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Can a foreigner (expat) fully integrate into very different culture?

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  • Can a foreigner (expat) fully integrate into very different culture?

    I wrote out some thoughts on this theme related to a Quora answer to the question "Can foreigners integrate well into Thai society?"

    I don't see why the ideas would be specific to Thailand, but that is the only foreign country I've ever lived in, here for 10 years now, from the US originally.

    It's long and probably essentially unreadable. I'll share it anyway.


    https://www.quora.com/Can-foreigners.../John-Bickel-5

    This question is almost too familiar, since discussions related to it just won’t stop in expat groups, and lots of other topics end up sliding there. The short version: some can and some can’t. Speaking or even reading and writing Thai are one critical sticking point. That really maps onto a broader divide relating to foreigners either integrating quite a bit or trying to retain a foreign cultural perspective and strike a balance related to changing over only what they want to adjust.

    I’ll get the language issue out of the way first. Some foreigners adapt to life in Thailand fairly well with limited local language use. Integrating is another matter. If the idea is to become as Thai as possible obviously speaking fluent Thai is closely related to that. My Thai isn’t very good, limited in vocabulary range and not properly pronounced. But I do work in a Thai company, only associate with Thais, for the most part, eat Thai foods, have been a Thai monk, travel more in Thailand than in other countries, have two Thai and US citizen kids, and so on. The balance works but I’m not as integrated as I could be if I spoke fluent Thai.

    Back to that divide related to integration. It comes up in discussion because expats crowd into two camps, one very well integrated, and very positive about Thailand, and the other not very well integrated, in lots of cases expressing lots of criticism of Thai practices and culture. The strange part is that there are pros and cons related to any country or culture (or individual life, when you get to it), so it becomes hard to separate out the bias in what others choose to communicate from the interpretive bias in what they actually experience. Almost no one ever says that there is good and bad in the differences between Thailand and their home country, and that their own lives go well in some ways and not as well in others. My sense is that what people want to project and what they actually interpret mix. They’re not just either optimists or pessimists, and not just out to spin themselves as having a great life or resentful and open to projecting bitterness, but those two factors combine.

    I was a natural fit in Thai culture for some reasons related to who and how I am. I’m relatively quiet and prone to getting along well with others, not as loud, confrontational, or opinionated as lots of people can be. That split isn’t intended as positive and negative as it might come across. My wife, who is Thai, is a bit high strung, more vocal, and prone to not emphasizing getting along with others as much as trying to get them to do what she wants them to do. In short, we both match the other’s culture better (in that sense, at least). My older brother is a lot like that in a lot of ways, with a very direct and assertive personality, which matched well with going into the military. Neither approach is necessarily good or bad. Either might work best when somewhat moderate, not so assertive that someone can’t get along well with others, and not so agreeable to prevent pushing through to an immediate goal if resistance comes up.

    I’m not saying that this is the key to getting along in Thai culture, to integrating. My wife is well integrated here; she’s Thai, born and raised in Bangkok, only ever spending three years living abroad in the US when we met in grad school in Hawaii. Personalities vary everywhere. To fit in here though someone has to strike a balance with how Thais see and do things. My wife’s approach works because she’s familiar with when to let that go, and when she can go with her natural inclinations. She has also been raised with the myriad of minor do’s and don’ts of Thai culture, so beyond that one broad theme she knows what to do and not do in any given circumstance. Bargaining comes up a lot in tourist questions, and works as an example: she knows when that’s appropriate and when it’s not. It’s not stressful to her in the least as a factor.

    Language is one main key as much as anything else, and broad trends in personality type may or may not match with Thai culture well, and the little details add up, but someone really needs to be open to changing how they look at things to integrate. That is just a sum of those things, in a sense, but it almost goes beyond all that. It’s not just doing something appropriate in one situation and knowing not to say something in another, it’s a shift in perspective. Of course I started with claiming someone could go to an extreme with integrating to enjoy life as a foreigner here, or strike any number of different balances related to that.

    It wouldn’t be necessary to become a Buddhist, for example, but it wouldn’t hurt, and depending on what someone means by “fully integrating” it may need to include that to count. Of course I think a devout Christian could integrate well here, or an atheist. I had studied Buddhism for over 15 years prior to coming here, and had just left off completing two degree programs related to that, a second bachelors and a masters in the study of religion and philosophy. I’m still not exactly Buddhist in the main Thai sense but for the most part I do accept the teachings as one of the main influences in my life. It helps related to understanding Thai perspective, and also to accepting being a family member. As an example my son just ordained for two weeks as a Thai Buddhist novice, and if I were a devout Christian I suppose that could’ve been a sticking point. Or even if I were a committed atheist, and against teaching my kids any religion. I’ll mention a post about how that went for him: Keoni's take on being a Thai Buddhist novice monk


