After last week’s guest blog entry explained why leaving the expat bubble is important, this week’s guest author — Andrea, a German expat in the US — ponders the differences between friendships among expats and friendships with locals. Below, she also provides tips on making new friends abroad, so don’t miss out on her advice!
You did it: you packed your bags and moved abroad. Maybe you followed a dream job or the love of your life or just that adventurous inner voice – hooray for a new phase of life! After the first rush of adrenaline has subsided, however, you notice that one thing is lacking. It didn’t quite fit in your luggage and now you miss it terribly: a set of good friends.
Sooner or later many of us expats have to deal with loneliness abroad, and finding this new circle of friends is oftentimes easier said than done. As a matter of fact, there is actually some finesse to making lasting friendships abroad, and I am happy to share my hard-earned wisdom with all fellow friend-seekers.
Every time “newcomers” land in their new home country, they do what all of us have done – they make friends with fellow expats. Nothing wrong with that; it is perfectly normal: we understand each other; we know similar joys and struggles; we “get” each other. It is therefore not surprising that throughout history, immigrants from similar countries settled together and formed Little Italys and Chinatowns along the way.
Not only do we share comparable experiences, we also find sympathy for our complaints about all the things that we may not like about our new “home” – we can vent our frustrations in a group setting. Call it group therapy: it certainly helps dealing with the numerous emotional and practical hiccups on our path to integration into our new society.
Expat friends are a fantastic gateway to a new culture, as they make your landing just a little bit smoother and – well – friendlier. If you only plan on staying abroad for a few years, this can be your best and fastest way to make connections.
While these expat friendships are valuable, you have to venture out of your comfort zone if you plan on staying abroad for the long haul. I even dare to argue that ultimately your commitment to integration could be measured by your friendships with local folks.
Why, you ask? Because you have to get past the bickering about the oddities in your new home – open up and find acceptance for the differences. You have to actively turn on this switch in your mind that says you want to be there and want to be part of it.
Early immigrants frequently shed their old identity altogether and conformed to their new life in a seemingly brash way in order to blend in as seamlessly as possible. While we value our original identities more today and would often not consider such an abrupt change, we do need to be able to find joy in our new reality, unless we plan to remain outsiders forever. I am not suggesting turning a blind eye to the peculiarities of your new home – seeing things from a different point of view is worth a lot – but you could begin by shifting your mindset from “this is how we differ” to “this is what we have in common”.
Ultimately, we are talking about an identity question: imagine that your personality is a mosaic of all the things that make you, well, you. You enjoy good food, you are ambitious, like to dress smart, you may be agnostic – and now you find yourself in a country were people tend to take life a bit easy, wear sandals on all occasions, define food by its nutritional content rather than its culinary finesse and seem to incorporate religion into each and every aspect of their lives. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this may cause a little friction along the way if you stick to your definition of yourself.
If you look a little deeper, though, there may be pieces in your mosaic that overlap well with your new culture: You like sports, they like sports; you like music, they like music, and so on. You see, you don’t have to change completely, but instead emphasize common values more and stress differences less.
You shouldn’t give up who you are, just look at all aspects of yourself, not just the ones you are most comfortable with. Some cultures even bring out an array of unknown personality traits or behaviours that we didn’t know we had or liked but that feel so right. Dancing, singing, staying up late at night, eating 5-course meals on a regular basis… Embrace them!
If you still don’t find masses of people running down your door wanting to be your friend after you have made the mental leap, here are some practical tips:
Moving to or near a university town usually makes things easier. Not only are you more likely to find fellow expats to ease you into your new culture – the atmosphere around university towns is often fairly open-minded and offers many opportunities, like sports, music, or art clubs to mingle with like-minded people. On the top of your to-do list: take a class or join a club of something you truly enjoy or have always wanted to try but didn’t get around to in your former home. This will help you feel a sense of gain rather than loss.
While it is easier today than ever before to go back to our home country on a regular basis and “touch base”, so to speak, be aware that you don’t fall into the trap of just living trip by trip if your goal is to remain living abroad. While this is tempting, you may wake up one day only to realize that you have never made your new country your home while your old home is not the one you left behind. You will realize that you have lived “at” a country but not in it and that your mental detachment has brought about your emotional distance from its people.
Be open – to society, to culture and to all aspects of yourself, and you will find a group of people that matches your personality and interests. Until then – start with your group of expat friends to get warmed up for the plunge!
Andrea is working as a free-lance author and blogs – mostly in German – about her life in the US on Andrea J Larson.com.