Expat Life: Tips to Integrate in a New Culture

Moving to a new country can surface a range of emotions: the bubbling excitement in the wake of a new adventure; the five senses acutely stimulated, anxiously ready to explore the new environment; the anticipation of new experiences and meeting new friends. Relocating can also instill fear or dread, walking into the unknown and unsure of what to expect. It can be daunting to start over from scratch, having to relearn even the simplest of things like the location of the nearest grocery store. Expat life has so many complex facets.

iamsterdam Jessica LipowskiLast week’s #CultureTrav topic (read the recap) with founder Nicolette and our guest host Cherrie led me to reflect on my own life as an expat. Whether you’re an expat already or thinking about becoming one, chatters shared some great tips on expat life, including how to make new friends and how to turn a negative emotion like homesickness into a positive. Every week, the chat is an inspirational and educational experience. Thank you to everyone in the #CultureTrav community for making the chat and group so special.

In February 2011, I moved to the Netherlands and have been living in the country ever since. We lived in Utrecht for a year and in Amsterdam now for three. Over the last four years, I’ve experienced a range of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade my time abroad for anything. Below are three tips I’ve learned along the way to help expats integrate into a new culture.

1. Establish a routine. Think about your life back “home” and what you used to do on a daily basis. For instance, if you used to work out or do yoga, search for a gym or studio. Perhaps you always grabbed a cup of coffee on the way to work. Find a favorite coffee house en route. Make new friends and expand your social circle (see point three). For me, a routine is and was very important. The first two weeks I was in the Netherlands, I hadn’t started my job yet and felt extremely lost and alone. Combined with the overwhelming emotion of moving to a new country where I could not yet speak the language and 4000 miles away from my family, a routine helped stabilize me.

2. Learn the language. It is handy to know at least a few basic sentences. Learning the language will help you make friends, ask for directions and in a worst case scenario, in an emergency situation. Pick up vocabulary using online translators or dictionaries and enhance the process by listening to the radio, watching television and interacting with the locals. I would also recommend taking lessons or a class, if you are able. I remember when I first arrived I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. I stated my name and what I needed in English, and the woman just gave me a blank stare. Even though I was in a small village at the time, I remember coming home and sobbing, wondering what I was doing in this strange land. How was I ever going to speak Dutch? I started taking lessons and now four years later, between lessons, business events, numerous conversations and asking for help, I feel quite comfortable with the Dutch language.

3. Make friends. In university, it was really easy for me to meet friends. I was involved in a handful of activities already, which helped greatly. When I first moved to the Netherlands, I knew no one other than my partner, Matthijs. Of course, his family and friends were eager to meet me and we have a relationship, but there is something to be said about going out and finding a support system of your own. In the beginning, I had no idea where to start. I developed close relationships with my colleagues, many of whom I am still friends with today, but over the years I’ve picked up new tips and tricks to meet new people. Join meet-up groups or a sports team. Take a class or two, perhaps to learn the local language or a hobby like painting, or become a regular somewhere. Find other activities you’re interested in, like festivals or volunteering at a local organization, for instance an animal shelter, food bank or nursing home. In this way, you will meet people with similar interests, which can potentially lead to lifelong friendships.

Regardless, make sure to keep an open mind. Living abroad is genuinely a wonderful experience, a lifestyle that exposes you to new cultures and different perspectives. Embrace it and dive right in. Additionally, when in doubt, do as the locals do. See how they’re living and how they act. How do they commute? What do they eat? What do they wear? And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Are you an expat? I’d love to hear about your experience! Please feel free to share your story in the comments section or provide a link to your blog/website.

6 replies
  1. Elizabeth Hampton
    Elizabeth Hampton says:

    Hi Jessica,
    This is a great and informative article. Living as an expat, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning the language. This is my third time living overseas and believe me, you will be so much happier if you can communicate and make friends. This helps give you roots and makes you feel like part of a community. In our current town of Joinville, Brazil, there are very few expats so we must speak Portuguese and make Brazilian friends. I also think having local friends makes the experience of living and traveling abroad so much more meaningful! I still have some amazing Korean friends I keep in touch with from when I taught English in South Korea. My Korean friends really saved me from much loneliness, and taught me how to navigate such a complex culture. Thanks again for your great article.

  2. Jessica Lipowski
    Jessica Lipowski says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your experiences! I am happy to hear the article resonated with you. I think having local friends makes the experience of living and traveling abroad more meaningful, as well. It is great to hear you still keep in touch with many of your friends from previous locations.


  3. Meghan Peterson
    Meghan Peterson says:

    Great post Jessica! Very helpful too for those who are new to this expat living life. I hope it’s much easier for people to find support with all the FB groups and pages set up specifically to help people find friends and events that they can go to as an expat in a new country. Way back in 1998, I found it very hard going with zero family support and zero friends. Thanks goodness for so many amazing avenues online nowadays! And there are lots of books out there too that are helpful. I think your advice about keeping an open mind is also my top tip to people moving abroad or living an expat life. It’s so important and I’ve met so many people who have not been able to do that and likewise so many people who do keep an open mind are reap the benefits of living abroad. Found you on #MyGlobalLife

    • Jessica Lipowski
      Jessica Lipowski says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Meghan! I think the FB groups, pages and meet-up sites really do help expats acclimate to a new environment. You are very brave for moving abroad in 1998, without that support system. Imagine if you only had the resources we have now back then.

  4. Neil
    Neil says:

    Hey there

    Nice little tips, but just want to add to the point where you mentioned joining meet-up groups. I really enjoy using the Meetup App and they literally have a group for any interest and you can really meet different people that way!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *