Even a move across the country can lead to culture shock. It has for me. It took me a while to realize it, but six months after a move from one part of Germany to another, I noticed that I was having a vastly different experience. Something was just off. I found that I was trying to recreate something I left, rather than create something new. So my goal for the time I have remaining here is getting to know my new town and make it feel like home. To do that I thought about ways I’ve been successful at integrating, and ways I haven’t.
Here are 20 things that have helped me assimilate into a new community:
1. Meet the neighbors – right away. Our first German town, we met the neighbors within the first week. Our second German town we still haven’t met any neighbors 6 months later.
2. Get out of your house. Everyday. Do something – don’t stay home.
3. Join groups and clubs. Our first German town, I took a yoga class, got my library card, and joined two weekly folk dancing groups. As my German got better, I also served on the Elternbeirat (parent’s council) at the Kindergarten.
4. Have your children participate in a children’s activity. In our first German town the kids took music lessons at the Musikschule (music school), ballet, soccer and Turnen (gymnastics). Initially we only participated on activities on the American base, but it was preventing us from really getting to know our new community.
5. If you and your children are comfortable with it – have them attend the local school. Our children were young enough when we moved here that it wasn’t difficult for them to fit right into the German school system.
6. Try something new EVERY DAY. Big, small, no matter – challenge yourself every day. Use a new word, try a new store, eat something different, or talk to a stranger – anything. It only takes a little effort to expand your comfort zone!
7. Do as much as you can locally. This is especially true for people associated with the military. In my experience, the more you rely on “little America” the less willing you are to integrate yourself.
8. Be willing to let go of your home culture.
9. Be willing to share your home culture.
10. Be willing to truly experience your new culture. Don’t just hit the tourist spots. Find out what the locals do – go there.
11. Be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things – different isn’t wrong, it’s just new.
12. When you don’t understand something ask. When you want to know about a landmark, a tradition – why they call it Bierwurst – ask. People may not know the answer, but they appreciate your curiosity. They may even start to feed you information.
13. Understand and accept the fact that you will always be the outsider. There are things you will never understand.
14. Look at your experience as an extended vacation – don’t let life stop you from experiencing things.
15. If you don’t know the language learn it. As much as you can, as soon as you can. Learn survival phrases first – where you come from, words for groceries, how to make appointments, think of the things you will need immediately and work from there. My first words in German were from the Farmer’s market.
16. Take a language class or find a tutor locally. You will not only learn the language, you will learn the culture and get to know a few more people.
17. Don’t be surprised by the stereotypes people have of you – and try not to live up to them.
18. Acknowledge your own stereotypes. Be willing to lay them aside when people don’t fit into your preconceived notions of them.
19. Find a group that shares your experience. In our first German town, I had a wonderful group of friends from several different nations, who followed their husbands there. We were all far from home, with varying levels of German – and varying levels of English. But we had a common bond. There are expat groups everywhere. They don’t need to come from the same country as you to share your experience, you’re both away from home – that’s a start.
20. The thing I learned was that more important than anything else, you need to create a community. When we left our German town, I felt like I was leaving home. It wasn’t the town itself, it was the community we had created here that made it home. You can make your community anywhere,