The long journey of feeling integrated in a foreign culture

What does it mean to be integrated in a foreign culture?

The competence of speaking the local language?

The ability to interact comfortably with locals?

The desire to maintain the cultural heritage while at the same time, being flexible to adopt new behaviours from the local culture?

As a person who’s been living abroad for 18 years, for me, being integrated is about having the authentic sense of belonging.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend, who’s been living in Helsinki, for a decade. She married a Finnish man and has learned Finnish. Their son goes to a Finnish school. In her home country, she graduated from the Medical School. During all the years in Helsinki, she’s been going through all the required stages so she can become a generalist doctor in Finland. Fifteen months to go and she’ll be there.

“Where do you feel that your home is?” I asked.

She looked around the living room in the house where she and her family are living.

“I don’t know.” she replied hesitantly. “My home is here … but not quite. It definitely isn’t in the place where I grew up.” she continued. “People are my home. You. You are part of me, you know?”

Tears welled from her eyes and from my eyes.

She helped me understand that the sense of belonging – irrespective we live in the place of birth or abroad – comes from the way we relate with the people and events surroundings us. And when we define ourselves through close relationships, those people belong to us. And this is a great thing. Wherever we go, we take them in our hearts.

I guess that at a deeper level of the human psyche, to get to the stage of genuine integration, we may need the courage to look for the individuals that belong to our hearts.