As our world becomes smaller, more and more people are moving outside of their home country and into a different culture. Chances are, there will be a number of expats in the city to which you plan to move and chances are, they have formed a little community of their own. I don't mean to say that they aren't integrating into the existing culture, but they may find comfort in also being part of a community of people who are foreigners as well. Sometimes organizations will have "teams", so the expat community will be mostly others working for the same organization, other times it is a conglomerate of expats who may be embassy workers, traditional missionaries, families on business, etc. Integrating into this community may take a little more finesse than simply moving into the neighborhood. Moving overseas with young children can be a daunting proposition, and thinking about “breaking into” the existing expat community may be intimidating. These people have often seen countless families come and go, so it may be difficult for them to warmly welcome yet another newcomer. So how can you help your children to pursue friendships within the expat community? How can you as parents integrate into the community? Having a support system of people you trust is important no matter where you are living, but especially so when you're learning to navigate a new culture.
Here is some advice and encouragement from people who are living or have lived in an expat community:
Make connections ahead of time. If possible, make an effort to connect with other expats in the community where you will be moving before you get there. If your children will be attending school, see if you and your child(ren) can meet with the teacher before school starts and/or connect with a family who has a child in the same class. You can do this either in person, via Skype or another Internet video program.
“When we moved to Peru for the first time, I was in 7th grade and my sister was in 10th grade. My parents connected with the international school we would be going to before we moved there and found out that there was a teacher who was visiting Minnesota (where we lived) for a couple weeks before going back to Peru, so we had her over for dinner. It was great to be able to ask her questions about our new school and life in Peru and she new all the students so she told us about girls who we would get along with and different events that were going on for us to make friends. It was so helpful for me to be able to know a familiar face when we moved there. When we did get there, we connected with some of the families that the teacher had told us about. My parents made good friendships with other couples there, and my sister and I quickly made great friendships.” –Molly, TCK/MK in Peru
Be intentional about reaching out. The expat community is often very fluid, with people frequently coming and going. Unfortunately, this means that they may not be intentional about reaching out to newcomers. So, as the newcomer, you may need to do the work of reaching out.
“Be a place for families or even just teens to hang out. Make your home the gathering place. Invest in your kids' friendships and their friends. Have a movie or pizza night. Take treats to school. Whatever.” -Abby, International School Teacher in Tanzania, East Africa
Don’t be a hermit. It can be easy to hide away when you are trying to run a household in the midst of culture shock, and the act of simply buying groceries is mentally taxing. This can be especially problematic for families who choose to homeschool because they have to make a more concerted effort to be out in the expat community. Unfortunately, the expat community often sees so many newcomers come and go, that they may not have the energy or desire to pursue a new family who seems to choose to keep to themselves. It is your job to put yourself and your kids out there so that your family can have the opportunity to make friends.
“It can be hard for homeschooling families to integrate into a school community. They would probably be better off finding their own sense of community among other homeschooling families. Sometimes TCK schools reach out to homeschooling families by allowing them to participate in after-school sports, things like that. That can be helpful.” –Amy, Missionary and mom of TCKs in Tanzania, East Africa
Find ways to get involved. A great strength of many expat communities is that they tend to have a lot of activities and events going on. Find out how to get on the expat community’s email or newspaper list and start attending events!
“I know my parents also signed up for the local expat newspaper for our area to receive news updates in English and different things going on or recommendations on places to shop or eat, etc.” -Molly, TCK/MK in Peru
Be encouraged. Kids make friends easily. Whether you are planning on them attending a local school, international school, or boarding school, be encouraged that your kids will likely be warmly welcomed.
“A new MK joined my daughter’s class about a month ago. For about two weeks before she arrived, my daughter talked every day about the new classmate joining them. She was SO excited--even though the classmate came with no English. And that's pretty much what I have observed during my whole time here. Kids make friends so quickly. It can be harder for older teens or adults, but not hard at all for kids.” –Amy, Missionary and mom of TCKs in Tanzania, East Africa
Living overseas can be an incredible experience and connecting with other expats can enhance that experience for you and your kids. Integrating into the expat community may take effort on your part, but if you plan ahead, be intentional, put yourself out there, and find ways for your family to get involved, you will likely find a diverse community of people who will welcome you into their tribe.