Bursting Your Expat Bubble
Updated: Jul 8
Article and Photo by Joshua Van Lare
An overly simplified anecdote and a few tips you've probably already thought of for getting out of your boring, yet pleasurable comfort zone.
“The fact remains that you are not local or native to the culture, so it takes some time, effort, and practice to discover the kind of experiences that will allow you to blend in and observe, or better yet participate in a somewhat authentic way."
I spent a total of five years living in Yangon, Myanmar. Mysterious, genuine, congenial, gritty, resourceful and warm-hearted are all words that come to mind when I think of my favorite city in the world. During that time, I woke up most weekend mornings with the neighborhood roosters and crows. I’d grab my camera and eagerly head out to explore. Often I’d sit at one of the city’s ubiquitous tea shops as I waited for the sun to rise and the condensation on my lens to dissipate. I’d watch and listen. To me, those moments were perfect. I’d sit on a small, flimsy, plastic stool, typically with my knees pressed into my abdomen, slightly restricting my ability to take a deep breath. The smell of burning wood hung in the air. Crackling oil sizzled beneath frying breakfast snacks. I could be wrong, but it seems that our senses are heightened in the early morning hours, when the sun is not quite hot enough to be a distraction.
If I hadn’t been to a particular shop before, the young tea shop boys would laugh and marvel at the big American guy ordering in Burmese. I sensed a genuine appreciation around the fact that I had taken the time to discover a little of their language and culture. My accent wasn’t perfect, but they could tell I was making a real effort. Premier 3 in 1 was my brand (pronounced pree-mee-ya). I’d often add ei kyar kway (ee-cha-quay are delicious fried dough sticks) or samosas (in Myanmar they are more like triangular spring rolls with onions or potatoes inside). I wasn’t exactly part of the woodwork, but I definitely felt immersed enough to enjoy the privilege of witnessing important aspects of Myanmar tea shop culture. I especially enjoyed the playful banter between workers and customers at these small, local shops.
When living abroad, it is often far too easy to become insulated within the expat community. I knew many people who spent weekends at the American club playing softball or the Australian club barbecue. Many people preferred western restaurants, serving familiar food and drink and packed with boisterous people who look and sound like them. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all of these things. I’m not suggesting that one should become some kind of snob who looks down on their own culture, friends and colleagues. However, I am suggesting that because it is so easy to fall into the routines and comforts of ‘home’, one must seek out opportunities to break free from the familiar.
If you intend to gain insight into a culture, beyond that which is superficial, you must seek out experiences with intentionality. The fact remains that you are not local or native to the culture, so it takes some time, effort, and practice to discover the kind of experiences that will allow you to blend in and observe, or better yet participate in a somewhat authentic way. One of the simplest things to do is quite obvious; seek out experiences away from tourist and expat areas. After all, you are not a tourist and have the advantage of living in a place over an extended period, thus you likely have access to local people who can help you navigate important questions surrounding which areas and experiences are worthwhile. Ask them questions. If you find someone local you have a common language with, ask as many questions as they are willing to endure. Speaking to someone who grew up in the area and culture will be far more valuable than reading any article, blog or book.
By being persistently curious with a few local people, you exponentially increase the possibility of discovering more than you could ever read. Perhaps your new cultural gurus will be colleagues, employees, clients, people who work at businesses you frequent, or even strangers you meet at an event or establishment. Regardless of how you connect with them, they will be an invaluable bridge to those elusive, authentic experiences most expats crave.