Why Expats Love Community and Struggle to Find it Again

by Jerry Jones on October 22, 2018

I love me some community. Who doesn’t? Am I right?

It’s one of those super-slick buzz words that makes every experience sound better.

“Yeah, we live in a mud hut, have no internet, eat tree moss and get malaria twice a year . . . but the sense of community is amazing. “

“Heck yeah. Sign me up.”

It is by far what expats love most about their life abroad and what they (oh so naively) think they can reproduce when they go home — so they try . . . diligently . . . but they fail . . . miserably.

What’s up with that?

Why is it so hard to recreate that magical sense of camaraderie and connection that seems effortless over there?

 

I have a theory. Here it is.

 

Expat community rises and falls on two key ingredients.

PROXIMITY and NEED.

Let me put it a different way.

 

Community happens when incompetent people get mashed together.

 

It’s how we know we’ve arrived — we need each other in ways that we could never imagine on our home turf.

Simple stuff.

Stupid stuff.

Incredibly uncomplicated, previously no-brainer stuff that we mastered at the age of five is suddenly and painfully beyond our grasp.

Stuff like buying toothpaste.

And using toilets.

And saying words.

We instantly feel like bumbling idiots so we lean on anyone who can empathize. They point us in the right direction and the seeds of community are planted.

They explain the difference between green tea and mint toothpaste — we have a laugh and share a story. They explain the hazards and strategies of local toilets and we find ourselves talking about things that we haven’t even shared with our best friends.

Relationships go deeper quicker because our conversations are fueled by vulnerability.

No one says it out loud — “Hey I’m a bumbling idiot and you seem like a slightly less bumbling idiot, think you could help me out here?” — but that’s the field where community grows.

We huddle up — and we help each other — because we would fall apart if we didn’t.

We move forward together and learn to function at varying degrees of competence but all of us (even the long time vets) are operating at a fraction of the functionality of the average local person.

And THAT my friends, is where the magic happens. Somewhere along that path we actually start loving it to the point that we CHOOSE neediness over self-sufficiency — and it makes perfect sense to everyone around. Why in the world would you go to the store for eggs when your neighbor has nine in their fridge?

It’s a solid system.

And we love it.

So much so that we long for it wherever we go, especially back “home” — but “home” is a different reality.

You’re not a bumbler there.

Scratch that. You’re not supposed to be a bumbler there. You speak the language, you know the culture, you’re HOME for crying out loud . . . which makes the incompetence upon returning all that much more painful.

It’s a shared ache for so many global “returnees” . . . “I miss my community.”

So then, we (oh so naively) come blazing back into our old world armed with our new discoveries, fully prepared to fix the less enlightened . . .  if they would just listen . . . and do everything we tell them . . . and buy houses on the same block . . . and share eggs.

We tend to skip straight to the glorious comradery because we have long since forgotten the mashup of incompetence. It’s not hard to sell but it is nearly impossible to deliver. It’s a slow, painful realization that the whole world doesn’t want to reorganize their lives around our epiphanies about community. People don’t choose incompetence if there are other options and now you have jumped back into the land of the Non-Needies.

It’s awkward for competent, fully functioning, proudly autonomous people to ask for help. Why would you do that?

Go get your own eggs.

The natural consequence of competence is independence which is the flip side of community.

Write this down.

In any transition, it is unfair to compare the end of the last thing to the beginning of the new thing.

It just is.

But we do anyway.

 

Three simple thoughts and I’ll shut up:

 

This is your story — but it’s not ONLY your story. Consider the other angles and the perspectives of the people around you.

Go easy on the unenlightened — transition tends to inflate our sense of “rightness” and make it easy to judge the one’s who “don’t get it.”

Be patiently persistent —  Great community CAN happen again. It will look different (it has to). It may take longer — but it’s worth the intentionality to never give up.

originally posted on The Culture Blend

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About Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com

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