After 12 years as an expatriate in Somalia, Kenya, and primarily Djibouti, I have seen expatriates come and go, thrive and struggle, engage in the community and hunker down behind high walls. Over time I have noticed some patterns, things that thriving expats tend to do, or not do. Could be here, could be in other countries.
They don’t complain. Djibouti is one of the hottest, driest countries on the planet. Temperatures can soar over 120 degrees in the summer and less than six inches of rain falls per year. With 60% unemployment, poverty is rampant. Garbage has almost no place to go and lies in heaping, smoking piles in the center of neighborhoods.
This list simply shows that there is plenty to complain about in Djibouti. However. There is plenty to complain about in every country. What marks the successful expat in Djibouti is that they don’t complain. Not because they don’t see the challenging aspects but because they make a conscious choice to focus on something else. They see the mountain peaks over the piles of garbage. They see the generosity of a community helping each other survive and thrive.
They learn a little language. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But why not learn some greetings, some leave takings, how are you, what’s your name…? It simply shows respect and interest in the local environment, a willingness to invest some time and energy and an acknowledgement that this expat is open to being a foreigner, open to new experiences.
They aren’t easily intimidated by the unknown. This is evident by their willingness to learn a few words in the local language. It is also evident by their willingness to ask questions and cultivate curiosity. They aren’t afraid of the market or the bus or the food they don’t recognize.
They work hard and do their jobs well. Successful expats aren’t tourists. They understand their role in the community, whether it is as a businessperson or as a development worker (and development workers have taken the time to understand what is actually needed/desired before imposing their own ideas), and they strive to do this work in ways that make sense in the local context.
They stop working and enjoy the country. Successful expats are able to act like tourists from time to time. They vacation in country and enjoy exploring the place in which they have landed.
They adapt and adopt local customs. They wave a local flag on independence day or develop a craving for baguettes directly related to the honking of the breadman’s horn when he turns down their street. They learn to eat with their right hand only and appreciate the ability to drive on either side of the street or to stop right outside the rotisserie chicken stand, not get out of the car, and purchase the chicken. Kind of like a drive-thru but with a conversation with the chicken man that includes inquiring after his twins and his health and his work.
They are authentic and maintain their own customs. They still celebrate their own independence day. They still eat turkey (if they can find one and if they are American) on Thanksgiving. They don’t pretend to be someone they aren’t but they don’t pretend that they still live in their passport country. They are expert chameleons and even enjoy this ability to transform multiple times in a single day.
They develop friendships with the local community. Maybe the breadman, maybe the chicken man, maybe the neighbor of the cashier or the fellow jogger or the coworker. These people usher the expat into the local context and deepen the expat’s understanding of it.
They develop friendships with the expat community. The expat community is a great resource (turkeys?!) and can be a fascinating mix of people from all over the world. There are stories, unique perspectives, same-aged children who understand what it is like to be a Third Culture Kid, and people who share your passion for American football or obscure novels.
They have an adventurous spirit, even if they have to force it. I don’t think I have a naturally adventurous spirit and often have to force it. But I certainly married an adventurous spirit and since that makes living abroad so much more interesting, I go with it. Try that strange food, use that language that feels so awkward on your tongue, go to the local wedding, climb down into the volcano.
There are so many possible suggestions for how to thrive while living abroad. These are just a few things I have observed and experienced and been stretched into.