Making Friends Abroad and at Home

March 29, 2013

This title doesn’t imply you need to consult an article like this to find something you’re doing wrong, beef up your social skills, or just “snap out of it”. Rather, I wanted to discuss what it was like for me living abroad in a variety of countries for different amounts of time and tell you how that impacted friendships: making new ones, maintaining old ones, and letting some die.

I never fully appreciated how difficult it is to connect with people until I tried living in the US after six years abroad. Being the expat or even a tourist automatically links you to other foreigners by association: different body type and language than the locals; seeing the same sights for the first time; wanting insights into how things are done, from buying bento boxes at the 7-11 to locating the nearest bus terminal.

It all seemed so much easier when I was younger. Work and life were secondary to having fun. Friendships and interests weren’t outlets to escape the mundane, but rather the center of one’s universe. Even through my teens, there was less pretense, less of a reason to front about one’s accomplishments. When I left Austin to go abroad, most of the people I considered friends were already scattered across the country. I didn’t have anyone I could call up to go to a movie or just hang out. I wasn’t dating anyone. I didn’t have people who could set me up with their female friends. I was genuinely alone most of the time.

When I moved to Japan, I never really considered making serious friends. I was still keeping in touch with some people from high school, but it’s fair to say I was entering the realm of adult friendships. No longer were the days when one could simply roll a ball past the kid on the playground and expect to be invited to a sleepover. Maybe the relationship will last the test of time and you’ll be just as comfortable discussing Duck Tales as downing six shots of tequila. It’s been known to happen.

The only means available to me to hang on to these friends was the Internet: Facebook, email, and Skype (recent invention). But even with technology at my disposal, I could feel how these friendships were changing, evolving to meet our new working stiff status. It took time to cut through all the pablum (“How’s the weather over there?”) to reach a real, meaningful conversation… on the rare occasions it happened. And even then, I couldn’t escape the fact I was alone, in a dank apartment, staring at a computer screen. The world, my world, was beyond those four walls, beyond what my former friends could understand.

Ask anyone who’s traveled long term and returned home: people who stay behind just don’t know, and talking to them about the thing most important to you, travel, elicits little understanding. Oh sure, first they’re curious, maybe a little envious, but after enough time, when the experience is still very much a part of your life, all they can think is: “Won’t he ever shut up about Korea?” It’s hard to hang on to non-traveler friends. The only person I still talk to from high school is so busy I can’t even meet him in person; we’re limited to a brief conversation over the phone every six months or so.

That’s more or less where I was in Japan: limited to friends half a world away; English teachers with the same “fish out of water” mentality; and Japanese people who saw me as little more than a token foreigner to add to their group of friends.

Honestly, I didn’t care.

I was so overwhelmed with everything around me in Japan I couldn’t have cared less about making real friends. I still socialized with the foreign community, dated a few Japanese girls, and formed my own monthly Texas Hold ‘Em game, but by and large, I was happy on my own. I was based in a fairly large city and had plenty of opportunities to socialize as needed, though I felt no real connection with any of the people I met. Even if I had, we both would have had imposed time limits: contracts ending, vacations cut short.

Then it all changed. I started to not derive as much pleasure from solo travel. I needed friends in my life.

Korea was a fortunate happenstance with Couchsurfers, people my age, and a limited number of douchebags looking to sleep with local women (ok, we had 1-2). We shared a desire to spend time together in the absence of anything else to do in our little town besides drinking soju and singing noraebang. This was my only experience having the kind of friends I wanted as a adult, and it only worked out because we were “trapped” together in a small town abroad, yet shared an international mentality. If we wanted to socialize, there were few options other than calling someone up in the area and seeing what he or she was in the mood to do. So we improvised: movie night, poker, rooftop BBQs, board games, random adventures to nearby towns.

If I could recreate anything to form new friendships, it would be that situation in Korea. Sometimes you end up with some bad apples, but through shared experiences and hardships, the friendships you make are real. People with whom you want to spend lots of time.

These days, I find myself struggling to put in the effort to meet new people. In my mind, I can only see friendships in black and white, superficial and deep. The ones I meet and feel a connection towards apparently have other friends with whom they would rather spend time. If you truly like someone and want to enjoy his company, then you could text him. Call him. Email him. Arrange to meet. Stop canceling. So many people come across to me as genuine individuals online (irony), but once the opportunity arises to have fun together, it seems they’re too busy. When we do meet, the conversation rarely gets deep enough to take things to the next level.

When moving your life to a new place, there are three things you cannot do without: First is a place to live, and second, friends. The third and most critical thing is to support yourself. Without that you might lose the first two.
Bangkok Found, Alex Kerr

Things aren’t really working out in San Francisco in that respect. People I meet here are friendly enough when it comes to making passing acquaintanceships, but it seems like they’ve already filled the roles of best friends in their lives. Maybe I was just left behind when I went abroad; instead of traveling, I could have stayed and solidified friendships in Austin. Instead, I let a few years pass. Those people had time to meet others, and decided they didn’t have room for anyone else. And so I stand on the sidelines, wanting in, but never being called more than once a month, if that.

It seems (to me) that all the effort is on my end, because I want things to be more than what they are. The same pattern applies to romantic attachments; I’ve had a ridiculous number of first dates in San Francisco, but they’ve never led to a second because many people assume there must be instant chemistry. Well, I believe in chemistry, but I don’t believe ANYONE can determine how things will be in the long run after just one date. Closing the door on those possibilities and telling yourself it’s for the best isn’t being fair to either one of you.

I’ve been kidding myself, believing that settling in one place would somehow increase my chances of developing closer friendships and finding love. The only way that will happen is to make myself come alive, living my passion, and draw the others to me, wherever I happen to be. “Friends” (and yes, I use the term very loosely) have been telling me I’ve seemed downright depressed the last few months. Well, I’ve been trying to force myself into a stable life for the above reasons, and I don’t see it working. I’ve been lonely, and it’s hurt… a lot.

If you intentionally ignore a message from me or put it off because you don’t consider me important enough to answer with your full attention, you’re not a friend. If you can’t take the time to reach out once a week and share what’s going on in our respective lives, you’re not a friend. If you keep yourself at a distance because you have other things going on in your life and don’t want to weigh down others, you’re not a friend. If you have no intention of ever putting in the effort to see me, you’re not a friend. Not to me. I want to talk. I want to meet. I want to laugh together, share thoughts, discuss feelings. I’m there, doing these things. Where are you?

One Response to Making Friends Abroad and at Home

  1. Michael on March 29, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Not gonna lie: the prospect of going back sort of terrifies me.

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