Tips for integrating into a new culture

Fish Market
Fish Market by Joachim Beuckelaer (1533–1575)

Even though I’ve spent the last five years living in a foreign country, I have yet to shake the feeling of being an outsider. Part of that is my own stubbornness. Taking steps to embrace my environment is still something I have to consciously work on every day. But here are a few things I try to do that make my surroundings feel a bit more like home.

Get a library card.

Or a gym card. Or a café’s stamp card. Essentially, make your wallet look like you belong in the city. Find a place where you can spend some time when you need to get out of your apartment. In my case, that’s the library, which thankfully has a decent sized section of English books. Even if you’re an introvert like me and get anxiety from interactions with other people, you can learn the basic phrases you need for the necessary transactions, and you’ll start to feel like a true member. And when people see you come back more and more, you’ll start to know more friendly faces in the city.

Explore the nature.

Spend time in parks. You don’t need any language or membership fee to do that. And best of all, you’ll experience the stress-reducing benefits that greenery and open spaces have to offer. It’s easy to get stuck to the computer when you’re studying maps, practicing a new language, or constantly consulting Google Translate. But remember to go outside when you can. If you’re far away from nature, take plenty of walks around whatever environment you’re in and observe the sights and sounds. When you map out the environment with your body (walking, biking, etc.), unfamiliar territory becomes familiar and you’ll start to move around with more confidence.

Try all of the food. 

(Even if it looks funky.)  Soon enough you’ll find your new go-to snack and you’ll blend into the crowds waiting in line at the market. I never thought I would be someone who likes liverwurst. But after seeing everyone else around me eat it, I jumped on the bandwagon. And you know what? It’s tasty. If something looks strange at first, you may be seeing it out of context. Do some research or find a native to explain to you what it is, and maybe how it should be eaten (if it’s not obvious). Of course, you don’t have to like everything, but if people have been eating the food for centuries, it’s worth a shot.

Speak the language.

This is where I preach something I don’t always practice. I’m not talking about just learning the language. But also speaking it. Out loud. So others can hear you. I’m still struggling with this one. Since I spend most of my time with a native speaker, I usually hang back and force my boyfriend to do most of the talking for us, or frankly, for me. If you’re in a similar situation, try to do a few activities by yourself, where you won’t have anyone to fall back on. If you have your “places” (see #1), over time you’ll be able to identify the people who may have more patience with your language struggles.

Give yourself some time and sink away when you need it.

Pushing yourself into new things every day is exhausting. One of the first weekends I lived in the Netherlands, I spent the entire 48 hours inside my apartment. I got dressed, put my shoes on, walked to the front door…and then turned back and crawled into bed. I cried on Skype to my mom about how afraid I was to step outside. It takes time to get used to a new culture, but after a while going outside won’t be so scary. (I can only say that with confidence looking back.) Give yourself some freedom to be homesick, and soon you’ll be recharged to explore some more.

Of course, there’s other more official stuff you have to do to integrate, like registration, health insurance, setting up bank accounts, and other exciting paper forms to fill out. I don’t think I have any advice to offer on this side of things. I’m still in the bureaucratic weeds for our move to Germany, and so far, it sucks.

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