Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oh, You're Lonely? Go Make Some Friends.

I was reading some of the comments on a Humans of New York photo today (self-inflicted pain, I know) and one in particular made me really, really angry. The subject of the photo had just moved to NYC from China, and Brandon asked him what his lowest point was. Now, I'm paraphrasing, but he answered that he didn't have just one low moment, but rather a collection of them - a combination of missing his parents, being lonely, and smoking cigarettes by himself in his apartment. And one of these comments was like, "Stop smoking by yourself. Go MAKE some friends." As if making friends is that easy. As if making friends even if English is your first language is that easy. "Seriously?" I thought. This girl can go take a walk off the shortest pier she can find.

People who make comments like that have no idea how hard it is to create your own identity in a new place. Because isn't that what "making friends" essentially is? Collecting and creating and forming and sustaining and maintaining those relationships that are borne out of moments of desperation and loneliness and wanting to share your joy or pain with others? And reciprocating that?

Making friends as an expat is painful. It's cringe-worthy, awkward, often a waste of time, and really, really hard work. It took me three solid years to build the friendship circleI now have in London and I am so thankful to have these friends. My friends.

So I want to share with you my story.

The first thing John wanted me to do when I arrived in London, was to move in with him. I know. It's usually the other way around, right? Anyway, it was also what I wanted to do more than anything in the world. But I declined. And I resisted for three years after that. Not because I'm against co-habitating before marriage, but because I could see myself becoming quickly dependent on him if we lived together. I was already becoming unreasonably resentful if he went out instead of spending time with me, just one-on-one, but, at the same time, being resentful if I felt the only social interaction I could have was if I tagged along to his pub outings with his friends and his friends' girlfriends. It wasn't fair for either of us.

It was important for me to make my own friends. So I lived in rented apartments for a few years, attending flat interviews and searching for places to live on Gumtree, Moveflat, and Spareroom. When I moved to Shadwell in East London, John and his buddies decided to move to the opposite end of town from where they were in Whitechapel, to Maida Vale. I was devastated. But I was determined to make my own way (with John's support and encouragement) for a bit longer.

I joined a gym near my office. I started attending the yoga and other classes there regularly and ended up becoming friends with the teacher, Lauren, and her partner, Bindy, who I count as two of my best friends today. I went often enough so that I'd be able to see a familiar face in the locker room and say "hi".

At my father-in-law's persuading, I joined an orchestra - The Royal Orchestral Society - and, after a couple of concerts, I gained a position on first stand, second violins. The first few rehearsals, as predicted, were so painfully awkward. Everyone knew each other and I kind of stood in the corner during the tea break and nibbled on a biscuit by myself. By the third and fourth rehearsals, however, I started running into people on the tube on my way there, and we'd get to talking and then ... well, I started to make friends.

I loved being finally able to say to John, "I can't meet you for dinner tonight - I'm going out with so-and-so." It made me so happy. And he was happy for me too. 

This all took about a year and a half. The other times? I found myself watching TV in my room, alone, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the mornings during the weekends, if I wasn't staying over at John's. I went on friend dates with friends of friends of friends: sometimes they were successful and worked out, other times, we sort of had a mutual understanding when we departed that we'd probably never see each other again. And that was okay.

And before I moved to London? There was the social disaster that consisted of my first three months at York. This is what made me want to tell the commenter on HONY's Facebook page to shove it.

In high school and college, I was Miss Social. I was like, in every club you could imagine, in leadership positions. I knew most people on campus (it was small), and most people knew me. I once stood on a chair in a crowded dining hall on Udita's birthday and asked everyone to stop eating their dinner and sing "Happy Birthday" to her. Which they did. I was positive, enthusiastic, always up for trying something new, and really, really excited about meeting new people.

And then I arrived at York. It was bleak. There were goose droppings everywhere, a telling sign of things to come.

