Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

Today’s post is by Joann Pittman. Joann is a childhood friend who I’ve reconnected with in the past year. As a woman who has lived her entire life cross-culturally, Joanne is gifted at helping others learn to live effectively across cultures. You can read her full bio at the end, but for now enjoy this post on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong”.

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

Below are eight tips for living well where you don’t belong.

  1. Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”
  2. Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have done things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.
  3. View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form an assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.
  5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.
  6. Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.
  7. Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.
  8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips do you have to add? Would love to hear some in the comments section. 

Joann Pittman is a consultant, trainer, researcher, and writer who helps people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living. She has lived in China since 1984, working as an English teacher, Chinese language program director, English language program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has done extensive study and research in Chinese language, history, and contemporary society, and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of Survival Chinese Lessons. You can read Joann’s blog Outside-In at You can follow her on Twitter.

35 thoughts on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

    1. I’m not sure how I missed this comment but thank you and thanks so much for linking up this piece. Joanne did a great job with this and I come back to it often.


  1. These are such good, provoking thoughts. I don’t actually live overseas; I simply spend most of my time here in the states with international students. I live, breath and attempt to speak a language that isn’t my own; I eat food that isn’t familiar; I live in a culture within a culture that I can’t fully grasp. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.


  2. the comment that ” I may feel like I’m assimilating, even developing a sense of belonging, but it isn’t necessarily so until the locals bestow that privilege.” It’s not always a privilage, but a prison. It has been painful for me as the “locals” are the people I was suppose to “belong” to, who never bothered to see me for who I was, assimilating was my only option, and once the world was openned out to me I couldn’t go back to seeing the world, and responding to it the way they did. I can live with being the outsider with more understanding, than they have had accept me as an outsider.


    1. Lynnette – I’m so sorry that I missed this response. I appreciate your perspective and can really relate to that. The deal for me is that this post resonates for me about my Passport country – not the country where I am physically the outsider. I face this almost daily at my job with people who have never lived anywhere else. So I’m so sorry this is late but please know how much I appreciated it.


      1. The advice is great, and if I’d had it when we moved “home” I might have adjusted better, instead I had to learn some of these things the hard way. I still find I am the “invisable migrant”, and I feel more at home being an actual outsider (which of course is often normal for TCK’s but not comprehended well by those who never experienced a cross-cultural upbringing). That is something I’m learning to laugh at!


      2. The “why” has just become a personal quest to find ways to understand what others just “know” and help me fit in.

        One thing I’d experienced and had never been able to work out ( I came across in a newspaper article on linguistics), was that Australians internate at the end of a statement (as if they are asking a question), so as to leave room for another person to have their oppinion (apparently Australians don’t like taking stances). I asked a couple of people I knew if they had notice this, one Kenyan friend said when she did it her Dad would always ask “are you asking me or telling me?” (which is how I understood it, and it has always confused me), another said she took it to mean that the speaker was uncertain about what they were saying, and another said when his daughter did it he’d tell her off for not being clear!

        There are alot of idiosyncasies to navagate, and not doing so can be very isolating. I’ve spent alot of time reading cross-cultural studies, particularly on psychology, child-development, and communication. Finding bloggs like this one has been very helpful in that process.


      3. Thank you for the vote of confidence for the blog – very kind words. I love this comment for it’s illustration of those cultural nuances that don’t seem a big deal, yet can mean the difference between understanding vs. misunderstanding and conflict. Well said – and I had no idea that Aussies did that – although I’ve spent tons of time overseas with Australian friends. Of course, they were transplants or Adult Third Culture Kids….!


  3. Hi all – I wanted to let everyone know that Joann has been trying to respond to your comments and because of a glitch in the system has been unable to. But so glad that this post resonated and there are some great responses here! Thank you for reading and passing this on!


    1. Yes! I have had to return to my passport country twice (both times after 10-12 year spells). Joann’s point that “belonging has multiple layers of meanings” rings true for me. I may feel like I’m assimilating, even developing a sense of belonging, but it isn’t necessarily so until the locals bestow that privilege. So #8 is great advice!


  4. Brilliant advice….so practical. Cultural sensitivity and acknowledgement that we are the outsider is so important – for travelers as well as residents. This should be printed up and pasted inside all passports. ;-)


  5. Wonderful post even appropriate for working cross culturally right where we are. My first thought as I began reading aloud to my husband and daughter was , “she must have gone to MI (missionary internship ) where we heard much about “toleration of ambiguity”! Then Emilie said I think I know this woman! And I recalled a recent journey to China by 2 women tracing the steps of Esther… Is that you? Looked at your blog and was not surprised at the state your DL is in. Funny we are currently on our way to DG National conference and TLI staff mtg. Thanks again for your important and instructive words!


    1. Yes, I am one of those who trekked across western China looking for Esther Nelson. Glad you went along for the ride with us. Have fun at the DG Conference, and if you see Noel Piper, tell you you followed our escapades. Sorry, but I’m not sure what DL refers to.


Add to the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s