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Eight Ways to Become Part of a Community Abroad Within Two Weeks

Community Elder
Keep your eyes open and be respectful of everybody.

When you are living abroad for the short- to medium-term (be it as a volunteer, wwoofer, or gap year traveler), it can be difficult and onerous to integrate into the local community. Either the locals are not interested in folks who are for all intents and purposes “passing through,” or you cannot be bothered with the effort of making friends and becoming an integral part of a society you will eventually be leaving.

Either way, you are cheating yourself of one of the prime (and most rewarding) reasons for long-term travel: to learn what makes a culture tick and get a finger on the pulse of that society’s undercurrent.

I found that using the right opportunities, I have been able to make sincere community connections in as little as a week-long stay. And you can too if you use some of the techniques below.

Note: Obviously to speak the language will significantly help your cause, but even in a completely foreign environment some of these techniques can be successfully employed. In some cases you can start by integrating into ex-pat communities, who can in turn tap you into the larger local scene.

Rotary, Toastmasters, and other Community Groups

Lots of community organizations and specialty groups have chapters throughout the world. They share the common bond of the organization’s credo which paves the way towards creating fast friendships.

Rotary, a service-based organization, is dedicated to humanitarian work and fundraising with a “Service Above Self” motto. Because of the giving nature of working side by side with fellow Rotarians, a foreign club welcomes visiting Rotarians with open arms. Often they will offer you a place to stay, help you integrate with the community, and offer you an immediate “in” with the local businesses—giving you an effective roadmap of the best places to frequent, and the tourist traps to avoid. Even if you are not a Rotarian, many clubs will welcome you as a guest, especially if you offer your services with their projects.

Attending a local Rotary meeting in one town I was just passing through gave me a whole new perspective on the initially dull place I had landed in. I ended up staying a week longer than expected, enjoying the hospitality of some wonderful people with whom I still keep in touch. In fact, so steadfast were the friendships, that the residents of this small and somewhat secretive town actually invited me to live there, offering me everything from jobs to housing to assistance with the necessary immigration paperwork.

Toastmasters is a club dedicated to public speaking. Again, with chapters around the world, visiting a foreign Toastmasters club and sharing the bond of public speaking with others will help you to immediately meet people and get one step closer to being considered a “resident.” Not only that, but the speech topics and manner will give you even more insight as to the local culture and issues at hand.

Service clubs like Rotary and Toastmasters (especially Rotary) can be amazingly helpful in foreign and developing countries. With chapters all around the world--in both big urban centers as well as many rural developing areas—such clubs are a way to get connected in a place where you may find yourself struggling to meet people. It was in rural northern Thailand that I found a Rotary club which paved the way for me to complete an international fundraising campaign that required community connections to accomplish. Without the help of the Rotarians in that small area where culture and language were serious barriers for me, I might have been lost.

Community Elder
Organizations like Rotary and Toastmasters are great ways to interact with the locals.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Offer to Help

One of the best possible ways to become a part of a community is to work side-by-side with the locals. Find a local volunteer organization with a cause you can get behind and offer your services. Help an elderly woman cross the street. Bake some cookies for the shop owner with whom you had a great conversation and would like to get to know better. Be there when the community is coming together to address a critical issue or emergency. Make it known that you are willing and able to do what has to be done to help the locals, because you are as much a part of that community as they are. If you see yourself that way, they too will likely begin to see you that way.

Bulletin Boards

You will find these everywhere: supermarkets, libraries, and community centers. You may find lots of little gems of information that can help you make some interesting connections. Maybe there is a local band looking for a guitar player or singer. Maybe there’s an opportunity for some work on the side to give you a little extra spending cash. Or maybe you will learn about a small class being offered that you would love to take and that would connect you wish a new group of like-minded people. Maybe you will even meet somebody new just browsing the bulletin board listings as well and will strike up a conversation.

Searching bulletin board listings, I have discovered out-of-the-way art classes in stark and “uncreative” farming communities, and found a mechanic whose services I needed but who also became a good friend. Once, I  was also standing in front of one of these bulletin boards and begin chatting with somebody also reading the listings and consequently was given an opportunity to earn a little extra cash. It was a matter of luck; a convenient coincidence that is often a result of simply being visible and approachable.

