How to make friends while abroad

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By Alicia

Hello, my name is Alicia – an introduction

They say that studying abroad is the best time of your life. You take a huge step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in a new culture, and subsequently you become more knowledgeable about the world. Maybe you even pick up a new language. You learn things about yourself that you never knew before, and you make everlasting friendships spanning the globe. Studying abroad is life changing. As much as I would like to roll my eyes at all of these clichés, I do feel there is some validity to these statements—but before I get ahead of myself, I would like to address the last cliché: you make everlasting friendships spanning the globe. Going into my study abroad experience, I definitely believed I would.

I am an American exchange student at the University of Amsterdam, and I have never imagined my higher education career without studying abroad. My parents both chose to study abroad when they were students, and for as long as I can remember, they have planned for me to do the same because of the opportunities that international study can bring, academically, professionally, and personally. A few years ago, I traveled abroad for a volunteer program and the cultural immersion and relationships I formed were, for lack of a better description, life-changing—I know, how cliché of me to say. But I am not going to lie; one of the reasons I chose to study abroad was for the interaction with people from a different culture. I did come abroad hoping to form these lifelong international friendships. After all, who doesn’t like friends, much less international friends?

But why did I have to travel abroad to make international friends? My home university, the University of Southern California, has the largest international student population in the United States at 9,840 (Open Doors, 2013). Yet despite having this large international student population, I have had limited interaction with international students. Most of my friends are American, although I do have some good friends who are international. Apart from these individuals, for the most part I do not regularly interact with international students. From my observations, many of the international students at my home university tend to maintain closer and more constant contact with those of the same nationality. This is not unlike my observations in Amsterdam. I have noticed here that many American students—including myself—are good friends with other American students; many Dutch students are good friends with other Dutch students; and so on with other nationalities.

It is situations such as these that, as Pirjo Jukarainen explains, ‘show how even in a time of globalization and regionalization, nations are strongly relevant among the young generation’ (Jukarainen, 2003: 231). While nationality is one of many methods of identification, it is significant enough that it may impact our most personal relationships by providing a basis of solidarity within homogenous friend groups, either in the form of ‘positive patriotism’ or ‘negative nationalism’ (Jukarainen, 2003: 219). Patriotism is perceived as positive because by definition it is simply a ‘close attachment to one’s country’, whereas nationalism can be negative when it results in ‘othering’. Othering may occur as a defensive response to identity threats, by labeling individuals and groups as different and inferior to ‘us’. In observing the relevance of nationality among youth who study abroad, however, it is not fair to focus solely on homogenous friend groups because there are also many students who have formed cross-cultural friendships. Studying abroad is slowly becoming a more and more common process for students from the United States, as well as the rest of the world, thus the globalization process is gaining in momentum in youth student culture. Then how come nationality still plays such an important role in forming student friendships, even in an increasingly international setting?

Approximately two weeks into my semester in Amsterdam, I attended a meeting for exchange students; this is the term I most commonly hear in Amsterdam when describing students who are studying in another country for one semester or one year, for a certificate, and not for a full degree. The meeting was intended to help exchange students become better acquainted with student life at the University of Amsterdam. A presenter at the meeting asked how many individuals had a Dutch friend, and fewer than five people raised their hands. It was this moment that I realized although I had been given opportunities to meet other international students—such as those from Germany, Switzerland, etc.—at the time I had rarely spoken to Dutch students, much less become friends with them. As mentioned, I noticed parallels between this experience as an international student in Amsterdam and my experience in Los Angeles as a local student: many students tend to form friendships with those of the same national identity as their own, and international students as a general community tend to be quite separated from the local student community. Previous research has also demonstrated that ‘international students tend to keep social contact to those of their own ethnicity or other international students’ (Williams & Johnson, 2011: 42). Intrigued, I decided to focus my research on the relevance of nationality in student friendship dynamics.

Thus, my main question asks to what extent national identity shapes and reinforces friendship dynamics within the local and international student communities in Amsterdam. In order to answer this question and further explore friendship dynamics of students in Amsterdam, I also seek to answer two additional sub-questions. Given that the basis of my research rests on the notion of friendship, I feel that it is important to examine simply how people become friends with one another. My first sub-question asks to what extent similarities and communication help students to become friends. My second sub-question addresses possible barriers to friendship and interaction, such as language and cultural barriers, miscommunication and stereotypes, and time. Referring back to the meeting which caused me to realize my lack of Dutch friends, I feel that it is not always the case that international students do not want to form friendships with Dutch students, and vice versa, but that in some instances there may be particular social barriers that may prevent students from becoming friends. How to make friends in the Amsterdam student community turned out to be a complicated issue.

