Last November, I wrote a post about finding community, pointing to the danger of relying mostly on a virtual world and not connecting well with people around you. But saying, “Find community,” is almost like simply saying, “Lose weight” without sharing ideas on how to go about doing so.
In real life—or perhaps I should say, in life back in our home culture?—making friends is often uncomplicated. But when you’re living overseas—or, when you’re returning home after living overseas—making friends can be a
bit lot more tricky. (Of course, being a global citizen, I realize the term home conjures up much confusion for many of us.)
Nevertheless, despite the risk of oversimplifying, here are some thoughts on ways to find community, realizing that your environment, your personality, your culture and your host culture are all factors that play a role insofar as what will work and what won’t. Here are some thoughts about what’s worked for me, and some thoughts about the joys and the pains of making new friends.
Today, I feel like my heart’s been put through a wringer. Two weeks ago, I was in Bangladesh, participating in an emerging leader training camp. Once I got back to Thailand, a colleague arrived for a week worth on intensive training, site visits, meetings, and more meetings. All of the above was very good, and I can still indubitably say, “I love my job.”
Last night, though, after I had dropped off my colleague, I went to dinner at the home of dear, dear friends. I smiled as I walked into their house, the aroma of a dinner prepared with love filling the air. My friend Becky wasn’t home at that moment. She was taking their dog for a walk. Still, I walked in and set the dinner table, simply because that’s what good friends do. And then I curled up in a chair in their living room and took a nap till everyone was at home and we visited about our day.
All was OK till after dinner, when I helped Becky take photos of furniture. See, they’re moving back to the US this summer, and they’re getting ready to sell some furniture. Suddenly, their leaving became a painful reality that stabbed and simply wouldn’t stop hurting. I realize that the pain is exacerbated by me being tired. But it doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened by the fact that my dear friends are leaving, that I’m not just losing one friend, but I’m losing family.
It’s not that I’ve not gone through transition before. In the past 20 years alone, I have lived in more than 10 different cities and in 6 different countries. I’m no stranger to good-byes. But for many of those moves, I was the one leaving, and I had gotten good at guarding my heart.
This time around, I’m staying, watching as my friends are packing up their world bit by bit, selling stuff, preparing for the uncertain transition, and I know that though we’ll remain friends, much will inevitably change.
Here’s the deal, though: When I first met these friends a short few months ago, I knew they were leaving. I could have played it safe and chosen to protect my heart and not accepted a hand of friendship. But I didn’t. Nor did Becky play it safe and opt not to forge a new friendship so soon before having to wrap up many years of living in Thailand.
Does it hurt to know that Becky and her family are leaving soon? More than I care to admit. If I could start over and avert the pain of loss, would I choose not to befriend Becky and her family? Not for a moment! I’d be poorer for it. In that sense, I have to agree with one of my favorite philosophers, Winnie the Pooh, who said,
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.
It’s also not that I don’t have other friends in town. I’m blessed that I have several other friends, though none of my other friends here represent what Becky’s family represents for me as a single person: Theirs is a home away from home away from home.
Nor is it that I won’t be able to make new friends, or deepen existing relationships. But I realize that it is a rare gift to be such good friends with an entire family.
And so, tonight, as a reminder to myself and perhaps an incentive for one or two of you, I’ll list a few ways in which I was able to find community in the past. Here’s what’s worked for me over the years of living abroad:
- Years ago in Taiwan, when I realized that my circle of friends included hardly anyone outside my work world, let alone outside my circle of faith, I joined a choir where I was challenged in so many ways: musically, linguistically, socially and spiritually. Several years later, when I moved back to Taiwan after time in the US and Kenya, I was welcomed right back and started building new relationships among my choir friends. (Ironically, some of my non-Christian friends were much more instrumental in my return adjustment than Christian friends were. But that’s another topic all by itself!) To be sure, I didn’t expect my non-Christian friends to meet my need for spiritual community. What they did do, though, was leave me with amazing memories of making incredible music to God’s glory—even though they saw it merely as culture.
- Ironically, making close friends in the US was hard in California, yet very easy in Iowa (where I did support raising). Perhaps that would be my advice for moving to the US then: Move to the Midwest! 😉
- In Kenya, finding community looked differently yet again. At a stage during my three years in Kenya, I moved to a different village in order to be closer to a few friends with whom I could share some cultural commonalities. It is in the village that I learned the importance of having friends who share more than created and learned common bonds.
- In Indonesia, where I worked at an international school where I was one of very few Christian teachers, I had good friends at school. But since I knew I also needed a faith community in order to thrive, I chose to attend a women’s retreat to get to know other Christian women. May I add that I don’t particularly like women’s church camps? At that camp, though, I made amazing friends with whom I’m still in touch.
- After moving to Thailand, I tried the same route of attending an interdenominational church camp. This time around, it didn’t work for me at all! I didn’t make any new friends at camp. In Thailand, finding community has worked differently yet again.
- In Chiang Mai, making friends at first happened as a result of accepting an invitation to a Thai small group even through I understood no Thai yet. In the process, however, I got to know some precious Thai friends.
- And while our new Compassion office was not yet open and I got to work from home, I chose to leave home daily and work from a coffee shop instead. Though I like variety and like exploring new places, I chose to keep going to the same coffee shop every day so I could get to know the names of the staff, and so someone would smile back when they recognized me.
- Another key to finding friends came by way of the church where I chose to worship. Rather than visiting several churches in town, trying to find a place that felt just right, I opted to chose between two options only, and soon started going to just one church, even though I knew no-one there. There, I tried out various Bible study groups as a way not only to grow, but to connect to community. (I chose not to stay at any of those studies.)
- Despite not knowing anyone at church, because I kept going to the same church and kept just being my friendly self, a stranger walked up to me after church one day and struck up a conversation. Viv became a cherished friend, even though I learned very soon that she and her family were returning to New Zealand hardly four months after we met.
- Over one of our first coffee visits, when I commented that I was looking for a place to exercise, Viv told me about a women’s Bible study that I could join as well as about a taekwondo class at the local Korean church. Me? Do taekwondo?! I wondered. I’ve never done martial arts, and had I known then what I know now what amount of coordination it takes to do taekwondo well, I might never have thought to give it a try… But give taekwondo a try I did, and at class, I met a wonderful new friend, Sandra, who introduced me to a whole slew of friends, including our mutual friend Becky.
I would say God has answered my prayers for close community here in Chiang Mai, and as hard as it is to prepare to say good-bye to some friends, I know I’ll make new friends again. If I’ve learned anything in the 20 years’-10 cities’-25 homes’-6 countries’ worth of moves, it is that making good friends takes risk. It takes stepping out of your comfort zone. It takes being yourself, yet allowing God to challenge you to not be too comfortable hiding behind “being yourself.” The introvert in me, for example, wouldn’t mind just waiting for others to come to me. But, as as Philosopher (Winnie the) Pooh says,
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
Through my connections with Viv and then with Sandra and Becky, I have connected with a rich variety of friends, men and women who challenge and bless me in a different ways, people who have caused me to say, “This, too, has become home to me.”
- How about you? What’s worked for you in terms of making friends in a new culture?
Adéle lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand,
and considers herself blessed having a rich variety of friends in many places.
Some of her adventures are found at www.AdeleBooysen.com.