Missed the previous posts? Read ‘Part 1: Leaving Home’ and ‘Part 2: Acclimatising’.
So, now you’ve settled in, sorted out your living arrangements and located your local supermarket. Now, it’s time to start carving out a new life for yourself. And for me, building a solid foundation of friends is one of the most important parts of settling in.
I have put a great deal of thought into this aspect of expat life, and lately, I’ve been busy trying out my own advice as I establish my own network here in the Windy City. I like to think of friendships as an investment: it’s an investment in yourself, in others, and in happiness. Life is always more fun when you have people to share the experience with.
The Importance of Making Friends
As humans, crave human connection, shared experience and love. We find these qualities in the bonds we build with other people. And the time spent forming and enjoying these bonds not only provides a boost for your mental health and physical wellbeing, it also increases your enjoyment and connection to a place. Based on my experience, people with friends are just happier. I would even go so far as saying that friendship is an essential requirement of life, right up there with food, water and shelter.
Yet as an expat, we are removed from our support networks and our circle of friends back home. We are isolated, literally and metaphorically, so actively building friendships in your new country is a vital part of your overall experience of life abroad. But making friends is not as easy as it used to be, being thrown together with people in primary school, or playing out with the other kids your age from your neighbourhood. It’s a little more complicated than that as an adult (even though it shouldn’t be!).
Being in a foreign city and not knowing a soul is daunting, and putting yourself out there is hard. Sometimes, you believe you’d be far more happy in the short term staying indoors in your pajamas, eating ice cream. But that’s not the best long term solution — just the easiest. It takes courage to reach out. Once you make that first friend, then another, it clicks. You will feel like a participant in your new city, instead of an envious bystander.
Expats are a mostly social bunch. Many of us hang out online, looking to build new support networks with those experiencing similar issues. And to a degree, I’ve found meeting people online is relatively easy, but in the flesh is where the greatest gains occur. It’s important to go beyond the screen, the keyboard.
And as much as we all want you to think that life abroad is all sunshine, unicorns and rainbows, it’s not. Life happens here, just as it does back home: good days, bad days, run-of-the-mill days. So it’s important to build foundation of friendship to help you through it. Often just getting out of the house (and my head) and interacting with people is enough to make me feel better. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Germany-based Australian writer Liv Hambrett is one who also understands first hand the importance of taking a chance on the assorted people in your new environment, likening it to social therapy:
Friends are for survival, for the maintenance of mental health. That girl who seems like a bit of a laugh is to be snaffled, she is a date to be scheduled. She is an important connection to be made, even if it’s just for one coffee. She is someone who is going to prevent your perspective from narrowing, provide conversation, affirmation, understanding, perhaps even a little avenue for venting. She is going to save you from existing purely online and then entirely in your head and then in a bubble of egocentric pity.
— Liv Hambrett
Reaching out, and feeling as though you are able to reach out, is so important as a human. We all crave connection, empowerment, inspiration. We all want to be heard and acknowledged. And as much as we adore our partners/children/family, we need some down-time from them as well. This is where spending time with friends becomes important.
Skype, FaceTime and phone calls back home can be great, but they’re all two-dimensional. And sometimes, it just doesn’t cut it. You need more — you need the support and encouragement from someone beside you. So the payoff for investing in local friendships is high.
Four Tips for Meeting New People
So how do you meet people and an expat? Here are four ways to kick-start your social circle abroad:
1. Join a sports team or a fitness centre.
Play basketball, softball, netball, hockey, soccer, tennis. You can even sign up for a sport that you’ve never played before. There are plenty of teams out there, no matter your skill level.
And aside from the social aspects of physical activity, there are plenty of physical and mental benefits of keeping fit. You’ll feel good about yourself, burn some energy and meet people.
2. Sign up for a class.
If you’ve always wanted to learn how to ballroom dance/cook/throw pottery/study a new language/take an orienteering course, then a move to a new city is the perfect opportunity. Many evening courses at community colleges are a great starting point, and often don’t cost the earth to participate.
3. Look online for meetup groups sharing similar cultural backgrounds or interests.
And if your hobby has a local business (such as a craft/yarn shop or bookshop), these people will often know of those who arrange social gatherings, like knitting groups, book clubs and Wine & Paint. If there’s something lacking in your community, why not start your own group?
4. Do you know of someone who has lived or worked in your new town?
Contact them and see if they can introduce you to some great people. When people are endorsed by trusted friends, they come with a ready-made seal of approval. That was one of the ways I met one of my best friends in Ireland – through a connection’s connection made by my Dad. I took a leap and sought her out, and I am so glad I did! She’s a friend for life.
Just Give it a Go
These are only a handful of ideas, but there’s plenty more I can rattle off the top of my head: like joining a political or social activist group; those centered around dog ownership, music appreciation, singles meet-n-greets, expat connections, book clubs, kids’ playgroups. And don’t forget those around you: at work, in your apartment building, at your local coffee shop. The most important thing you can do is try.
Meeting people can be hard and building friendships as an adult takes a lot longer than they did when we were kids. But it’s worth the time, energy and effort that you put in.
Not every person you come across will end up being your best mate, and that’s okay. Some of the most unexpected connections have formed when I’ve summoned the courage to invite people out for coffee. So take a chance — you’ve little to lose and everything to gain.
Are you an expat? How did you build you new social network in your new home?
I’d love to hear any tips you might have!