Acceptable Expat Bubbles?

One of the most annoying and troubling (for me) fixtures of our year in Uganda was the expat bubble. If you are unfamiliar with the expat bubble, perform the following mental exercise: Picture a country; any country is fine. Now imagine some sort of social occasion taking place in said country. Finally, insure that almost nobody at this occasion is from the country in question. That is the expat bubble.

What annoyed me about such occasions in Uganda was the inefficiency: why travel to Africa just to hang out with other Americans and Europeans? And what troubled me was the vaguely colonial feel of it.

Speke, Grant and Baker’s expedition, 1860s

But for some reason, it took me much longer to recognise, much less be troubled, that many of the parties/soirees/outings I’ve had in London were peopled overwhelmingly by non-Brits. Somehow that didn’t feel like an expat bubble. There are, of course, many ways to justify this:

1. London is a global city. Of course most of the people I hang out with are from somewhere else.

2. This is the new Europe! Until leaders like David Cameron all do something stupid, the UK and its EU mates no longer exist as walled-off fiefdoms.

And of course there are all the justifications that explain expat bubbles anywhere else in the world: people who are away from their home country are more eager for new friends and networks and thus find each other more easily than content, established locals; expats are generally having an experience more similar to other expats than to locals and thus can relate more easily, etc.

Nevertheless, just as I felt a bit weird talking about Uganda in Uganda with a group of entirely non-Ugandans, I do sometimes feel a bit absurd doing the same thing in Britain, even if there are no colonial overtones.

So I pose a question to all the expats, where’er ye be:

Do you generally feel a compulsion to include more ‘locals’ in your friend group, or do you think it’s perfectly acceptable to have most of your friends be other expats (for the reasons above, or others)?



3 responses to “Acceptable Expat Bubbles?

  1. I’m facing the same challenge in Madrid as I live with English-speakers and my primary group of friends are Americans here. Like you guys, the non-Americans I often socialize with are also expats – Brits, French, Germans, Belgians. However, I find myself abandoning my expat friends on a moment’s notice if a Spaniard calls to hang out, which sometimes feels like a type of shallow discrimination. I sometimes wonder if this is maybe because a lot of the adventurous Spaniards that I would connect with are doing what I’m doing: living in a different country.

  2. I think that it’s necessary to have some expat friends who can relate to your experience and agree with you on the oddities of the country. However, it’s healthy to limit time spent exclusively with them. It’s best of the group never becomes a bubble, but rather a group of people who want to share culture and experiences with the locals. Believe me, there’s safety in numbers. Put one American in the middle of another country and people think, “What a strange person. She has problems,” but put two people there with the same quirks, and suddenly people say, “Ahhh. Maybe it’s cultural.”

  3. For some expats in some countries language may be a factor–after living their work/school life in another language, they may just want to relax socially and not think what their next word will be. The same holds true for locals who might not be so comfortable in English when an expat isn’t fluent in the local language.
    And in some countries/cultures it’s just harder to get to know locals socially–it’s just not done to invite “strangers” home, particularly if it may not even be custom to be on a first-name basis with long-time co-workers or neighbors. In some countries even talking at work with a colleague of the other gender (much less a foreigner) could cause gossip or worse.

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