Human beings are wired for connection. Even a hermit needs a crowd to get away from. Why can it be so difficult then to find the place we belong? Especially expats may be struggling with this question on a regular basis.
We don't want to offend anyone. When we arrive in a new country, we learn about customs, the language, and where not to put our hands or feet. It's a miracle when we find a local we get on with, and who likes us, too.
Brené Brown says,
True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.
The first challenge is being yourself. When you have to contort who you are, you might fit in. Like when you learn a new language or remember not to grab food with your left hand or show the soles of your shoes in some countries. It's hard enough standing up for what you believe in in your native land. Outside of your own culture, when you're depending on other peoples' good will, there are more variables at play. Adapting to different practices may help you fit in, but fitting in isn't the same as belonging.
Sometimes, even fitting in isn't an option. As my 6-foot blonde German friend and I discovered when we joined about 20 Indians at a birthday party. We literally and figuratively stood out. If you look different, it's easy to expect differences. If you look like everyone else, it becomes more difficult to explain our cultural differences.
The second challenge is taking your self-worth off the table. Whether you learn that language or not, you are still a person worth of love and belonging. Just because you put your foot in your mouth (figuratively speaking) doesn't mean you have no right to be there. Everybody makes mistakes, and yes, as expats, some mistakes cost us dearly. You always have the choice to learn from the mistake and move on, try to do better next time. I'm willing to bet you're not the first nor the last one to make mistakes. You are still worthy of love and belonging.
The third challenge is knowing why we want to belong. Why are you wanting to fit in with this family, group, or organization? Are you maybe hoping to gain something other than the group is offering? Knowing why you want to belong can be helpful to understand what you're expecting to gain from the group, and what you are willing to contribute in return. If the best part of cooking class is getting to eat in the end, you don't need a group. Invite some friends, find recipes online, and try them at home.
Dr. Brown says that fitting in is the primary barrier to belonging, because generally, you have to change something about yourself to make yourself fit. I think in the case of expats, there's a lot to be said to appreciate and respect other cultures, and make an effort to learn. But as I hope these three challenges illustrate, your self-worth should never be on the line.
Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
If you're new around here, welcome. If you're an expat, know that you belong to the exquisite phenomenal outstandingly awesome club that is made up of millions of other expats, going through the same change process. You're not alone.
Image by Aussigall, Flickr, Creative Commons License.