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The Need to Belong Is Part of Being Human

InterNations member Ximena, a Chilean expat turned intercultural coach, talks about the powerful need of people to belong — and about how being a foreigner doesn’t have to mean feeling like a stranger.

Our community of foreigners keeps on growing all around the world. As per Mr. Wu Hongbo, UN’s Under Secretary General, the number of migrants worldwide has just hit 232 million. Commonly used words today are expat, TCK (third culture kid), or migrant. For the sake of this article I would like to ask you to acknowledge all foreigners, regardless of their circumstances or reasons for living outside their country of birth or of origin. Everyone has a story!

Two definitions of foreigner from the Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. A person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own;
  2. A person not belonging to a particular place or group; a stranger or outsider.

Becoming a Foreigner

A new project excites you, yet it might also scare you. You get the news of a transfer via your employer, or you decide to move because you have fallen in love with someone in another country. Perhaps you want to learn the language. For some it’s fleeing their country for political reasons and for others it’s following a childhood dream of discovering the world. Whatever the reason, the moment you make that decision or you receive the confirmation and it becomes official, that is the moment your life changes forever.

When I was twelve and moved to Miami, Florida, from Arica, Chile, I had already moved from Santiago to Arica the previous year — and now to another country with another language. I was so excited about the newness of it all, and at the same time I was sad and scared to leave family and friends behind again. I was afraid of not fitting in, not being able to learn the language, not making friends.

That was 38 years ago: since then I have moved many times, travelled a lot and continue to do so as much as I can. I also learned French, which was a great bonus considering the fear I had at first about learning English. Today I am a foreigner even in Chile. But it wasn’t easy settling into the "foreigner" status at 12, and then again at 17, and then again and again, until I finally understood that being a foreigner (definition one) was not the same as being a foreigner (definition two).

Don’t Be a Stranger! Being A Foreigner Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Belong

So yes, change can be exhilarating: the energy is high and positive while you are in the process of planning to meet new people, make new friends and start afresh. But when that takes some time and you begin to tell yourself that you have no time to go out, or you are tired and spend too much time alone, you will feel the excitement fading away and you will begin to settle into your new life as an outsider, as foreigner (2) — a person not belonging to a particular place or group, a stranger or outsider.

Foreigner (2) happens to teens when they transition from childhood to adulthood, and of course it can happen to you even in your own country. It happens very often and to many people even if they don’t talk about it. As an intercultural coach I know about this phenomenon because I experienced it firsthand and because I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where foreigners make up 50% of the population. The feeling of not belonging anywhere is very strong and it brings you to an unfamiliar place, where you feel alone and misunderstood. 

People at home remember your enthusiasm: they remind you of the amazing opportunity you had, but you cannot get the zest back and the reality doesn’t look as amazing as the dream looked. Your energy is low and you just don’t feel too great. This is because humans need to belong, remember this.

If you haven’t found a group of friends or just one friend to take walks with, talk to, play games with, or simply go have a cup of coffee with, you are floating around on your own in a new place. You will continue to feel that something is missing or that something is wrong. You might even blame the place, when in fact it’s you, and you can change it very quickly!

Finding "Your People"

I send my clients to InterNations no matter where they are in the world. I tell them to just go mingle and meet like-minded people as they are mostly going through some of the same things, have recently moved and started new jobs, sometimes ended relationships, and they are feeling just as misplaced. Many — including myself — find a place to belong to and perhaps go hiking, attend a book club group, or join a sailing group, and if they don’t find a group doing something they like, they can create their own.

I suggest you do this while your enthusiasm is high, so plan ahead of a move and schedule some outings. Later it gets harder when you begin to feel the separation and the feeling of not belonging. But if you are already in that place where it’s hard to get out and meet people, I suggest you start from scratch and remember the feeling of enthusiasm you had before moving and pretend to be moving now, no matter how long ago that actually was: go for it and get the zest back as there are people waiting to meet you.

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