Five Ways to get or stay Stuck in an Expat Bubble
How to Increase your Chances of Getting Stuck in an Expat Bubble.
Living in a foreign country and tired of constantly being bombarded by foreign sounds, smells, and events? Don’t you just wish you could curl up inside an expat bubble and never come out? Well you’re in luck. This article is going to teach you how.
I have lived inside and outside of expat bubbles on three continents. I’m a pro. I know the game. So, let’s get on with it. Here are some things that you can do to greatly increase your chances of getting stuck in an expat bubble regardless of what country you are living in.
(Not sure of what an expat bubble is or why they exist? Check this: Expat Bubbles: The Forces that Suck.)
1. Never go out alone.
If you always go out with your other expat friends you can effectively decrease the chances that a random local will have the guts to start up a random conversation with you.
Just think – if you’re sitting alone at a counter in a Japanese bar it’s possible that a random Japanese person will see you as a lonely defenseless foreigner with some time on his hands and start up a conversation. If you’re trying to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble you want to avoid this at all costs. Never go anywhere alone.
It’s simple, just imagine, if you’re with 2 or 3 other foreign friends all speaking English together and drinking brews from your homeland what are the chances that a random local is going to take the time to bother you? They’re going to see you having a good time speaking rapid and slangy English — they’re not going to touch that with a ten-foot pole. Strength in numbers.
Now, sticking with a group is purely a defensive measure that you should use when you have already entered the heart of foreignness. However, sticking with your expat friends has another preemptive benifit as well.
If you stick with your expat buddies you will be able to feed off of their uncomfortableness with the local language and culture as well, ensuring that you never stray far from the centers of your collective confort zones.
For example, perhaps one day you are feeling dangerously adventurous and want to try out some random restaurant in a local neighborhood you’ve never been to. You’re with your friends so you ask them along too. Chances are that at least one of your friends will save the day and prevent you from going native by saying something like, “I’m getting tired of the local food, let’s hit up Hard Rock Cafe!” This will ensure that the entire group sticks with what they are used to and never leaves the expat bubble. Mission accomplished.
2. Never join a local club unless you know another foreigner already in it.
Whatever city you’re in probably has lots of active informal clubs. Photography clubs, ping pong clubs, kite flying clubs, running clubs, classical guitar clubs… Whatever it is, be sure that you only join a club if you already know for certain that some of your expat friends are in it already, or at least plan to join with you.
If you join a club that no other expats are involved in you will probably be forced to make new local friends, thus destroying your carefully crafted expat bubble. If you do join a club that has another expat in it, be sure that you quit as soon as the last foreigner other than you leaves. If you’re the last one your bubble will surely burst.
The photo with this article shows one episode early in my Japan days when I failed to maintain my expat bubble by foolishly volunteering to participate in Ringon Matsuri in Iida. Bubble destroyed. Don’t let this happen to you.
3. If you work in a mostly foreign environment, be sure that your coworkers are also your best friends.
If your coworkers in a foreign country are mostly other expats, be sure you spend as much time outside of work with them as you do at work.
When work is over invite your fellow expats out to dinner and drinks. Be sure to figure out your weekend plans while you are in the office so you can be sure to travel with a group of foreigners while out and about (see point 1).
4. Never learn the local language.
This is a no-brainer. If you can’t speak the local language you can limit the number of locals who have access to your mind. Furthermore, even if there are locals who speak your language trying to penetrate your bubble at least you can expect that they probably are familiar with your culture and will probably be happy hanging out in your usual expat locations anyway. This way you don’t have to leave your expat bubble, they can enter it themselves.
As a further precaution, do not even attempt to learn the language — zero effort is the safest bet. If you get a private language tutor you open yourself up to being invited out to do local things with your teacher, and worse, your teacher’s friends. In fact, if your teacher is worth their salt they will do this on purpose, as every good language instructor knows that embedding a student into the local culture only speeds language learning and cultural understanding. Dangerous.
5. Stay away from the local communications technology.
Different countries will have different major modes of communication. Facebook is doing a lot to create a unified platform, but there are still country-specific places where people hangout online. Be sure not to join any of them if you want to maintain the integrity of your expat bubble.
For example, in China I made the mistake of joining Weibo, China’s Twitter clone… everyone uses it here. Now I can be constantly plugged into what my Chinese friends are thinking about and doing, I can be informed of all the latest Chinese jokes, and my Chinese friends can reach me whenever they want to share something with me. My Bubble has been breached.
If you are an expat in Japan trying to hold down your expat bubble it would probably be best not to get a mobile phone if you can manage. Japanese people text like crazy, and sharing phone numbers is the first step to building a relationship for most people. If you have to get a phone, which you probably will, try not to give out your number too often — you can make up some excuse like, “I don’t know how to read Japanese so I never look at my text messages anyway.” Or something. Also, stay away from Mixi and Gree, joining such social networks will only further thin the walls of your bubble.
Bonus: Get an expat significant other
Encore! If you really want to augment your expat bubble experience you can get yourself an expat significant other who also lives in their own bubble. This will enhance number 1, 2, and 3 by definition, and will also enhance number 4. You’ll always have an expat around to keep the local culture away! You will be able to cancel any annoying local culture related events by claiming it’s “date night.” The list goes on and on. Note, it is vital that your significant other live in their own expat bubble. If they are one of those people who integrates themselves into the local culture and learns the local language, you’re likely to be dragged out of your bubble with said S.O. Choose wisely.
Seriously though, are Expat Bubbles all Bad? No.
Not all expat bubbles are created equal, and people shouldn’t necessarily feel bad because they are living in one…
In my last expat bubble related post I said:
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.
But expat bubbles are evil! Why would I say such a thing?!
I say this because a lot of expats are really cool and doing amazing things. You can gain a lot of energy and inspiration from the people in your expat bubble. It takes a lot of guts to move overseas and do one’s thing, whatever that thing may be, so a lot of expats who are out there making it happen are really high-calibre folks. I would say that the simple fact that someone is an expat makes them quite likely to be a lot more interesting than the average joe back home, or even the average local in many cases…
Many expats are bilingual, entrepreneurial, international minded, adventurous, willing to share, and fun. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone — there are some expat idiot jerks as well… but it does apply to a lot of people. I think I met more cool expats on Twitter after I left Japan than I did while I was there. I consider this a missed opportunity, and if I ever move back to Japan long term I will make an effort to embed myself into the gaijin community. Knowing the right expats can really help you navigate the local environment, can help you find jobs, and can help you find fun things to do. Seriously, expats are cool. Don’t completely shut them out for the sake of your overseas experience.
Check out this other recent expat bubble related post: Expat Bubbles, what are they, why are they.