You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.
Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.
Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.
You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.
But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary.
It depends on your ability to integrate.
And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.
The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.
You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.
This community makes you feel immediately comfortable.
They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.
The group is familiar. It’s home.
It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.
With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.
But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.
You must migrate into unknown territories.
Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort
This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.
In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.
But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.
Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.
Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees.
They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.
They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.
They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.
As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.
You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.
Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.
Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.