Community Newspapers

In a big city or small town, you can usually find a community-based paper. In cities they are usually free or inexpensive weekly editions that list the events for the coming week, and in smaller communities they are actually the lifeline that binds the residents together—with information on not only local events, but news, announcements, real estate, and job listings. In both cases, they are written with a local style and flair that gives great insight into the mindset and culture of the residents. Knowing the content and style gives you an immediate in for conversing with the locals. You will learn the hot topics for debate, and also which side to pick on the debate to avoid alienating anybody. This is extremely important if you are living in a smaller community, because often you only get one chance to make an impression before people form an opinion about you that could either help or hinder your ability to become an active member .

And as with bulletin boards above, the range of opportunities for meeting people that may be hidden in the paper are endless if you read between the lines.

Community Newspapers
Community newspapers are a great way to tap into the local action.

The Pub

I am not a big drinker, but there is no denying the fact that if you want to know what is going on in a town, you need to talk to the local bartender. Or at least go to a bar and nurse a drink for a while. You will see how people interact, and you will probably get a chance to overhear an enlightening conversation or two. Chances are if you smile and look approachable, you will meet a few people in the process.

Library

The first place I head to when I set foot in a new town is the library. In my experience, they are hubs of community information. Free or inexpensive courses and workshops are available, some have Internet access which is handy, and at the very least you can borrow books and videos that will help you pass some time on the cheap.

One library in particular that I went to in a rural Australian community town proved to the best move I could have made. I immediately tapped into a thriving artery of local events that kept me on my toes and allowed me to meet new people every week. Within two weeks, many people in the small town knew me by name, and I had established friendships, some of which even proved to stand the test of time (and distance).

Library
Head to the loal library for the community scoop.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Opportunities to meet people and become a member of a community simply do not happen if you keep your head down and nose to the grindstone. Walk through town with fresh eyes every time. Look at the people, and smile. You may be waved over to join a group enjoying the afternoon if you are open to the opportunity.

In Southeast Asia, my boyfriend and I spent the better part of an evening sitting with some elderly men in the middle of an outdoor market, listening to local music blaring out of a small CD player. Language was a barrier, so instead we sang, used sign language here and there, and just plain watched the night go by. It was not part of our plans for the evening, but enjoying their company was well worth the detour. Of all the tourists wandering through the bustling market, we were the only ones to stop for a while. Most of them did not even notice the group of us sitting there, since they were single-mindedly looking for souvenirs.

Just Get Involved      

Do you play a sport? Like to paint? Have a knack for picking up new dances? Then get involved! Jump in the field with the kids playing a pick-up game of soccer. Sign up for a painting workshop if you find one. See a woman weaving at a craft stall? Sit down with her and watch her work. She may teach you and let you try your own hand at it if you express interest. None of these activities even require a strong command of the language or culture you are becoming immersed in; just an enthusiastic approach and willingness to learn. The locals are likely to be as interested in your perspective and way of doing things are you are with theirs; but rarely will they take the first step—that is yours to choose to make.

Words of Caution

Do Not Make Waves

There is a fine line between breezing into a town or city and bringing with you an invigorating breath of fresh air, and pushing people away by imposing your own opinion and way of doing things.

People do not need to be told that there is a better way if they are showing you how they operate. But they may eagerly listen to your stories of how you did something similar at home if you tell it simply as an anecdote and leave it to them to connect the dots or decide if that strategy would work in their situation.

There is a delicate balance to be achieved between proudly standing out as a newcomer who wants to become a part of a community, and oh-so-importantly flying under the radar and seamlessly weaving yourself into the fabric of their society. The point of balance will vary from community to community, with no set formula to work with; using your instincts and being sensitive to your environment is the best way to navigate this.

Deliver On Promises

There is no better way of tarnishing a growing reputation in a new community than to be slack on your promises. If you say that you will be somewhere, be there. If you offer your services, show up prepared to deliver. If you suggest that you would like to have someone over for dinner, or go out to lunch or for coffee, then issue the invitation before too much time passes. You may not have thought much about your vows of being active and helpful, but if you do not deliver you will become known as something of a fraud and people won’t give you the time of day.

It is almost always better to under-promise and over-deliver; locals will be surprised and delighted when you come through, and will remember you for it.

For More Information

Some community organizations that will help your transition from visitor to resident:

Rotary (www.rotary.org)
Click on the “Club Locator” heading to find the local clubs, meeting times and locations, and contact numbers. Give them a call to make sure it is up to date before you show up.

Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org)
You do not have to be an accomplished public speaker to join. In fact, it is a great way to become comfortable in front of groups for those with performance anxiety.

Also search for the local community centers, retirement services clubs, or other volunteer service organizations, depending on your hobbies and interests. There is something for everybody!

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