To Befriend or Not To Befriend

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I used to be xenophobic.  When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I refused to associate with other foreigners (the major exception being my first roommate – a French girl with whom I continue to be friends).  I didn’t sign up for Spanish classes, I didn’t go to Irish pubs, I didn’t spend Sundays shopping for antiques at ferias, and I didn’t befriend other expats.  

Rationalizing this decision was easy: if I had wanted to hang out with Americans or speak English, I would have stayed at home; mastering Spanish required total immersion in the language; assimilating to Buenos Aires culture and society would be impossible if I spent time with foreigners. 

After months of volunteering and teaching English, I got a “real job” doing customer service and content review for a U.S.-based nonprofit website.  Although the majority of my coworkers were Argentine, my immediate team was comprised of four fellow Americans. I feared for my Spanish and resented being forced to spend 40 hours a week with other expats. 

We were five American girls working together in an open office with no cubicles.  In other words, we talked, a lot.   We discussed our love for peanut butter and spicy foods, traded tips for renting an apartment without getting ripped off, complained about bureaucracy and visas, discussed dating, shopping, and dining, analyzed cultural differences, and comforted and coached each other through homesickness and the other perils of living abroad.  We got closer, and I realized how misguided, if not stupid, was my decision to reject the expat community.

Moving abroad is not like going off to college where everyone is new and in need of a friend- most locals already have an inner circle, a family, a job, and a routine and aren’t looking to make fast friends with a foreigner.  Establishing relationships in a new country and a new language takes a lot of time and patience, and typically involves bouts of depression and self-doubt. My decision to exclude myself entirely from the expat community resulted in a lot of lonely nights, waiting for a phone call from a recent acquaintance while secretly hoping that it would never come – I was often too mentally exhausted to speak Spanish for hours and too emotionally vulnerable to spend an entire evening feeling like an outsider. Whereas it can take months to feel integrated into your host city, you become part of the international community the second that you move abroad. 

As I met more foreigners, I realized that expats are more than just great starter friends, and have more to offer than advice and theme parties.  Someone who has left their own country to explore the world and live abroad is someone with whom I’m likely to have a lot in common. And I never would have met them had I stayed at home.

Most people, including myself, move abroad to broaden their horizons, meet new people, learn a new language, and experience a new culture. But by choosing not to befriend expats I was doing just the opposite.  I was denying myself the opportunity to become a member of an elusive but inclusive group of open-minded, curious, adventurous, interesting, inspirational, and unique individuals.

Obviously, when you move abroad learning about your host country, including the language, customs, and people, should be one of your major goals.  If not, what exactly are you doing there?  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  Making friends with foreigners does not mean living on the surface – it means widening your social circle, enriching your experience, and having friends from all over the world. 

This fall, my family is going on vacation to Europe.  And for the first time in over two years, I will get to see my ex-roommate, when I stay with her in Paris.

 

 

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