When you move to a foreign country, many things will be different than in your home country. The people may speak a different language, their customs and food won’t be the same as back home. They may look different, and the way they do things might not make sense to you. You may be tempted to think that your ways, your customs, are superior and that this new land and their ways just don’t measure up. If so, you may choose to live in a community of people just like you, where you can speak your own language, both literally and figuratively. This is a perfectly natural way of dealing with the unknown. But, by not integrating into the new culture, you may be cheating yourself. Learning and experiencing the differences of living in another culture can be a great adventure.
Integration doesn’t have to be all or nothing; it’s really a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you will find expats who move to a foreign country but choose to live in “gringo enclaves.” Their experience with the locals may be limited to their housekeeper and gardener. They shop almost exclusively at the upscale markets that carry the imported products that they are used to from back home. They get together with others from their own part of the world for cocktails and to discuss how “they” do everything wrong here. They don’t take public transportation, nor do they use the public hospitals. They only speak their native tongue and refuse to learn the local language. In fact, they don’t understand why everyone just doesn’t speak English. Their experience of the culture is purely tangential and they make every effort to preserve their own habits and customs. They live in a self-imposed though usually high-end “ghetto” of sorts, where it is safe and familiar and nothing out of the ordinary is required of them. In a sense, they tried to take their lives back home and transplant them, intact, somewhere else.
On the other end of the spectrum are the expats who choose to immerse themselves in the local culture. They choose places to live where there are not large groups of expats, and in fact, may not socialize much with fellow expats. They learn the language and develop friendships with their neighbors. They take part in community events, contributing their time, energy, and, perhaps, money in local causes and activities. They are invited to their neighbors’ birthday parties, weddings, and holiday celebrations. They shop local and have discovered lots of new favorite things.
And in between the two ends of the spectrum, there are all the other degrees of integration. It’s not all or nothing. You can take small steps. But to integrate into a new culture requires a certain degree of humility. You have to be willing to accept that different doesn’t necessarily mean inferior and that your way of doing things isn’t the only way, and might not be the best way in the local culture.
And it also requires some courage. As Paul always says, living in a foreign country can be the richest, most rewarding experience of your life, but you have to let it. It can be an adventure if you are willing to learn what the new culture can teach you. You have to be willing to be like a child again and to learn from everything around you. You have to be willing to try to speak foreign words and get over your fear of looking foolish. Start with basic greetings. Smile at people you pass in the streets and shopkeepers with whom you do business. Look for common ground. And remember, you are the foreigner here. You are the one with the obligation to try to fit in, adapt, and maybe even contribute to your new neighbors.
The Free Dictionary defines integration as “the bringing of people of different racial or ethnic groups into unrestricted and equal association.” To me, unrestricted means without barriers. Language can be one of those barriers to integration, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent one. Our friends, Tom and Marcia, moved from the U.S. to a small village in the mountains of Costa Rica where they are the only expats. They are learning Spanish and, while their language skills are far from perfect, they don’t let it stop them from trying to communicate. And they are rewarded by a richer experience and the appreciation of their new friends for their efforts. “Be more than a spectator,” says Tom. “Join in…Don’t just study Spanish, speak it! It’s natural to be afraid of making a mistake, but get over it and just speak…When you don’t understand, just say so. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid. You will make a lot of mistakes, but it won’t be long until people are praising how much you understand…If all else fails a shrug and a smile always works.” After more than four years of living in Costa Rica, Paul and I are still taking Spanish lessons. It’s a process; as they say here, poco a poco (little by little). We are nowhere close to being fluent. But we didn’t come to another country to have only English-speaking friends. We are at the point where we do have Tico friends and can carry on conversations in Spanish. We don’t understand everything, but can usually get the general idea of what they are saying.
So, my best advice is to resist the temptation to be ethnocentric – try not to judge this new culture by the values and standards of your home culture. Learn some Spanish. Get to know some Ticos. Be courageous and humble. And have the time of your life!
- On Integration: Living in Costa Rica, by Tom Bunker
- 10 Ways to Fit In When You Retire in Costa Rica, by Tom Bunker