Family as an Expat

People sometimes ask me how it is living so far from my family. They ask how I can go so long without traveling back to my hometown. I think a lot of this has to do with my family that I have here. I have built up a new family here. Sure they aren’t blood related, but we seem to be as much of a family as anything else. They are a central part to why I can live here the way I do. I don’t live far from my family. I see them quite often in fact, just maybe a different kind of family than you would think.

It is so very helpful to have a group of people that actually understand what I am dealing with that neither your home family nor the locals really understand unless they have been through it. I remember reading somewhere that expats will have more in common with each other than with either their home or host cultures.

Just like my post about What is Home? my idea of family as an expat is non-traditional. There were a number of comments on that article about home being near there family. It made me think more about why I felt this place as a home.

It was this past November when I realized it. I have a family here. We were sitting around a big table eating Thanksgiving dinner. There 9 of us and only 4 Americans. As we started talking about Thanksgiving as a time to give thanks for the year you had and as a time to spend with family it dawned on us that the group around the table really was our family.

I didn’t go about planning on creating a family here. I just fell into a group that although the members change and people come and go is still the closest to a family I have here. They are primarily english speaking expats or students living here for a year. We have very little background in common. But as mostly foreigners here we have a lot in common through the experience of living here. Shared stories about bureaucratic hassles or local oddities goes a long way to forming bonds.

Support Group

We all need a support group of people to talk to and who understand us (or at least convincingly fake doing so). This group is central to our well-being and the ability to deal with stress. Without a group of people like that, having to do everything and deal with everything yourself can get overwhelming. This is true everywhere. Being without a support network in your home culture is difficult too. As an expat there are additional hurdles, language being the simplest and easiest one to overcome. Quite simply unless they have been through it, there are stresses that really only travelers and expats understand. Who else gets that the cute things that you see as a tourist and the delightful quirks build up as annoying and get to you sometimes. Who else understands when you explain a bad mood with the simple word “bureaucracy.”

I live a life that is geographically stable. Even though I still call myself a traveler and go out to see other places, I keep coming back here. I can see the argument that I could only build something like this because I am not moving. Yes ok, this exact type of arrangement works because we see the same group of people over and over, but I look for this even when traveling. The connection to someone else. Sister for a day, uncle for an evening kind of thing. The qualities of good friendship and the qualities of a family member to me are very similar. Even as simple as knowing the name of the bartender and asking questions of her about the city is part of this. Building a support group of friends is the first step.

What is family anyway?

Family to me are those people that care for you even though you just had a fight. These are the people that let you crash on their couch at 2am without evening asking why. Where you know that when you go to their house you can act like you live there. People all have their own lives and friends and jobs, but still come together to eat big family style dinners once in a while.You can tell them anything and expect decent advice. These are the traits of a family to me. I define this way so that I CAN include all of the people that make me happy with limits of blood relation.

It is an odd feeling and I don’t know how I ended up like this, but it is awesome. I am not sure what my life here would look like without this family-like atmosphere. I expect it would be far more challenging. I grew up in a very small family, so maybe this is why I can bend my reality like this. I see brothers and sisters in my friends because I never had any. Some people say that they trust their family in a way that they don’t trust their friends. Putting trust in this group of friends and letting them into your life is the second stage of building friends into a family.

Family, Importance of

When people move out of home and potentially far away from the support of a family, they need to be able to support themselves. This is often meant financially, but there is emotional support as well. This is difficult enough when you move to a new town with your spouse and have to start over. When the culture is completely different and foreign and perhaps a different language, this support becomes vital.

I have seen a number of people while traveling that miss their home and their family so much they stop traveling. As an expat this feeling can be stronger. Especially if you jump from a life with a large family and contact to a lot of people into a foreign situation that initial distance can be cold and frightening. That sense of loneliness can be heightened by culture shock and locals that might not understand or even care. Having a family is one way to alleviate this loneliness. I think this is one reason people won’t go traveling on their own, but have no issue following a boyfriends or girlfriend around the world.

This sense of belonging is one of the things that humans search for. Travelers rave about it too. Some of the best stories go along the line of “yeah, I was cold and wet and lonely and met this woman and she took me to her house and made me dinner and we talked and sang just like with my family. After this I felt like I could travel again.” This idea of family and home are linked. Maybe family and home do go along the same lines. Places that make you feel at home are the places where the people act the most like family.


The family to me is a supporting, trusting, caring group despite the problems. I just happen to not limit this to people I am related to. This metaphor extends great to the other people that everyone knows but aren’t in your “inner circle”. These are like the cousins and distant relatives that you know and like and trust, but not the same as if they were brother or sister. I have found a group here that is part of my family for all intents and purposes. This perhaps is why I feel like this place is home.

What is family to you? Can you feel the family connections to people you aren’t related to? Please leave a comment.

One thought on “Family as an Expat

  1. This post really is a great why of describing how I feel. I have my own little family tree made up of all of us too 🙂

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