The critical role of social support for expats.

Contributed by 鶴田 みさ Misa Tsuruta, Ph.D

If somebody asks me what the important issues that I would think of in working with expats are, I would definitely list social support among them. Social support is various social resources that you can turn to when you are in need or to reduce your stress, such as your family and relatives, your close and distant friends and acquaintances, your colleagues, your neighbors, etc… Being an expat entails many different challenges: leaving your own home country, leaving your parents behind (usually), saying good-bye to your childhood friends, classmates, teachers, etc…

In our Internet times, distant communication must be much better than pre-Internet days. We can text or video chat instantly, and if you choose to, you can still use emails and telephones. The variety of distant communication is not comparable to what was available before the advent of these technologies. I sometimes wonder how Kūkai, a famous Buddhist priest from the 8th-9th Century in Japan, was able to study everything in just two years in China and to come back to Japan to propagate Buddhism and establish his own sect of Shingon-shū. Or any other missionaries in the following centuries. Perhaps these are the wrong people to compare to. Anyway, after several years of conducting online psychotherapy sessions, I have to say it’s not exactly the same as seeing each other in person. Many must share the same realization after painful days and months of restrictions and confinement due to COVID-19. (I need to add that I keep conducting online sessions because some people need and benefit from them.)

What are the differences? It can be a whole other discussion but chiefly it can come to the body and the space, or lack of those in virtual settings. Online meetings come down to this squarely framed smiley face (bust up), without the whole body and the accompanying space around them. Human existence flattened to the two-dimensional.  But here we can be struck by the wonderful human capacity of languages and communications that allow us to connect despite these horrendous differences.

Yes, it is possible to rely on distant communication tools that are amply available out there in virtual settings. But if the stay is not so time-limited, where the sense of “long enough duration” may differ from person to person, we may have to rely also on local, immediate social networks, not only distant and indirect ones. This may not be an issue for those who are capable of meeting new people and making friends without much effort, but it can be a huge task for those who may feel socially awkward and/or inhibited. What if you never left your own area or social circles before coming to this country? What if you relied on those around you, such as family or close friends, to build a new social connection?

Yet, new people and friends are desperately needed as you move into a new life stage, be it marriage, new job, or parenting. Social support can be especially critical when it comes to child-rearing: as a mother of a teenager, when my own kid was younger, I often had this sense of relief by sharing my own stories with fellow moms, which was a normalizing experience. Parents in isolation can consciously or unconsciously repeat questions like: Is it normal to experience this? Am I doing something wrong? Is there something wrong with my kid? And so on.

In fact, social support is listed as one of the critical factors to maintain health and well-being, be it physical health or mental health. Researchers have said that we need to have different “social bubbles,” because for example, you may not be talking about family and parenting difficulties at work or talking about job-related technical issues at your immediate friends’ circles. Having a variety of social circles allows you to rely on different ones as needed and to turn to another one if one unfortunately fails.

Now I need to mention what I haven’t talked about yet in this article. Languages can play a big role in socialization of expats. If you have competency in the language of the host country or in some of the major languages of the world – English certainly named the primary one – you are lucky. But it still takes some courage and “outgoing-ness” in order to utilize one or more languages with supposedly more diverse people you meet in expat situations.

If, on the contrary, you stay in a small circle of certain expats, you may not have enough air, choices, and freedom. One time, I had a stand-alone online session with a Japanese woman in a local city in Australia. She had a social circle, but it was limited to a corporate-related wives’ circle; yet worse, it was governed by a bossy woman. She was struggling to find way out by attending an external (meaning, English-speaking) yoga class. Hers might be a bit of an extreme situation, but I would imagine that many are in situations that are not too far from ones like hers.

Being in a foreign country can be a great experience. One that can be eye-opening and even life changing. More so if you have courage to take actions to step out of existing comfort zones, and I consider building social support as one of them. But also, it takes facing some difficulties and challenges such as overcoming social anxiety, communication, language skills, realizing your own values and prejudices, uncertainty, etc… Being away from your home country is where you find usefulness of psychology.

Author: 鶴田 みさ Misa Tsuruta, Ph.D

Misa Tsuruta, PhD, studied and got training in psychology in New York City. Originally from Japan, she is now back in her home country and has a private practice in Tokyo. She is a bilingual practitioner (Japanese-English, plus some French not good enough for clinical use) keen in cultural issues.  She works with adults and adolescents with issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, relational issues, career issues, and cultural adjustment. She is also very interested in creative processes and the arts.