Let’s be friends – My quest to discover how to make friends while abroad

In order to answer the above research questions, I interviewed nine students at the University of Amsterdam from a variety of backgrounds. They included Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate students at the University of Amsterdam, some of whom have Dutch friends, international friends, friends from their home country, or a combination of the three. For purposes of organization, I sorted my interviewees into three categories: Dutch, American, and International students. I chose these categories based on my personal experiences in Amsterdam and in the United States; in Amsterdam, I fall within the role of an international student, and in the United States I take the role of a local student. Therefore, having now experienced both communities for a reasonable amount of time, I felt it would be interesting to compare my perspective as a local student in Los Angeles to the perspectives of local students in Amsterdam (Dutch students) and my perspective as an international student in Amsterdam to perspectives of other international students in Amsterdam. The third category of International students was also added because my personal perspective as an international student may not necessarily encompass that of students who are also international but not from the United States.

Rather than conducting formal interviews in which I asked questions that the subjects directly responded to, I tried to make the process more conversational so as to help my interviewees feel more comfortable or more willing to bring up topics that I may not have necessarily thought about. I have also changed their names in this paper in order to preserve their anonymity. After speaking with each person, I found that there were some recurring themes among many of the responses, although some individuals brought up very unique and interesting perspectives. I will present the relevant points in the following sections while also comparing and contrasting with my personal experiences and observations.

So, where are you from? – Breaking the ice

Based off of my interviews and literary research, national identity plays a limited and primary role in friendship dynamics within the international student community in Amsterdam, after which other factors come into play. For some students, after national identity helps to provide an initial basis for friendship, similarities, shared interests and communication help them to form deeper friendships. In terms of barriers to friendship, national identity also takes a basic role in that it helps to form and reinforce stereotypes and assumptions that students from other nationalities are not interested in being friends, which play a large role in students’ hesitation to reach out to those of the other student communities.

As mentioned, national identity seems to play a limited and primary role in forming friendships. ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that I asked quite a bit when meeting new people this semester, and often the easiest question to ask immediately after asking their name in order to break the ice of an introduction. What I never realized at the time was that it can be a very loaded question. It indicates a willingness or interest, however slight, to learn more about the other person—otherwise, wouldn’t you just stop conversing? Therefore, I argue that the first step in the formation of any relationship usually begins with one’s willingness to make friends. One Dutch student I interviewed, Karl (all names in this paper are pseudonyms), stated that in his observation and experience with his fellow Dutch students and international students, people become friends due to ‘an interest in the unknown in terms of culture and lifestyle’. Similarly, an American student, Melanie, commented that her Dutch friends are ‘curious about the world’. On how he made friends in Amsterdam, another American student, Kevin, said:

I went out of my way to talk to people and go places and parties with other people. I started smoking outside instead of my room, too.’ (Kevin, American student)

This refers to the more ubiquitous smoking culture and open attitude toward smoking cigarettes in public in Europe as compared to the United States. While these remarks do not indicate nation-specific identities, they demonstrate that intercultural curiosity and willingness to make friends are particularly essential to the formation of friendship.

However, the answer to ‘where are you from?’ can have a large impact on the direction the conversation will go. If someone was from a country that I knew little to nothing about, I would have nothing to say in response other than, ‘cool’, and awkward silence might ensue. On the other hand, if someone was from, for example, Taiwan—a country I am very familiar with—I could direct the conversation to the city he or she is from, and oh my gosh, isn’t Taiwanese street food just the best? Obviously this is a very simplified interpretation of how an initial conversation might go, but this general situation demonstrates the primary role which national identity may play in friendship dynamics. In fact, two of my few international friends from my home university are from Taiwan, and the reason we initially connected as friends was our shared national identity as Taiwanese, after which we discovered our shared love for Taiwanese street food. Similarly, one of my American interviewees, Sophia, explained that it was easier for her to initially make friends with American students in Amsterdam because ‘we already have that shared history of being from there’. This was also a sentiment shared by Laura, an Italian student, who said she became friends with one girl because they were both Italian, and this girl introduced her to another friend, who was also Italian.

