Those of you who have me on Facebook might have noticed that I’m starting lots of conversations there nowadays. This is because in my new home, Bolivia, I have very few real humans to interact with.
Moving abroad makes you think long and hard about your social networks. Take your friends. How do you know them? Some people spend Friday nights with friends from school or university. Others go drinking in the company of their colleagues. If they’re religious, they might have friends from their temple of choice. My mum spent a lot of time getting to know the parents of my school playmates.
When you move to a new country, you might have none of these. Here in Bolivia, I don’t. School was on the other side of the world. I’m not working yet. I don’t go to church – which, as we discovered this morning, involves signing throaty hymns on a nearby patch of grass of a Sunday because they don’t have a building. I’m here with my partner, but we don’t have kids, so there’s no school network. When I was studying in Germany, I had little in common with most international students, but at least I was in the student community.
This boils down to a miraculously empty calendar. It’s Friday, but nobody’s invited us anywhere. We’ve been in all day for the same reason. Perhaps there are cafes and bars and homes where we would be welcome, but we don’t know of them yet. So I look at Facebook. Then I look at my e-mails. Then I look back at Facebook. I hit Gmail’s Refresh button, just in case they haven’t auto-updated. I check the spam. And I feel incredibly isolated.
When you’re a new arrival, you never know where the next friend might come from. One of my closest German friends wandered up to me in a metal club after the (clearly inferior) friends I’d gone with left without telling me. An ex-colleague tells of a soul mate she met at the Brazilian migration department as they despaired together over bureaucracy. Here, my closest friend seems to have come from a Facebook comment.
Different nationalities react differently to newcomers. In Germany, that reaction was suspicion. Multiple people assured me that in the frozen northlands of Hannover, friends were hard won, but once they were won, they were friends for life. This in contrast to those superficial Bavarians, who tarted out their friendliness to any passing charlatan. This approach seemed logical enough, but the trial period seemed to be measured in years – cold comfort to an exchange student.
I responded to this with the scatter bomb approach, going to everything from climbing centres to punk bars on my own, in the hope of striking up a conversation. This was so terrifying, it may as well have been skydiving. The road from seeing someone you think you’ll click with to getting chatting and – heaven forbid – staying in touch, while simultaneously not coming across as some sort of sex pest, is paved with pitfalls.
In a new country, you have the extra hurdle of a language barrier. At home, you would just ask “Do you want to go for a beer sometime?”. In this confusing new tongue, trying to work that sentence out becomes a perilous game of guessing and second-guessing, even if you’re relatively fluent. You could say it one way, but what if that sounds needy to a native speaker? How about another? That involves using slang your geriatric high school teacher taught you, and may sound like you’ve just time travelled from 1978.
At times like this, I can see the draw of the ex-pat community. People often complain that foreigners “don’t integrate” or only hang out with their own nationality. But they fail to ask themselves when they last befriended a foreigner.
Germany was great, in the end. It took several months and lots of scary extrovert behaviour, but finally, I made solid friends who I still speak to: couchsurfers, jugglers, metalheads, colleagues and, yes, ex pats. I’ve visited them and they’ve visited me. After a year, I was still meeting people I wanted to hang out with again, and they wanted to hang out too. I was no longer this strange, friendless creature, but a fluent German speaker who knew the place and had things to share. But life moves on, and now I’m in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. New language, new culture, new start.
So, if you meet someone who’s new in town, stay in touch. If they seem sound, swap numbers. Invite them to a party. I like hanging out with people from other cultures because they offer me so much insight into my own. They make me think beyond my own borders. And trust me, if you’re ever in their shoes, you’ll appreciate it.