how do you get out of that expat bubble? Well – this is where you need to get a bit creative. Literally, in some cases. What you need is to find something that brings you into contact with nationals from your host country where you will all be focused on doing the same thing and where chat will naturally flow. Something like….ok, this is going to sound weird, but dog grooming. Yes you read that right – and had someone told me even a few months ago that I would have been doing a dog grooming course during my time in South Africa, I would have thought they had been drinking too much of the Kool Aid. But hear me out.
When we first got our puppy Miniature Schnauzer Cooper, we knew that he was a dog that needed a lot of grooming. His hair doesn’t fall out but it grows – fast. He can turn from a perfectly turned out shorn boy to a yeti in what seems like a matter of a couple of weeks. So we got in touch with a local man who comes to the house and does a wonderful job making Cooper look like he’s just stepped out of the puppy parlour. But while we can afford to get this done on a regular basis here, I know that when we return to the UK this is going to eat deep into our pockets. So when the chance to learn how to do it myself came up I jumped at the chance.
And it was so much fun! Run by the professional breeder who sold us Cooper the course was basically a load of middle aged South African ladies (and me) laughing our way through the day. We were each presented with our own dog to practise on and there is nothing like chortling at your sheer ineptness to bond you with a bunch of strangers. Although I was the only “outsider” there, and there was the occasional break into Afrikaans for me to contest with, the fact that we were all there for the same thing meant I was just as included as everyone else. And even though none of those women were ever going to be my lifelong friend, for one afternoon I was emerged in the local culture completely and could almost forget I was even an expat.
Similarly aother friend (you know who you are) started mosaic classes with a local art teacher. Classes like these mean that with everyone focused on art and not on each other it doesn’t matter whether you were born and bred five miles or 5,000 miles away. Barriers break down and over time real friendships can be formed.
For my children too I have found a great way to get them away from their international school bubble – local swimming classes. Both of my children train at the high performance centre at TUKS, which is the University of Pretoria’s top class sports facility. So top class that a 2016 Olympic gold medallist also trains there! But most importantly, the girls are surrounded by South Africans. With most of their friends being Americans, Scandanavians, Germans, other Brits etc it’s great to see them both swimming alongside and chatting with South African children. And sitting as I was with them at 7.30am at the swimming gala on Saturday morning I really got to feel I was taking part in something very South African!
We’re only here for another 8 or 9 months and I still feel like I am just scraping the surface of this country. I know I am unlikely to ever really blend in. But while I am here I am trying to understand the local culture (or should I say cultures – this is a country made up of as many people as any I have ever lived in). I know I could be doing a lot more – I could volunteer with a local charity or vow to seek out as many local friends as possible. Yet I have to be realistic. There are only so many hours in the day and most of those are taken up with work, looking after the children, shopping, cooking, dog walking – you know, day-to-day stuff. But whilst I realise I won’t ever be completely immersed in this country, I will always have my day of dog grooming!
So get out there, look for those opportunities. And if you find something or if you are already taking part in an activity that helps you to immerse in the local culture please let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you lot get up to 🙂