Around Town / Life Lessons from Overseas / Thoughts / Travel

Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Part 2 of 2

Missing something? (Besides the dudes in the red dresses?)  Check out Part 1 of the Awkward Turtle Guide here, a post on Culture Shock here, and an intro the whole series here.

Can I just say thank you?  Thank you guys so much for all of your comments and for taking this whole series in the spirit it was intended.  I’ve been kicking my butt trying to write from the heart, and its just so good to read what you all have been writing in response.  Either to say “yes!  that’s how I feel!” or “I didn’t experience it quite like that…” It’s all been really thoughtful and and I’m grateful.  There were some really interesting comments, especially on the last post, so it is definitely worth a gander to see what other people are thinking on the topic.

To write this second post on making friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience moving to Chengdu.  You would think that moving to a new place with no job, no kids, and so much free time, would make finding new friends the easiest thing in the world.  It really, really wasn’t though.  I never realized before how many of my friends were people I worked with and how hard it can be for people with kids to get out to see people without any.  Moving to a new place where you don’t know a soul is a damn hard thing to do.  It feels like it should be easier, given how many of us have to do it over and over and over again, but it’s not.

It’s one thing to say “be open-minded and friendly!”  Its a whole other thing to figure out where in the city you should go, and at what time, in order to find people to be open-minded and friendly towards.  Making new friends isn’t just about having the right attitude, there’s also a fair number of logistics involved.

As I was muddling through in Chengdu I didn’t really think about what I was doing or how I was doing it.  I was just flailing around, trying to make friends, any friends at all.  It worked out alright in the end, but it would be nice to go into the next new place (say Delhi in 2.5 months?) armed with a little more confidence and a better idea of what practical things I can do to make the process a little easier, or at least a little more straight-forward.

Looking back at what worked for me in Chengdu and what didn’t, I came up with the following short list of ideas for meeting new people and making new friends in a new city.  These may not be the most innovative strategies you’ve ever read, and they may not be your cup of tea, but they did, at one time, at least work for me.

1. Sign-up for every single listserve in your new city that might possibly, remotely relate to you.  Google “your city” and “expat” or “your city” and “women’s group” or “your city” and whatever hobbies or interests you have.  You’ll probably come up with at least one or two email lists to join with invites to all sorts of book clubs, charity organizing events, volunteer opportunities, play-groups, etc etc.  Once you have a handle on all of the different activities, its time to…

2. Just Say Yes…at least at first.   Bridge club? Say yes. Coffee social?   Say yes.  Somebody is looking for volunteers to go play with little kids at a local orphanage?  Say yes.  Doesn’t matter if you don’t play bridge, don’t drink coffee, or don’t speak the language. GO.  At worst, you’ll have a great story to tell your spouse or your friends back home.  At best, you’ll meet a few people you really like.

As Kaitlin in Hermesillo wrote a few weeks ago:

I have pretty much gone out every time anyone has ever invited me anywhere..even if I wasn’t in the mood, didn’t like the venue, wasn’t going to know anyone, didn’t like the activity, etc. The main way to make friends in Hermosillo is through friends.

I wasn’t always great at this in Chengdu.  In the beginning I assumed, for some silly reason, that I would have nothing in common with the “ladies who lunch,” the book clubbers, or the bridge players of Chengdu.  So I never went to their meet-ups; and, as a result, it ended up taking me nearly two years just to get on a cheek-pecking, “how’s the baby?” basis with some of the nicest, most wonderful women in Chengdu.

Why? It turns out that while I was sitting at home, crawling up the walls, bemoaning my solitary existence, they were out and about … playing bridge.

I’m not talking about bridge club for dramatic effect here, by the way.  My last week in Chengdu, I happened to stumble into a cafe at the same time the bridge club was having their weekly game.  Seriously, every women I knew and liked and wish I knew better was there.  Palm, meet face.

You don’t have to say yes to everything forever –that would be exhausting.  Just say yes long enough so that you can figure out what you like to do and who you like to do it with.  Even just a few weeks of saying yes to everything will give you a lay of the land and help you put down roots in your new community.  Even if you only go to the bridge club once, people will know you came and usually appreciate your effort.

3. Volunteer.  If you can’t volunteer in local organizations, volunteer to help with fundraisers or community-sponsored events.  Personally, I am much more comfortable socializing when I have something else to be doing besides making small talk, be it playing duck, duck, goose with preschoolers, cutting out decorations, or cleaning up tables after a party.  Plus, there is something about being one of the people who is hanging out before or after the actual event that makes you feel a little like you’re on the inside, even if its your first week in town.

4. Invite people to your place.  Similar to number #3, I feel like I socialize more easily with new people when I’m the one hosting. It gives me things to do with my hands, credible conversational pauses when I don’t know what else to say (here, let me go refill your glass for you!), and–its my house–I’ll always know where the garbage is and the bathroom is without having to ask anyone.