While Sophia and Laura’s experiences seem to indicate national identity as a significant initial step toward forming friendships, other students may not place as much emphasis on this factor. In contrast to Sophia and Laura, Billy, a Greek student, stated that friendship ‘shouldn’t have to do with nationality. Sometimes you’re forced together and that’s how you become friends’, citing the examples of group projects and his living situation. He explained that he met some of his friends, both local and international, through group projects, and he became friends with other international students in his dorm because why not—they live together and have to see each other every day. Billy’s case of being ‘forced together’ with other students isn’t unique to himself; an Austrian student I interviewed, Ralph, had a similar experience with people in his program of study.

It’s just so small, we have the same classes, and we see each other all the time anyway.’ (Ralph, International student)

Billy and Ralph’s experiences demonstrate that one’s national identity is simply just an individual’s personal way of identification, and it may not always affect his or her friendships with others. The initial step to friendship can be anything: one’s national identity, as were the cases with Sophia and Laura; being ‘forced together’, as described by Billy and Ralph; or very simply, one’s willingness and interest to get to know another person, as Karl, Melanie, and Kevin articulated. Thus, national identity to a limited extent helps to shape friendship dynamics in the student community in Amsterdam in that a shared national identity is one of many ways by which people can break the ice.

You’re germophobic? Me, too! – How people become better friends

Closely related to the notion of a shared national identity are similarities such as experiences, interests, and even pet peeves. As ridiculous as it sounds, I actually became friends with one of my best friends over the conversation in the title of this section regarding ‘germophobia’. We bonded over how we both keep comically large bottles of hand sanitizer on our desks and don’t like when people put their feet on our beds—which brings me to the next point of my paper: what comes after the ice is broken. The next step to friendship, which may or may not build off of national identity, is dependent upon similarities and communication between the two parties. A large majority of the interviewees from all three categories commented on certain similarities within the student community that helped them to become friends with others, either across these categories or within their own category. The most common similarities that came up in my interviews were situational, but shared interests and ease of communication were also factors brought up by some individuals.

Among the International and American interviewees, a common theme was that of initial situational similarities as international students in Amsterdam. In summary, they said that as exchange students, they started the semester not knowing anyone, and because everybody in the international student community all started this way, it was easier to make friends among the international student community.

I think everyone looks to have friends when they go to a new college or place, especially international students.’ (Kevin, American student)

International people are all in the same place where they’re trying to make new friends in a new place.’ (Sophia, American student)

When you’re an exchange student you don’t know anybody, so then you become friends with people in the similar situation.’ (Laura, International student)

Other situational similarities also included physical proximity situations, as Billy and Ralph mentioned above; they both said they made friends in their respective academic programs through classes and group projects. Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that I too became good friends with both international and local students due to my living situation and classes. Most of my American and international friends live in the same dorm as me, or right down the street, where it is easy to spontaneously meet up, in comparison to having to bike a half hour across the city to meet. I also met my first Dutch friend in one of my classes, after we sat next to one another in workgroup and were thus assigned to work on a presentation together. This situation also happened to a Dutch student I interviewed, Diana, who told me about how she became good friends with an American student from Boston last semester when they met in a class. In regards to a Dutch language class she took, Melanie also stated:

I don’t think that I would have become friends with any of these people if it hadn’t been for this class.’ (Melanie, American student)

Shared interests or commonalities can also serve as a factor in helping to develop friendships once the ice has been broken. The hope to travel throughout Europe seems to be a shared interest among many American students, as Sophia pointed out. I also made the same observation. Within the organization that sent me and sixty-seven other American students abroad, many students and I had conversations about our hopes to visit certain countries. Many of these conversations were variations of ‘You want to travel to Dublin? Me, too!’, and ‘It’s so exciting that you went to Norway, I’ve always wanted to go!’ Similarly, Sophia said that she felt she really became friends with another student after planning trips to Sweden and France together.

