It’s so important to me to make sure I have a strong support system and a group of friends with similar interests. These values are definitely part of what makes living abroad feel like home to me, and friends feel like family. Like most things about being an expat, it’s not always easy. I’ve lived in five different countries, and finding my tribe has always been one of the most difficult yet rewarding parts of living abroad. Luckily for you, I have already gone through this process. Hopefully I can help you to save yourself a bit of heartache as you embark on your own journey to find where you fit in and people who just get you. Without further adieu, here are some of the things I did to find my support system and closest friends while living abroad.
I started choosing places to live that fit me.
My first experience abroad was as an exchange student in Venezuela. Do me a favor and google “Rubio, Tachira, Venezuela.” Likely the first thing that pops up on your screen is Iglesia Santa Barbara, a super picturesque image of a church with beautiful palm trees in front. That beautiful church was about the only thing there was to see and do there for miles. Don’t get me wrong, to this day I haven’t lived in a place where the locals were so warm, friendly and inviting. I met so many awesome people, some of which I consider family and still keep in touch with today. And the food — OMG the food! Everything was so delicious, it was unbelievable. From arepas to the empanadas, I ended up gaining 20 pounds that year alone and I don't regret one bite. My stay there also started my love of Latin music. Although there were some moments of frustration, I loved learning Spanish. Not to mention, the beauty of South America is breathtaking and dare I say unparalleled. There's a pure natural quality to it all, and I enjoyed the new experiences and the longstanding friendships I made with some of the people there, but it wasn’t long before it started to sink in that despite everything that was great, something was missing. I came to the realization after I had been living in Venezuela for a year that there were crucial parts of my own culture that I didn’t want to live without.
First of all, living in a town and being the only black person can be quite isolating. I don’t remember ever being discriminated against (except being mistaken for the maid once or twice. *side eye*), but I couldn’t find anyone who shared the same cultural experiences as me. I could barely find anyone who spoke English! I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that the whole point of living abroad? Yes, definitely. But if I learned anything from my time in that small town in Venezuela, it’s that it helps to have a group of people around you who you can relate to on some level. These people should share with you some of the same life experiences that you hold dearest to you and your identity. Once you secure that group of people (or maybe even just one person), you’ll suddenly feel like maybe you do have some support, which will be clutch for those moments when you feel alone. It took some time before I realized that as much as I loved living in Venezuela, I knew I wouldn’t find it there.
I got with the programs.
Back in college, I joined all sorts of organizations in order to meet people who shared similar interests. I was on the dance team and in the economics club. Plus, I went to so many campus events that it became relatively easy to find and connect with people. It’s easy when you’re a student, but when you’re working full time, it’s much harder to forge relationships with new people — especially in a new country. However, technology and social media try to make it easier than ever for people to make new connections despite their busy lives.
Meetup, Facebook groups like the London Expat Meetup Group, and expat organizations like Internations all over the world bring together like-minded individuals who are looking to build friendships. Trust, me I can vouch for the effectiveness of some of these site as I have used many of them to meet some of my friends. The cool thing is that just like when I was in college, I was able to join meetups based on my interests. It was hard at times because moving to a new country is an emotional roller coaster ride and there were some days and nights when I just wanted to be alone. But I knew from my past travels that these are the times where I needed to put myself out there in order to get the most out of it. By doing so, I was able to meet so many different kinds of people and explore in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to on my own. Being able to put yourself out there and meet new people is a huge part of what living abroad is all about.
I created it in time.
When I moved to Amsterdam, the first thing I did was try to figure out where I wanted to live. Next, I found out where my people were by networking at events and on social groups/sites. Eventually, my tribe began to blossom from the bonds I made with the very people I interacted with at those events or in those groups. Also, organized events were awesome because it was an opportunity to be introduced to an entire group of new people. Sometimes I’d attend these events and not click with anyone, and other times I’d meet people I felt like I’ve known my whole life.
It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways — making first contact with these people you hit it off with is only the first step in forging a bond. I would usually/always make a concerted attempt to later reach back out to that person I kicked it off with at an event or online to invite them to hang out again. I’d usually try to get to know the people I connected with better by inviting them to the movies or to go out for lunch, or I'd text them about where to find the best black hair products in the city. Over time and after getting to know each other, these acquaintances became friends — some even close friends. The people I found myself sharing the strongest ties with understood the trials that came along with being an expat, and we were able to support each other through it.
As time goes on and the longer you’re away from home, you’ll realize that your tribe becomes your family, too. For me, having a support system here was worth the time it took to develop the connections.
I think it’s an essential part of being abroad because — let’s face it — sharing these experiences with people you care about makes them so much more enjoyable.
For my fellow expats, how did you find your tribe?