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Live like a local: Tips on integrating into new countries

Many expats relocate for work, but increasing numbers are moving for other reasons.

According to MoveHub, 35% of the global migrants surveyed, move primarily for work, followed by the 30% looking for a lifestyle change, and 21% travelling to join their family members.

While workers’ primary reason is often financial and, more importantly, temporary, those who move for lifestyle, family or new experiences may have more incentive to integrate into the new culture.

Settling in, and fitting in, can be one of the biggest challenges expats face on moving abroad, so here are our top tips for acclimatising, to help make your move abroad a success.

Contributing factors

For those moving abroad and leaving their support network behind, it can be especially daunting and difficult to settle into a new lifestyle. The ease of integrating into foreign countries is also dependent on factors such as the destination location. In the 2017 Index, Bahrain is, for example, considered the best country for ‘ease of settling in’, while Portugal takes the top spot for welcoming expats, with those moving there finding the locals particularly friendly.

Other important factors in helping people overcome the barriers of integration into a new country and culture include; preparation, time and support networks.

The biggest contributing factors to expats feeling a sense of alienation are often language barriers, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. For example: many Turkish expats feel ostracised because of their religion.

1. Be prepared

By doing as much pre-trip planning and reading as you can before your move, you will not only be more prepared to embrace the differences, but it can reduce culture shock.  Educating yourself on the new culture can help you maintain local rules of ‘respect’ and prevent miscommunication or offending your new neighbours.

When meeting and greeting people in India, for example, it is usual practice to shake hands, but touching someone with your left hand can be considered offensive.

2. Give yourself time

Settling in won’t happen overnight. Expats from the West in particular can feel stark contrasts when they move to developing countries; differences in lifestyle are often a barrier that takes longer than expected to overcome. The same is true for those moving from rural and/or developing countries to modern urban cities.

Research shows that the average expat takes “between one and two years to feel significantly integrated overseas.” As such, it is essential that those relocating allow themselves a period of adjustment.

3. Learn the language

Adapting to life in a foreign country is much easier when you break down the language barrier.

Although a third of migrants from America are moving to other English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia, many will be moving to places where English isn’t even a local second language. Our own Third culture kid study shows the benefits of learning the language of your host nation, a sense of acceptance to helping with logistics and practical issues.

In places with dense expat populations, such as Dubai, English can feel like the native language. Even so, these basic Arabic phrases could be useful to expats in the Middle East if you ever find yourself in a situation where the native language is required.

One ‘Third culture kid’, Argentinian Lebanese Alma who grew up in Dubai, explains that language is important in order to integrate: “being able to converse with the locals was great — it made me feel like a global citizen.”

4. Explore, explore, explore!

According to research Aetna International conducted in 2017, we found that, “most people that have chosen to move abroad are looking to experience a new and different way of life — not to create a home-from-home.” It’s all about cultural immersion.

Take a trip to the new local points of interest, even if they are full of tourists — you’re not a tourist anymore, this is your new home! Connecting to your new surroundings can have a particularly beneficial effect on your transition. Heading to museums, public buildings and national parks can help you gain a greater understanding of the local history and feel a greater sense of connection.

The report also explains that even if they have moved for career reasons, or specifically as part of a new role or project in their current employment, none of the respondents did so “purely for financial gain”, but were seeking something that “couldn’t be fulfilled in their home country”.

Respondents said that recreating an “old life” would hinder the process of integration; with a willingness to experience new things being key to thriving in a new country.

5. Try local delicacies and live like a local

Simply living like a local can often be one of the best ways to integrate yourself into the community, and in turn, your new life.  Try heading to the local market for your weekly food shop, instead of the ‘safer’ supermarket option. This will not only open up doors to meet your new neighbours but also allow you to appreciate local delicacies like Japan’s unique Tempura, or the abundant street food dishes available throughout Asia.

6. Build a social life

Expat groups are a great way to meet like-minded individuals, especially if your relocation is to a particularly rural and isolated area. Although the other members are experiencing a similar transition, try to avoid socialising solely within these comfortable, yet relatively confining circles. One of the easiest ways of integrating is to meet up with the local community rather than simply mixing with other expats. Making friends with the locals can not only help with your language skills, but you may gain access to areas of your new home country that others will remain unaware of.

Cara Fortune, from the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go scheme agrees that “although it is easy to connect with friends and family back in the UK, making friends close by will prove helpful down the line.” In practise this can often be tricky, but joining clubs and classes, or even online groups, can be a great place to start. Greg Forsythe, manager at Immigration New Zealand, observes that the attitude of the host country can also play an important role. Mexico has one of the friendliest populations, according to InterNations’ 2017 survey, with Costa Rica a great place for expats to make new friends.

If you’re moving abroad with your family, bear in mind that it may take a few weeks for your children to make friends. In the meantime, arrange a few visits to nearby attractions or sports clubs. Having fun as a family and introducing your children to their new lifestyle can stop them feeling isolated or lonely.

7. Keep in touch with home

Staying in touch with your support network back home shouldn’t be overlooked during the process of integrating into your new life. The drastic change in environment, lifestyle and culture can often lead to feelings of isolation, which in turn can result in depression. Mental health is a growing issue for expats, particularly those relocating independently. Read our white paper — Expatriate mental health: Breaking the silence and ending the stigma — for more information. And for practical tips, read Working abroad? Five ways to safeguard your mental health and Maintaining good mental health for teens when moving abroad.

Aetna International provides ongoing support throughout your relocation, understanding that no two countries are the same and that no two individuals will have the same needs and requirements. Our ‘What Is Wellness? Survey’ provides a unique insight for those considering a move abroad, exploring the lifestyle of 32 families living around the world and how they maintain wellness in their new home country.

One of the best pieces of advice on integrating into foreign countries is to plan ahead. For more country specific advice, our Destination Guides will prove useful in your pre-trip planning and research.

For more information on international health care for you and your family, contact one of our expert sales consultants.

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