Inviting people over can be a big event or as low-key as “hey its 4:30, I haven’t thought about dinner, have you thought about dinner?  Want to come over and I’ll serve you take-out pizza on plastic plates?”  I really like doing the latter, your guests don’t worry about causing you any trouble and you don’t worry about messing up or serving the wrong thing or slaving away in the kitchen while everyone is sitting around the table waiting for you.  A win-win.

But, if low-key isn’t your thing, making a tradition of hosting the same big event every year could be.  I love that some families throw the same cool theme party year after year, whether its a Valentine’s Day group dinner, a big Mardi Gras rooftop blowout, or an annual post-Marine Corps Ball brunch.  Some of our friends in Chengdu were famous for their Trivia Nights, quarterly gatherings where we’d all come over, eat their delicious food, divide up into teams and then curse out our gracious hosts for their diabolical trivial questions.

5. Run with the Hash House Harriers, at least a few times.  The Hash bills itself as “A Drinking Club with a Running Problem,” but you don’t have to drink and you don’t even have to run to enjoy the Hash.  Chris and I aren’t big drinkers and Chris normally only runs when chased, but we met some of our best friends in Chengdu running with the Hash for just a few months.  The Hash also gave us the opportunity to try some great restaurants, meet some wonderful local Chengdu people, run through beautiful countryside, and simply see a whole different side to Sichuan than we could have ever found on our own.  As long as you don’t mind some messiness, dirty jokes and frat-boy-esque humor, the Hash is an amazing way to get to know a new city.  Some cities even have “family hashes” with shorter runs and more G-rated humor and if you really don’t drink, they’ll likely just give you water or juice to jug at the Circle instead.

6. Consider making friends with the international school teachers in your city.  In Chengdu, we had quite a few expats, but a fair number of them were the sort of living-on-five-dollars-a-day-trying-to-escape-the-real-world-and-drown-my-sorrows-in-this-Tsingdao-beer kind of expats.  Especially for younger singles or couples trying to make friends outside the diplomatic community, international school teachers –the people who went to college to learn how to teach– can make great friends.  They are usually adventurous, fun, smart people who’ve already traveled quite a bit.  Equally important-they also have real jobs that they have to get up for in the morning and they are almost as visible members of the expat community as you are; so they understand when you want to head home early or avoid a crazy party that might get out of hand.

7. Look up, smile, walk directly over, say “Hello, My Name is…”  This is a very micro-level tip, but it’s been a hard-won personal victory for me that might be useful if you’re going to be expected to attend a bunch of big social events where you don’t know anyone.

When I used to have to go to networking events, I was always very nervous to go up to people, ask their name, and start a conversation.  Instead of just walking right up to someone, I’d do this weird, non-committal “is she coming to say hi, is she looking at the clock or is she just a total space cadet?” sort of sashay across the room, hoping beyond hope that my target would put me out of my misery by making the first move.

Guess what?  They never did.  And I don’t blame them.  Who wants to experience that “Hi, my name is…ohh you were just looking for the bathroom behind me weren’t you?” type of situation?  As nervous as I was about coming up to them, the other person was probably just as nervous that I wasn’t going to actually come over to them and so the result was awkward non-networking all around.

Don’t be like me.  If you see someone standing alone, smile at them, walk up to them quickly and with purpose, then say “Hi My name is…”  I like saying my name right away because I always feel like I’m interrogating the person when I ask their name without volunteering mine first–maybe that’s just me though.  Unless the other person is the meanest person in the world, they will tell you their name, ask you for yours, and then-boom!  Look at you!  You are talking to someone instead of standing around by yourself!

8.  Nothing ruins a conversation faster than spending every second of it wondering what on earth I’m going to say next.  Another micro-tip here, another one of my weaknesses.  When I’m talking to people I sometimes have a hard time slowing down my brain and just paying attention to what the other person is saying–especially when I’m nervous.  I worry about asking the wrong, or the stupid, or the accidentally-too-personal question and so sometimes I don’t ask any questions at all.  Sometimes I start talking about myself to fill the silence (yuck) and sometimes the conversation just trails off and the other person drifts away without ever knowing how interested I actually was in what they were telling me.

So, I’ve been trying a new thing lately.  As soon as question pops into my head, I ask it.  I might even interrupt the other person to ask it, on the theory that its better to interrupt and keep the conversation going than it is to stay silent and walk away.  Now I ask stupid questions, I ask obvious questions, I ask questions I have to repeat three times because they are too convoluted for simple small-talk, but I keep asking.  Those who’ve had to sit through any number of business or network training sessions are probably now saying “oh gawd not another preacher for Active Listening!” but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.  I think most of us would be wonderfully active listeners if our nerves and self-consciousness didn’t get in the way of us focusing 100% on the other person.

Strangely enough, I think that just the simple decision to not worry about asking or saying the wrong thing seems to make my conversations flow more easily, even without me doing a single other thing right.  Sometimes I still catch myself nodding along to what someone is saying without actually hearing it because I’m too busy worrying about what to say next, but I’m getting better.  Happily, I’m also enjoying the conversations I’m having a lot more, and learning so much more from them than I did before.

