How to Make Friends in a Foreign Land

So you’re moving to a foreign land. And of course you’ve googled the town and made a list of restaurants to try, trails to run, and shops to visit. But a month has come and gone and you’ve toured the fool out of said town and it’s just not quite remotely home yet, eh? Enter: The Mrs. Adventure Handbook to Making Friends in a Foreign Land.

Step 1: Speak the Language

Whether it’s German, Swahili, Spanish, or Southern American, chances are you’re experiencing a language barrier. The most important part of this process is learning that there is, in fact, a language difference. Many are under the false impression that their location is speaking the same American English as their last. An example to the contrary: ask an acquaintance in your location if they’d enjoy a nice visit to the local creamery this weekend. If you’re stationed on the West Coast, the acquaintance will likely check his or her schedule and get back to you with a straight forward “yes” or “no.” If you find yourself in a Southern state, the acquaintance will assure you he or she would love that, perhaps while touching your arm and making warm eye contact followed by a 35% chance that the acquaintance will show up come Saturday. Recent studies have shown that there are at least seven different meanings to the word “yes” depending on one’s location. (“Recent studies” consist of my move across the country a month and a half ago and “seven” might be a number I pulled out of thin air that has nothing to do with analyzing data and everything to do with the lovely two-syllable ring it has.)

On the topic of acquaintances: It is important to understand the social construct of the land in which you are stationed. This can most simply be understood by examining the cultural understanding of an acquaintance. On the West Coast, for example, one has many strangers, a lot of acquaintances, and a handful of friends. In the Northeast, one has mostly strangers and a handful of friends. In the Southern states, one has zero strangers (one may choose to make an exception for alternate ethnicities, though the other regions frown upon this behavior), an unbelievable amount of acquaintances, and many friends. It’s a good idea to figure out what you’ll be working with in this department.

Step 2: Make the Leap

Transitioning from one social standing to another (say, from a stranger to an acquaintance) can be a delicate and challenging process. When done incorrectly, it may have treacherous results including but not limited to a lack of friendship, an embarrassing misunderstanding, or a restraining order. When asking an acquaintance to lunch, doing so too aggressively may scare the potential friend. When attempting to start a conversation with a stranger, it is important to remember body language and nonverbal communication. Before approaching, be mindful of eye contact. Too much eyeballing prior (or following) to the conversation attempt may ensure that your stranger feels preyed upon. If said scenario unfolds, the stranger likely will treat you like you are indeed a predator and physically run away. In said scenario, do not follow the stranger. If you recognize that you have indulged in far too much eye contact before the attempt, abort the mission immediately. Finding an activity aid may benefit you if you find it difficult to find the appropriate momentum for making a social leap.

More on activity aids: An activity aid is an activity that one may acceptably engage in with a stranger without striking discomfort in either party. Common activity aids include but are not limited to: taking a class at the gym, examining a piece of artwork, and joining a pickup game of volleyball (only if you aren’t terrible at volleyball—aiding a team in losing will not make you any friends). The most important rule is to be nonthreatening. Strangers and acquaintances should never feel like: they cannot escape the conversation, they are being hit on, they are being literally stalked and should fear for their safety, etc. Poor activity aids include but are not limited to: using the restroom, being tried for a federal crime (misdemeanors are ok), and attending a funeral.

Step 3: Assume the Best

This step is applicable and important for all stages of friend-making in a foreign land. When you are new to your station and have zero friends and perhaps even zero acquaintances, consider the wonderful things you have to offer and find excitement in the friendships yet to be made. When you are afraid that you have broken a social rule or boundary in the social leap phase, assume that you’re reading too far into these things and that the stranger or acquaintance might actually be rather fond on the idea of being upgraded to a friend. When you have just spent intentional time with someone and feel unsure due to the awkward pauses and conversation hiccups, assume that he or she took no notice and had a great time. It’s quite likely that you are a lovely person to be friends with.

Step 4: Initiate

Once you have spent intentional time (“hanging out”) with someone, ask to do it again. If this step introduces too much mental or emotional difficulty to be achieved, refer to step 3.

Additional conversation aids: babies, witnessing a public spectacle (say, a runner being hit by an empty can thrown by a homeless person), shared suffering (reference the suggestion of taking a class at the gym), a question about directions (utilize the phrase, “I’m new here,” until its expiration date of 6 months), and when in doubt, talking about the weather really does work.

