Fitting in While Abroad (in Spain)

Friends together on a bench. Photo by Tatiana Vavrikova on Pexels

Dear Jamie,

Feeling like you don’t fit in is an incredibly hard sensation to overcome, whether it be at home or elsewhere. On some level, I think that is why we see so many people who are willing to follow the same path as others—it allows you to feel justified in your decisions because others have made them as well. However, it is also okay to feel like you don’t fit in. In fact, I would say I have spent most of my life feeling like I don’t belong 100% in any one place and, while I am okay with that now, it took me a long time to come to peace with that.

That’s why today I want to take you all on a little journey to learn about how fitting in while living abroad can be really hard but it can also be good too. Let’s start with the positive and work our way through:

The Good

On some level, moving abroad was probably the best thing that happened to me in regards to fitting in—for the first time in my life I wasn’t expected to be anyone I wasn’t because no one understood the context of where I had grown up or who I was ‘supposed’ to be. The freedom to choose who I wanted to be allowed me to reinvent how I wanted people (myself included) to see me. At the same time, people I met didn’t necessarily feel the need to judge me because they already recognized that I was not like them. This meant that I was able to be whoever I wanted and no one even questioned my decisions because, as a foreigner, I was already an ‘outsider.’

Now, you might think that feeling like you don’t fit in no matter what you do is a really sad place to be emotionally, but for me it was liberating as the expectations disappeared as other things (like understanding how things worked and studying the local language) took priority. It also has allowed me to look for my sense of belonging in other ways—often with individuals or small groups of people. And, frequently, these people don’t feel like they completely fit within their own communities and can find a sense of belonging with me too.

This process has been extremely complicated for me, but I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing people and establish friendships that will last me a lifetime. In many ways, I have been able to create relationships with people I would not have been able to create had I just stayed in the community I grew up in. At the same time, I have to admit that it is not necessarily easy to find a sense of belonging while abroad because you will be taking on so many other things too, but it might just allow you to be more you.

Sometimes friendship conquers all, sometimes it doesn't.

Sometimes friendship conquers all, sometimes it doesn't.

The Bad

Although I have mentioned some of the beautiful ways that being an outsider can bring you freedom, it is also incredibly difficult. If you ever want to understand this experience, I would recommend talking to a minority wherever you are living—we all understand the feeling of not belonging. And, while this experience has allowed me to empathize on a very profound level with all the anti-racism/discrimination movements around the world, it can also be a very lonely place to be.

That is because, no matter how much you like a new place, get on with your colleagues, and have made some new friends, there are still some things that will be hard for you to explain or express while abroad. It might be, in part, a language barrier but it might also just be cultural factors that are so obvious to people from the same place that we forget that they are societal and not universal. In fact, I am pretty sure this is why we have a tendency to make friends from the same country/region we are from while living abroad (and it even played a factor in how the friendship behind this blog started).

This disconnect between what you are used to and what you experience in a new place may be difficult, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be delimiting. Sometimes it is funny to laugh about cultural differences—like that in the Midwest soccer is kind of a girl’s sport and in Spain girls don’t really play. However, sometimes these issues can get out of hand and the differences can be too big for you to handle.

The Ugly

While some people (like me) find peace and self-awareness in living abroad and don’t consider going back ‘home’ a possibility because ‘home’ has changed continents, for others, this change might be impossible. It is funny how people tend to have a picture in their minds of Spain being this magical place of fiestas, siestas, and tapas. But life here has its ups and downs too and if you are not able to create a solid base, it might be hard for you to get over the idea that you don’t really fit in.

In fact, if you don’t feel like you are part of a group, it can become a vicious cycle of trying to bond with people and constantly feeling rejected. For me, the saddest thing is that what feels like rejection might not be the intention of the other person but it doesn’t really matter if we cannot see beyond our own experience. For example, in Spain making friends has its own process and the way relationships are developed can feel incredibly complicated for someone who is used to something else. That can lead to someone thinking they are (or are not) developing a friendship with someone else and the other person thinks differently.

This misalignment of ideas and communication is oftentimes cultural and can be overcome. However, the feeling of not fitting can be more powerful than the experience you are having itself—that is, you may feel like you don’t fit in even when everyone else thinks you do. And, if you are not able to overcome this feeling, you might not be able to find this sense of belonging while abroad.

Try to keep in mind that the experience is what you make of it. Moving abroad again has helped me realize that I am in control of being more social—I can decide to go to more meet-ups or make an effort to hang out with people I already know. So, if you are feeling like you don’t fit in, reflect on the effort you are making, consider reaching out to others to expand your own circle, and remember to take your own thoughts with a grain of salt (you never know, everyone else might think you are the perfect fit).

Are you struggling with fitting in? What are you doing to make it easier?

Sincerely,
Spain