El Inmigrante

Living abroad / Vivir en el extranjero


The ‘making of’ friends

(La versión en español estará disponible pronto. Gracias por tu paciencia.)

Making friends abroad: another challenge in our to-do list

Sometimes you wonder when it is going to get easy, pfff…another thing I need to do in order to start my new life…Yes, I know, the list can be quite long, and even endless, but it will get better… eventually.

What do you mean with 'there is more to do' ?? - CC Image courtesy of Kemal Y.

What do you mean with ‘there is more to do’? – CC Image courtesy of Kemal Y.

For newcomers, living abroad can be a very lonely experience at the beginning. You are the new kid at school and nobody is really interested in you, unless you make an effort to be noticed. For some outgoing expats/immigrants, this part of living abroad can be a piece of cake; they can strike up a conversation with someone at a park or propose a night out with their new colleagues, and from there, they start new friendships. On the other hand, we have the shy ones, who struggle to break the ice during their new language course or at work. All in all, no matter which type of person you are, making friends abroad requires effort, patience and lots of try-outs.

Lately, I have been reading other expats’ tips on how to make friends. I have found all sorts of opinions; the one that trashes the country’s friendliness, the ultra-optimistic post that advices you to go out and talk to any stranger on the streets and the sarcastic and hilarious one, like this, that suggests lots of patience and acceptance of the culture. From all these opinions, I agree more with the last one.

I have to confess that for many years I was part of the group that trashes the country’s friendliness. I live in a country that is considered to be very friendly and open to all nationalities and cultures. Therefore, I came to the Netherlands expecting the best. So, what happened after I felt left out and with almost no friends? – I created a big monster in my head and I refused to make friends with this country. And that was when everything went wrong.

When I told people I was moving to the Netherlands, I could only hear great things about Dutch people. Everybody told me that they were very laid-back, spoke English fluently and were very liberal and open to almost everything. With all these references, I felt very confident about starting my new adventure; not once, I had a single doubt about my decision to come here. In the first few months in the Netherlands, I confirmed that people were very friendly, and always curious about me. Strangers would smile at me or greet me very courteously, I felt welcomed. At some point, I even dared to think that my experience in the Netherlands would be greater than the one I had in England. But as you probably know by now, it was just another honeymoon stage.

After this stage was over, I had some acquaintances, but no friends, I wasn’t worried…yet. I sat on my chair, looked at the clock, and waited for good friends to appear. Of course, I sat there for a really long time. Nothing was really happening; people kept smiling at me, but I wasn’t making any close friends. People kept asking me what I was doing in their country and if I had ever been to Machu Picchu, but nobody was inviting me to their homes. ‘What was going on?’, I wondered.

The fact is that I had the wrong assumptions about making friends. I learned later that you don’t make friends abroad the same way you do in your country; it’s very important to know your host country’s culture and customs in order to know the locals and how their social rules work, don’t expect them to adopt your rules. In addition to my ignorance, I had never learnt to make friends in my own country, and I didn’t realize that until I lived here. My first best friend in Peru was the one who made the first move. On my first day at primary school, she was the one who invited me to sit next to her; if she wouldn’t have, I would probably have no friends now. I am very grateful to her for that move!. However, expecting that others do the move won’t take you very far, you need to start from scratch and work on your friendships.

Making friends is important, making friends abroad is even more important, because everybody needs a support system. You no longer have your family and friends around you, so having someone to count on would make living abroad a bit easier and more pleasant, too. Then, what is the secret? what is the formula? – I don’t think anybody really has the answer. I don’t believe there are 5 miraculous tips to make friends abroad; we are all different individuals, and what it may work for me, it doesn’t necessarily have to work for you. I can only provide my experience and advice, which would hopefully help you a little bit.

There are many ways to find people and make friends abroad, that doesn’t mean you need to do all of them, but it won’t hurt if you try at least one:

CC Image courtesy of AJ Cann

CC Image courtesy of AJ Cann

– Use Facebook or any other social media as your starting point. In my times (2006), Facebook was not the great monster that is now, so there were no Meetup groups, Expats in Amsterdam, etc. The task of making friends was a bigger challenge. These days, it is much easier. Through social media you can look for expats in your area or for people who share similar interests, but don’t just join the group, participate!. You can introduce yourself and explain that you are new in town and looking for friends, social gatherings, etc. People will definitely reply to it.

