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Escaping the Expat Trap: How to Live Like a Local When You're Abroad

by Anne Merritt Dec 2, 2008
Don’t be complacent and stick with what’s comfortable. If you’re moving to a whole new country then you might as well live like the locals.

SO YOU’VE MOVED TO a new country for work/study/self-growth, and culture shock has hit. It’s all too easy to hide from the world in that expat pub, speaking English and bonding with others over your cultural hurdles. Instead, follow our tips for immersing yourself in this new country, through food, friends, and language:

Find a native roommate.

If you’ve gone overseas to work, ask your employer for help. Otherwise, check housing websites like Craigslist. A native roommate will keep you connected to the country through language, food, and mannerisms.

Even if you don’t become the best of friends, a roommate is a great asset for all those little questions. (“Where can I buy lightbulbs?” “How late do the subways run?”)

Practice a new word every day.

Language immersion is crucial. Learn a new word or phrase every day, starting with basics like “Excuse me” and “That was delicious.” Practice on as many people as you can. It takes time, but it will stick.

Eat like a local.

Instead of familiar chain restaurants, hit the local eateries. You’ll eat the most authentic local dishes when they’re not catered to a tourist palate. And when ordering, forget the phrasebook. Listen carefully to the way locals order their food and imitate them as best you can, even if you’re not 100% sure what they’re saying.

The same goes when shopping at local markets. Imitating the way locals make their transactions is the gateway to language acquisition–you’re not translating, but already “speaking” their language.

Set up a language exchange.

A language exchange is an opportunity to make friends and to learn local slang and idioms. Post a flyer or online advertisement for find a partner. If you’re living in a city with a university, contact the English department, as they may have information.

Steer clear of gloomy expat bars.

When your new culture gets overwhelming, it’s all too easy to hit the expat bars for some American music and familiar comfort food. But when culture clashes strike, the best course of action is to sit back and learn from them. Griping with fellow foreigners about the things you dislike in your adopted country will only alienate you from it.

Find an ally or two.

Still, there’s no need to avoid other expats altogether. A good expat friend will want you both to navigate this new culture together, not join you in shying away from it. Seek people with the same interests as you and the same curiosity for the country you’re in.

Close the guidebook.

Keeping your nose in a guidebook means you’ll be meeting other travelers at guidebook-recommended places, but not many locals. Instead, ask a local for his or her recommendation on restaurants, sights, or maybe his / her favorite place to go and relax.

Nine times out of ten, their insider tips (for example, your coworker’s cousin’s art show) will take you places that a guidebook never could.

Accept all invitations.

At least as many as you can tolerate. Go to dinner with your zealous boss. Take that flyer for a student battle of the bands. Have tea with the eccentric housewife next door.

These interactions can give you insight to different viewpoints of the culture. It might not be an offer you’d take back home, but now is as good a time as any to break routines.

Community Connection:

Looking to meet some locals on your travels? Check out 6 Essential Items to Pack if you Want to Meet the Locals or 6 Strategies to Connect with Locals Through Sports.

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