Communtiy spirit kills homesickness
By Jill Kristal
I remember a small town in Portugal. We were sitting on a bench in the empty town square. As dusk approached the little square became a hub of activity. People came out of houses and office buildings. Young people, children, the elderly - they came alone, as couples, as groups and as families. They visited with one another, mingling, talking, laughing. Young people spoke with old people, adolescents stopped to play with small children. People knew each other and seemed to be enjoying being together without further purpose or goal.
I thought back to my suburban upbringing - track housing, fenced-in yard, station wagon and then looked to my current life, in London. I realised that, in this village, people possessed a sense of community, the notion of belonging and being part of something larger than oneself. Participating in an community, with all its social politics, allowed these individuals to maintain a connection to the greater fabric of life.
Though we may not be part of a community like the one described above, as expatriates, regardless of where we have come from, we have had to leave behind many groups of which we were part and as newcomers must face the task of creating something from scratch to help us feel that we belong.
Newcomers struggle with the pain of communities left behind and experience strong needs to establish themselves and make connections in their new environment. Longer term residents struggle with maintaining a sense of belonging in a transient environment. For all expats, there are questions about getting to know the local culture: do we make an effort to make friends with locals; how do we do this; how much effort do we invest; how easy is it; and will the locals want to be friends with us?
Betty Carter, a noted family therapist, has addressed the issue of community involvement and its importance to our lives She describes people without connection to the larger world as "little islands in an alien sea of strangers." This seems to be a perfect description of expats just off the boat (or plane) and suggests a potential empty ocean for longer term residents.
A survey undertaken by the American Counselling Center, an organisation in the UK providing services to American expats, explored the initial adjustment experience to life in the UK and highlighted the degree to which we struggle with being 'little islands.' Overwhelmingly, the respondents stated that it was the lack or loss of connections to other people that caused the most significant emotional reactions; feelings of loneliness depression and homesickness.
Conversely, establishing connections outside the home and office provided great satisfaction, feelings of well being and a sense of being settled. These results underscore what seems to be a basic need we human beings have to reach beyond our own lives and those of our immediate families to join with the outside world.
Arriving as expats in a new country we immediately become part of the expatriate community. The potentials for developing this aspect of community are enormous and varied. School communities can offer numerous ways to become involved. Joining clubs, interest groups, sports and religious organisations are a few great ways to begin, but joining is not enough; volunteer, speak up, be active.
If your overseas stay is beyond two years it is worthwhile to seek out ways of meeting local people. This requires more effort but locals don't relocate as frequently as expats which means longer term connections and decreased feelings of being transient.
A job, if possible in your country, daunting though the hunt may be, will provide professional connections and access to locals. Attend community meetings, go along to street fairs and participate in proposed changes to your neighborhood or local council. Home owning can be another option for longer term residents as it helps to establish commitment to a place which in turn can influence the desire and willingness to become part of the community.
Being part of something larger than our own narrow focus can provide fulfilment of emotional, intellectual and physical needs. With community comes a feeling of belonging, an affinity with people who share similar ideas, values or goals. We can derive a sense of meaning or purpose to our lives. We can gain knowledge and have impact on issues in ways we could not do on our own.
In sum, all of us need to feel that we belong and that we are connected in some way to the larger world. Human beings are not meant to exist in isolation. Community, in whatever form it takes, helps us to achieve this.
How to? Read other's experiences. Find useful advice on shipping, immigration, residence permits, visas and more.
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