Moving to a new city can be difficult, but when you change country entirely, the prospect can be daunting. Not only will you need to learn how to live in a new neighbourhood, you’ll also need to assimilate into a new culture, and maybe even learn a different language.
Even if you’re brand new, however, the last thing you want to be is a tourist in your own home. When you first arrive, knowing what to fit in is difficult.Traps lie in wait at every turn, and while you might find many similarities between your old home and your new one, the differences may make you feel like an outsider.
Settling in quickly and getting to know the local customs and lifestyle are a big part of beginning to feel less like a visitor, and more like a resident.
As you stay longer, toeing the line between living like a local and maintaining your own cultural identity can be even trickier. Visiting friends and family might cause difficulties, or you may start to feel disconnected from your home country.
There’s plenty you can do to help yourself strike that balance between newcomer and ‘going native’. We’ve looked at tips and techniques to help you pick up the local habits so you can walk like an Egyptian, drink tea like a Brit or hail a cab like a New Yorker.
Find a table in a cafe, sit yourself down on a park bench, or even find a spot in a busy train station, and just watch the world go by. People watching is rewarding in and of itself, but if you’re new to a city, it’s educational, too.
Every city has its customs, its unwritten rules about which side of the street you walk down, how you deal with the bill in a cafe or restaurant, or what you’re allowed to do in the park.
In Australia, you walk on the left. In Norway, you walk on the right. In London, you walk wherever there’s space. In some places, you pay at the counter, while in others you leave money on the table. In some parks sitting on the grass is encouraged, while in others it’s strictly forbidden.
Become a keen observer of the people around you. If you can figure out the patterns and start to follow them, you’ll be one step closer to fitting in.
Make local friends
While expat communities and friends from home can be a good first step to connecting with people when you first arrive, it’s essential to branch out as quickly as possible.
Local friends can help you get to know the city better, and get you away from the tourist traps even more quickly.
They’re also a great source of information about local customs, and good friends who will help you learn how to fit in.
Better yet, if learning the local lingo is one of your goals, there’s nothing like fluent friends to help speed you on your way. They’ll teach you parts of the language you’ll never learn in the classroom, and help you sound less like a textbook.
While making local friends might seem like a daunting task, there are plenty of ways to get out and meet people. Don’t be afraid to push out on your own to start with, and keep an eye out for events and activities where meeting new people is part of the fun.
There are all sorts of things long-term residents of your new home know about living in their city. Be curious. If you’re not sure about something, don’t be afraid to ask.
Some essentials of local life that can be quickly understood by asking questions. Not sure if it’s ok to jaywalk? Don’t know how to use the buses? Unsure of tipping etiquette? Someone will know the answer, whether it’s your new friends or someone nearby.
And you don’t need to limit yourself to life’s essentials. Ask people about their favourite place to eat, or how the school system works, or what that building is over there, or what the locals do when they want to have a good time.
Asking questions will make you more familiar with the people and the life of your new home, and take you one step closer to feeling less like a tourist yourself.
Everyone knows that tourists go to the big main attractions, stay on the main streets, visit the restaurants with English menus, and stick to the well-trodden paths of their predecessors.
If you don’t want to be a tourist in your new home, you’ll have to branch out.
It’s easier to leave the tourist trail than you’d think. Sometimes, just one street over from the main tourist drag is an equally bustling local market. Step off into the quiet streets. Challenge yourself to eat at a restaurant with no English signage.
A good way to get yourself going is to set yourself a challenge to do new things. Go to a new place to eat every day. Find a different park. Go for a walk in the opposite direction. Get a bike and extend your reach even further.
The better you know your new city, the more at home you’ll start to feel. You never know what’s just around the corner unless you look.
Do your research
You can do a great deal of the leg work before you’ve even touched down in your new city.
While a travel guide might not be the best way to learn how to stay away from tourist attractions, it can give you some tips on local customs and getting around.
Mine your network for knowledge. Someone might be able to put you in touch with their friend who already lives there.
