It’s Hard Making Friends: Why Being an Expat Can Be Lonely

lonely living abroad

Last night, Daniel and I went on the roof of our apartment building to watch the lanterns take off for the Krathong Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. We had been thinking about what it means to be a long-term traveler lately and how we somewhat feel isolated from our friends and families—even when we return home. It wasn’t long until we heard a voice call us over,

“Hey, kids! You want a gin and tonic?”

Before we even realized what had happened, we were enveloped in a small expat gathering in Chiang Mai. These lovely people were in their sixties, and were some of the friendliest, kindest, and most aware people I have talked to on my travels.

They had seemed to form a community for themselves after living abroad, and it was fascinating to hear their stories of how they made the transition to living in a culture that was not even close to their own. I envied them—I had not always been so lucky while living abroad and finding people that I’ve connected with.

Living in Italy had been one of the most isolating experiences in my life. Not only because at first I was with a group that I didn’t connect with very well, but then living alone in a small city where hardly anyone spoke my language. Being an expat on both of those occasions made me feel like an outsider, and it was difficult to feel as though I could integrate into the culture. I took Italian lessons, and managed to make a few Italian friends. While this definitely helped with feeling lonely, it didn’t always make me feel accepted.

Daniel and I experienced something similar when we lived in Granada. We would meet up with a few expats randomly, and we managed to develop some beautiful relationships with a few people, but we were on the edges of society. We would always be foreigners, no matter how hard we tried to learn the language, learn to cook the food, and participate in siesta. It didn’t take us long to discover that even when you have your best friend with you, you can still feel marginalized.

I would like to say that every place I’ve lived for a period of time has meant that I’ve created friendships that last a lifetime, or the people I hung out with while I was in a certain location were people I would have chosen to in any other context. But the truth is that I still felt separated from my culture and the people who really know me best. It’s a challenge you face as a traveler, and I’m not the first to comment on this phenomenon. It can be downright lonely—your eschewing your own culture and trying to find a place in another, completely different one.

My perspective on what it means to be an expat changed after last night, however. It’s easy to get caught up in that feeling of isolation, especially when you are young and your life is dictated so much by who you hang out with and the support of your peers. The older I become, the more I realize the freedom there is in being an expat and taking the positives from both cultures—you’re adopted and your original one.

I’m not looking to live abroad as an expat for a while any time soon, but I’m now not afraid to try it again. Hopefully I will be older and wiser and willing to realize feeling isolated doesn’t always have to be a negative feeling—it can provide you with a freedom you never realized you had before.

Have you ever been lonely living as an expat?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

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5 thoughts on “It’s Hard Making Friends: Why Being an Expat Can Be Lonely

  1. I’ve lived in Japan for several years and yes, there are definitely lonely moments or, rather, moments of “guilt”. What I mean by that is you might have comfortably surrounded yourself with fellow expats and formed a decent bubble of social outings, but you’ll find yourself realizing how few locals you’ve actually befriended. How you handle that depends on the person, of course!

    1. That’s completely true, too. I felt that the second time I lived in Italy. I was in Florence, where everyone spoke English and it was easy to meet other expats. It took isolating myself somewhat to really push myself out of make comfort zone and make some local friends the next time around.

      Great thoughts! Would be an interesting post!

  2. I’ve definitely felt these same sentiments as an expat, especially the first 3-4 months in a new city. It’s even more difficult when you make friends straight away but then it turns out you aren’t such a good match. Even after three years living in England with amazing friends and support systems here, I will always still have moments of loneliness when I miss my family/friends/culture back at home.

    1. I hear you. I thought I had a great group a few times only to find myself not feeling it a few months later. It reminds you how transitory living abroad can be, however. There’s always room to reach out to other people–and you can always go home to visit!

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. Totally. I lived in Colombia for almost 5 years, 4 of those in a city with few expats. I slowly made an incredible group of Colombian friends through playing rugby, but it took a LONG time, a lot of loneliness and language and cultural blunders, and occasionally fundamental disagreements. And, even immersed in a close-knit group, I still missed missed having someone from my own background around from time to time. It’s so hard to make friends, and people don’t talk about that aspect of living abroad much!
    Of course, now I’m back in the states and I miss my friends in Colombia!

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