I see it in my community and I have done it myself: staying close to what is familiar and known because it feels comfortable. Wether it is nationality, language, age or family size, we tend to stick together with those who are very similar to us. We like being in our bubble.
As expats, we’re fortunate to travel extensively and to meet many people from all walks of life. At the same time, it is easy for us to stay with the same crowd and miss out on opportunities to connect with other circles. I am culprit of this. Just last night when my husband suggested to try a Syrian restaurant I suggested to stay in our neighborhood and go to the new pizza place instead. It made me wonder, why not take the opportunity to embrace something new or different?
Diversity seems to be a popular topic in the present-day. Whether it is in the political sphere, in the media or in private conversations, we refer a lot to diversity mainly in the form of ethnicity. But what exactly is the definition of diversity and how are we as expats parents, friends, coworkers or neighbors embracing it (or not)?
Diversity is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as:
“ the condition of having or being composed of differing elements (…) especially : the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization”*
Isn’t that interesting? The word that stands out for me in this definition is inclusion. Diversity sounds like a word that refers to difference; but in this definition it identifies itself as a part of a bigger something.
In recent times I’ve come to realize that embracing diversity doesn’t only mean befriending people from other nationalities. It also means accepting those with different political views as well. To give you an example, in a recent family lunch someone said to me: “Did you noticed that you just used the word “____________ “ and “friend” in the same sentence?” He was referring to the friend I was talking about who voted for a different political party. I said: “Yes, I did. I think change starts with me and I don’t want to be a part of the ongoing division between people. My friend had personal reasons to vote the way she did, but that doesn’t make her think or act the way others do. In fact, she took me under her wing when I first moved to Jordan.”
There was an uncomfortable silence afterwards and I wanted to keep explaining myself, but he changed the subject. And even though I felt good about what I said, I was also uncomfortable about not having his approval. Isn’t that funny?
In the ongoing conversations about diversity, we have heard experts say that humans naturally fear the unfamiliar and that we tend to reject what’s foreign. During a solo trip I did to Tunisia in my early 20s, I was given the great gift of being stranded in its capital, Tunis for a whole week. My trip had just ended and I was heading back to Madrid, my home at that time. My Spanish student visa was being issued, but the papers I had with me to prove that I was going through the process were not sufficient for the airport authorities to let me leave. I didn’t know anyone there except for Abdel, our local tour guide.
Thanks to Abdel, I found a family who agreed to take me in for a few days while my paperwork would be ready. Spending that extra week in the house of strangers was the best experience I could have had in the whole trip. My fears subsided when I realized how kind and generous local Tunisians were. The fears I had about them were based on ignorance and scary news.
Today I find myself living in that region and if I make the effort, I can see that same generosity in local strangers that offer me warm tea when I visit their shops or in the people that help me out when I’m looking for directions. I see it too with the native friends I am fortunate to have. But to experience all this, I need to leave the bubble and appreciate what is different around me.
So here are some ideas to help you spend time outside the expat comfort zone. Are there local festivals or religious ceremonies that are open to the public? Is there a cause that interests you that could help you connect with local organizations? Check these out!
Volunteer at Habitat for Humanity - Joining a local family or community can be an enriching experience to see another way of living, plus you’ll be working together towards a common goal. If you live in Jordan, this is their site.
Join a musical group or choir - Music is an important part of cultures around the world, and according to a study by the Oxford University, it can also help you make new friends quicker.
Participate in activities in a different part of town - Music and film festivals are a way to get to know local artists. They usually take place in different venues, either outdoor or indoor. This summer for example, Jordan will be hosting its annual Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts, which includes music, poetry and film by local Arab talents.
Reach out to special interest groups and join their activities i.e. vegans, collectors, foodies, minorities. If you’re interested in getting to know local artists, why not take a class? I’ve signed up to learn Arabic geometrical patterns with Jordanian artist and designer, Ruba Abu Shousheh. See if there’s a specific skill you’d like to learn and give it a try!
Living in foreign countries has a profound effect in the way we think and see things. We’re probably not the same persons we used to be when we were living back home. These countries and their traditions have probably shaped and opened our views and hearts, but so have the people that surrounded us each time.
I hope that as expats we represent the friendliness and kindness of our own countries and that by embracing diversity more, we inspire others to be more open and curious as well. What are your thoughts? Do you have any tips on how to invest more time bonding with your host country? I’d love to know. Please leave your comments in the section below.
Thank you for being here. You might also like this article I wrote on how to connect with other expats outside an office environment.
"diversity" Merriam-Webster.com. 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com (21 July 2019).