Where do expats belong?

you belong here in neon lights

One question that I have been asking myself a lot recently, is where do I belong?  
I have lived in the UK most of my life, but leaving there to live abroad in Australia nearly 15 years ago, then Costa Rica and now Spain.  I am relatively used to the feeling of not belonging to one place or culture and having a unique sense of belonging to my immediate family. 

Moving to Australia, it was generally quite easy to adapt and feel some sense of belonging, I even found myself supporting Australia in some sports after nearly 8 years there (sorry, Aussies I have reverted back to being an England supporter now).    But it is a bit more tricky to feel like you belong when you add in another language and seemingly totally different culture too.

lonely figure rain living abroad

I laugh now at my naivety of when we first moved to Costa Rica, I was so keen to be part of a Costa Rican, rather than, expat life.  I declared I would try to only make friends with locals and really integrate, a worthy and lofty goal you might say, but with very limited Spanish at that time, a very unrealistic one!    Over time we did have Costa Rican friends and obviously my Spanish improved, but I felt that it would never be easy to feel like we belonged there with a true sense of shared culture and experience. Partly because the culture is quite family-focused, partly because we all knew that we were unlikely to live there forever.

The irony now of course is, that even if we did move back to the UK, I might have some sense of a shared culture and humour and family and friends close by, but I am not sure that I would also feel like I belonged there either.  We have lived away for so long and have friendships, experiences and ties around the world. Whilst it feels very fortunate to have done so, it also leaves your heart and identity in many places!

group belonging

What does it mean to belong?

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs he identifies the basic needs of food, shelter and safety as paramount, closely followed by the psychological need to feel a sense of belonging and love from family and friends.  

Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work).”     

A pretty fundamental foundation to have a fulfilling life.   To feel like we have the sense of intimacy, trust and mutual connection in our lives. This might be through family, friends and/or work and is something we can all relate to, albeit to different degrees at different stages of our lives. Living abroad as an expat, the sense of belonging to a culture and a strong set of friends and even close family can certainly be more challenging.  With those near (either locals or expats) you have obviously not had the same shared experiences and with those far, you don’t have the day to day contact with each other to share the ups and downs of life.

Whilst your ‘new’ friends in the country you live in know little of your history and past life and experiences, you do get to have the shared experiences of this current life. Being away from traditional support networks which can engender very close relationships in a short period of time – an adopted family of sorts which can be quick or take years to develop.  These friendships or new ‘family’ can create a real sense of belonging, but also can be ruptured should one of the members move away and bring deep feelings of loss and grief.   Sadly over time, some expats (and I speak with some experience) can shy away from making these deep connections in fear of future losses which can obviously really limit your ability to create a community for yourself and your family when living abroad (I sometimes joke we need people to tell us how long they plan to stay before we decide how much time to spend with them).

Why is belonging so important?

maslow hierarchy of needs diagram

Feeling like we are loved and belonged is a basic human need.  In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs he states that to reach our full potential, we need to have preceding needs met (although not necessarily 100%).  So not having the love and belonging we need, can really reduce our ability to fully actualise ourselves – develop the esteem and then become our best selves.  

Glasser takes this a step further with Choice theory identifying similar needs – survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. However, he elaborates by saying that these needs are like legs of a chair that support us and we each have slightly different levels of these needs which can drive our behaviour.  This has particularly interested me as I notice that my need for belonging is stronger than it is for others.  I have frequently been asked:

“Why are you so keen to keep learning Spanish when so many people here don’t speak Spanish much, if any, after many years?”

Initially I thought my desire to be as good as I could was to really to get by and as a sign of respect to the country we live in and plan to stay for many years (I am sure I would be less keen to learn the language if we were living temporarily in a country that also did not have a language that was so widely spoken!)  Now I have been thinking about this need to belong, I think it is also this plus I want to speak and understand Spanish to the best of my ability to fully appreciate this country and its culture.  (Btw check out my post about Spanish resources and lessons for free). However, the downside to this is I could never feel like I belong until I ‘get it’ all, which I doubt is ever going to be truly in my grasp.

Glasser basic needs diagram

It could also be said that as I don’t have a traditional ‘job’ I am looking for that sense of belonging elsewhere. I wonder whether it would be so important to me to learn Spanish if I was working full-time in an office, for example.  However, I also know plenty of women and men who are expats that haven’t felt the need to learn the language, but do lots of other things with their time. I think it is really dependent on the individual and what need/s are driving their behaviour.

Belonging is important to us all

The bottom line is that we all need to have some sense of love and belonging, regardless of the degree.  Living abroad, whether a short or long term expat, or in our forever home from home,  a sense of community and two-way support is essential for us all.   

Right now, the situation is certainly messed with this sense of belonging as many are thrown into situations that were not as they might have planned whether working or schooling from home, being forced to stay or move to a country and trying to start/continue a (new) life. In one sense our shared sense of humanity has been stronger this last year as we all go through this pandemic and the rollercoaster ride of it all, but in other senses it has stripped us of our ability to connect to those outside our immediate family and feel a sense of belonging to the wider community, particularly if we live abroad.

