How to find friends abroad? “Well.... Expats have no friends,” I was told by a veteran - a serial expat, who lived in several countries and at first glance seemed to have hundreds of friends all over the world.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
This serial expat is a matter-of-fact person, so she essentially gave me an itemized list :-)
First, you no longer have friends in your home country because they forgot about you long ago. You cannot really stay true friends over Facebook. Since you left, you have missed birthdays, weddings, and births. You were not there when they needed you. Moreover, living abroad changes you so you find that youno longer have much in common with old friends.
Second, potential friends, who have also come from abroad and live near you in your new country, are so busy building their new lives that they do not have much time for you. That is, unless you are somehow useful to them. And, if you manage to make any friends at all, they will leave soon anyway, going back home or elsewhere. Then you are back to square one. :-)
Third, in order to find friends, you need to look hard. It is not enough to go to an expats meeting (just because we come from the same country does not mean we have a lot in common). It is not enough to have one lunch date with a local. Remember, locals have their own friends, collected throughout the years. Why would they take any interest in you? Just think how many foreigners did you befriend when living in your home country?
Fourth: even if you manage to make some friends abroad, you will leave in a few months, or years anyway. Or they will. Once again you are back to square one.
After listening to this, I wanted to say: “Seriously?”
But I could not really disagree. Because what she said was true – it is not easy to find friends abroad. When you move, there are many things that you need to prioritize: human contact often goes on the backburner.
Please, please, please. Don’t make this mistake.
There is plenty of psychological research showing that immigrants are at a greater risk of depression and anxiety disorders than people who stayed in their home country. The risk is highest for immigrants aged 18-36. This depression (not to be confused with melancholy or mild homesickness) may have many causes. Among the most important are social isolation and loneliness. Humans are herd animals. If friends at home are lost (see item # 1 from this list) and we have no new ones (see items #2, #3 and #4), we are left by ourselves. You might have a child and/or a partner with you, but this might be too hermetic.
It is worth to devote some time and effort to cultivate new friendships when you are abroad. As Americans say, “make friends.” This means befriend them actively. Don’t sit and wait. Act.
Make an effort. Do not take offence if some meeting does not happen immediately. Maybe reach out even more. Take the initiative, offer help. If it does not immediately result in a great friendship, so be it. But it is good to have close acquaintances, especially among neighbors.
It might mean you will have to take your cues from American movies and knock on someone’s door bearing a cake. And if someone knocks on your door with a plate of muffins, do what friendly Americans do – never, ever hand the donor an empty plate back. Cook something in exchange.
Do not expect to immediately find a best friend. A good company to go for a walk or see a movie would be perfect for starters.
Alex Williams wrote an article for the New York Times about how making friends becomes harder as we get older. I think each immigrant should read that article. Williams says that he has struggled to find those types of call-in-a-crisis, would-have-been-his-groomsman type of friendships, like the ones he made as a young adult. Now, he has friends for specific things. There are friends to go to dinner with because they love food and culinary stories. There are football friends. There are friends you make through your children’s’ playdates. Everyone is seemingly satisfied with this relationship.
Do not expect the worst.
I have met “activity” friends. But I also managed to met “total” friends as well. Even though they come from the other end of the world and from a completely different culture, from the very first moment we started talking as if we knew each other for centuries. We were not burdened with cultural, historical, and language differences. So, believe me, it is possible.
And even if you will eventually leave your host country (see items #1, #2, and #3 on my friend’s list), it will still have been worth it to meet each other.
Finally, despite the protests of my serial expat friend, that I mentioned in the first paragraph, I want to give you three benefits of friending abroad.
Here they are - the benefits of expat friendship:
1. You make friends fast.
You meet someone new and already have a potential friend (e.g., a friend for an activity)? You ask for her phone number right away. You immediately set up the next meeting. There is no point waiting, you need to create those friendships faster than you needed to if you were still in your home country.
2. Expat friendships go deeper.
There is no family and a circle of friends, like you have in your home country. So it takes less time with a true friend to turn to serious subjects and tasks. For example, you drive them to the airport, accompany them to the doctor, watch their children, or do groceries for them when they are sick.
3. You meet people you probably would have never run into in your home country.
Maybe they have a different story than most of your friends, or maybe they come from a completely different culture. You learn a lot from them and you become a better person. I think this is the best thing of all. Maybe one day you will send thank you notes to all these people. At least I am planning to.
Do you have good friends abroad? How did you find them? Please share!