Check lists will only narrow your experience - CC Image courtesy of e3Learning

Check lists will only narrow your experience – CC Image courtesy of e3Learning

– Don’t recreate your past at your new home. At some point in my experience as an immigrant, I found myself looking for people who would resemble my friends from Peru, not physically but in terms of personality. I did this unconsciously. Only now is that I realize why it was so hard for me to find people I liked. It is necessary, and even mandatory, to be open to all kinds of people. Don’t judge anybody until you have spent some quality time with that new acquaintance, give them a chance to show you what type of people they are. I had a check list in mind about the qualities that my new friends should have, and this narrowed my chances to meet people. I missed the opportunity to learn from others.

Get together with you connationals - CC Image courtesy of Juanky Alvarez

Get together with your connationals – CC Image courtesy of Juanky Alvarez

– Look for people from your own country as well. This could be easier and very comfortable; no need to learn a new language and it provides you with a sense of home. In my opinion, this is not a bad option, but it shouldn’t be the only one. When you only hang out with your ‘people’, it could isolate you from the culture you are living in and you may end up in a vicious circle, where you only gather to complain about your host country. So proceed with caution!.

Create your own expat/immigrant group - CC Image courtesy of Alan Levine

Create your own expat/immigrant group – CC Image courtesy of Alan Levine

– ‘I live in a small town and there isn’t an expat group for me. What can I do?’ – Start one yourself!. I know this sounds very frightening, but if what you are looking for doesn’t exist, you should create it. Promote the group that you want to have, there is at least one person out there sitting at home and waiting for that group to be created. Search, search, search, and you will find what you are looking for. You can use Facebook or Meetup, or any other social media you like.

There is always something going on at your public library - Image courtesy of Amanda Hamilton

There is always something going on at your public library – Image courtesy of Amanda Hamilton

– Not a big fan of social media? Well, get out of the house, take some fresh air!. At public libraries, there are usually different activities that you can take part of. These activities could be the perfect moment to meet other people. Also, if you are attending a language course or any other type of class, invite a classmate for a cup of coffee. Don’t think too much about it, just ask. What’s the worst it could happen? – Rejection. Nobody likes to be rejected, but at least you will stop wondering if that person would have that coffee with you. Remember: the process of making friends abroad is like try-outs: if you fail once, you keep going until you succeed!.

You never know where you will find your next best friend - Image courtesy of HOBY NYE

You never know where you will find your next best friend – Image courtesy of HOBY NYE

– Do you have a big heart? – Volunteer. You can go to your neighborhood center/city hall or search on the Internet to find information about places that need your help. This would not only make you feel good but you may find a great new friend.

Local newspapers are a good source of information - CC Image courtesy of Matt Callow

Local newspapers are a good source of information – CC Image courtesy of Matt Callow

-Local newspapers can also keep you updated about what it is going on around you. They list the main social activities; if you attend at least one, I am sure you will be surprised to know the great people that live around you.

Oh the Dutchies... - CC Image courtesy of through a pin-holeOh the Dutchies… – CC Image courtesy of through a pin-hole

– ‘But what about the locals?. I also want to make friends with them’- In my own experience, I have seen that Dutch people can be a tough crowd (but then I wonder if I would behave like them in my own country). The first times I attempted to have a real connection with them, it was disappointing and I felt they were not interested in making friends with me. I was left with the feeling of ‘Sorry, but my social circle is already full. Thank you for applying. We wish you all the best’. Yes, that hurt and I gave up immediately, which was a very bad decision. After these attempts, I decided to put all the Dutchies in the same category: ‘not friendly at all’. With the time, my image of Dutch people got worse and worse, and I only made friends with other immigrants. The result was that my only Dutch friends were my partner’s friends and family, who are great but not mine. It is a shame, because I know there are amazing Dutch people out there who would be more than happy to be my friends. ‘But where to find them?’ – Do not waste your time on thoughts about where to find them or how to make friends with them, or on any negative opinion about how unfriendly they can be, just keep an open mind, be friends with the people that are already there for you, no matter where they come from. And most important: cultivate patience and tolerance!.

All these tips are based on my own experience and what I have seen during these years abroad. Newcomers can apply them, but the old ones as well; it is never too late to start new friendships. Learn from my mistakes!. I didn’t do any of these things until recent years, and now that I have done them, I realize how much energy I would have saved if I would have followed at least one of them. I can also see now that my path was full of frustrations and disappointments, and if I would have been more open and less critical, I would have been happier. Nevertheless, here I am, I have started following all these tips myself and the results are good!. I put my negativity aside and I have started a new chapter in my life.

