Expat Bubbles: The Forces that Suck


Expat bubbles. Or in Japan you might call them gaijin bubbles. What are they? Why are they? Are they all bad? How can you avoid them? Here’s my two cents as someone who has lived in multiple countries, inside and outside of the bubbles.

Living in an Expat Bubble

You’re living in an “expat bubble” when you’re living overseas but you end up mostly hanging out with other foreigners and frequenting places that other foreingers living in that foreign city tend to frequent.

Usually your bubble will be inhabited mainly by people from the same general cultural background. For example, an American might find himself in an expat bubble filled with other Americans, Australians, and maybe some Western Europeans. A Japanese person may find themselves only hanging out with other Japanese in the area. If there do happen to be any locals that manage to penetrate your bubble and become part of the group, they will probably be locals who already speak your language and have spent some time living in your culture.

Many seasoned travelers will immediately label living in an expat bubble as bad behavior, because hey, aren’t you living in a foreign culture to well, interact with and learn about that foreign culture? Stop hanging out with your fellow foreigners already! Why would anyone ever choose to live in a expat bubble when there is an entire world of foreign-ness waiting to be discovered?

Well, as much as I encourage people to immerse themselves in whatever culture it is that they are exploring, I also understand why expat bubbles occur — I’ve allowed myself to be absorbed into a few expat bubbles myself.

In general I strongly dislike the idea of living in an expat bubble when living abroad. It prevents you from really learning about the culture that you are living in, and can really water down your overseas experience. Not to mention that if you’re trying to learn the local language being stuck in an expat bubble can really set you back.

So, how do you know if you’re stuck in an expat bubble?

You know you’re living in an expat bubble when:

  • You live in a big city but you frequently see your foreign friends when you’re “randomly” out and about. (You’re running in small and tight circles.)
  • You are living in a non-English speaking country but you’re able to go for days without speaking a word of the local language. (Even your grocer can speak your language.)
  • The majority of the conversations overheard at your favorite restaurant are not in the local language.
  • All of the recommendations you receive on where to go or what to eat come from your fellow foreigners or foreigner-oriented magazines.
  • A lot of JapanNewbie readers are expats, if you think of any more that come to mind please share in the comments.

    Alright, so now you know what an expat bubble is, and the symptoms. However, it’s not always easy to avoid being sucked into an expat bubble, so I don’t blame people who find themselves in that situation.

    The difficulty of breaking out of or simply avoiding an expat bubble can depend greatly on where you are from and where you are living. For example, it is much easier for an American living in Australia to avoid the grip of the expat bubble when compared to an American living in Tanzania for example. The same goes for a Japanese person living in Montana versus a Japanese person living in Hawaii.

    I have “lived” in about four different countries other than the US where I was born and raised. I was in France for about 6 months, Japan for about 7 years, Tanzania for about 3 months, in Kunming China for about 8 months and I have been in Shanghai for about 11 months now. In each place I have lived I have experienced different intensities of the expat bubble lifestyle.

    In Japan, mainly because I spoke the language, was dating (and am now married to) a local, and worked at a company that employed mostly locals, I was able to largely avoid the expat bubble — perhaps I even avoided it so much that it was, in a way, detrimental to my experience in Japan. On the flip side, when I lived in Tanzania I could count the number of local Tanzanian friends I had on one hand… France was somewhere in between, and my situation in Shanghai is a little weird… More on that later.

    So why the extreme difference in expat bubble intensity with each change of location? I’m the same person right? I still love travelling and total immersion right? Why could I avoid the bubble in Japan but not in Tanzania? Well, beyond the effort of the individual, there are several forces at work that suck an individual into the grip of the expat bubble. Let’s examine a few of them.

    The Factors that Suck you into the Expat Bubble… SUCK!

    When I was in Tanzania economics differences really drove a wedge between the local and the expat community.

    If the average foreigner in Tanzania wants to eat bread, beef, or pasta, they are going to need to go to one of the few Western restaurants in the city. These restaurants are incredibly expensive compared to what it would cost to eat at a local restaurant, but they are not terribly expensive when compared to what one would pay for the same back home.