A shared language is also another commonality that came up in my interviews, though language can also be directly applicable to the factor of communication in developing friendships. An Estonian student I interviewed, Marvin, said that as a fluent German-speaker he initially felt more comfortable talking to other German-speaking students in his dorm because sometimes there were certain ideas he could only express in German, which is why he thinks he first became better friends with these students. He went on to say that, as far as taking the next step to forming friendships:

You always communicate with people you think you will need in the future.’ (Marvin, International student)

This comment offers a particularly interesting point of view. At first it makes friendship seem like an object to be used and thrown away, where one strategically chooses his or her friends based on future potential benefits. However, I think there is some truth to this idea of investment. It isn’t so much that friends are disposable objects to invest in for future use, but I think friendship is a positive investment in terms of emotional support, which is something that may be missing when students travel abroad to study in a place where they know no one. The support of friends is a good reason for someone to take the time to break the ice and get to know others better in order to develop friendships. Thus, if one is hoping to find the support of friends, then it is to a large extent that similarities and communication can allow people to further develop friendships.

Why won’t you be my friend? – How assumptions might hold you back

While national identity might have a limited, but positive, role in forming friendship dynamics in the student community by helping to break the ice, it may have a more negative role when considering national stereotypes in the form of assumptions. These assumptions build off of national identity, and can serve as a barrier to friendship between local and international students. While all the individuals I interviewed were very friendly, every interviewee made comments about ‘them’ when referring to students from a different community. Thus, I originally assumed that there would be an ‘us vs. them’ or othering attitude among students. However, as I delved further into each of my interviews, I discovered that most of the assumptions or stereotypes made about students of a certain group were not the typical discriminatory stereotypes, but were more along the lines of ‘the other’ group’s lack of interest in becoming friends. One group’s assumption that the other group is uninterested in friendship demonstrates mild othering, though this does not necessarily entail a superiority or inferiority complex, as suggested by Jukarainen’s definition of othering.

One type of assumption statements I heard among students was that a lack of interest in friendship was due to individuals in the other group already having friends and not wanting to pursue more friendships, let alone friendships with international students.

When you study where you live, you have your own friends. Here, it’s not because they [Dutch students] are rude. They just don’t really need more friends.’ (Laura, International student)

While international students are forced to make new friends abroad, on the other hand Dutch students are solidifying friendships that they already have. There’s also a fear not being welcomed. There’s that fear of being the outsider in a group of Dutch friends who have known each other for a long time.’ (Sophia, American student)

[In the United States] American students are more individualistic in their behavior. If they’re walking down the street, they won’t stop to say hi to you if they’re trying to complete a task and you’re not their friend.’ (Ralph, International student)

These statements draw attention to the notion of comparative length of friendship, where individuals in the other group, in this case local students—Dutch students in Amsterdam and American students in the United States—already have friends that they have been friends with longer than an exchange student who has just arrived in Amsterdam, whose comparative length of friendship with a Dutch student may in fact be zero. Thus, othering of the local student community exists in that international students may assume that local students have a lack of interest in forming international friendships because they would rather continue to build on longer-standing friendships than pursuing new friendships.

Another type of assumption statement regarding time was directed more specifically at the Dutch student community, although only American students brought this point up. The common thread seemed to be a certain logical perspective about investment in friendship, where international students assumed that for local students, making friends would not be worth the investment due to time constraints.

I think they [Dutch students] are hesitant to make international friends because they might invest all this time, and then it ends in a semester.’ (Melanie, American student)

They [Dutch students] must know that most of us are only here for a semester, so they don’t go through the lengths to get to know us outside of class. They’re friendly in class, though.’ (Kevin, American student)

These comments seem to place the assumption that the other group, the Dutch student population, does not want to invest time in a friendship with the first group, the international student population, that will inevitably expire. While it may sound harsh to say that local students do not make friends with international students because the friendship has an expiration date set at the end of the semester, I would argue that Melanie and Kevin do have a logical point in that a semester’s time may be too limited to invest in building and developing a friendship that may not last beyond the supposed expiration date. Friendships do not always occur overnight, and often they take a reasonable amount of time and effort to maintain. Yet despite the logic of time constraint in developing a friendship, there is still othering involved in that American students might falsely attribute a lack of interest in friendship to the Dutch student community, and additionally assume that it is due to time constraints that Dutch students do not want to be friends.

So, how might a Dutch student feel about these assumptions that have subjected them to othering? The Dutch students I interviewed had mixed responses in regards to the comparative friendship length and time constraint.