If you have more tips about making friends abroad, I would be very happy to hear them. Let’s share stories!



Integration in your partner’s country

Today I have a special guest: career and personal coach Lola Hernández, who lives in Munich. She provides support to expats and their family members during their integration process. In addition, she gives workshops and lectures about Emotional Intelligence, Time Management and a variety of topics related to Personal Development. Lola was very kind to share her post in my blog, and for that I am very grateful: ¡Muchas gracias!.

In her post, she wrote about the challenges of integrating in your partner’s country/culture. I found this post very interesting and positive, and I hope you find it useful and share your opinions and experiences (how were your first encounters in the new country?, what challenges/difficulties did you find at the beginning of the integration process?, how did you overcome them?, what positive results/experiences did you get from all this?, etc.).

For more information about Lola Hernandez, please visit her blog at http://www.lolahernandezcoaching.wordpress.com (only available in Spanish).


Integration in your partner’s country

By Lola Hernandez

Translated by El Inmigrante 

Many of us live in another country because of our partner. When you land in a country that is not yours, there is a long list of challenges waiting for you, like learning another language (not an easy job!), making friends from scratch and finding a job, which is something hard to do if you already have to deal with the first two challenges. To add more to the list, you also have to look for a place to live, a school for your children, social activities, etc…and let’s face it, time is not always your friend. Therefore, things can get complicated and it is very easy to feel overwhelmed.

In this transition, we also have to consider that when the social, economical and emotional conditions of living with your partner change, your self-esteem very often weakens and you experience a kind of “inferiority complex”, and suddenly you feel less than others.

The good news is that when you go through an experience like this, and you try your best and work very hard, you have a wonderful opportunity to experience real personal growth. You put your skills to test, discover hidden talents and recover forgotten resources that you had in you.

In your new country, you have the chance to put aside some aspects of you that were not working anymore and you can start a new life with new habits, new ways to do things and a new history. For example, if you were about to settle in your country, now you have the option to get out of your comfort zone and expand your possibilities of action. Maybe in your country, you had a job that didn’t satisfy you anymore, now you have a range of possibilities and options, that you might have not even considered while living in your own country.

In a recent workshop, Katia Pinal talked about bicultural couples. She said that when you leave your culture and you enter a different one, you can see both cultures as an outsider and choose the aspects of each culture that would fit you better. It takes time to practice this outsider’s view and it is a luxury; people who have never left their country don’t have this opportunity. So, you are a very lucky person!

You also need to see that you have a good situation waiting for you; you will develop your capacity to receive support and to delegate things that you used to, and do things you have never done before. All this is great, because you can put your skills, your competences and your employability into practice; you never know when you would use these tools in this very unpredictable life. So, if you were not used to ask for help or you found it difficult, now it is the time to polish this skill.

Warning: don’t rest on your laurels!…enjoy the support from others but don’t lose sight of your goals: prepare yourself and work on getting your autonomy and independence back in every aspect of your life.

If you would like to work on any aspect of your integration, you can always call me.

Successful integration – CC Image Courtesy of Daniela Hartmann in Flickr

Successful integration – CC Image Courtesy of Daniela Hartmann in Flickr

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The first time you leave

There is a first time for everything. Right this moment, a rush of first times crosses my mind and if I choose one of those memories, all the feelings of that exact moment will come back to me almost immediately. But today, I would like to write about one in particular, which is the first time I left my country to embark on my adventure through the old continent.

The day I left Peru to live somewhere else was not the first time I was going to another country, but it was the first time I left for longer than 2 weeks and my first time on an intercontinental flight. I was going to live in England for 8 months.

Flight duration: 15 hours and 3 stop overs! 

For all first timers, going on a long flight can be an odyssey. It starts from the moment you get to the airport and it finishes when you finally see that bed where you will be sleeping during your stay, that unfamiliar place where you will be living or that hotel room where you will be spending your first nights.

But first let’s set the mood. As I clearly recall, the days before getting on that plane were crazy. It was not only packing the suitcases that was stressing me out and making my trip so real, but it was also saying goodbye to my old good friends and colleagues, having one last dinner with my best friend, visiting my grandmother for one more sweater to pack (since I was going to the cold England, I needed as much warmth as possible), leaving all things in order at my work, signing documents to get a loan, getting a medical check-up, preparing my 25th birthday/farewell party, etc. There were so many emotions and goodbye moments that I could not process at that time, but now, looking back, I can see how overwhelming all that was. I was only leaving for 8 months but for some reason, I felt I was leaving for longer than that.

