The Expat Trap

Avoid a life on the sidelines of the country you move to

The world is moving all the time. Economies are changing and more and more people are upping sticks to move to more profitable horizons for work or to live permanently. Especially in the UAE, most of the workforce is made up of expats.

When I first moved to Greece, I prepared myself as best as I could. It’s not the second time I have moved countries. The first time was when I moved from Pakistan to the UK, aged 14. I thought I was prepared then, seeing as I spoke English as my first language.

But I was wrong. Language is only one part of life in a new country. The other part is culture. Culture can encompass all kinds of aspects, from humour to socially acceptable behavior, taboos and TV viewing habits. I may have spoken English, but I quickly found myself in a strange no-man’s land where I could completely understand all the jokes, but I didn’t know how to respond. Was I supposed to laugh now? Or was I supposed to be shocked?

This person is asking me who my favorite member of such and such celebrity TV show is – how do I respond without making it clear that I have no idea what she’s talking about? It’s fair to say that my peers were less than kind about my lack of such knowledge.

So when I moved to Greece, I was more ready and in some ways the second move was easier than the first. I knew now that it was going to take a long time to settle in, that the first year is the hardest, that you can get by without learning the language but you will never really integrate if you don’t.

I still spent months and months not knowing when to laugh at a joke. Very often I could follow the entire joke until the punchline, which was usually something culturally relevant, a colloquial reference or a play on words. Everyone would be laughing and I was still be translating in my head. Sometimes I would just laugh even though I hadn’t understood a thing, because to admit otherwise felt like throwing a spanner in the works of social discourse.

This brings me to a bit of advice I got very early on when I moved to Greece. I can’t remember who it was who told me this, but I remember being earnestly told that I would find it very hard to make real, Greek friends. Plenty of other foreigners, for sure, but Greeks were apparently next to impossible to count as close friends.

So is it true that a foreigner in a new country can never truly integrate? I know that I will most likely always be referred to as the wife of my husband, and that most of the people I know come from his social circle. His phone rings all the time. Mine rings mostly when he calls me.

But as far as integrating, the Greeks have been nothing but welcoming to me and yes, I have made friends of my own. The trick is to not fall into the expat trap. The most natural thing to do when we move to a new place is to seek out others like us. Human beings like to fit into a crowd and when we suddenly find ourselves the odd ones out, our first instinct is to find a way to feel comfortable again.

I found that the trouble with the expat community was that they worked hard at defining themselves by how un-Greek they were, rather than trying to find similarities. After a handful of these gatherings, listening to these people berate their host country, its customs and traditions, expensive jewelry clattering on their wrists and earlobes as they counted down how many more years their husband’s work contracts had left on them, I stopped attending.

Greece is not as ethnically diverse as, say, the UK. I won’t even get started on the residency and nationality laws in place. But I will say this: integration is possible to a very large degree. Learn the language, respect the customs and for goodness sake, avoid the expats cocktail evenings. Your life will be richer for it.


  1. Hi Omaira,

    Interesting read. I’m an “expat”, even though I don’t quite like the term, and I definitely have fallen into the expat trap. My issue is that I cannot seem to be making a British friend, (I live in London). I don’t really understand why, I guess it’s a problem of cultural differences… Perhaps it’ll change in the future, who knows?

  2. A few things I learned living and working here and there around the world:
    1. Be a good listener. When a native asks you how you like their country, take the opportunity to first compliment, and then say something like, “But I’m puzzled by….” You’ll learn interesting things that way.
    2. Understand the culture’s attitude about time. In Austria, for example, if someone says, “See you at 7:00” expect to see them precisely on the dot. In Latin America, it more likely means anytime in the next three hours.
    3.. Be trustworthy. As a foreigner, you’re a suspicious character who doesn’t know how to act. Being less than trustworthy will only deepen the stereotype about you.

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