Columns / Discourse / February 4, 2009

Friends in a foreign land

When settling into a new place, a common worry is making friends. When studying in a foreign country, this worry increases because of extra concerns like cultural and language barriers. I know I worried a lot about being able to meet people and create friendships when I began studying at Waseda University in Tokyo. However, I found that making friends was easier than I thought. All it requires is a little effort and a willingness to sound a bit stupid.

Meeting people in the first place is actually incredibly easy. The best advice I can give is to get involved. At Knox we all know that joining clubs is a great way to meet people with similar interests, and that is just as true in other places. Here at Waseda, club and circle membership is a great way to make friends. Many clubs will have meetings that have nothing to do with the club’s interest; they just want to socialize with one other. Some clubs are all about socializing. The Nijinokai (Rainbow Club) here in Tokyo was my first experience meeting with Japanese students. They are students interested in foreign cultures so they like to get together and throw parties with exchange students. Friendly people exist worldwide; you might just have to make a little effort to find them.

Of course, once you find some people that seem nice and interesting, there’s still the language barrier to consider. My Japanese is only mediocre, so I often feel self-conscious when conversing with a native speaker, making it difficult to make friends if even simple conversation feels uncomfortable. The best way to combat this issue is that you must be willing to look a bit silly. Use hand motions and sound effects when you try to tell a story and experiment with your grammar and vocabulary. If you don’t get something exactly right, I’ve found that most people will not think less of you. Often, they will understand what you are trying to get across, and will help you tweak your sentence so it makes more sense (this is actually a great way to improve language skills). The more you try, the more the person you are talking to tries.

One roadblock that sometimes arises comes in the form of cultural differences. Different cultures often mean different values and different ideas about what is acceptable. However, coming from a college as diverse as Knox gives an advantage, as we value an open mind. That really is all it takes to get past the hiccups caused by cultural differences. Don’t be quick to judge and have an open mind, and you may find yourself seeing the world in a very different light.

So far I have only talked about making friends from your host culture. However, it is also important to meet people that are also exchange students. The Associated Colleges of the Midwest Japan Study Program of which I am a part has students from several different colleges, but during orientation we became a fairly close-knit group. Friendships like these are important to help combat things like culture shock and homesickness. The other American students I know have become my support group and if I’m feeling discouraged, I have someone to talk to who is going through an experience similar to my own.

In reality, studying abroad is like the first day at Knox all over again. You don’t really know anyone, but you will make great friends. There are added difficulties because of culture and language, but if you keep an open mind, these barriers are not insurmountable.

Mary Vanden Plas


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