    So many expats reason, well I could go down the street and get some ugali and goat meat for an extremely low price, or I could pay what I would pay in New York and sit down to some wine and excellent lasagna. The average local often isn’t willing to pay such an expensive price for such a meal, so they rarely go for lasagna or to any of the other “expat” restaurants. So, when the expat goes to dinner at such a restaurant he will likely be eating in a very foreign, and probably Western, environment.

    This means that it becomes sort of awkward to go out to eat with local friends unless you offer to pay for their meal at one of the expat places, or you are willing to try out a local spot. In some countries this isn’t simply a matter of “liking” the local food or not, there may be sanitation issues, such as the often mentioned drainage oil problems with some low priced restaurants in China. Or it could be more simple, what if you hate second-hand smoke and the only non-smoking places are expat joints? Or what if you are vegetarian or on a strict kosher diet? All of these factors will limit the places that you are willing to go to eat, and might necessarily enhance the thickness of your expat bubble.

    The expat bubble effect in Tanzania was particularly extreme because the economic gap between the expats and the locals was huge. For example, it was possible to buy cereal in Dar es Salaam, Frosted Flakes and whatnot, but if you wanted any to you had to go to one of two grocery stores that carried it, and it would cost more than $10 USD a box. I never bought cereal there, but we did go to that grocery store to buy some other things that my wife needed to cook some of her staple dishes. Cereal is not a necessity really, but many other random items that Westerners were used to could only be found in that shop, for example dishwasher detergent, and were quite expensive. All the staff in the grocery store spoke English well, and pretty much everyone who shopped there was either foreign or an extremely rich Tanzanian. So, in Tanzania even the grocery store situation fed the expat bubble phenomenon.

    As you may expect, the economic factor is not as much as an issue in Japan. Japanese have money — so you can find Japanese locals even at the most expensive “expat” bars in Tokyo. However, other factors in Japan contribute to the draw of the expat bubble…

    Another factor that will impact the draw of the expat bubble is language. In Japan the language factor is huge. The less likely it is for you to speak the local language, and for the locals to speak your language, the tougher it will be to escape the expat bubble — because hey, you can’t communicate with anyone.

    I don’t think I’m going to offend anyone by saying that in general Japanese suck at English (and any other language), and non-Japanese suck at Japanese. The language gap in Japan is massive, even larger than it is in Tanzania… many, many, Tanzanians speak English and speak it well. I would even venture to say that more Shanghainese are comfortable speaking English than Japanese who can speak English in Tokyo.

    If you’re trying to avoid the expat bubble, one thing you can do to break down barriers is to learn the local language well.

    Cultural differences can also contribute to the expat bubble effect. For example, let’s talk about coffee.

    In Tanzania (specifically Dar es Salaam) there was not really a local cafe culture. If you wanted to have some quality coffee and muffins or something in the morning you only had a couple of places to go, and these places were pretty much only frequented by the expats in the area. There are enough expats to support the business, so the shops do well, but if you continue to go there you see the same other foreigners over and over again, and there you have it, you’re in an expat bubble.

    There are other more subtle cultural differences that can contribute to an expat bubble. For example, in Shanghai there is a huge Japanese community. There are about 50,000 Japanese here for the long haul, and there are only about 27,000 Americans. Because there are so many Japanse there are a ton of excellent Japanese restaurants and a lot of Japanese-style bars. There are even some restaurants where by default the staff speak Japanese and the menus are all in Japanese. If your culture is such that you want to eat Japanese food all the time, you’re in luck, you can. Not only that, but you’ll be surrounded by Japanese people when you do. This is the Japanese expat bubble in Shanghai – and many Japanese are surely trapped in it.

    So there we have it.

    As I see it those are the major factors that can trap you in an expat bubble. Know them, so you can learn to avoid them if you so desire.

    Having said all that, I completely understand that expat bubbles are not all bad. Here in Shanghai I’m sort of in a weird American expat plus Japanese expat bubble that actually has allowed me to learn a lot about how these jet setters do their thing in China. I also have local friends, but they are mostly people I met through work or other relatively well-off Chinese living here.

    I’m going to do a follow-up post that will share my thoughts on what you can do to INCREASE your chances of getting stuck in an expat bubble when overseas. Then you know, you can do the reverse to… well… not get stuck.

    Anyway let me hear your thoughts and let me know if you have any questions!