I like the still and quiet. I enjoy being left to my own thoughts for a time. I even like trekking somewhere new by myself and having a pioneer-hero feeling send shivers up my spine. But, for me, these special moments never seem to last too long before I begin wishing there was someone at my side to share the experience with. Perhaps its just a primitive survival hardwiring I’ve inherited from my ancestors. Or maybe its a genuine way I’ve learned to make my experiences fuller and richer through creating shared memories. Either way, the longing for companionship is a desire that’s coded deep down in me. And I don’t believe I’ll be shedding it any time soon.
But is making friends easy?
I’m from the United States, where my heart is divided up among the many people I love there. I’m sure I’ve met thousands of people during my time in the States (my Facebook seems to say so). But as I think back on the life-long friendships, I realize that the majority of them were built (fundamentally) while on the other side of the world. I can’t say with scientific certainty why this is the case, but I have a strong hunch. For me, it seems to have come down to two factors:
Commonality and Vulnerability
“We have so much in common!” is usually the verbal translation of the unsaid “I think we’re going to be good friends.” But how could commonality be more easily found in a foreign country than when surrounded by one’s own countrymen?
When I’m in the US, I have so much in common with every person I walk by. So much that its almost as if we have nothing in common. There’s not often an occasion for Americans to discuss the fact that they use a sitting toilet, or that they eat with a fork. That is, until they find themselves in an environment without sitting toilets or forks. Then all the sudden these things become a point of bonding.
This especially becomes the case the further I am from home. For example, at this moment I’m deep in China in a small mountain town called Yangshuo. Yangshuo’s train station is an hour outside town and nestled in the mountains. It has nothing around but a bus to take travelers an hour’s ride through mountainous countryside until it reaches town. You can imagine when I pass by another foreigner in Yangshuo, a simple smile and nod is packed with all the sentiments of “We’re a long way from home.” And between Yangshuo’s mountains, rivers, and sports activities, there’s always something to do and discuss with a fellow journeyman. Here, the topics of home and cultural difference in China are never lacking. The more estranged the environment, the more a common understanding feels like companionship.
Bill Withers famous song Lean On Me uses the picture of “leaning” to describe friendship. Naturally, I never want to “lean” on people for fear of bothering them. Yet when people ask me to lend them a hand, I feel honored. It’s a subtle message of being needed, which naturally draws me closer to that person. I usually fight to keep the words “I need your help” from coming out of my mouth, but when they do slip out, it often results in a friendship going a little deeper. The very thing that feels like a bullet to my ego turns out to be one of the greatest bandages for my desire for companionship.
Back in the States, though, I rarely have need to ask for help. Maps and menus are all in English, and I can hop in my car and run my daily errands without needing to say a word to anyone. But in China, before I learned Chinese, I needed help just trying to figure out what was going to be inside the dumplings I ordered. The more unfamiliar the environment, the more “leaning” seems to go on.
Making Friends Doesn’t Happen Magically
Though making friends seems to be a natural human need, it doesn’t come as naturally as breathing. It requires a conscious choice to get out one’s own head for a while and go on a small quest with another human, even if that quest is just a conversation about something new, or going out to try a new food. It is possible to isolate oneself while abroad and not make any real connections. Living somewhere that naturally breeds human interaction, like a dorm while studying abroad, can be helpful.
But what I tend to find, at least in my little Chinese mountain town, that the thousands of foreigners who have braved the journey to get here, are usually the kind of people who are up for a good “quest.” And it’s in these quests that commonality and vulnerability work their magic.