    (photo) not foreigners, but Thai-Americans

    It took me about three years to really adjust to a Thai perspective, exposed only to Thais and their way of thinking and interacting, beyond internet access and television. I would think without some of those natural inclinations to fitting in that would’ve been more difficult. If I learned more of the Thai language it would go easier, even now, ten years in. I’m not great with languages, but I have studied and learned a bit of French, Spanish, and Sanskrit in the past. I get a sense that people who are naturally adept at languages have an easier time fitting in, and beyond that and almost separate from it people who want to be seen as well-integrated and have better language skills self-promote by playing that up. One expat friend here speaks only slightly better Thai than I do, still quite limited, and he’s lived and worked here for half of his life, retired here now. Thai language skills help a lot but there doesn’t seem to be any one key to integrating, even though if there is a main factor that’s probably it. Liking Thai food doesn’t hurt too, and hot weather, or dealing well with leaving behind everything in that other country.

    There’s one more set of issues that almost never comes up. Some expats are antisocial, or had whatever types of problems in their own lives in that initial home country. If someone wanted to be seen as an outsider, and naturally experienced that where they are from for other reasons (like just being an introvert), that might make for an odd form of natural fit living abroad. The most natural knee-jerk negative read might be that “losers” could do well in Thailand because they get a status boost due to just being “white,” and experience a natural sort of reset / do-over. I’m not trying to say that, but different levels of factors do come into play. For as difficult as it can be to shift perspective and deal with the range of foreign context issues I’d expect that these types of background condition might more typically lead to living abroad not working out.

  • #2
    Can a foreigner fully integrate into a very different culture? My answer would be, Yes, after many, many years. In addition to all you mentioned - openness to another culture, marrying a local, spending time with locals, eating local cuisine, learning the language, adopting another religion - there is another thing to consider: receptivity of the local culture to foreigners. It would be easier for me to integrate in Peru than in Switzerland, for example. Even though I look outwardly like a Swiss, the minute I speak, I'm identified as a foreigner and a door closes. I am seen as a foreign worker and establishing friendships with Swiss is difficult.* The Swiss are polite but distant; Peruvians are friendly and welcoming.

    So, the receptivity of the host culture is also important in one's integration.



    *Swiss marginals are friendlier perhaps because they are also held at arm's length by most people.

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    • #3
      Anyone who decides to live in a foreign country must integrate but can everyone do that? Maybe not everyone can but I believe immigrants must respect local laws, traditions, language, etc...or never consider living in a foreign country. Immigrants cannot dictate their own rules either in my opinion. As in Rome, do as Romans do or leave.

      Seems the OP could well integrate into Thai society which is the right thing to do for someone living in a foreign country which has become or is becoming sort of his own because he has a family in Thailand and his kids belong to two cultures already. If I decided to live abroad, I know there would be some places I could not integrate but it would be easier to integrate into other societies but if I lived abroad, I'd do my best to integrate and if I saw I could not I'd leave without blaming the natives and the country.

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      • #4
        If they're Muslim, they probably can't, but if you are a person from a westernized country settling in another westernized country you will adapt fairly easily -- though any language differences might be a challenge.
        Last edited by CricketUSA; 04-15-2018, 03:16 PM.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by RogerCarmel View Post
          Can a foreigner fully integrate into a very different culture? My answer would be, Yes, after many, many years. In addition to all you mentioned - openness to another culture, marrying a local, spending time with locals, eating local cuisine, learning the language, adopting another religion - there is another thing to consider: receptivity of the local culture to foreigners. It would be easier for me to integrate in Peru than in Switzerland, for example. Even though I look outwardly like a Swiss, the minute I speak, I'm identified as a foreigner and a door closes. I am seen as a foreign worker and establishing friendships with Swiss is difficult.* The Swiss are polite but distant; Peruvians are friendly and welcoming.

          So, the receptivity of the host culture is also important in one's integration...

          One of my friends moved to Switzerland for a very long stay, around a decade, and his experiences seemed to match that. Once you break through they're very friendly and welcoming, he said, but that process involved learning fluent Swiss German and adapting to local perspective quite a bit.

          As chance has it I just ran across a parallel discussion in a Russian expat Facebook group that was covering almost identical ground. I found Russians to be very nice and easy to talk to on a vacation visit there but visiting on vacation and living there are two completely different contexts.

          No one really blamed the Russians for shunning outsiders, but still the discussion covered almost the same ground. It was said that some people fall into the habit of complaining and rejecting where they are, and others blend in instead.

          One guy made a funny point about how back in England (where he was from) it was so common for people to complain about there that to him it was a sign it felt like home, complaining about things.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by john_in_bkk View Post
            As chance has it I just ran across a parallel discussion in a Russian expat Facebook group that was covering almost identical ground. I found Russians to be very nice and easy to talk to on a vacation visit there but visiting on vacation and living there are two completely different contexts.

