Making Friends and Learning to Be Alone
Before study abroad, I was irrationally afraid that I would make no friends and end up doing most things alone. As someone who prefers going to museums and concerts as opposed to clubs and parties, I felt terrified that I would be “uncool” (in hindsight I laugh at this, when insecure it seems I revert to middle school) and “out-of-place.”
I told myself I would do an “Eat, Pray, Love” and travel by myself, eat by myself, go to concerts, and do my thing alone… and it would all be part of personal growth because it’s good to be alone. And of course, while I do genuinely believe that knowing how to be truly alone with yourself without sinking into your smartphone is very important, I was absolutely silly to think I would make no friends or find no other like-minded people.
But still, I do think it’s important to note that being alone and not making friends is absolutely a valid fear that I later found out many of my study abroad peers shared.
It’s understandable, of course, and I think there are definitely a lot of study abroad parts that are deeply lonely: spending Thanksgiving alone in your room doing homework and eating packaged cookies, sitting off to the side of a group of Russian students who all seem to know each other and speak in really fast Russian with each other, or checking Facebook and seeing your best friends from home are now tagging other friends in memes and looking like they’re having just loads of fun without you….
All of this combined with being in a foreign setting can make you want to crawl under a blanket and wallow in your isolation, but of course, that’s not healthy for too long so here are my tips for combatting the loneliness and also feeling good about being alone.
- Reach out. I found a lot of Russian students did actually want to talk to me but were very shy about approaching me. Of course making the initiating move with my heavy accent and poor language skills was kind of the last thing I wanted to, but in the end it was never as scary as I made it out to be in my head. People are really truly generally nice, understanding, and appreciate the effort of you trying to reach out to them in their native language, and everyone appreciates being invited to do hang out.
- Do things together. If you’re worried about having awkward conversations or the language barrier, you certainly don’t have to have an intimate one-on-one in a restaurant kind of hang-out. It’s fun to bond in an activity like ice skating, visiting a museum, going out dancing, playing games, or going on a long walk together. I think this is especially important if you have a group of people with different language abilities in English and Russian and need to find something unifying.
- Don’t just clump with Americans all the time. I think this is one of the hardest things and I know I was definitely guilty of this. But the American clump can be seen as really exclusive and clique-ish to a shy Russian who might find it intimidating. Also being in large groups can be dangerous and make you a target for thievery.
- But then don’t be afraid to take personal time and speak English. It can be so overwhelming especially given the language and cultural barriers and sometimes you just want to speak in English with Americans in the American basement because you’re overwhelmed and that’s ok too. It’s important to be able to take about what you’re going through and I think that’s one of the key things that helps you not feel so isolated in a foreign country.
- Stay away from always checking social media or frequent calling home. Enjoy where you are. If you’re always checking your friends-at-home’s Twitter or Instagram or calling home all the time, of course you’re going to feel lonely and like you’re missing out, and this can keep you from enjoying where you are and toughing through the awkward moments. Don’t make your cell phone or social media your crutch.
- Accept that there are going to be awkward moments. You can’t escape them. There will be moments so awkward that it physically hurts or you say something completely silly but that’s normal. If you’re always worried about what people think about you or about being perfect, you are not going to improve your language skills or make new friends.
- Accept that you will be alone sometimes. Maybe there’s a cool Korean restaurant you want to try but none of your friends want to or there’s a show you want to go to but you’re the only one interested. You shouldn’t keep the fact that you’ll be going out alone from going. Go to what you’re interested in! Who knows? You might make friends there.
- Talk to strangers. Ok, of course it’s important to always be safe and trust your gut, but sometimes I’ve found that the random people I’ve had conversations with in the bus or the airplane have been some of the most interesting conversations of my life. I ended up getting a mini bus tour of Pushkin by an older man, being able to climb the closed Vyborg Castle Tower anyway by making friends with the guards, and getting to play with a very cute baby on the bus.
- Ask questions. Now’s your chance to hear crazy stories and wildly different perspectives. Also, you’ll probably make a lonely dedyshka’s (grandfather) day so take advantage of it. You might not understand everything being said, but also don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify if you don’t understand.
- Don’t feel pressure to be always socializing and always doing. I recently watched this viral video where a girl talked about how she thought college was going to be this wild, social time where she was going to make the best friends ever instantly but it didn’t turn out to be like that and she spent a lot of time alone. I think there’s similar connections to study abroad where it can be fantasized as this wild time where you have crazy stories, party all the time, and make wild and crazy friends. And again that might be some people’s experiences, but it’s ok if your experience is different and if you end up needing time alone or spending a quiet afternoon in or doing things alone that’s all ok. Nobody’s judging. Your experience is what you make it to be and what you want it to be.