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How to find a sense of belonging when relocating abroad?

“Living in another country can be exciting and enriching but also daunting. A core challenge isnt so much a practical matter as a psychological one — creating a home. Home is a psychological state as much as a physical place, defined by a sense of belonging — a feeling of being an accepted part of a larger community. Its important for people to be patient with the process, not put pressure on themselves and take their time to feel settled. Plus, with some helpful strategies this process can be more seamless.

HSBC’s research highlights the emotional barriers people face when moving abroad. Feeling isolated is a key reason some people felt their experience ‘fell short’ of expectations; and on the flip side, finding a sense of belonging in their host country can provide them with motivation to stay longer.

“A sense of belonging is vital for our well-being, health, productivity, and to thrive in general. Yet, for anyone transitioning to a new environment abroad, achieving it can be fraught with ups and downs.You may feel like an outsider at times — a stranger in a strange land. Most people spend years in a community before they establish a sense of belonging; and it takes time to build relationships. But fortunately, there are several simple, concrete steps you can take to accelerate the process.”

These are 10 tips from Geoffrey L. Cohen, Professor of Psychology to help you find a sense of belonging if you are making an international relocation.

Politeness goes a long way: Learn as much as you can of the local customs — from the local social etiquette, how to say “hello” “please” and “thank you”, to the cultural nuances and local traditions.

Start practical planning early, just one small step every day: Start the set-up process early, from bank accounts to selecting a school for your children. There are many resources to help you in the process, such as online groups, your employer, and financial services provider.

Talk to people who’ve been there: When entering a new culture, talk to people who have gone through the process already, ideally in the same location where you plan to go. You’ll invariably learn a lot from listening to their stories.

Discover the power of local community: Finding people who love what you love can bring a sense of belonging. United by common interests and shared bonds, the local community can offer a foothold in an unfamiliar country. Ask neighbours, browse local papers and public notice boards, as well as online forums and digital apps, such as Meetup.

Understand that ‘belonging’ takes time: No matter where you go, you’re likely to feel uprooted. Remember, this is normal. Only 27 percent of international citizens in HSBC’s study said they felt settled instantly when they first relocated. Give yourself time. HSBC’s study found it can take an average of eight months to feel settled.

Be brave and get out there! To feel part of a place, get involved in social and cultural activities, or sports and business events. Fleeting moments of connection, striking up a conversation with your neighbour or a stranger when asking for directions or with a barista in a coffee shop, benefit our wellbeing and belonging.

Cultivate a dual social support network: Aim to build new connections (colleagues at work, neighbours, and local community groups), whilst maintaining connections with friends and family back home, even if it’s just a quick phone call or email check-in for a chit-chat.

Talk to someone: Being abroad can feel isolating and challenging. If you are struggling, and can’t easily reach your family or friends at home, perhaps due to time zone differences, don’t hesitate to reach out to a colleague, community group or professional service. Chatting it through sooner rather than later can prevent worries from escalating.

Tend to your unique situation: Everyone has a unique situation, with a distinct mix of opportunities. Cultivate your support network with regular check-ins with someone you trust. Be aware that others’ well-being and sense of belonging will affect yours, and yours will affect theirs.

Keep a journal: Jotting down your thoughts and feelings about your days is a great strategy to help you cope with stress or anxiety, and to gain control of your emotions. Consciously reminding yourself of your core values and giving thanks for good things in your life can improve well-being. A journal can be helpful — at the end of each day, try writing down at least one thing that you’re grateful for and why, or one way in which you lived out your values.

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