Acquiring Acquaintances Abroad: An Arduous Assignment

For me, as a devastatingly taciturn individual, it is difficult to develop friendships, regardless of where I am in the world.  I have this horrible tendency towards silence—the more people gathered in a room, the quieter I become.  It is not a conscious choice either.  I do not stand there and think, “Well, I’m just not going to talk.”  My lack of loquacity is really something that just happens to me.  My brain, it seems, decides on its own to take a short vacation.  Words escape me.  And while I stand there, not quite (but almost) literally lacking mental functioning, a person comes up to me and makes the attempt.  They try to engage me in conversation (read: small talk), and whatever small bits of thinking ability remained before have now disappeared entirely.  My mouth produces words instinctively while a red light in my brain flashes and blares incessantly; it is a warning—Get yourself out of this dangerous situation, immediately!

I know, of course, that my social anxiety isn’t something that many people reading this blog will endure themselves.  However, it is something very real for me, and indeed something that has played a very large role in my study abroad experiences.  In a lot of ways (and certainly the most obvious), it hinders me.  Friendships are gained by means of social interactions, and often they are begun by the dreaded small talk. Unfortunately, I go through this horrendous process of 1) not knowing what to say, and 2) not being able to say it anyway. For whatever reason, in social situations, I become a completely different person. The voice, thoughts, and opinions that come out of my mouth are never my own. They are filler words, phrases chosen not conscientiously, but accidentally, spur of the moment. This is true even in English, so you can imagine my ability to converse in Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, or Lithuanian.

Even I, though, have managed to find friendships while living abroad. In Costa Rica, I worked with a small NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of HIV/AIDS-infected persons. Much of my time was spent at La Casa de Paz, a shelter for drug addicted women, and oddly enough, these people—the employees and the women themselves—became my closest friends. It’s because of them that I learned to speak Spanish and really it’s because of them that I understood Costa Rica as something more than a popular tourist destination.

In India, my greatest friendships came in the form of my host family, an ironic twist of fate. You see, I’d had two host families in Costa Rica too, and though they certainly had their merits, I did not want to repeat the experience in future travels abroad. Being my socially awkward, naturally introverted self, host families are a less than ideal setup. After a full day of classes and conversations and public outings, the last thing my brain wants to do is return home for a few hours of “obligatory chitchat.” Is it great for language learning? Absolutely. Is it great for my sanity? Probably not.

When I learned that I was to have a host family in India, then, I was less than pleased. And it’s not that I worried my new family would be particularly mean or disagreeable either. Honestly, I was more worried that they would be too nice. Yes, I recognize how strange that sounds. How could I possibly have that concern? Well, like I mentioned above, after a full day of social interaction, I prefer to return home and be alone. Without those few hours of almost total isolation, I feel exhausted in such a way that I struggle to convey accurately in words. It’s not a physical exhaustion I feel, but rather a mental and emotional one. Few people understand this personality quirk of mine, and I expected that my Indian host family would fall into this category. After all, hosting a study abroad student is an exciting opportunity. It’s as much an opportunity for the hosts to learn about American culture as it is for the guests to learn about the hosts’ culture. I feared that I would be a disappointment for my host family.

I was fortunate, though, in that the woman and her daughter (my Indian family) never made me feel out of place. They offered their home to me entirely. They taught me how to eat like an Indian, demonstrating the proper scooping hand motion, something that took a good two weeks to perfect. They told me what they thought of the Indian government, the education system, and the media. For some reason, the three of us (and our personalities) worked well together. Over time, our relationship deepened—first from roommates to acquaintances, and then from acquaintances to friends, and finally from friends to a makeshift family.

China was an altogether different experience from Costa Rica and India. For one thing, I lived in a dorm room on the campus of Zhejiang University. My days consisted almost exclusively of two things: attending Chinese class and studying for Chinese class. It’s difficult to incorporate friendships in your life when you’re immersed in the Chinese style of education. As it turned out, my professors and classmates became my best friends. I should tell you that I didn’t recognize this at first. In the beginning, my mind distinctly demarcated the words classmate and friend. But it’s quite difficult for them not to overlap when class feels like your life. In fact, the forced Chinese conversation homework proved to be an excellent way to avoid small talk. I learned about my classmates’ lives in the most raw, simplest form because, well, I could only understand Chinese in its most raw and simplest form.

Now onto my friendships in Lithuania, where I am to “study” for the next three months. Note the quotation marks around the work study. They’re there to indicate the uniqueness of my study abroad program in Lithuania. It feels insufficient, the phrase study abroad, because I don’t really feel like a student here. Much of my time is spent as an intern at the American Embassy in Vilnius, or participating in activities and attending outreach events that are in some way affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. Evenings and weekends here are my schooldays.

So much of this blog entry has concentrated on my shyness and introversion. You’re likely wondering how I fare as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the American mission to Lithuania (responsible for all embassy outreach activities, public events, social gatherings, media, etc.). Well, I can assure you, it has been adjustment. Small talk is no longer that unfortunate thing I must endure every now and again; it is my life. And truthfully, even months into my internship, I’m just as dreadful at it as I was in the beginning. Here’s the deal: I’m no suave, debonair diplomat, and I never will be.

Unlike many of those with whom I work, I don’t have the natural ability to talk about anything and everything, and successfully feign interest. You can talk to me about your yarn factory as much as you want, but I can only think of so many questions about it before you realize I really couldn’t care any less. You might think of this as a weakness in a world where “stage presence” is a must at all times, but I’ve not found that to be the case. In my short time here, I have already found my fair share of friends (both Lithuanian and American and almost every other nationality you can imagine), and  it’s really because of my poor acting ability that I’ve done so. Guess what? Hating social functions is actually a reliable ice breaker because, for the most part, nobody enjoys them. They are simply a necessary evil. Thus has been my experience here anyway.

Before ending this blog post, I do want to make it clear that making friends abroad is difficult, more so even than in the U.S. The language barrier is one difficulty, of course. But so is finding common interest. Sometimes it’s even a struggle to find someone with a similar sense of humor. In the end, though, the struggle is worth it. When people tell me, “You’re not like the Americans on TV” and I tell them, “Well, you’re not like the [enter nationality here] I see on TV either,” a bond forms. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Perhaps it’s something one must experience for themselves.

1 Comment

Filed under Eastern Europe, Travis in Lithuania, Writing Prompts

One response to “Acquiring Acquaintances Abroad: An Arduous Assignment

  1. I too am a an introvert and knew that study abroad in Italy I would make no friends. I rented an apartment by myself and lived outside the city walls. The peace and quiet of living in the country with a garden was of so much value to me that I know if I had lived with roommates in the center of the city as the other students in my class had, I may not have had the positive experience I did. I made friendships though, just not the kind by our American standard definition of “friendship”, they were different but no less of value or enjoyment. I get it and maintain that traveling gives you what you need and meets you where you are.

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