When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats

A short story:

When I was 29 I went on a round-the-world trip, typical backpacker stuff. Not really a gap year as I was a bit old, but the whole staying-in-hostels, having a good time stuff.

For six months of that year I lived in Auckland, so I was sort of an expat. Mostly, I mixed with other expats: my Japanese housemates (the best housemates you could ask for, by the way), other backpacking Brits. It’s hard to get to know locals when you are only fleetingly living somewhere. I was working in various office around the city so had lots of interaction with local Kiwis but mostly that interaction stopped after work hours.

Until one day I went to a local pub to meet friends. A couple were sitting at a table, with otherwise empty chairs. I went to ask if we could share their table and the woman said they were also waiting for friends who should be there soon. I left, looking for somewhere else to sit. Then suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder – it was the woman. Her accent quickly gave her away as a New Zealander but her words were what I remembered.

 

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Auckland

 

“Sorry,” she said. “That was really rude of us. Come and join us at the table. We were backpackers in London once and we know how hard it is to meet locals”. And this is how I met Jo, and started a new friendship, unusual because it was one of the only friendships I had with a local, settled person the whole time I lived in Auckland. Jo took me to local beaches, introduced me to her family, and showed me parts of her home city I would never otherwise have seen. The friendship didn’t last beyond a few years after I came home (these were the very early days of social media), but it was still an important one for me.

I share this story because now I am home, I have realised how easy it can be to slip back into your old ways. I have written before about how things won’t ever be the same because your life abroad changes you forever. But when you return to a familiar culture it can be easy to get caught up in the life you used to lead – whether that be through work or school-gates friendships or wherever it is you meet the people you used to know.

But having now been on the other side of the fence, I think a great way to preserve that person you have become is to purposely go out of your way to meet some of the temporary visitors to your community.

It’s funny, many of us might not even realise they are there. Where I live, for example, I am surrounded by foreigners. I have friends who are American, Ukrainian, German, Indian, Spanish, Bulgarian…and that’s just in the small area close to my house. But  most of the people I have got to know down the years are very settled, married to Brits or with a permanent job here. I always enjoy talking to them about their home countries, trying their food, hearing their views on life seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in a different culture. But they are no more in need of local friends as I am.

Dig deeper, though, and you can find the people who aren’t settled, don’t have ties through family, or kids at the local school. The ones like me when I was in Auckland – always on the edges of the life in the city, never quite part of it. And you can do what Jo did for me: be welcoming, be inclusive.

You don’t need to become their best friends. It’s up to you if you want to form a friendship at all of course. But if nothing else, why not at least draw them in to the community, be a good neighbour, help them out, ask of they need anything. Take them places or recommend somewhere.  Invite their kids to play with yours.

I wrote a lot about  loneliness, and depression as an expat while I was living in Pretoria. It is a recurring theme and one that sadly is a feature of most people’s experiences living as an expat at some point. And one of the things that makes it hard to get past these feelings, especially at the start, is disinterest from the people who surround you.

Imagine if you knew there was someone like that living close by to you, and you did nothing to help them? Sometimes all it takes is a quick hello, a smile, or an offer of assistance. You never know, you might be making all the difference to that person’s experiences in your home country.

Photo credit:

Stewart Baird

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Have you ever dealt with an “extreme weather event”?

My column this month for the Expat Focus website talks about the weather. How very British! We love the weather in this country, I would go so far as to say it’s a national obsession. But actually it’s not something I gave a huge amount of thought to until I moved elsewhere.

In the article, I talk about how it was only when I was living and travelling in New Zealand – an “outdoorsy” place if ever there was one – that I really started to understand why it is important to figure out  the weather. Hiking, diving, even tandem-parachuting: these were all activities undertaken by me without much thought to whether the weather would be in our favour or not. But after a few close calls (we probably really shouldn’t have done that dive – or that freezing cold walk wearing just our shorts…), I started to understand that getting to know a bit about wind direction, precipitation levels and thermals (and no, I don’t mean thermal underwear) wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Fast-forward a few years and I was living in the Caribbean. Now this is one place where you really can’t avoid having at least a passing understanding of what the weather has in store for you. At least, during hurricane season. And boy did I ever learn this the hard way! First, in Jamaica, there was Hurricane Ivan (a force 5 that clipped the coast), then there was Dennis, with Emily close on it’s heels. And later still, living in St Lucia, there was Tomas.

Hurricane Ivan

Hurricane Ivan

Now we were in a much better position than a large percentage of the islanders, living as we did in solid homes with proper concrete walls. Sadly, there were a large number of deaths during these storms – Ivan in particular wrecked some of the islands completely. But it was still a terrifying thing to go through. We were stuck indoors for at least 24 hours (in the case of Ivan) and only ventured out when we were sure there wouldn’t be any more tree branches being thrown around in the wind. The devastation was awful, and the clean-up took days.

In St Lucia, our house was flooded by Tomas and the storms that came afterwards. We actually missed this one as we were in Miami at the time, but came home to find the remnants of the 6 inches of mud that had filled our kitchen.

Of course bad weather can happen everywhere – we’ve had tornadoes and terrible flooding in the UK in the last few years. But it’s only since living in the path of hurricanes that I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of understanding what it means when a small swirl on the other side of the Atlantic starts to gain in size, day-on-day, and then gets a name, then a Force number….

I intend to come back to this topic in a future post or posts and would be interested to hear your stories.  Have you lived through any bad weather events while living overseas? How did you deal with it? Have you ever had to be evacuated because of a storm or other weather-related event?

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