A good proof of that was my 2 big suitcases (23 kg. each), a 10 kg hand luggage without  wheels (the dumbest decision ever), a purse full with CDs and to top it all my electric guitar. I won’t even mention how many seaters and coats I was wearing. So as you can see, easy traveling was not in my vocabulary… yet.

Once I was at the airport, and after saying a long (teary) goodbye to my family, I was on my way to my next dream, my next destination. Since I was still in my country, with my connationals and my language, it all went really fast and without any obstacles. A stamp on my passport, a cordial smile and there I went to my first gate. It was not until the plane took off that I realized I was leaving my country, my home, my friends, my family and me! The ‘me‘ I knew until that moment, the ‘me‘ that had been with me for 25 years, the ‘me‘ who thought knew it all. That moment was my last memory of ‘me‘ as a 100% Peruvian.

After 3 agonizing stop overs, which included waiting for hours at different gates, getting lost at Madrid-Barajas airport, running through moving walkways with my guitar and my no-wheels-at-all hand luggage and being asked a thousand questions, I finally arrived to Heathrow airport, not my final destination yet but close enough. I only had to take a bus to this town, and soon I would be in bed, oh sweet bed!.

I have to mention that going to England was my dream (ok, my obsession) since I was 15 years old. I used to decorate my school books with pictures of London and British bands (it was the 90’s and the British invasion was ‘in’, so I was a victim of it). Every time I said I was going to England, people laughed at me or said: ‘Yeah, right! How are you going to afford that?’. I never had an answer to that, but I had hopes and willpower, so there you go.

London Eye

At Heathrow, I was welcomed to England with a big smile. This was just refreshing and needed after my long trip. My next step was to get a bus ticket to the town where I was going to live for the next 8 months. Once I got the ticket, I went straight to the waiting area. When the bus came, the driver opened the luggage compartment and I stood there with all luggage ready for him to put it in the compartment, as accustomed in Peru. The driver gave me an angry look that I did not understand. Then, he looked at me again and asked: ‘Are you coming or what?’. I was so confused, after a warm welcome at the airport, I was not expecting this at all. Soon, I realized I had to put my 56 kg luggage in that compartment all by myself. Culture shock began that very first day!

After that first cultural/learning experience, I gave him my ticket and got on the bus. Again, another moment was coming my way. I was trying to figure out which seat number I had when I heard someone shouting: ‘Sit wherever you want, there are no seat numbers here!’. Ouch, and so my soul started to crash.

I think we are all susceptible to certain things, events or words. At that moment, I felt I was fragile, alone and way too sensitive to everything, even the air.

I took a seat by the window and put on my headphones and let The Cure give me their own welcome to England. I used to watch a lot of documentaries and TV programs about England, mostly London, so I was so surprised to see so many green areas and thatch-roofed cottages and houses along the way. I was expecting big tall buildings and modern houses. And then, it hit me, I was not prepared nor even well-informed about the country I was going to live. I felt ashamed.

I finally arrived to my destination, a small town of 200,000 inhabitants (so the welcome sign indicated). ‘What?’ I said to myself, ‘my hometown has more than 800,000!!’. My dream of leaving my boring town and living in Europe was just a total irony.

As I got off the bus, I saw a dark, old and desolated bus station. It was around 10:30 pm, everybody was already sleeping. After all the passengers left, the bus driver asked me if somebody was going to pick me up and I said yes. I was expecting my hostess to be there by then but she was not. The bus driver took pity on me and decided to wait a bit longer. He ended up being a nice man and he was very curious about me and all my luggage. ‘Are going to stay in England for a long time?’ he asked and I said: ‘For 8 months’. He looked at my luggage and smiled.

My hostess arrived 20 minutes later, she was waiting for me at the other side of the station. She and her daughter welcomed me with hugs and flowers. I felt relieved! We went to my new (temporary) home. After a long chat, I took a shower and went to bed. I put on my headphones and cried myself to sleep. I was extremely tired from the jet lag, my arms hurt from all the luggage I carried and I regretted to have left home. It might all sound too dramatic but those were my feeling at that exhausting moment.

My first room abroad

Crying helped me to release every emotionfrom the pastweeks and it helped me to start a new life the next day.

Everybody experiences emigration in different ways but I think we all share the same feelings when it comes to that first time on that plane, the first time you arrived to a new country and the first night you spent abroad. It is worth to take a look back, see where we are now and reflect on it. Maybe even ask ourselves if we are still the same person.

So…how was your first time leaving your country?