The internet is also a great source of advice on just about anywhere in the world. Finding out in advance all the boring details of bank accounts, rental properties, and insurance can save you a lot of time and trouble when you arrive.
Also, knowing some of the basic ground rules for life in your new city will help you settle in more quickly, so you can concentrate on the fun parts.
Eat like a local
A restaurant that looks familiar, with English names for dishes and a menu sporting all your favourites from home, might be tempting. But if you really want to step away from tourist life, you’ll need to back away from those familiar signs and head somewhere else.
With a little exploring, you’ll begin to be able to read the local food options. Maybe everyone eats in a place that looks like a school cafeteria with plastic chairs and tables. Or it could be in dark bars, or outside on the street. The locals might even just prefer to go to the supermarket and put together a picnic.
Find out what the locals like to eat, leave the main tourist strips behind, and look for some mealtime adventures. You can practice your language skills and gain a taste for your new favourite food.
Chances are it’ll be better for your budget, too.
Adjust to the time zone
Adjusting to a new time zone doesn’t just mean setting your clock to the right time. Different places run on different hours, and if you want to be in sync with your new city, you’ll need to adjust.
In Spain the day starts late and ends even later, and 10pm is a perfectly normal time to meet your friends for dinner, while in the Netherlands 6pm is more likely. In Morocco, many shops close between 1pm and 4pm.
Matching your daily rhythms with the city around you will help you assimilate.
And it’s not just about when things happen. It’s also important to understand how punctual you’re expected to be. In some parts of the world, such as Germany or Japan, 10am means 10am, or more realistically 9:55. Some cultures might expect to wait 5 minutes. Elsewhere however, a delay of 15 or even 20 minutes is considered normal, and almost expected.
Learning these rules will help you to avoid being unintentionally rude or insulted by someone else’s tardiness.
Show your friends your city
Getting a visit from your friends and family is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it can feel like they cramp your style. Maybe they don’t speak the language, or you feel obliged to take them to see all the famous sights.
Chances are, however, that what they want to see the most is you. So if your friends come to town, show them your city. Take them on a tour through your favourite local haunts. Don’t worry if they don’t speak the language, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to practice translation.
Sharing your new life with visitors can be hugely rewarding. Showing them the ropes can help you feel great about how far you’ve come.
Plus, it is a good excuse to see some of those tourist attractions you might not have been to yet.
While the reminder of home can be bittersweet, maintaining good relationships with your friends and family both at a distance and close up can help you cope with the everyday difficulties of living in a different country.
Share your own culture
Whether it’s Thanksgiving from America, an Italian Christmas feast, Swedish Midsummer or an Australian barbecue, sharing your own cultural traditions helps you bring a little slice of home with you.
What’s more, it’s a great way to give back to all the people who’ve been good enough to share their own culture with you.
If you’re living in a foreign country, chances are it won’t matter how long you stay there; some part of you will always be from far away. Whether it’s an accent, your manners, or even just your fundamental approach to life, a piece of you won’t fit in.
It’s nothing to worry about, though. Modern multiculturalism is founded on the ideal of sharing. Even while you do your best to behave like a local, your hold on your home country gives you the opportunity to bring a little bit of it with you.
Whether it’s organising a national day, treating your friends to a birthday song from your homeland, or just talking about the differences between your customs, bringing a slice of familiarity into your expat life can make you feel more at home.
Be a tourist
It may seem counterproductive, but sometimes, being a tourist really is a rewarding way to see the best of what your new home has to offer.
Most big tourist attractions have become popular for a reason, and exploring them in your own time when they are right on your doorstep is too good an opportunity to pass up.
Chances are you could even take some of your local friends with you.
Being a tourist in your own town is becoming increasingly popular. Many locals will never have been to their city’s most famous tourist attractions, and a fair number might not know much, if anything, about their home town’s rich heritage and culture.
One of the best part of living in another city is having the opportunity to really get to know another place, another way of life, in all its guises. So if you really want to know your new city and feel at home, nothing is off limits.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer