Today marks the 5th anniversary of my move to Malaysia. On November 8th, 2008, I left my home and some family in Australia, and with my son I followed my husband to Kuala Lumpur, who had arrived a couple of weeks earlier. 5 years in the country, and now that my best friend here is leaving soon because he came over as an international student, I realise I’m going to be left with no friends I feel especially close to. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about what can be done to make people feel welcome in your country, if they’re going to be spending an extended period of time there.
I’m not writing this as an attack on the people I’ve met in Malaysia. I’ve met some interesting people who I occasionally see at specific events I attend; I just rarely see them outside of those events. In any case, the content of this post would be just as relevant to people in any country. My experiences here have made me think about how I’d liked to have been treated, to the extent that I’d hope if I ever move back to Australia and meet someone who is not originally from there, I’d treat them in such a way.
In Australia, to onus seems to be on foreigners to “assimilate or get out.” It’s not only rude, but mean. And on top of that, how are foreigners even supposed to feel like they can belong (assimilation or not) if locals don’t even wish to talk to them? From what I see in the media, there are people in the USA who act similarly, not bothering to take the time to welcome, let alone understand, immigrants from varying backgrounds. The vitriol thrown at anyone who even remotely resembles a Muslim in particular is frighteningly bad.
Whilst I haven’t experienced that level of hatred in Malaysia, I still feel like the onus is on me to befriend Malaysians, rather than the other way around. Locals may consider themselves welcoming – I have had a few tell me as much – but sometimes the actual behaviour doesn’t translate.
I can’t say how much of my experience has been hindered by my introvert personality and social anxiety, but I think there are some aspects that all foreigners would experience. When you move somewhere new, especially a new country, you’re not likely to know anyone else. As if making new friends in adulthood wasn’t hard enough, you’re thrust into an entirely new culture and somehow have to navigate it on your own.
So, here are some suggestions for what you can do to help make a foreigner feel more at home in your country.
* A foreigner might feel like it’s rude to invite themselves along to an non-public social event they’ve heard you talk about (or seen discussed on social media). Take the step to invite them along so they don’t feel like you could be intentionally excluding them. Perhaps they believe you already have a lot of friends – after all, you’re from the country they’re in and know it better than they do – and you don’t have time to meet someone new.
* People can live for years in a country they have no ties to without becoming close to anyone, so don’t think that meeting a foreigner who has lived in your country for a number of years doesn’t want any new friends to make them feel welcome. Invite them out for a drink, or to lunch, make an effort to get to know them better on an individual level. They might be too overwhelmed in group situations for you to get to know them well enough at such events.
* Invite them out to events they might not have heard about, especially if it’s something you enjoy. Help them experience and get to know your local interests and culture.
* Talk to them about your culture, and what it means to you. Sometimes it can be difficult for foreigners to ask questions about your culture and customs because they’re afraid it will come across as rude or ignorant to ask. Especially if it’s race based, and they’ve been taught not to discuss race, and/or are afraid of appearing racist. Then they will likely in turn share with you stories about their own culture. Celebrate the differences together.
* If they haven’t explored the area much, offer to collect them from their home and take them out to show them around, so they can get to know the area better, and see what’s worth visiting. They may not be able to navigate their way somewhere you ask them to meet you if they’re unfamiliar with the area, or they may not even have transportation. Public transport can also potentially be a nightmare for foreigners – buses more so than trains, and they might not be able to afford a taxi.
* If they have children, be open to doing something with them and their children. They may not have someone they can leave the children with when they want to go out, which can increase their feelings of isolation. Sometimes this might mean the easiest thing to do is visit them in their home. It may be rude for you to invite yourself over to their house, but you could simply say, “Let’s get together sometime; I’m happy to be around with your kids. What suits you?” That will give them the opportunity to suggest their own home, or they may be more comfortable doing something else.
* If the foreigner makes a social faux pas at an event you invited them along to, rather than shun them and refuse to invite them to anything else, politely take them aside and let them know what they did is considered rude in your country/culture, so they can avoid making the mistake again. They won’t learn if they’re never told.
* It’s likely okay to ask them what brought them to your country. This is a question I’ve been asked regularly, in varying forms, and I’ve never had a problem with it. I’m happy to explain. I can’t speak for refugee immigrants – depending on how traumatic their experience was that caused them to leave their country in the first place, they might not wish to discuss it. If it were me, and they mentioned being a refugee, I’d probably let them direct that conversation and try to gauge any discomfort.
Even if you meet a foreigner who only has a 6 month contract in your country, that contract might be extended, or it might not. But however long or short they stay, whether or not they feel welcome in your country will have a lasting effect on them. They will share these feelings with their family and friends in their home country. Wouldn’t you rather they have a positive experience they can share with their friends?
There are some cities that have communities built in for particular cultural groups (for example, when I moved here, I joined MANZA for Australian & New Zealand expats, but I never bothered to go to any of their events because they weren’t the types of things I enjoyed), and some people might prefer to “stick with their own kind” — I’m not saying you need to go over to those communities to meet them. But if you see them somewhere like a bar, or a music event/play/etc, that’s when it’s nice to reach out to them. There’s already the place you meet them at to help get the conversation started. (e.g. “What are you drinking?”, “So what did you think of the play?”, “I enjoy this music, it reminds me of Madonna. Do you like Madonna?” and so on). People with similar interests tend to gather at the same sorts of places, or attend the same sorts of events. You’ll likely find something in common if you talk to them.
Now, maybe you’re wondering, “What will I get out of trying to befriend a foreigner?” I think that it’s good for our own social awareness to get to know people of different cultures and backgrounds. It allows us to grow as people, become more open minded, and be more tolerant of differences. Hopefully you’ll also come to find a new friend, too. Someone whose company you can enjoy, because you have things in common, despite the different background.
Do you or have you ever lived in a country foreign from the one you were born or grew up in? Did you feel welcomed? If so, in what ways did people help you feel welcome? And what else could people do to make foreigners feel more at home in a country they don’t hold a passport for?
Have you met any foreigners in your country? What did you do to make them feel welcome?
My parents were foreigners in Australia. Now I’m wondering how Australians behaved toward them when they relocated there in the 1970s. I’ve read Australians weren’t particularly welcoming to the Asians who immigrated there after the White Australia Policy was scrapped, but my parents were white Americans. Perhaps my dad will shed some light on that in the comments.