The first thing I’d like you to do is to think about this question: where do you really get the feeling that you belong? Do you belong to the country you live in, do you belong to the group’s you are a member of, the company you work for? Maybe answering this question is difficult for you, because it comes natural to you. At home, with your family, of course you belong. It is much easier to say where you don’t belong. Especially as an expatriate, where you are, by definition, the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’.
When we feel like we don’t belong, what happens? We feel alienated. We feel like people treat us differently from everybody else. We feel observed, evaluated, critizised. And we feel like we can’t be ourselves. “It is not fair. Why do they do that?”, are some of the questions we then ask ourselves. But what is a sense of belonging really? Rebecca Saunders points to three aspects of belonging.
When you belong, you become classified as a member of that group
During my time in Indonesia, for example, it would have simply been impossible to get a feeling of truly belonging to the country. As a ‘western’ person, I just stood out too much physically to ever be accepted as ‘Indonesian’. Ironically, since I left Indonesia and moved on to Australia, I do feel a strong sense of belonging to Indonesia. I love to hear news about Indonesia, to meet Indonesian people, to sometimes talk Indonesian. Indonesia has become part of my identity. And yet I am still not a ‘full’ Indonesian, and I will never be one. But I will also never again be a ‘full’ German, that much is clear to me. What I have learned from my time in Indonesia is that if I do not fully immerse myself in the local culture, I will regret it once I leave. My Indonesian, for example, is not as good as its supposed to be. And that’s because I did not see myself as Indonesian. I saw myself as an expatriate, and a lot of my friends were expatriates, too. That’s why I have made a decision: for the next country I am moving to, whichever it is, I will strive from day one towards becoming a ‘local’, as much as possible, and as much as it can be consistent with my own identity.
When you belong, you will be tied together by affection, association, or membership
Let’s just quickly come back to my experiences in Indonesia. While I didn’t feel Indonesian, I did feel like I was part of the Indonesian family I lived with. They treated me like their own son, and until today I see them as my second family. And that is beautiful if you think about it. I may have not been accepted by wider society as an Indonesian (and probably neither by my host family), but I was accepted by them as their family member.
Family membership and ‘nationhood’ are directly linked. Your family is Greek, so you must be Greek, right? In that sense, becoming a member of a family in your host country, let’s you, at least partly, become an ‘insider’ in that culture. And that is the beauty of school exchanges, where a student lives in a host family. But also the beauty of intermarriage, where it gives you an amazing insight into the culture of your partner.
Now, I am not asking you to marry someone from your host country. What I am really trying to say is that within your organization, it is important that you create feelings of affection. Make your co-workers feel like they are part of the whole. And part of doing so is by using informal ways of communication. Hold some events taht give people that chance to connect, and make sure that everybody is treated equally.
When you belong, you are part of something
Think once more of your workplace. Do you feel like you are part of it? Do you think that your co-workers, or your employees feel like they are really part of it? Are you a group, or are you a bunch of individuals working together? Do you have expatriates within your organization? Go talk to them. To what extent do they feel like they really belong? Are they treated differently from the others? Are they behaving differently from the others? These are important questions. If you don’t feel like a real group, it has time to become one.