Social Dos and Don’ts in Expat Communities

by Sarah McClung

Imagine yourself in a foreign country. Pretend it’s a conservative one. As a woman you can’t show your arms or legs, you can’t travel alone, there are rules about eye contact and handshakes, and there are constant reminders that you are not in Kansas anymore. In such a setting you’d probably be excited to come across someone who looked like you, dressed like you, and sounded like you.

Now imagine there are maybe a hundred of you in the entire city. Think about what this means if you are settling in for a one- to two-year stint – you’re likely to meet your entire social network in a few short months. This means everyone you might be romantically involved with, develop a close friendship with, maintain a slightly competitive rivalry with, and just not get along with. Sounds kind of like high school doesn’t it?

I spent three months in Pakistan and dipped my toes into an expat community just like this. Luckily my good friend and partner in Islamabad crime had lived there for nearly two years and had racked up plenty of experience in the social dos and don’ts of living in an expat community. Here’s a list of practical tips:

  1. DON’T shag the country director of any major international organizations.
  2. [For the first six months] DO accept every social invitation. There’s no time to be tired – you need to meet a wide range of people, and fast. After six months you’ll have a better sense of groups and scenes you actually enjoy, and may have made some unexpected friends in the process.
  3. That said ignore feelings of FOMO – “Fear of Missing Out” – and DO get out of the city as much as you can. You may feel like you’re missing a big party, but there’s always the next one and guess what? The same people will be there.
  4. Unfortunately, you DO need to pay attention to what people think of you. In less of a fish bowl one could easily brush off a bad reputation, but in a small community it’s almost impossible to avoid the consequences: fewer invitations out, difficulty getting into parties, etc.
  5. However, DO realize that gossip is inevitable. Don’t believe everything you hear about others and expect that they have heard things (true and false) about you.
  6. DO make local friends. You will miss out tremendously if you limit your friendships to others from your home country. Making local friends is a great way to learn more about the country from people who understand it in a way an expat never could.
  7. DO be conscious of the fact that your friends are also potentially your clients, competitors, partners, and colleagues. Know how to separate your social and professional life, and don’t be the guy who brings up last night’s crazy party at the next morning’s high stakes kick-off meeting.
  8. Expat communities often party hard – DON’T be the chick dancing naked on table. And DON’T do drugs with strangers. Maybe just don’t do any drugs at all…
  9. In your effort to be culturally sensitive, DON’T assume that all the social norms you heard about apply to all the locals that you meet. In Pakistan for example, you’ll sound ignorant expressing surprise that someone is not fasting during Ramadan. As in any city, it’s best to approach everyone in a polite, neutral way.
  10. DON’T think you can be sneaky about dating. You can never have a secret date unless it’s in the privacy of your own home… with the lights off… and your guest was dropped off at the corner.
  11. DON’T fight the gora/gringo/mzungu/ferangi Embrace that you’ll never completely fit in and just celebrate the running joke.
  12. DO expect to get sick, and DON’T let it rule your life. Street food is too delicious and diarrhea jokes are still hilarious – just don’t be cavalier about it.
  13. DO check your privilege. You can leave at any time and you’ll make friends who don’t have that luxury.

Sarah McClung is a first-year FPAN student who enjoys running to trap music and forcing vegetables on friends and family. 

 

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