How to Blend in as a Foreigner

08/05/2013 12:57 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 10:12 BST

Over twenty years ago, my parents relied on me, a primary school student, to interpret any English text they did not understand. If they had to write a note to someone in English, I had to read and edit it. I spoke to my parents only in English, while they tried their hardest to understand, responding back in their mother tongue of Vietnamese. Work was stressful for them as my dad was unexpectedly laid off and had to take odd jobs at odd hours to make some money. My mom began working after this and came home in the evenings stressed from her day. Visitors seldom ever came to the house since our extended family lived far away and my parents lost contact with any friends they had--so, major holidays like Christmas were very lonely affairs. My parents were aware of where the hub of their local ethnic community was, but it was a 40-minute drive and they only went there to buy food that they could not get nearby.

The issues my parents faced living in a foreign land never truly dawned on me until I began living abroad alone, and that "dawning" was only a superficial realisation. Growing up, I found my parents uncouth and I was annoyed by the seemingly unending confusion and embarrassment they bestowed upon me: why did they have to speak Vietnamese so loudly in public? Why do we have to eat rice all the time? Why can't they be like the Western parents my friends have? But was I ever aware that these behaviours that I found so embarrassing were expressions of the isolation that they felt? That to them, these behaviours represented familiarity, a sense of identity and a sanctuary from their own confusion and sense of shame?

I couldn't understand it at the time, but over the years, I realised how lonely my parents were. Yes, everyone experiences loneliness, but the loneliness I refer to is the kind that those feel when they move to a foreign country and it entails a feeling of lacking roots, homesickness and a loss in identity. This loneliness was also contagious, as it spread from my parents and onto my brother and I. The communication and cultural barriers between one generation of our family to the next felt like each side was really an ocean away.

But whenever we visited old friends and extended family, this feeling of isolation temporarily disappeared. It was always a wonderful sight to see my parents' faces brighten at the sight of familiar faces and to watch them be so unfamiliarly chatty. Why didn't we move to be closer to our ties you may ask? Well unfortunately, I noticed that as time passed, the sense of isolation grew and my parents succumbed to it--these visits became less and less and my parents chose isolation to retreat into. They could not blend into their new home and it remained foreign as they reluctantly accepted it.

It is the sense of isolation that keeps the foreigner feeling foreign and keeps the unfamiliar land they settled into unfamiliar. If my parents were made aware of their local community earlier and had their familiar ties lived nearby, their sense of helplessness would have been greatly alleviated. Their confidence in themselves and in their circumstances would have increased if they also found an outlet to help them adapt into their new environment. This outlet could be in the form of language exchanges, a native friend or community centres that focus on acculturation. Then from there, confidence to branch out and to interact with the unfamiliar will increase and these interactions will be more positive. Why? Because it will stem from a sense of empowerment, that these interactions are within your control--unlike the feeling that it was some incident that you got tossed into because you didn't know any better.

Of course, ridding this particular sense of isolation is not one-sided. Communities, public policy and government all play a part in contributing to the overall attitude towards making those new feel welcomed. But on an individual level, for the one who perceives oneself as a foreigner whether for an extended stay or for an indefinite amount of time, finding a network of those from a similar background and an outlet to familiarise one with one's new home are important. Participation and contribution in a like-minded community and in an outlet that promotes a bridge into the perceived unfamiliar will foster a sense of belonging and adaptation. So blending in doesn't mean forsaking your original identity just to fit in. It means that once you have gained the confidence and empowerment living in a foreign country, instead of feeling isolated, you naturally are part of your surroundings.