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Get out of the expat ghetto

Wednesday October 18, 2006

Gillian Bennett

If moving house is said to be one of the greatest contributors to stress and emotional breakdown, just multiply that by five and you have an idea of the traumas of an international move not only to a new house and new area, but often to a new climate, new language and completely different way of life.

People who move regularly to new environments often talk about the ?three-month blues?, and it is as well to be aware. The first weeks in a new country are usually full of excitement with everyone in the family interested in all the new ways of life, the new language, the new architecture and even a new climate, and we are ready to tackle the hurdles.

However, as the weeks roll by and we are three months into the new life, the enthusiasm often gives way to frustration at how slowly we are really settling down, and to an awareness of being different, and of not yet having integrated into the new society we find ourselves in. There is the bureaucracy, the difficulties involved in learning to make oneself understood, the inevitable homesickness for people and for familiar ways of life. The novelty and excitement has worn off, and yet we have a very long way to go before we can say that we are really fully settled into the local environment. It certainly helps to be ready for those blues and to recognise that they do not usually last for ever.

The tendency to retreat at this point into an expatriate ghetto is understandable. We quite naturally feel more comfortable with those from a similar background and of the same mother tongue; and this applies as much to expatriate immigrants or visitors to developed countries as it does to inter-European living or to those who have moved to countries in the developing world.

One often hears criticisms aimed at the Asian or Caribbean communities in Britain who settle into the ghettos of Bradford or Brixton, creating mini Pakistans or Jamaicas, while all over Africa and the Far East there are little Englands with green lawns, safe compounds, yacht clubs and bridge. Those who have experienced the same anguish, the same difficulties, however long ago, are usually going to be readier to lend a hand, to give support to newcomers than those who have been born and bred in the host country. With the best will in the world the latter may simply not understand the many emotional traumas and physical difficulties of international resettlement.

Even after 17 years in my adopted country of Italy, and speaking fluent Italian, I will still in a crisis run to my expatriate friends rather than my Italian neighbours to give me support, whether moral or physical. It?s not that Italians, or any other nationalities for that matter, are unwilling to help if someone is in trouble; it is just that they have their family and school friends all around them and wouldn?t really understand my need for emotional support.

However, looking back now to the days when I lived as a young wife and mother in the Far East and Caribbean, and more recently as a volunteer in Africa, I really wish that I had made more of an effort to integrate into the country's way of life, to have put more effort into making close friendships with my local neighbours and colleagues. Sure, it is not always so easy to break into a new culture; one is fearful of rejection, of making mistakes. Much easier to hide in that ghetto, creating a little bit of the home country in the new one. Many expatriates, of whatever race or creed, never leave it.

Some make an effort, but slip back all too easily into the comforting arms of their co-nationals. Only a few brave souls have the courage and the persistence to break out and to become a part of their adopted country. Only they can be truly admired for crossing the cultural barriers, ignoring the differences and contributing to a more unified world.

Next time, I tell myself, I really will.

But will I? Will you?

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