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Motherland

“We are going to die.” The sentence matter-of-factly resonated in my brain. “At least I got married first,” a comforting afterthought. Mind you, no one else was white-knuckle clutching the arm rests, but I’m sure that “turbulence” was some drunken pilot’s near attempt at taking all of our lives. I don’t really like flying that much. Sometimes I think I’d rather Oregon Trail it to my destination. Caulk the wagon, ford the river, shoot some bison, shake off a little cholera—anything but turbulence. I find landing the most conflicting aspect of it all. With a terrified smile plastered on my face, I generally grip the seat and stare out the nearest porthole praying that we meet the earth at the perfect rate between swift and crashing. As I am alive to write this account, you can infer that we did successfully land, and in the Motherland at that: The Carolinas.

This was in August, our first visit to our roots since getting married eight months prior. Driving the hour and a half route from the airport to our home was an overwhelming blur of green. The “Golden Hills” you’ve heard so much about in the land of California actually consist of a bunch of dead, “golden” grass. Someone once told me that the grass native to California is endangered and has been replaced with a different kind, one that, unfortunately, is not suited to the dry, cloudless summers and dies each year. I don’t know how true this theory is, but it certainly makes for an explanation. Even months after arriving to the West Coast, I still found myself gloomily taking in my surroundings: the squatty trees, the way people interrupt your sentences if you speak too slowly, the endless rain, then endless sun, that dead, yellow grass.

And then there’s this drive home from the airport: the mountainous, green trees towering mightily on your left and your right as if to create with its canopy open arms ushering you back. My chest took in rich, full breaths of air—the heavy humidity is something every Southerner complains about, but if one was to visit a dry state, he might find that his breath never quite felt complete in such places. And then there were the accents. I spent months learning to identify a Southern accent in a crowd of Californians for the purpose of excitedly seeking out and interrogating fellow Southerners. Surrounded by these accents upon arriving home, though, I found this impulse overloading my thoughts. “Southerner!” I would frequently and uselessly bark in my mind.

What surprised me most of moving to the West Coast was certainly the change in beaches. California is known for great surfing and wonderful coastal towns, so you can imagine my surprise when all locals warned me to bring a sweater if I planned on visiting the coast. Back East I adored the beach with its salty smell, the sun-kissed naps in the sand, and the childlike revelry that ensued with each wave that lifted you off the ocean floor—divine.  Meeting the Pacific Ocean was much like meeting someone else’s mother: a lovely encounter with a kind someone who in no way can nurture or love the way your own mother did. The Pacific was gorgeous—cliffs plunging into a rocky and glorious ocean; but there was no salt smell, the sun hid behind a robe of fog, and the water, moving in currents from the North, was bitterly cold. Needless to say I was ready for our trip to visit Mama Atlantic.

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At each of our parents’ homes, we were escorted to our former bedrooms, still complete with evidence of our younger selves’ ventures: his mounted snakeskin from a successful hunt, my stuffed bear (complete with a top hat), his MVP plaque, mine for most improved. Everything seemed so different compared to life out West—to marriage and real jobs and change change change—the reflections of boyhood accomplishments and girlish dreams seemed so small next to what we actually had.

Being with family, on the other hand, was like getting to speak my native language after far too long: the joys of understanding and being understood. But despite such pleasure, I found something so strange in it all: the simple fact that after talking and talking about South Carolina to all my new friends, I found that I was good for little more during our visit than reporting everything about California, using the phrase “back home” interchangeably for both places depending on which one I was not in.

Our flight back west was funny in this way. When we flew over the Rockies I gathered my nerves to brave lifting the shade of the window and peering out. I saw the endless sky beaming around those fearfully tall mountains and remembered the golden hills that awaited us. I then realized that this was the first time I thought of them as golden hills and not mounds of dead grass.

It’s difficult—even now—to know if “home” is the place you visit on holidays or if it’s where you’re headed on the return flight.

