Integration in a foreign country: The balance between one’s own identity and the new home

People who go abroad are mostly keen to do well and to integrate. What are the deciding factors and what does it take to integrate? The Alumniportal sets out to find answers – and Germany-Alumni tell their integration stories and share their biggest challenges.

In the face of the public debate about refugees, the topic of integration seems to be more relevant in Germany than ever before. Ever since Angela Merkel’s famous “We can do it” of August 2015, there is a discussion on how so many people can be integrated all at once. But what does integration even mean? Is it possible to become integrated in a foreign country at all?

Integration is not a one-way street, it always takes two: Someone who wants or has to be integrated into a society and a society to take them in. In the process of integration, therefore, a smaller outside group joins a larger group, creating a homogenous society. The outside group has to adapt to the larger group. For integration in a foreign country, this means learning the language, knowing and following the laws of the respective country and respecting the rituals and holidays of the receiving society.

Which factors contribute to integration?

But much more is necessary for successful integration. The website of Maria Böhmer (CDU), Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, states: “In reference to social coexistence, integration means that culturally and otherwise differing persons and groups live together in a society under equal rights. In this context, integration policy must create frameworks for integration, which means addressing issues of legal equality of treatment, promoting the elimination of discrimination and supporting and promoting mutual acceptance and appreciation.”

„The process of integration means that both sides take steps toward each other, get involved and communicate, find similarities and differences, and take on communal responsibility.”

Source: The Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration

The state thus creates the framework and individual players in a society contribute greatly to successful integration – by providing a welcoming culture. This could be expressed by companies providing training or jobs to people with foreign roots. Or by large parts of a population volunteering – for instance to practise the language with migrants or to help them in their dealings with the authorities.

A simple, uncomplicated and inexpensive way of getting closer to German society is through sports clubs. With its programme “Integration through Sports”, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund, DOSB) has been contributing to the integration of migrants into society for more than 25 years. According to the DOSB, more than 50 percent of children and young people and around 30 percent of adults with a migration background are organised in sports clubs: “Sports clubs therefore reach large numbers of migrants of all age groups.”

Contact with the local population is particularly important

Many Germany-Alumni confirm how important it is to be in contact with the local population during a stay abroad. Their contacts with Germans made them feel at home and they took many positive memories home with them.

“First we learned the language, then we ate authentic German cuisine, and finally we made friends,” says Mary Ann L. Reyes. She comes from the Philippines and spent one year in Germany. “Hanging out with newfound German friends was a memorable experience. We cooked together. We dined out together. Until now, we have constant communication. No matter where we are in the world, we all keep in touch. I believe that there shouldn’t be any limit in integrating ourselves in any country. You can only learn the culture if you are fully immersed.”

Get to know Germany and the Germans

Dr Teresita Tumapon, who also gained international experience in Germany, has this suggestion to avoid culture shock: “One way is to read ahead about the culture to avoid stereotyping people and unrealistic expectations. Having some cultural knowledge makes for easier understanding of new acquaintances.”

But she also agrees that contact with people is an important factor for integration: “Attending and participating in celebrations and cultural events facilitates one’s integration in the new culture and adds to one’s cultural sensitivity. It makes one blend more easily in daily life.  One becomes at ease; hence would feel ‘at home’.”

“The German welcoming culture, which we experienced above all from members of civil society, has helped my family and me as refugees to feel a little more at home. And it gives me hope that Germany will become our real home one day, once we speak the language and work here.”

Interview with Dr Anan Haidar

Ronaldo T. Limbago was in Germany for a total of 18 months in 1997 and 1998. He says: “As I grew more comfortable with the German language, I found myself understanding the German culture and society better.  My interaction with the German people increased exponentially, to the point that quite a number of Germans considered me as one of their own. In doing so, it forever broke the stereotype that I once had in my mind of Germans being cold, stiff, super serious, with work at the centre of their lives.  Instead, they are polite, friendly, family-oriented, value their free time, and they enjoy a good laugh.”

The balance: Becoming familiar with the unknown and preserving one’s roots

So, in order to become integrated in a foreign country, it is important to speak the language and especially to get in touch with the local population. And of course, a meaningful occupation, like a course of study or a job help people from foreign countries and cultures to see themselves as part of their new society.

But a new language, a new culture and new rituals, celebrations and holidays can change one’s cultural identity. That is why many of the Germany-Alumni interviewed by the Alumniportal Deutschland on the subject of integration stated that it was also important to them to maintain their own roots. A look at the shopping precincts in big German cities confirms this: There are African and Asian shops as well as outlets for Russian specialties. And you can also find the immigrant cultures’ religious communities or other associations in many German cities.

Deutsche Welle: Berlin's integration street

Abigail Romero-Estrada spent the period from October 2011 to October 2012 in Germany, and the country became her second home. And yet, she also sees the difficulties in becoming integrated in a foreign country: “It takes a lot of courage to learn the DO’s and DON’T’s. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget what you are accustomed to but rather to compare the difference and adapt to it. (…) It creates a balancing act in staying true to your origins.”

The same goes for Germans abroad. Florian Schneider, who has been living as a German lawyer in Moscow for 15 years, feels that the awareness of his original cultural identity is vital: “I am pretty open to Russian culture, but I am maintaining my German roots. In this way, I am keeping my distance. I am very comfortable this way.”

Rodolfo Perez, Germany-Alumnus from the Philippines, also sees the balance between integration into a foreign culture and maintaining one’s own culture as a great challenge. He further underlines the importance of the time factor: “It all depends on how long I stay in Germany. It is hardly worthwhile to learn the language for a stay of less than six months. But if I should wish or be compelled to stay in Germany permanently, I should have a good knowledge of the language and the culture.”

Community discussion on integration

Many Germany-Alumni have stayed abroad for a longer period of time and are experienced when it comes to integration in a foreign society.

  • How do we integrate in foreign countries and how do we manage the balance between integration and staying connected to our homes?
  • To which degree are we able to and do we want to integrate, and why?
  • Would you advise limited contact with your compatriots in order to make new friends more easily or are there advantages to staying in your own community abroad?

Which aspects do you feel to be important? Is there as much discussion about the topic of integration in your country as there is in Germany?Share your experiences with us in the community group “Neue Perspektiven auf Migration und Entwicklung” – we are looking forward to reading your posts!

Community discussion

Author: Verena Striebinger

February 2017

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Moustapha Laalioui
8 February 2017

Such a great article

Blagoj Janeshliev
8 February 2017

Verry funny.
Really funny..
I learned good stuff in Germany. I experinaced how did the Germans schaffen to rebuild their country and to make "Made in Germany" a brand that assures quality. And Frau Angela Merkel is really a great leader of modern Europe. In a way, same as Herr Helmut Kohl.
The Germans toght me 3 crucial things:
1. Be punctial. If you have schedualed a meeting and you are 5 minutes late - that means that you do not respect the other party. Real bad manners!
2. Immer respect der Regeln. If there is a rule - then respect it. Don't try to go "sideways". There is an order in everything. That I think has made Germany strong!
3. Respect your boss even you think that you are better than him. If someone made him a boss, then you are not to question his competence.
Sadly, I live in the Balkan's. The mentality here is quite the opposite. Everybody tries to "bend" the Regeln.
Funny..isn't it?!

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