            No one really blamed the Russians for shunning outsiders, but still the discussion covered almost the same ground. It was said that some people fall into the habit of complaining and rejecting where they are, and others blend in instead.
            Having spent quite some time in Russia not as a tourist, my observations... firstly depends on which part of Russian society you wish to belong to. In all cases you should be able to express yourself pretty well in Russian and read Cyrillic. Otherwise, you might as well just sit in your expatriate enclave whining about how bad things are...

            If you want to integrate yourself with the muzhiks, the essentially uneducated hicks, you'd better know how to drink and drink well.

            The Novie Russkies, they are rather similar to the nouveau riche, except on consumer-happy steroids. If you are very much into the new wealth game, then this is the segment for you.

            There's also a very intellectual segment of Russian society. They tend to exclude fakers with a superficial knowledge of things very quickly. I found these by far the most interesting people.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by john_in_bkk View Post


              One of my friends moved to Switzerland for a very long stay, around a decade, and his experiences seemed to match that. Once you break through they're very friendly and welcoming, he said, but that process involved learning fluent Swiss German and adapting to local perspective quite a bit...
              I only had superficial exchanges with Swiss in German-speaking cantons. I lived in a French-speaking canton and French is my mother tongue. It's true that once you become friendly with a Swiss person, they are very nice...just as nice as Americans I would say. But having a couple of friends isn't being integrated although it is an important step along the way.


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              • #8
                My friend who lived in Switzerland had went pretty far towards integrating, I think, working there for a number of years, studying a skill in a technical college there (therapeutic massage), and then working for years in that capacity.

                But he was there for a relationship, and when that ended a good bit of his reason for being there ended. He stayed on a couple of years after, since that's where his life was at the time, but has just recently moved back to the States.

                I thought he was crazy back when he did that, to move to another country just to be near another person. Then within a couple of years I did roughly the same thing, marrying a Thai while we both lived in Hawaii and later moving to Thailand when we had visa problems after she finished school.

                On the other comment subject, about meeting different kinds of Russians with different interests in different classes, someone just made that point in another expat site discussion. Their point was that integrating into Thai society might not go very well if you marry a woman working as a prostitute in a bar and go on to live in a sex industry themed resort area, because of who you're likely to meet there. That transitions straight back to some expats feeling superior to others because of speaking Thai, or integrating, and in this case on to marrying into a better class.

                It seems so shallow that everything has to turn into a competition and a means towards self affirmation and congratulation. I've experienced expats seeming proud of being able to eat spicy food. How frail does your acceptance of your life circumstances have to be before you take comfort in being able to tolerate eating peppers?

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                • #9
                  John as someone also in an intercultural marriage I can relate to alot of your experiences. My wife grew up in Ecuador, moved to the US when she 30 and has now lived here for 20 years. Some aspects of life here she appreciates like the more developed infrastructure and better organization. But her formative years were in her home country and she'll always be an Ecuadorian girl at heart.

                  Like you I fit into Latin American society fairly well because my personal qualities are similar to the ones they appreciate - I'm friendly, easy going, polite and optimistic. It also helps that I like eating their food, try my best to speak Spanish and generally behave as someone who is happy to be there not like an arrogant jerk who expects everything to be just like in the US - which is the negative stereotype they have about "gringos".

                  I admire that you've done so well integrating in Thailand. Based on my time in Asian countries, like India, Nepal and Japan, I see that part of the world as more different from my own culture than Latin America - which we share a similar history and religious heritage with.
                  Last edited by ChrisShiva; 04-19-2018, 04:45 AM.

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                  • #10
                    It is a bit more different in Asia, probably, and I miss how easy Spanish was to learn. Just not being a tonal language and being based on the same alphabet make a huge difference, and lots of words being based on similar roots is nice.

                    I would imagine some of the same issues would come up anywhere. It's funny how many levels and degrees it comes in. I moved from Pennsylvania to Texas once and it seemed like a cultural adjustment. Then when I visited Europe later that seemed much more different, and the same thing happened again when moving here. I think I experienced almost as much culture shock living in Hawaii in the middle, since that was my first experience being around people who saw things differently, and a lot of Asians.

                    Now much less developed countries or places even more foreign to me could still seem like a next level (going to Africa or the Middle East). But some of the same issues seem to come up no matter how much or how little cultural distance you're trying to cover, only the degree varies.

                    It's nice when a very similar way of interacting with others applies, for example that Texans and Pennsylvanians really don't see social roles and norms so differently. Thai culture is foreign but I think the difference would be more extreme in places like Japan, China, or India. We visited Japan twice and two friends who lived there described how it took a long time for them to fit in, even though being Thai is slightly closer a start than being from "the West."