From SC to Cali

Telling people in South Carolina I was moving to California evoked a similar reaction every time. “You are going to fit in so well!” “That is so you!” “You would.” And the occasional, “watch out for all those liberals!” Because Los Angeles and the entire state of California are basically the same thing anyway. I was quite convinced that moving to Cali (“Cali,” I mean, just look at how local I sound!) meant going on a two-year beach town vacation. I found the world’s greatest bikini and I was going to live in it. My lunch breaks would consist of grabbing my surfboard (note to self: scour Craigslist for a surfboard… and a longboard… definitely need a longboard) and catching some waves. I’d survive on exotic vegan dishes like quinoa. When I visited SC I would have to endure an unending flow of compliments on my bronze complexion and all my fans, I mean friends, would seek my counsel on the latest indie bands, to which I would sadly reply that without a record player all was pointless for they only released their albums on LPs. Mark and I would lead a happy life in a constantly warm and relentlessly sunny town and our hair would start coming in blonde. Obviously.

Well, at least I was right about the abundance of quinoa.

What I have come to learn quickly is that there is Northern California (where we live) and Southern California and neither can quite live up to the expectation that all of South Carolina has (that it is either a dangerously liberal place with ideas that will seep through your windows and infect your opinions or that it is the best of Big Sur and Los Angeles – a sort of promised land, minus the promise). It is important to note that we South Carolinians tend to forget about the existence of Northern California. A brief summary of Northern Cali: organic food, vineyards, redwoods, hippies (real ones), huge coffee culture, sustainable energy, farmers markets, and a notably slower pace than Southern Cali (or “SoCal”).

As Mark drove me from the Sacramento airport to Davis for the first time, I wondered at the endless farmland beyond the car windows. “And those are rice fields, and those, oh you’ll love those in the summer, sunflower fields!” Mark excitedly identified each field to me as I traded in my Pacific Ocean paradise for an ocean of sunflowers. Didn’t seem a fair trade. My only pre-marital visit to Davis gave me time to let my preconceived notions dissipate: it turned out that, despite what everyone in SC insisted, homosexuals do not attack Christians on the street here with pointed sticks (as there are no guns in all of California). In all actuality, Northern California has a sort of Bible Belt, slower pace, and farming culture. Not too different from the South after all.

Well, sort of. Any Southerner would feel overwhelmingly out of place upon approaching a public trashcan here. I’m rather used to the simple concept of taking my trash and neatly dropping it in the bin. I’m not totally uncivilized; we do recycle in the South. I’m a fan, promise. But it’s so much more than that here. There aren’t trash cans, but trash stations. With bins for everything from recycling to composting (don’t worry, there are pictures of what qualifies for each category), you may be overwhelmingly tempted to take your small paper bag and empty coffee cup and just toss them until you notice that the last option isn’t labeled “garbage,” “rubbish,” or “trash,” but “LANDFILL,” complete with a horrifying picture of Mother Nature weeping (ok, it’s just a picture of a landfill, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the sound of crying when I look at it). So you naturally spend the next five minutes guiltily matching your items to the ones displayed over each bin while making audible realizations like, “You can compost that!?” It’s a bit awkward knowing what to ask when eating dinner at a local’s home: “Excuse me, where is your—er—landfill box?” This is when I try to lay the accent on thick in hopes that my cluelessness will be found endearing.

The biggest adjustment so far has been that of transportation. Getting from A to B here (“here” being specific to Davis) involves two wheels, not four. Biking. It sounds so classic, I know. I could see myself wearing a little scarf around my neck blowing in the wind on a sunny Davis day as I pedal around the city. The first few times weren’t short of that, either. But as it turns out, winter is the Davis rainy season. (California lesson #523: Rainy seasons aren’t reserved for third world countries.) On the first proper rainy day we had I vowed to stay in the apartment. The sound of wind whipping around the building worked to solidify my certainty for about an hour before I started to feel the apartment walls growing smaller. After much restless pacing, I grabbed a sweater, my North Face “windwall” jacket, a pashmina to wrap around my head, winter gloves, and boots and pedaled through the seeming downpour. Two miles later, I locked my bike and hustled to the nearest awning where I watched in amazement as students happily bobbed along—no umbrella, no pashmina, no hustling as though the rain was made of acid. Tough as nails, they are. I’ve since invested in a rain jacket and a better attitude, but I will say that the latter can be hard to find some days. I’m learning.