Why do expats live in bubbles?
Tanglin Mall sits just west of Singapore’s swankiest shopping street; a four-storey building that’s home to a gourmet supermarket, a clutch of cafes and boutiques selling European toys and books. Every Christmas, families bring their children to play in its annual snow show.
For many Singaporeans, it’s the “expat mall”.
“I’d no idea that was what locals called it,” says Jennifer Gargiulo, an Italian-born lecturer of humanities and literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, whose blog musings on her family’s life in the city-state have been published as the Diary of an Expat in Singapore.
Expatriates the world over are often seen as existing in cosseted bubbles, living and interacting only with those who share their nationality or language. But the reality, like the nature of the expat world itself, is complicated and changing. Nowadays expats are just as likely to be Asian as they are Western and an increasing number of professionals are moving abroad independently, instead of on a company-sponsored posting. But are they sticking with their compatriots or mingling with locals? And, if you want to get to know the people and culture of your host country, how do you break out of the expat bubble?
Gargiulo says that while her friends are “mostly” expats — for example, the other parents at United World College where her children go to school (and is open to Singaporean children only in limited circumstances) — she has got to know some locals, and their culture, through her colleagues, her work contacts and even her students.
“You could live in a complete bubble, but you would be losing so much,” she says. “If you want to get something out of it; the food, the culture, you have to know local people. To me the opposite is hard; to make a conscious choice to stay insular and stick within the bubble.”
Life in the bubble
Of course, in some places, where the expat population far exceeds the local one, sticking within the bubble isn’t so difficult. In Dubai, the overall foreign population makes up about 88% of those living in the emirate, according to the International Organisation for Migration. In nearby Qatar, it’s 76%, the IOM data shows. Unsurprisingly, in these places expats are more likely to socialise with each other (65% in Qatar and similar levels in the UAE and other Gulf states), according to InterNations, the global expat networking group.
In a country like Saudi Arabia, the demographics aren’t so stark, but strict rules govern society, making it hard for expats to make friends among the local community. Some 61% of the expats InterNations surveyed there said they found it difficult to make local friends. In Kuwait, 31% went as far as to describe the process of making local friends as “very difficult.”
The nature of the host country — be it a developed nation or an emerging economy, an open culture or a more guarded one — can also affect the kind of social circle an expat develops.
Fiona Gavin, who works in finance at a multinational, arrived in Yangon a couple of years ago as Myanmar opened to the outside world, after decades of military rule had reduced what was once one of Asia’s richest nations to one of its poorest.
That meant chaotic roads and pavements, patchy electricity and little in the way of the basic amenities, such as reliable healthcare. In those early days, even the 35-year-old Irishwoman, a veteran of postings to Zurich and Shanghai, sometimes felt a little overwhelmed, retreating to the calm, and more comfortable confines of her hotel.
Now, thanks to Facebook, online networking groups, embassy events and the local chambers of commerce, Gavin has built up a diverse circle of friends including expats and Burmese locals. While there are certain restaurants, bars and clubs, “where all you see are expats” Gavin says she’s found it easy to make friends with local people.
“People have great English here and are happy to meet foreigners,” she says in an email from Yangon. “If you can speak some basic Burmese and smile at people you can have a wonderful time with the locals. Oh, and football, of course. A lot of my friends who have Burmese friends play sport together.”
But understanding cultural differences is also crucial, she adds. At the weekend, Burmese people will probably spend time with their families or go to the pagoda. And, while a Westerner might want to go out to a nightclub and party into the early hours, a Burmese friend is more likely to want to go home by 10pm to be up early the next day.
“People socialise in different ways in different countries,” Marian van Bakel, assistant professor at the department of marketing and management at the University of Southern Denmark wrote in an email. “For example, in the Netherlands there is quite a large divide between work and private life, yet many expats expect their colleagues to invite them for dinner or drinks and then get disappointed when this doesn’t really happen. Knowing how to socialise in a specific culture can prevent disappointments.”
The Dutch researcher also says personality, attitude, and the place in which the person works and lives all influence the development of expat social networks.
When she first arrived in Amsterdam a decade ago, Cecily Layzell found the move more of a challenge than she had expected. Layzell, 39, felt the Netherlands offered better job prospects than her home in Britain, but alone in unfamiliar surroundings she struggled to find her feet. Looking back, she admits she was a little naïve. “I nearly gave up and went home several times.”
It was a job at an Irish pub — a place Layzell had vowed never to work because she thought it was too much of an expat cliché — that finally helped her settle.
“It turned out to be a great place to meet people, mostly expats who were passing through but also a few who had been here for a while,” recalls Layzell, now a fluent Dutch speaker and working as a food writer, editor and Dutch-to-English translator. “Through one of them I got a job in a call centre and eventually a position as a junior copywriter in a communications agency. It was about two years in that I decided I was going to stay a while and that learning the language made sense.”
Layzell is one of a growing number of young professionals who head overseas looking for work, usually on local terms, and end up staying. But for other expats, making friends with locals may not be such a necessity. After all, it’s often other expats who are better placed to advise newcomers on schools, accommodation and dealing with utilities, and the posting may only last two or three years.
Other expats are also easy to meet — through the office, kids’ schools and even around the playgrounds and pools of their apartment complexes. But the internet has hugely expanded the opportunities for those who want to meet people outside their own community, including like-minded locals.
At InterNations, which operates in 390 cities around the world, about 30% of its membership is local. At a recent event in London, British citizens were among the 100 different nationalities who signed up.
“People like meeting other expats who might have had the same problems and dealt with them,” says InterNations co-founder Malte Zeeck. “But they also want to meet locals who know the city even better and want to share their culture.”
Singapore, New Zealand and Canada topped the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey in 2016, partly because expats saw the three countries as welcoming places where it was easy to integrate into the local community. For the second year in a row, Canada was named the most welcoming. More than three quarters of all expats there said they were integrating well into the local culture, compared with a global average of 61%.
Van Bakel’s latest project is partly an acknowledgement that local people can do more to make their international colleagues feel welcome. Designed to help her university’s foreign employees connect with local colleagues, she’s called it Breaking out of the expat bubble: Connecting with a local colleague.
“Many people are not aware that many expats would like to connect with them,” she says. “That is quite normal, after all, you have your life and circle of friends, and you’re busy enough. Often you see that people who have lived abroad themselves are more easily inviting towards expats — because they know how difficult it can be. It would be good if people would be more aware of how valuable an invitation to an expat can be.”
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