There were about 10 or so fellow graduate students on my graduate course. None of them made eye contact when I walked into the first meeting of the semester. I introduced myself and they barely looked up. At the end, they shuffled out in silence and went their separate ways. The afternoon before the graduate students' social, I brightly suggested that we all meet up beforehand for a drink or dinner, then head over together. People looked uncomfortable, exchanged glances, and quickly made their excuses about being busy, but, you know, "We'll see you there."

When a few weeks had passed and I had not made a single friend, not even in my residence hall, I decided to be even more proactive and run for my college's Graduate Student Association President position. I won, because I was the only one who ran. I met a girl named Cheryl, who was super nice, and I started hanging out with her a few weeks after we started working on GSA events together. But this was one person, and I couldn't hang out with her all the time, so at night, I'd watch re-runs of Family Guy via illegal internet links and eat pasta from a plastic picnic set that John's mom had given to me before I moved. Then I'd cry. Literally, into my pasta. I lost a lot of weight that winter because I was more preoccupied with crying into, than eating, my food!

I wondered why I wasn't making any friends. I was nice to everyone. I smiled, I tried to engage people in conversation, tried to invite them to cool events in town or on campus, but all I received were polite rebuffs. I was sad. I spent my extra time working as a temp secretary for Siemens nearby and as a data-entry assistant at the Health Economic Consortium on campus. I had friendly chats with the workers there, but still didn't make any friends.

This started to change a few further months down the line, when everyone got to know everyone else a little better. Bottom line is, as an American, I'm used to making friends quickly. It's not unusual to learn a lot of information about someone in a short space of time, and therefore feel close and connected with that person relatively quickly. In the UK, it's a different set of rules. People, as you might have heard, are a lot more reserved. And there are often limits to how quickly they want to get to know you - and for you to know them.

So, don't tell me to "go make some friends". You go make some friends. Some real friends. Tell me how that goes. And let me know how long it takes you. Because it took me a long time. I tried really hard. But I have some of the best friends I've ever had now. And I'm so grateful for that.

Photo source


  1. omg. seriously that is really true. also it's different in different parts of the country. for example, i found it pretty easy to make friends when i moved to chicago (well not *real* friends but at least to meet people). whereas, the entire time i lived on the east coast i felt alone and lonely and miserable because there's just a different culture that is not the same as my native texan attitude. though i also feel that there are a lot of people out there that don't have very deep friendships and yeah, i guess if all you want to do is go and drink together, it's not that hard to find people. but to have meaningful relationships, takes time and hard work.

    1. I totally agree that culture matters, Rhea! Lindsey brought up a good point on Facebook - do you think age matters too? She said she goes for "quality" friendships more now rather than "quantity".

  2. This is so true! Great post, I really enjoy your writing style. :-) I have found the same in the past- I was a social animal all the way through school, a big fish in a small pond I guess, so the wider world was a bit of a shock! I was lucky that at uni I made friends straight away in my halls (Some of my best friends now 11 years on and Godmothers to one of my children) BUT the first course I enrolled in- awful. No one on it seemed to want to engage, and the same happened again in some societies I tried to get involved in. Either no one really chatted, or the people already established in them were really cliquey, and it was hard to get 'in' and be accepted unless you were 'lucky' (i use that term loosely). Same with my first two jobs working in Radio and PR- cliquey and hard to penetrate socially, both men and women. A few nice people but I felt quite miserable and lonely, especially as i'd just moved to London then. Luckily things picked up in future jobs, with nicer people (I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me!), and I made some great friends then through work, and i've now met some lovely mums at playgroups and the like too who I meet up with regularly. It's definitely not easy to meet new friends, but in a way I think it's good that these friendships take time to develop, as you know that they're genuine. I've had 'friends' who i've had in the past who I now know were purely drinking buddies, and we didn't have much in common other than the Friday night two bottles of Sauvignon. Don't get me wrong, wine is great for friendships, but you need to stick by each other when not on the sauce too!

    1. Thanks a lot, Becky - and thank you for sharing your story. It made me sad to read about your first two jobs in Radio and PR. There's nothing worse than a cliquey workplace. So childish and unnecessary, really. I'm glad you have such solid, strong friendships now!


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