Last update on December 19, 2018

Should foreigners avoid joining ‘expat bubbles’? We consider the pros and cons of mingling with expat groups when living abroad.

Every once in a while, I run into fellow expats who make it clear they aren’t interested in my friendship, declaring their intent to associate exclusively with local people because they want the full immersion experience. While this is a laudable goal, and certainly the fastest way to acquire the language and learn the nuances of the culture, most people can’t keep it up for long.

As I had found hanging out with my art class, conversing in another tongue all the time is exhausting. Curtailing your commentary to fit the limits of your elementary vocabulary is frustrating, as is the lack of a shared cultural context that lets you make sense of each other’s jokes and opinions.

So should foreigners avoid the expat crowd when moving abroad?

Always the ‘outsider’

Most friendships are built over a lifetime, and as an outsider you’ll always be playing catch-up. You’ll often find yourself hovering around the fringes rather than joining the inner circle, which can leave you feeling isolated even in a crowd.

These are the facts of expat life that we all have to come to terms with, especially if you live in a traditional society, like I do here in Seville, Spain. Even Spaniards arriving from other cities complain of feeling like outsiders in Seville. As a friend from another Spanish town put it, “The Sevillanos welcome you with open arms, but they never actually wrap those arms around you.”

Mix and match for sanity

But then, all friendships have limitations. I have American friends with whom I can’t touch on a wide range of subjects without nuclear reprisals. I just make sure I have a broad enough social circle to collectively meet the full range of my needs. In Seville, this means a mix of friends from every part of the globe, including Seville and other parts of Spain. I share great times with all of them, but in different ways.

Sooner or later, even the diehards come to this realisation. They abandon their attempts to stick it out in full immersion and join the rest of us who actively seek the company of our fellow expats.

Around the world: in one expat club

When we took up residence abroad, I did an internet search and turned up a social club that was open to English-speaking women of all nationalities. An email requesting more information resulted in an invitation to their upcoming monthly luncheon. I arrived to find several dozen women hailing from America, England, Ireland, Australia, France, Austria, Germany, Sri Lanka, India, and several other countries, plus a number of Spanish women who had American or British husbands or who simply wanted to practise their language skills. Everyone was drinking wine, tucking into generous plates of food, and talking at once.

I liked the club. It had 140 members and the simple agenda of providing a social life for these women and their families by organising holiday parties, monthly luncheons, a book club, activities for mothers with young kids, and, I was thrilled to learn, a large lending library of books in English. My husband Rich and I spent many enjoyable evenings on the town with new arrivals from a wide assortment of countries, backgrounds, and generations.

Age knows no boundaries

One of the great things about being an expat in a town is that you have friends of all ages – in my case, from 20s to 80s. Where most societies are highly stratified along generational lines, our expat community is, of necessity, far more likely to intermingle.

With such a small pool of expats to draw upon, when I’m lucky enough to find people whose language, interests, and personality are compatible with mine, I don’t really care whether their favourite band of all time is the Beatles, Hootie and the Blowfish, LMFAO, or Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

Up and away – again

Very early on, Rich and I met an engaging young English couple, and the four of us began having regular dinners together, drinking wine and laughing over our common struggles to understand the Spanish and their language.

I was just settling into the comfortable feeling that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship when they suddenly announced they were moving back to England. They just didn’t feel they could build careers in Spain. It was a shock. It always is, when a friend suddenly rejects the life you have in common and declares the intention of moving on to bigger and better adventures.

I had done the same thing to my friends in Ohio, and I now began to feel a much greater sympathy for their reactions. Taking a cue from my neighbour Nancy, I told the young couple I didn’t want them to go, this was obviously a bad decision, but how could I help? This was the first of many such losses, and as such, it served as a sort of inoculation that made the later ones easier to bear.

In an expat community, people come and go with tremendous frequency for every possible reason. I began to understand why club members who’d lived in Seville for decades were always asking me, “How long do you plan to stay?” Like the butaneros who replace the butane tanks, they didn’t want to invest in our relationship if I wasn’t going to stick around.

The expat ‘grapevine’

When someone interesting arrives in town and appears likely to stay awhile, we actively pass them along to one another the way San Franciscans pass on food recommendations. Instead of, “You must try the new Mexican-Indian fusion restaurant,” people are apt to say, “You must meet Molly, who’s just moved here from Dublin.” Molly was passed on to me by Christine, a dancer from New Zealand who had given up a position in the Cadbury chocolate testing department (dream job!) to travel the world studying dance. Christine was passed on to me by Johanna, a Belgian who ran the Carmen tour, an English-language guided visit to sites around town that provided the backdrop to Bizet’s famous opera.

You see how well the expat system can work.