“I am going to go on exchange and it is going to be awesome and I am going to make lots of friends and learn about the culture and the language and everything is going to be amazing”
That pretty much sums up what I thought my exchange was going to be like. Naive, but a great aspiration. Sadly, in reality it was not that easy.
The truth is, making friends is always hard. Whether you go to a country where people are open or to a country where people are more reserved, it is always going to be a struggle.
In the beginning people might (or might not) be interested. But people won’t stay interested forever.
Yes in the first weeks you might get lots of attention. The rumor spreads that an exotic foreigner is in town. People come up to you. You get 27893 Facebook friend request a day of people you don’t even know, or at least you don’t remember their names. People constantly greet you and come up to you with strange questions.
But after a while people have asked you everything they want to hear and they go back to their own group of friends while you are left being the only person that doesn’t speak the language and you realize, it ain’t all rainbows and sunshine.
There are a couple of reasons why making friends in your host country is difficult. The first one is: they don’t need your friendship. Local people already have a life of their own with their own friends and own family. You want to meet with them on Friday? Sorry, that’s when they have baseball practice. How about Sunday? Sunday is family dinner. Their lives were probably filled before you came in and as interested as they might be in you, there is no necessity for them to keep in touch or do something. You, on the other hand have nothing to fall back on and are left alone in your room on many occasions because of this. Usually a friendship is born out of a mutual balanced effort but because you are foreign, the balance is different.
The second reason why making friends is hard is because you don’t know how the culture works. In your country you might meet your friends for coffee after school, but maybe in your host country people usually meet at someone’s house to watch a movie. These types of differences in customs can make it very hard to make friends because you don’t know what to ask for. You keep inviting them for coffee and they are turning you down because they already have plans to go to the beach, because that is what people in that country do.
It’s like watching puppies and kittens play for the first time. It is not that one is less playful or willing than the other, they just have different ways of playing with each other, and that can be very hard.
And yes, it´s so much easier to connect with other foreigners.
Because they get you like nobody else. They might be from a completely different culture but they know the struggles you are going through, and that unites you. With them you can talk about the quirky habits of your host family and about the weird questions local people have asked you.
Before I went on abroad I told myself I would only make local friends. I wasn’t really interested in making any exchange friends and talking English all the time, because that was not the reason for me to go to Panama. In the end, 70% of my friends were exchange students (foreigners in Panama but also Panamanian returnees) and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Being on exchange is such an indescribable thing, but with your exchange friends, you don’t have to describe it because they already understand.
Nevertheless, this should not discourage you from making local friends. They might not get you as perfectly as the exchange students, but that doesn’t mean their friendship is not going to be as good. It will be different for sure, but looking back I wish I had made more attempts to make local friends. I tried, but not hard enough.
But it is not too late for you. So don’t be that person that comes back home and realizes they only made international friends. Because even though those friendships are amazing, it is a waste to be a in a country without getting to know it and it’s people. So go out there and make some local friends!
Do you want to make local friends but don’t know how? Click here for tips!