When moving abroad to a new country, I think many of us only prepare ourselves to get completely immersed in THAT culture. However, there are many different kinds of people you will come to call friends that will impact your life in ways you didn’t expect and the differences you find will not always fall along nationality lines. Personally, when I came to live abroad long-term in Spain, I expected to have Spanish friends who spoke Spanish and who had grown up in the Spanish culture and I thought those would be our main differences. While those friendships have proven to be very influential in terms of my ability to thrive here in Spain, I find that I am just as much (if not more) impacted by the other ways in which my friends—both Spanish and not—are different from me. Of course, there are many different ways in which I categorize people as ‘the same’ or ‘different’ from me, so let’s dig a little deeper into what I mean.
Friends who come from a different culture and speak a different language
I expected to come into contact with a lot of Spanish while living in Spain. However, one of the things I came to realize early on is that, here in Europe, I am exposed to so many different languages on a daily basis. I don’t know if I just didn’t know how to socialize in a multicultural way and therefore had never been to the right events and or areas to meet a lot of people from different countries/cultures in the U.S. but here in Spain I feel like I don’t even need to try!
Walking down the street on an average day brings me into contact with a handful of different languages that I can now distinguish as well as a handful that I have not yet learned how to recognize. Going to an intercambio—or any gathering of young people, to be honest—only ups my chances of interaction with those people and getting to learn more about their roots and where they come from through conversation.
While living abroad, I find it very easy to meet people from other countries and find that I am at an advantage for being able to communicate with them as almost all of them have some level (usually a very good level!) of English as well as Spanish if they are spending a significant amount of time here. Thus, it’s relatively easy to connect with them and perhaps develop a meaningful relationship which is fantastic because our language influences so much of how we see the world and so these non-native English speakers have taught me a lot by sharing their perspectives on life.
Friends who have had very different life experiences
Of course, let’s not forget that being from a different country does not inherently make our friends extremely different from us. I’ve met some people from Spain who are very similar to me and who have had rather aligned life experiences; just as I’ve met people from the U.S. whose lives seems nothing like mine.
I find that living abroad has opened up my circle to include many more people who are different from me in terms of what they’ve lived as compared to my circle back home. This makes sense as the people who travel and use platforms like Couchsurfing, Bla Bla Car, etc tend to be open-minded, interesting, and interested in sharing their stories. Likewise, the people who are willing to live with or invite a guiri like me into their friend group also tend to be curious and open to sharing stories and therefore I’ve found a lot of people who share my deepest values, yet who have very different life stories in terms of their families, studies, personal experiences, work, and future goals.
Again, this is a beautiful thing as we can’t hope to live every experience that can be lived in life, but we can become more mindful and empathetic through learning about others’ experiences and letting our opinions and views evolve accordingly.
Friends who are at different points in their lives
Honestly, this is the factor I didn’t pay much attention to before but I think it is perhaps the most unique and important difference I find in my friend group here in Spain compared to back home. I think it’s pretty normal to grow up only having friends who are in the same school year as you (give or take a couple once you get into high school and university where organizations and activities are combined) and so for the most part, in the US, I only have friends who are my own age.
However, moving to a university city after I had graduated meant that I met quite a few people who were younger than me who were going to the university as well as quite a few people older than me through intercambios and other meet-ups. I’ve heard it said before that as you get older, age matters less and less and I find this to be incredibly true. For example, my fiance and I were technically born in different decades (and have a good laugh about this from time to time) but for the most part we’re quite aligned in terms of values, life goals, and the point in which we’re at in our lives.
That’s why I was sure to use ‘different points’ instead of ‘age’ to differentiate this category. I couldn’t even tell you how old most of my friends are, but I know their ages run the gamut. That may sound funny, but now that I’m not meeting my friends on the playground, I find that I can build a friendship with someone for a long time without ever asking them their age. Suddenly, I’m starting to relate more to people who may be much older or younger than me, but who are at a similar point in their lives.
At the same time, I learn much more from those who are ‘beyond’ me in terms of where I want to be going and I like to think that I offer something special to those who are ‘working towards’ where I’m at*. This has been incredibly helpful as I’ve had people to talk to about the big life moments like buying a home and getting married, as well as the little things like what mechanic to use or how to install a dishwasher. You don’t have to be older than someone to have lived the life experiences that they want to have, and I’m finding that it’s such a blessing to gain insight from friends who are living a different moment in their lives.
I once heard someone I respect make the comment that they hate meeting ‘like-minded people’ and while this initially shocked me I’ve started to internalize it as well. How boring to surround yourself with only people who think in the same way that you do, who have lived the same experiences, spoken the same languages, and come from the same place! I’m so thankful for the beautifully different people I am able to surround myself with here in my adopted home (and, consequently, around the globe)!
Do you have friends who are different from you, too? In what ways?
*I put both of these terms in quotation marks as I recognize that life is by no means linear and most of us will end up following very different, winding paths. Still, I think we find comfort in discussing life events and goals with others we know who have already ‘been there.’