The Art of Belonging

About seven months into our life in South East Asia we put our youngest daughter into a ballet class near our new home. I would get her all dolled up in her ballerina gear and we would trek down the busy streets, dodging both the traffic and the sewer holes beside us. It was an uncomfortable experience but we would persevere until we got to the dance studio. My daughter would enter her class, and I would collapse onto the couches and wait.

Over the course of that next year as I waited for my daughter’s class to end, I had the opportunity to begin chatting and interacting (in broken language) with the other ballet moms. On one such day, one of the women brought along her spa samples for us all to try, you know, kind of like an impromptu Mary Kay party. I sat on that couch, surrounded by women, all of us wearing a face mask, laughing at the ridiculousness of how we looked. Talking about how soft our skin was going to be.

I loved it.

I loved it, because in that moment, I felt belonging. I felt like a normal, everyday woman. It gave me hope that there would be more precious moments like these that would begin to define my experience of living overseas. The early months and years of cross-cultural living can be brutal and exhausting which makes those snapshot moments of belonging even more important and meaningful. It is those moments that give us the hope to endure.

Below I have written out six things that we intentionally did to attach, engage and familiarize ourselves with this new place and culture. While there is no perfect or universal model for cultural acquisition, these have helped my family thrive, and I hope that they may be helpful for you too.

1. Exploit your hobbies. Do you like to sew? Do you love sports? What about photography? Are you addicted to coffee like me? Believe it or not, people around the world are very similar in the things that they enjoy doing. Seeking out and finding the places or spaces where your favorite type of hobby is met is a great way to meet like-minded people in an environment that you enjoy. Sports, for my family, was a big deal and within the first 2-3 months we had scouted out the badminton court within walking distance of our house. Had we ever played badminton before? Did we speak the language? No, but we learned. Exploit the passion you have for the things you love to push you into community environments.

2. Be consistent. Become a regular. Consistency is the key to proficiency as well as the key to being known. Choose a few places that will become YOUR places. Frequent the same stores, or stalls, or coffee shops. After a while you are no longer an oddity but a normal fixture in the lives of people. Often, when I grocery shop alone, the attendants will ask me about my kids, wondering where they are. It may seem like a simple thing, but for me, to be known, remembered and missed helps me feel at home in this city.

3. Self-Differentiate. Being able to self-differentiate between both expats and nationals is healthy and essential. In general, when we learn a new skill, we look to those who are further along than we are. We call this mimicry. In the early stages of cross-cultural living mimicry is necessary. We need to ask questions of people more experienced and we follow their model of understanding and engaging the world around us. However, mimicry has its limitations. You can never become a true artist if all you do is copy someone else’s painting. In cross-cultural living, we need to be able to know who we are, what we need and how we need to attain it. How we thrive cross-culturally and engage in family life or ministry doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s model. Please, take the freedom that you have, to embrace who you are. God is not a one-trick pony. He uses all of us individually, in our uniqueness, to reach this world for himself.

4. Explore Together. It’s a great world we live in. Take the time to explore your new culture together as families or alongside friends. Walk together, shop together, learn together and enjoy the struggle and process of growth together. Our first year here, we practically did everything together as a family, including language learning. For us this was important and profitable and it gave us so many shared experiences that no one (i.e. ME) felt left in the dust. Just a couple of months ago my husband took me out on the motor bike for a trip around the city. We stopped at all the places he frequents that I can’t follow. This gives me a more solidified sense of ministering together although we now have different focuses.

5. Lock your doors and hide. This has been very helpful for our family. When energy levels are high we happily engage but when energy levels are depleted we lock up our gate and doors, put on a movie and chill. No guilt or shame and we wait for those stores of energy to refill so that we can hit the ground running again.

6. Let it take time. All the advice in the world will not change the simple fact that thriving in your new environment will just take time. You can’t hurry it along. Every day that you wake up in your new place is one step closer to feeling more at home. Take heart, hunker down, keep moving forward, and one day soon you will realize that the sights, smells and people are now attached to memories that will forever define you.

What has helped you engage within your community? What was the best advice you got before or during your overseas career?

Photo by George Barker on Unsplash


  1. Amy Flores August 14, 2017

    When I lived overseas (a total of 7+ years), I found that walking as much as possible, versus using public transportation, helped me to connect more with my new community. I would see the same faces as I walked and as I did everything on foot, and they would see me, I became more familiar to them, it gave me opportunities to stretch myself more and more with the language, and I connected deeper with my community than fellow M’s who always drove everywhere/used public transportation for everything. One time, one of my fellow ms even noticed this and commented on how my walking everywhere seemed to integrate me more within the community than anything they had been trying. I tried this out, among other things, over the course of three countries and 7+ years, and for me, walking was the main way that I connected with nationals, learned my area, bettered myself with the language, and felt more a part of my new home. I think you advice is wonderful in this article and really enjoyed reading this piece, thank you and bless you.

    1. Joy Smalley August 14, 2017

      Hi Amy! What a wonderful way to engage in the community. I agree that being able to walk the streets of your city/town/village would help integrate you into the community. I imagine that it helped you feel belonging also.

      1. Amy Flores August 15, 2017

        It most certainly did! And as I walked more and more and got to know my surroundings better, I made acquaintances, later friends, and got braver in trying out the language, and it all began with walking through my new area. Thank you for what you wrote and shared!

  2. Amy Young August 14, 2017

    Joy I love this piece so much. “The art of belonging” not “The science of belonging.” Ah, yes. Art is invitational, it involves practice and trying things out, it admits from the get-go that it is going to be messy. But also so worth it. Thank you!!

    1. Joy Smalley August 14, 2017

      Hi Amy, thank you. You’ll have to contribute the ‘art’ metaphor to my daughter who is a lover of painting. She can look at a picture, use it as a guide, and somehow create something unique and beautiful. The boundaries of art as so much more fluid than the absolutes of science and within it we have the freedom to grow and learn. I agree, cross-cultural living is an art that produces a masterpiece 🙂

      1. MaDonna Maurer August 17, 2017

        I agree, loved the title of “art” and how you put it, Joy – “cross-cultural living is an art that produces a masterpiece.”
        Not sure I’m at the masterpiece part, but it gives me hope that in the end it could be.
        I was thinking that I always feel like a belong when the local coffee shop or breakfast shop knows my order before I am able to say it. Now with kids, I’m more or less known as “so and so’s mom”, but hey, I’ll take that. It still makes me feel like I’m known.

        1. Joy Smalley August 17, 2017

          Hi Madonna, Thank you. I agree that my life doesn’t look like a masterpiece either, but I’m holding out in hope that one day it will.

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