9. Ask people if they would like to come run errands or exercise with you. Honestly, I’ve had some mixed results here.  People are picky about errand-running, they have routines and stores they like.  If its something random like exploring a new market or visiting a tailor, this works great.  If its the grocery store-sometimes not so much.

Exercise can be easier, especially if you are just asking to go for a walk.  The best conversations I ever have always seem to happen when I am either walking or running with someone.  You know why guys play sports with their friends?  Its because its easier to talk to someone when you don’t have to sit there just looking at each other.  Its true for most girls too I think.  That’s why we like hanging out washing dishes together after a dinner party and why “Stitch ‘n Bitch” parties sound like such an awesome idea if it weren’t for having to actually know how to knit.

Plus, you are probably a busy person, the people you want to be friends with are probably also very busy people.  Sometimes its less stressful to make the time for socializing when you can do it while you cross a few things of your to-do list at the same time.  Typing that out sounds so horribly Type-A personality, doesn’t it?  Oh well, its the truth!

Nine things is kind of an odd number for a list, but that’s what I have to share.  What are your tips and ideas?  What little things have you tried that have worked for you?

Next week we’ll take it a little easier and talk about something more fun and less serious: travel!  What have your best travel experiences been?  Has being able to get out and travel a few weeks here and there affected how much you’ve been able to enjoy the place you live during the rest of the year?


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11 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Part 2 of 2

  1. I gotta comment on the travel… I think we’re the people who have traveled the most, hands down, from what I’ve seen… We arrived here in April last year and so far have been to: Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Brunei, Palau, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia (and Malaysia coming up next week!). And that’s the international trips… In the Philippines, we have traveled to: Bohol, Donsol, Siquijor, Cebu, El Nido, Coron, Puerto Princesa. Yep, all of that in 13 months! (Yay for taking advantage of long weekends and air fare deals!)

    • Oooh Yay! Thanks Carla for this comment and the list of places you guys have traveled-oh my!! What a way to spend a tour! You guys know what you are doing, that’s for sure!

  2. Thank you for posting this series. Making friends at our current post was a piece of cake because we were at FSI with what seemed to be half of the embassy,but I know it won’t always be that easy. I am definitely an awkward turtle and will for sure put your suggestions to good use in future postings.

    • OOoh that is so nice to have met so many people at FSI but I’m sure you are not so much of an awkward turtle. 🙂 Counting down the days to baby girl’s arrival now I’m sure. Hope you are still feeling reasonably comfortable and that you guys get to enjoy your last few pre-parent days!! So excited for you!!!

  3. Great series. I think sometimes I can be more of an awkward turtle in my “home” territory. Being an expat forces me to, as you put it, say “yes” more often, and be more outgoing. I’ve always been curious how much infrastructure the FS gives people doing tours. I imagine, like the military, there’s something of a built-in community but I don’t even know where I got this idea from. I would love to hear more. And traveling around our newly adopted country is SO important. I find that I get in kind of a funk, being the accidental trailing spouse, if we don’t get out and explore on the weekends. Because then life is mostly just laundry, groceries, picking up the house, trying to figure out dinner, etc., so we might as well be anywhere, and somewhere where all those mundane things would be easier. So exploring the country while we’re here helps to discharge all the inconveniences and annoyances that come with being an expat.

    • Ah yes! You put it so perfectly! Without travel life overseas is just like life at home–except harder. FS does provide a certain amount of insta-friend opportunities though I’ll admit it can be a double-edged sword. Its a wonderful community to be a part of, but if one only depends on that community for finding friends, I think its still very possible to feel quite lonely. I do think though that the FS does a really fantastic job of taking care of us. Having lived abroad without FS and then with FS, it’s kind of night and day. Not everything about it is easier or better (far from it!) but we do get a lot of support, which is really nice.

  4. Pingback: Life Lessons from Overseas: The Sanity-Saving Power of Travel « Hot Pot

    • Oh no! How long have you been in Chengdu? How long are you staying? And how is your Chinese? It can be lonely–especially in a place like Chengdu with a sort of small but not actually small expat community–it can take some doing to find your niche. Are you on the international women’s club list serve? They always have tons of events–can’t promise whether any of them will be up your alley but might still be worth a try!

      • This is our second year here. We’re leaving at the end of the year, in part because of the painful loneliness. It seems like we just can’t find where we belong here. It’s very strange for me. At home, I had a very active social life, we hosted a lot of dinner parties, went out with friends, etc. Here, it seems like if you’re not part of the drinking scene (we have a baby) or a trailing spouse (I work part-time), there’s no real place for you.

        Wah wah. I know I’m whining. But it’s incredibly hard to go from having a very active social life to having nothing at all. I joined the book club sponsored through the women’s club. So that’s my monthly social activity. Heh.

      • It’s hard when you ave a baby and a job in Chengdu, I think you have to get very lucky. We had a friend who worked and had two kids but she lived at the Waterfront and happened into a group of families with kids all the same ages. If you weren’t leave I’d recommend starting your own social club of some sort and advertising through the CIWC newsletter but since you are leaving I guess all I can say is I hope that your next place is far better! I truly think it is a bit luck of hte draw at times, it’s too bad. Where are you headed next?

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