Here are 4 easy ways to learn the local culture when living overseas

By Lizann Lightfoot

Moving to a foreign country is an exciting and intimidating experience. Daily life can be full of frustrations and culture shock, but the overall experience is something you will remember for years. To make the most of your overseas experience, experience the local culture. But what is the best way to do that?

There is no right or wrong way. You can live off-base, send your kids to a local school, and immerse yourself in the culture. But even if you live on-base. you can still experience plenty of cultural experiences. Try any of these ideas when you PCS to a new country:

1. Shop locally

Sure, the commissary will have all the familiar brands and flavors of home, but shopping there is literally the same as being in America. Off base, you will find local flavors that are unusual, fun, and reflect the culture. Shopping off-base may be challenging at first, especially if you don’t know the language, can’t find parking, and aren’t sure how to navigate the local market. But it is worth it! Grab an American friend to go with you and show you the ropes, or a new local friend who will help translate. Try out these simple shopping excursions:

  • Get fresh fruit or vegetables from the local produce stand or from a nearby farm.
  • Stop by the local bakery for a warm loaf of bread or a tasty treat.
  • Don’t be afraid by the smell from the cheese market. Try something new!
  • If you are near a coast, find a seafood market and learn how to order a fresh catch.
  • Check out a flea market or outdoor street fair for good deals on clothing, crafts, and food.
  • Go to a Christmas market or Easter market for unique gifts.

2. Celebrate local holidays

Every country has a unique culture, which is usually intertwined with their history and major religion. If you want to understand more about your host country, experience local holidays–not just Christmas and New Year’s, but also the unique celebrations you have never heard of before.

When we lived in Spain, there was a spring festival every year called feria which was the highlight of the social calendar. Children learned dance steps, women bought ruffled, polka-dot flamenco dresses, and entire families would spend a day at the feria festival. Whether you are there as a spectator or teaming up with friends to participate, joining these celebrations will be a cultural experience:

  • If there is a parade, stake out a spot along the route and watch it.
  • For festivals involving traditional dancing, take a class ahead of time to learn the basic steps. If the locals wear traditional costumes, try wearing the same.
  • Towns in Europe celebrate Christian holidays and saint feast days, usually with a very public party. Everyone is invited to town events, so join in even if you aren’t religious.
  • Food festivals are awesome. In Spain, there are public celebrations for certain seafood dishes, sherry wine, olives, and even a type of sweet toast. Food I couldn’t pronounce was still delicious.
  • Try out local customs, whether that means eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve or jumping over bonfires on the beach on Midsummer’s Night. These unique adventures will become treasured memories.

3. Learn the language

That might be easier for some European countries than it is in Japan, but whenever Americans make an effort to speak in local phrases, it opens up doors and opportunities. Just using “please” and “thank you” can get you better customer service. Most bases offer free basic classes to service members and families, or you can pay for a private or group tutor. Read here for more tips on learning a foreign language.

4. Take day trips

When we lived overseas, we learned so much by exploring local towns and learning more about the history of our region. Small towns off the beaten path can be like time capsules that show the local culture the way it has been for generations. Traveling an hour down the road can bring you to a region with different landscape, weather, and food. While you are out and about, try this:

  • Your base Family Center or MWR probably offers local tours and cultural experiences. Sign up for one to enjoy a bilingual guide and arranged transportation.
  • Visit any historic sites or ruins. Learning an area’s history gives you a deeper appreciation for their culture and traditions. In Europe, a citizen ID card (issued to military families upon arrival) will grant you free entrance to many historic sites.
  • Visit local churches, temples, or mosques. No matter your faith, religious buildings are great examples of art and architecture.
  • Explore museums and cultural sites. Even with kids in tow, we had a great time visiting art museums, Roman ruins, and monuments. The kids played treasure hunt games in museums and pretended to shoot canons off of old castle walls.

Try any or all of these ideas, a few baby steps at a time. The more you experience local culture, the more things will start to make sense and you will enjoy living in a foreign country!

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at