Friends are important, especially when living abroad. Without the gravity of relationships pulling you down to the (foreign) ground, it’s almost impossible to feel connected to the place where you park your camel (yes, that was my attempt at a joke about Israel). This connection, I’ve learned, is the kind of feeling you don’t realize, a non-feeling for lack of a better word. When you are actually connected, you don’t realize you’re somewhere foreign or “new”. You go about your life in a way that is unobstructed from the differences of a new culture or city. You maneuver through the challenges and enjoy your life as if it’s been that way forever. Feeling this awesome connection is impossible to do so without local friends.
Although an expert by no means, I’ve found myself to dabble in the art of making foreign friends. My first taste of the oh-so-sweet fruit of friendship was during my stint abroad in Brussels, Belgium where I “studied” for a semester. Now that I’ve upgraded to a 10-month sojourn in Israel, I found it fitting to share some of my secrets for making, and more importantly keeping, relationships when living abroad.
Read on if you dare! I have to warn you, though. These tips may surprise you with their extremely predictable, obvious nature. But alas, they are easier written and read in a blog than done.
#1 – Bug People…A Lot
You’re at a bar. You’re with some of “your own”. Suddenly, a local comes over to talk. You start up a conversation, in English of course, and begin to find commonalities. The pair of you begin to joke and share stories of the past. Another round of beer is ordered and the night goes swimmingly. Then there’s the information exchange. At the bar:
“Find me on Facebook! Yep, that’s me! Ok, we should really go out again. There is that great tapas bar in the Old City we could try out.”
“Yes, sounds great!”
“Great, so nice meeting you!”
Finito. That exchange came and went sooner than you could pay for your bill. Will you ever see that nice (insert country of origin) again? The answer is yes. Make the effort. Call them and message them. Don’t give up if they are busy one, two or even three times. Most likely they’d like to hang out again, but they are home which means the inevitable responsibilities, family and friends to juggle. Let pride and dignity float away with the rest of your country’s bad habits and take one for the team. Make the effort.
#2 – Learn the Language
You may think the struggling, stumbling, mispronounced attempts at speaking their language would ward off potential friendships, but I promise it’s more endearing to them than distracting.
They may laugh a little and speak back to you in English, but your efforts will be rewarded. Specifically in Israel, most of my twenty-something friends have been learning English in school since they were ten, not to mention their lifetime supply of English media making them aware of colloquialisms and slang that even you only use on occasion. They understand they’ve got a leg up, and think its “cute” to see you try. So, again, suck it up and stumble along. Who knows, you may actually be able to have a solid conversation after 7 or 8 months (or at least that’s what I am hoping)!
Once you find a group of peers to connect with, you’ll feel tempted to push your old life out of the way to make room for new friendships. Resist! Keeping a regular connection to your good friends back home is a huge part of continuing to stay grounded when living abroad. It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll find there are moments when things fall through, people bail and something goes wrong. You need to rely on something real and trustworthy from back home, people who know your story and your language. They will give you the virtual space to pause, reset and feel ready to jump back in the friendship game.
#4 – Show Up
Friendly invitations may start rolling in if you’ve found a foreign niche. But after a long day getting lost in a new city and struggling to read a food label to know what you’re actually eating, you just want to fall into bed and turn off the light. Again, resist! If you’re invited to something, consider it gold and DO NOT toss it away. Showing up to events, as daunting as they may seem, truly shows your interest. I won’t lie; it’s hard to be the only foreigner in a room of foreigners. Sometimes it can feel awkward and uncomfortable. You want to find those covers and snuggle right into them because anything would be better than this whole “making friends” thing. It’s hard but worth it. Show up.
#5 – Be Cool
It’s not what you think. I’m not telling you to act differently or be someone you’re not. I am not even telling you to be less American, because that’s who you are and you just can’t leave that identity behind after stepping off a plane. I am telling you to look inward. Remind yourself what things make you unique. What weird, memorable interests do you have? And remember to think in terms your audience. What may seem usual, even boring, in your native country may be the next big thing in your new home abroad.
I remember talking to one girl about my interest in serial killers and the psychology behind their heinous acts – I know, not the best topic – but it worked! She ended up being a psychology major and we got coffee the next week. Maybe I’ll go with my love of dancing next time though… Anyway, you get the idea. Remember what makes you unique and show it.
#6 – Remember to Smile
Last but not least, smile. Everyone likes happy people. If you are annoyed, frustrated or into some heavy thinking, people can see it and make a b-line for the bar. Remember that laughing is a universal language everyone can understand.
I’d like to dedicate this post to a friend I met at a bar the first week I was in Israel. We exchanged a few laughs and numbers that first night and talked of meeting again. Who would have thought that shortly thereafter I would start volunteering with her at a Bedouin high school a half an hour outside of Be’er Sheva. Every week, we’d spend time on the bus talking about our experiences here in Israel. That topic itself is interesting enough, but add American and Swedish lenses to the mix and you’ve got one hell of a bus ride.
I learned a lot about her and grew to admire her for many reasons; her passion for social work, her undeniable sincerity and immense sense of empathy are just a few to name. Although her time here in Israel is coming to a close, I hope our friendship won’t follow suit. With plans to visit her in Sweden, I keep thinking back to those first weeks after meeting her. If we both hadn’t made the effort, found commonalities and showed up, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to know such an amazing woman.
Tack så mycket, Olivia. This song is for you! 🙂