Making Friends as an Expat

By Felicia S.

I remember my first few years as a Swedish expat in California – how seemingly easy it was to strike up a conversation with my neighbor while doing laundry, share a friendly “Hi, how are you doing?” with the check-out clerk at Whole Foods, or chat with a mom at the park while our kids were swinging next to each other. Everyone I met was friendly and curious about where I was from, what I was doing here and how long I would be staying. Sometimes the conversations would venture to what it was like “back home” (often with the added twist of mistaking my home country Sweden, for Switzerland…). I knew people with whom I was friendly, but they weren’t my friends and in all honesty, I was feeling pretty lonely and isolated. It was hard to take the acquaintance-relationship to a friendship-level.

I didn’t exactly help myself by stubbornly thinking that joining the Swedish expat- community was just not my thing. I couldn’t quite understand why, just because we came from the same country that meant we were destined to get along as friends. I had an idea that the best way to feel at home in my new country would be to immerse myself and not lead some kind of parallel expat life.

If I were a newly arrived expat now, some 20 years later and in my mid-forties, I am pretty sure I would feel differently. I know now that there is a comfort in socializing with people who share some of your same cultural and societal references. I know that there is a certain relief in being able to speak your own language and express yourself without hesitation. I know the value of interacting with people who are in the same living situation that you are. Most importantly, I know that all of this doesn’t mean you can’t also immerse yourself in the local culture and life. It turns out the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

It is also worth mentioning that in addition to the social benefits of an expat community, there is a significant practical aspect to having a network of fellow countrymen/women to lean on. It turns out the expat community holds a wealth of specific knowledge, such as where to get a hold of certain foods or how to substitute food ingredients for locally available ones, or any number of other expat specific issues that will arise – and arise they will.

I think most of us know that there really is no fast and easy way to make friends or build lasting friendships – whether you are an expat or not. Perhaps what complicates things when living in an unfamiliar place is that your natural support system of friends and family has been left behind. In addition, you have to learn to navigate new social codes and overcome language barriers.

There are many ways to meet people and there really is no right or wrong setting. Whether you join a gym or a book club, start line dancing or take a language class is a personal preference. The important part is that you find a setting that works for you. Of course, not everyone you meet will become a friend, but there is a good chance someone will, if you just give yourself the opportunity to meet new people.

I have lived in California for over 20 years now and I have slowly built some lasting friendships. These friendships have all come about in different ways: some are with parents of my kids’ friends, some I met through sports and some I met through my husband – some are locals, some are Swedes and some are expats from other parts of the world. My very best friend from back home moved here a few years ago and became an expat herself. I was so glad I could be her good old friend right from the start.

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