We were such good friends that when he left, it was like I was just alone at the end. It sucked. Ever since that, I’ve been reluctant to reach out to international students, because I know they will be gone in a semester.’ (Diana, Dutch student)

I don’t see time constraint as an issue. I think it is more that since Holland is so small a lot of Dutch people know each other from a young age and will work, study, and party together, and build long-lasting friendships which would be difficult for international students to join. It’s not impossible for international students, just more difficult to “compete” for the time and attention of their new Dutch friends.’ (Karl, Dutch student)

The assumption that time is too short was not completely an American perspective, as Diana explained that she has been reluctant to reach out to international students because when her friend left, ‘it sucked’. On the other hand, Karl had a more positive view of time, but his views of comparative friendship length matched up with the assumptions of international students.

While assumptions of local students by international students to some extent aligned with the reality of local students’ experiences in terms of how long a friendship has lasted and the time that the international student will be in the locality, I want to draw attention to resistance as a barrier to friendship that one of my interviewees brought up. In a portion of our interview where we discussed different groups of friends, he asked me, ‘Which one of your groups is resisting friendship and interaction more?’ This question caught me off-guard and is still difficult for me to answer. Even though my research was focused on assumptions and stereotypes as a barrier to friendship, I had not given much thought to active resistance to friendship between different groups. In my experience with these interviews and in conversation with others, there seems to be a consensus that no one is actually actively opposed friendship with people from different groups, yet no one has made the first move. Are we just lazy? Why is it that we expect other groups to reach out, yet we do not do the same?

It is this expectation that perpetuates the othering assumption between different groups of students that other groups are simply not interested in being friends because there are too many problems such as time constraints and other, longer, friendships. Therefore, othering exists in a mild form in that each group sort of puts the blame on the other group for the lack of interest, and it is these group identities and assumptions of “the others” that to a significant extent serves as a barrier to friendship, though these are not barriers that cannot be overcome.

Alicia Shiue - Illustration2

Thank you for being my friend – Lessons learned

Now that we have made it to the end, let’s go back to the beginning of this paper and evaluate all the study abroad clichés I heard throughout my entire life. Did I become more knowledgeable about the world? Yes; I feel much more aware of global perspectives and issues than I ever was before. Did I learn a new language? Unfortunately, I did not become fluent in Dutch, although I did pick up basic Dutch words and phrases here and there, dank u wel. Did I learn things about myself? Absolutely. And did I make everlasting international friendships?

Given that my decision to study abroad was based partially on a corny expectation that of course I would gain worldwide and lifelong friendships, I have to give this cliché some credit. I was fortunate enough to become friends with wonderful people who traveled to Amsterdam from all over the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. Whether these relationships are everlasting is something yet to be seen (I certainly hope they will be)—but this past semester has also taught me something important about the expectations of studying abroad. Studying abroad is life changing, but not in the mind-blowing, glass-shattering way that many clichés make it appear to be.

Frankly, these expectations of having my life changed dramatically by simply being out of the United States made it hard for me to feel like I was having ‘the time of my life’ because, even though I roll my eyes and try to convince myself that these expectations are unrealistic, I sometimes found myself just waiting for that flip to switch, and suddenly I would be a new person. However, like many other endeavors, it takes risk and effort, and I owe it to my new American and international friends for making my study abroad experience as positive as it was. It was largely through conversations with them that I became more knowledgeable about the world, learned some Dutch phrases, and realized things about myself that I never knew before.

In the end, it is important to acknowledge that despite the small role of national identity, in some cases it helps to serve as a similarities ‘stepping stone’ to form friendships, upon which additional similarities and communication can further develop or help to form friendships. Further, we must also recognize the existence of assumptions as barriers to friendship in order to one day surpass them. What may be perceived as a lack of interest is not necessarily so. These assumptions are social constructions that we don’t need. According to the study ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends? Multicultural Attitudes and Friendships With International Students’, by Christina T. Williams and Laura R. Johnson (2011: 41), among many other studies, international friendships can have so many benefits academically, socially, and psychologically. It is a pity that as a society we construct ideas that can hinder our willingness to obtain these benefits. It shouldn’t matter where your friends come from as long as you think it is a meaningful relationship. We should not focus so much on what our friends are versus who they are.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Jukarainen, P. (2003). Definitely not yet the end of nations: Northern borderlands youth in defense of national identities. Young: Nordic Journal of Youth, 11(3), 217-234.

Open Doors 2013 “Fast Facts.” (2013). Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/Fast-Facts.

Williams, C. T. & Johnson, L. R. (2011). Why can’t we be friends? Multicultural attitudes and friendships with international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35, 41-48.

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