Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tips for International Living, #2

It's been awhile since my first post about Tips for International Living, and I thought it was a good time for another one. This one is especially appropriate given that we just moved from one international location to another, and I need to follow my own advice!

When you move to a new place, you tend to have a bit of a honeymoon period where everything is bright and shiny and new and you are flooded with positive feelings about your new home. And then right about the three month mark, the bloom comes off the rose and you begin to feel a little miserable. The excitement of adventure wears off and you realize that this is no vacation. This is life. You really do have to do all your laundry in a laughably small washer/dryer machine that doesn't ever quite dry the clothes, and go to seven different markets to get the ingredients for one meal, and see a doctor who doesn't speak your language and prescribes you medicine that Web M.D. says is not for use in the United States of America. Your only desire is to be like Dorothy, clicking your heels to go home, wherever that is. And when that doesn't work, a good cry under the covers in the middle of the day is your only alternative. If you give into it, it becomes a comfortable pattern which is good for nobody.

The thing I have learned through continually moving house over the last sixteen years: people love to meet you when you are filled with enthusiasm and a zest for life that comes with exploring your new city, but they run screaming when you are unable to get out of your jammies and can't stop crying because you are miserable and hating life and feel like you can't go on another day in this crazy foreign land.

I have found the time when I most desperately need a friend is when I'm least likely to make one. Mainly because my miserable attitude keeps me from going out and seeking someone to share my misery, and if I do make the effort, I'm such a wreck that I might as well have a horribly contagious communicable disease along with bad body odor by the way people avoid me.

So what to do? The key is those first twelve weeks of being in your new home. Go make friends like you are being paid a ridiculously high commission to do so. It's so much easier when you are a little kid, isn't it? I marvel at Benjamin who runs outside because he sees some kids playing on the basketball court. He wiggles himself into the game, gets invited over to someone's house for a snack, and comes home to say he's made three new best friends. For adults, or perhaps just for me, it's so much more difficult. How exactly does a (non-basketball playing) grown up make friends? Here's my tip:
I know it's the opposite of what we teach our kids or what we've been told our entire lives, but everyone we currently call a friend today is someone who could have been called a stranger in our past. So what do I do? I talk to anyone who makes eye contact with me. I seek out the moms at the park who are there with the kids my kids are playing with. I look for groups with similar interests on the expat websites in every city, and I commit to going to whatever their next activity is, even if I have to give myself a peptalk to walk out the door to attend. I never, ever turn down an invitation. Whether for coffee, dinner, a backyard BBQ, a quick tour of a shopping area, whatever it is, my answer is yes, even if I have to rearrange other plans. I am bright and bubbly and witty and charming to the point of exhaustion. Because I know there is a giant calendar over my head and that when it gets to the three month mark, I may not have it in me to be bubbly or charming. But after making the effort to get out there and make friends, what I will have is at least one person who invested time in me who saw me at my best, who is more likely to be compassionate when I'm suddenly at my worst. Someone to walk through the rough patch and see me through to the other side in month four where I make peace with my new city and it goes from being just another dot on the map to my actual home.

I must confess, this whole talking to strangers thing does not come easy to me. The truth is I'm quite shy and much more of an introvert than a social butterfly (a fact which stuns anyone who has spent any amount of time with me and seen my willingness to get up and make a fool of myself in front of a crowd). I relish solitude and actually require it to be at my best. But I also know there is a difference between solitude and feeling totally alone. And there is nothing more lonely than believing you don't have any friends. So I treat making friends like a job. I know it sounds a bit cold, but the investment pays off. Not everyone I meet, or every group I join is a perfect fit. But by trying everything out and talking to that lady on the bus or the family over the frozen meat case at the grocery, I'm sure to find a few that stick and stay friends long after I've moved on to another country.

So go ahead and try it. Even if you've been in your current home for years and years and think you have all the friends you could possibly need. Look around. There's probably someone brand new to town who just left all their friends and family behind and is in desperate need of what you have to offer. Don't destine that person to afternoons spent crying under the covers! Life is meant to be shared, so get out there and talk to some strangers. Especially the sassy redheaded one with two boys in tow, snapping photos of everything.  Bet you're gonna love her! Especially for the next, oh let's see, eight weeks or so...


  1. I love this article Heather, and I am one grateful "friend" that has benefitted from your willingness to connect to a stranger. Love you, you spunky redhead!

  2. I've slowly been doing this more and more, but so far mostly around church. Even then it's /so hard/. But it does help.


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