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by john_in_bkk View Post
                      It is a bit more different in Asia, probably, and I miss how easy Spanish was to learn. Just not being a tonal language and being based on the same alphabet make a huge difference, and lots of words being based on similar roots is nice.

                      I would imagine some of the same issues would come up anywhere. It's funny how many levels and degrees it comes in. I moved from Pennsylvania to Texas once and it seemed like a cultural adjustment. Then when I visited Europe later that seemed much more different, and the same thing happened again when moving here. I think I experienced almost as much culture shock living in Hawaii in the middle, since that was my first experience being around people who saw things differently, and a lot of Asians.

                      Now much less developed countries or places even more foreign to me could still seem like a next level (going to Africa or the Middle East). But some of the same issues seem to come up no matter how much or how little cultural distance you're trying to cover, only the degree varies.

                      It's nice when a very similar way of interacting with others applies, for example that Texans and Pennsylvanians really don't see social roles and norms so differently. Thai culture is foreign but I think the difference would be more extreme in places like Japan, China, or India. We visited Japan twice and two friends who lived there described how it took a long time for them to fit in, even though being Thai is slightly closer a start than being from "the West."
                      Interesting that you see Thailand as less culturally different from the West than Japan. I only spent 3 weeks in Japan which is obviously not the same thing as living there. But as a visitor I experienced it as a place that was extremely different in some ways and in others familiar. The familiar part was that everything ran on time, was well organized and clean - more so than in the US actually. On the other hand Japanese people are generally formal, not emotionally expressive and, while too polite to say anything rude to your face, seem to have a sense of cultural uniqueness and, in some cases, superiority that might be hard to overcome for a foreigner who was living there long term - though as a short term visitor I was treated like a rock star.

                      So on those levels I can see how Thailand might be an easier place for a Westerner to fit in.

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                      • #12
                        I think Thailand would be a much, much easier place for Westerner to fit in. I meant that for a Thai to try to live in Japan it might be easier than for a person from the US or Europe.

                        That's not necessarily a given; Thai culture isn't that close to Japanese culture. There is some common ground across all of Asia but per my take it's limited. Superficial differences like eating rice, not wearing shoes indoors, more emphasis on family, and on social levels, and Thais looking more similar to Japanese people probably wouldn't make that much difference compared to the way people interact differently.

                        Thais are a bit more reserved than people in Western countries but as I see it closer to Americans in perspective than to the Japanese. Or maybe just in the middle.

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                        • #13
                          From your discussion and if you really are the person you write about you are a good person so keep it close to heart .

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Etsia View Post
                            Anyone who decides to live in a foreign country must integrate but can everyone do that? Maybe not everyone can but I believe immigrants must respect local laws, traditions, language, etc...or never consider living in a foreign country. Immigrants cannot dictate their own rules either in my opinion. As in Rome, do as Romans do or leave.
                            Even if you are in a country more than a few hours, you should have enough respect to at least learn a few very basic words such as "thank you" in the local language.

                            Referring to Bulgaria.. it is supposed to be, along with Hungary, one of the two most difficult countries in Europe "for immigrants to integrate into". I haven't had any real such problems. If you make a serious effort to speak the language and adapt to the local culture and conditions, people are very understanding and extremely friendly. No worries. The ones I've seen in Bulgaria whining about things are foreigners who have barely made any effort to even learn the language.

                            Bulgarians are rightly pissed off with such people and they don't hesitate to let it be known. I don't blame them. If you are not making a serious effort to be part of the country that you are living in, then you are nothing more than an invader.

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by john_in_bkk View Post
                              I think Thailand would be a much, much easier place for Westerner to fit in. I meant that for a Thai to try to live in Japan it might be easier than for a person from the US or Europe.

                              That's not necessarily a given; Thai culture isn't that close to Japanese culture. There is some common ground across all of Asia but per my take it's limited. Superficial differences like eating rice, not wearing shoes indoors, more emphasis on family, and on social levels, and Thais looking more similar to Japanese people probably wouldn't make that much difference compared to the way people interact differently.

                              Thais are a bit more reserved than people in Western countries but as I see it closer to Americans in perspective than to the Japanese. Or maybe just in the middle.

                              How strong is the Asian concept of "saving face" in Thailand? I know there isn't an English word that can definite it precisely but I suppose words liked honor or prestige would be the closest.

                              My grandparents were from small town Georgia and were always very concerned about upholding their reputation as a "good family" within their community. But, of course, the West is much more individualistic than Asia and people here obviously have more freedom to make their own choices, even bad ones, without fear of everyone in their society looking down on them and their entire bloodline.

                              I can see good sides and bad sides to both individualist and collectivist societies. But the independence and directness of the West is what I'm used to. So I think the constant concern among most Asians with "saving face" would be hard for me to adjust to. Has this been an issue for you in Thailand?
                              Last edited by ChrisShiva; 04-21-2018, 01:16 AM.

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