I had arrived about a week ago and the rain was relentless for all the 7 days I was there. I had finally unpacked my suitcases and was ready to start my classes for the exchange program at the University.
But then I started to feel it. The sore throat, the ache all over my body and all I wanted was to be in bed. And then the fever started. Coughing, sneezing. I felt really sick. I’m not sure what was worse, the aching body or the idea of having to leave my bed to find a doctor.
Somehow, I managed to call the University and get the address of the clinic. I really don’t know how I did that given my broken French and hoarse voice. I got to the doctor’s office dictionary in hand because I had no idea how to tell her I had a sore throat (this was pre-smartphone and pre-google translate).
I got the medicine and headed home feeling extremely lonely. Being sick is not fun in normal situations and when you’ve just arrived in a foreign country the feeling of vulnerability can be debilitating.
What if I have to go to the hospital? What if I can’t read my dictionary and I don’t understand a word they say? These fears started to echo in my mind as a entered the tiny apartment, took off my damp shoes and headed straight to bed.
Then the phone rang. It was Guillaume. I had forgotten about him. He was my assigned buddy. The University had a buddy program to help foreign students, and I had forgotten about him.
“Hello”, he said with the thickest French accent you can imagine.
“Hi”, I muttered.
“How are you? I wanted to see if you needed anything” he replied, happy to practice his English skills.
“Well, not so well…I just came back from the doctor’s office. I have a bad sore throat.” I replied in a very low voice.
“I’ll come over and bring you soup. I’ll come over in about an hour.” Guillaume replied.
Guillaume brought me soup and so much more. He brought me friendship and care. He was crucial for my fast recovery and being able to adjust to French life. He was my first friend in my exchange program, and I am forever grateful.
Having a support system when we’re abroad is critical for us to have a successful adjustment. When we’re outside of our comfort zone it is very important to share our struggle with people that really understand us.
If you don’t have an assigned buddy to help you with your cultural adjustment, there are a few things you can do to find friends when abroad.
START BEFORE YOU LEAVE: Your cultural transition does not start when you hop on the plane or when you land in your destination. The transition starts when you make the decision to move. So, start connecting with people before you move. With social media, it’s easy to exchange ideas, have a conversation and find a few people you can connect with. Don’t limit yourself to writing messages. Talk to them in video chat to make the experience more meaningful. Before you leave to your destination, schedule lunches and have at least three events to go to. You can use Meetup.com, Eventbrite.com and the almost limitless opportunities posted on Facebook.
YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE: If you want to have friends abroad it’s important to be a friend. When we’re in another culture we have to make friends from scratch. It can be exciting to meet new and different people, but it can also be draining to tell our story dozens of times to strangers. An easy way to make new and meaningful friendships is to give people your attention. If necessary, go out of your way to help someone that needs your help – sometimes with simple things. You will see that when we give people attention, we will receive it back.
HAVE AN OPEN MIND: In our international journey, we will probably meet people that are very different from what we’d meet back home. Try not to dismiss potential friendships based on past experiences. If back home your friends all worked, be open to making friends with a student. If back home your friends had kids, be open to making friends with people with no kids. You get the idea. Also, open up to other nationalities. When we’re out of our comfort zone, sometimes we search the company of people from our home country because they “get us”. While that is true, it can also be limiting.
Having friends that help you and bring you soup when you’re sick can be the difference between having a successful cultural adjustment or struggling to feel happy in your new culture. It takes time and effort, but it is totally worth the investment.
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