Having thought about this a lot, I know how important it is for me to feel connected and a sense of belonging to those near and far and to develop new and existing friendships.  Not as easy for an introvert (albeit an intermittent one), but nonetheless as important.  I have been experimenting with ways to do this over the last weeks to mitigate the isolation that expat and pandemic life can sometimes bring!

jigsaw pieces together community

How can we help our sense of belonging?

First of all we have to recognise that feeling part of a bigger circle beyond our immediate family is important to us and then how important it is. Unless we consider this we might be less likely to take action.   After all to create a tribe or friendship network that is a strong support system requires give and take from all sides.  

Here are 11 tips to help bring that sense of belonging and connection to where we live and the people around us:

1-  Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone to make and develop connections and show people our true selves.  If we are not starting with this basic premise, we will never feel like we truly belong as we haven’t been authentic or even accepted ourselves.  
It is worth re-reading that.

This feels hard when you are embarking on a journey in a new country/home and you are keen to find new friends or tribe, but (again from experience) it is way harder to backtrack from not showing who you really are and creating false and weak friendships with lots of people.  In my experience it is far better to have a few strong, real friendships than multiple superficial ones.

2- Join Facebook Groups in your area (or internationally) for expats, parents, hill-walkers or whatever your interest is, wherever you live.   These connections can lead to friendships in ‘real’ life with people we might never have met. I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook, but I also have to admit that some of my closest friends in recent years have been as a result of Facebook groups, for which I am very grateful.

3- Learn the language – I am not going to pretend (like I did to myself) that making friends with local people is that much easier if you speak the local language, but it certainly helps.  By at least having some basic understanding and attempts to learn you are showing willingness and locals are less likely to see you as someone who is only staying for a year or two before leaving.

4- Reach out via Facebook, work, school, church networks or online forums (for example tuclasesparticulares in Spain) to find others to practice the local language and do a language swop – so many people want to learn/practice English, it just takes someone to offer it first. I have found this work well through our kids’ school and the above link in particular. There are also other skills you can learn and practice via reaching out in these ways.

5- Join meet-up groups based on your interests, work, ideas or even start a new one if it doesn’t exist yet.  They are all over the world and operate on and offline.

6- Exercise – joining the gym, tennis lessons, local yoga or zumba class or whatever is your thing is a great way to feel more connected.  I forced myself to join a local zumba class in Costa Rica and now in Spain to try and encourage my latina side, plus it is a great way to exercise and feel more connected to the local culture (but admit that zumba and certainly some of the music is not for everyone!)

7- Community – check out whether there are local community groups you can be part of that might organise local events and activities. This might include an event during festivals or holidays, a beach clean-up, community meetings or even just read their newsletter/Facebook page to feel more connected to where you live and what is going on.

you belong here in neon lights

8- News – watching, listening or reading the local news can also help with a sense of belonging and feeling part of the society we live in.  Obviously it can also help with language skills too, but it just generally makes us feel more connected to where we are now, rather than the always paying attention to the news from where we are from. (I say this as someone who still finds it hard not to read/watch the BBC and British news each day).

9- Volunteer – one way I have found great to not only feel part of the community of where we live, but also to meet new friends and give back, is to volunteer.   Finding a local charity, getting involved in the/a kids’ school in some way really helps in so many ways, including our own mental health.   

10- Keep connecting with family and friends close and far (some ideas on how to do that in different ways here and for some ideas during annual events like Easter and Christmas are here).  As much as it is important to develop new friendships, it is also very important to keep connecting with those from our previous lives and ‘native’ country too.  This can be easier said than done, but finding ways to regularly keep in touch with those closest to you really helps with a wider sense of belonging and ensuring that we don’t lose touch or a sense of who we are/have been throughout our lives. I have a friend that identifies one evening every couple of weeks that she contacts close friends from afar to keep the connection going.

11- Explore the place and the culture – making the most of where we live to explore the local towns, visit festivals, markets, check out the famous sites, restaurants, reading the most famous authors or watch the classic films. All these helps us understand where we live and gives us another opportunity to connect with the local and wider community whether on a daily more superficial basis or in conversations with those at work, school, wherever – all opportunities to connect that may develop into a deeper connection, understanding and sense of belonging to where we live.

The central thing for all those that are expats or living abroad is that we have to make that bit more effort to find our tribe and feel like we belong.

Quote belong lowell

The one place we truly belong

The bottom line is that there are many ways that can help expats feel that they belong to where they live and the broader community. We just have to make a bit more effort, but it is worth it to make the most of this rich life experience.  Some people don’t feel the need to belong as much as others, but I suspect ultimately we all benefit if we do reach out of our comfort zone and connect to where we live and those around us.

Many of those living abroad have a much stronger sense of belonging in their immediate family and rely deeply on the love and trust there.  This can also extend to a wider surrogate family network that is very much part of the support network of any expat.  

But the relationship that is paramount in all this is the one that we have with ourselves. Truly loving and accepting ourselves for who we are and reaching out from this unique individual and not anyone we think we ‘should’ or want to be. 
That really will bring a true sense of belonging.

Brene Brown belong quote

Is feeling like you belong important to you? What have you done to help yourself and your family feel more connected and part of the wider community wherever you live? We would LOVE to hear from you…..

Photos: You belong here: Amer Mughawish, Group: Tegan Mierle, rain window: Rhendi Rukmana, jigsaw: Hans-Peter Gauster

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