The accident with the motorcycle left me shaky, anxious, and worried.
Besides my husband, the person I wanted to talk with was my closest Egyptian friend. I wanted her to help me process through what I could have done differently, what I was supposed to do after, how I could ever drive again.
She did that, offering an insider’s perspective about how street accidents are dealt with here. She empathized and encouraged me from a place of knowing exactly how things work, having experienced similar situations, and knowing that I did what was right in the situation. That was the kind of friendship I needed: a local perspective from someone who cared for me.
Overseas Friendships: Where to Start
When my family first arrived in Egypt, we pushed hard to have local friends.
We really wanted to worship with local believers and to be a part of a church of nationals. We tried to mostly hang out with locals, going to them for our questions before other Americans.
Our local friendships was crucial for our adaptation to the country and our confidence in being able to adjust to living here.
I appreciated being able to ask my Egyptian friends about how I should pay my house help or what should I expect from the delivery guy. I was finding my footing and they were there to keep pushing me forward, reminding me by their presence why I was here.
Overseas friendships: Start Local
Sometimes it’s amazing to me now to consider all the things we did at that point in time, early in our adjustment here. Any Egyptian we met anywhere (as in, standing in line at a store, randomly meeting at a mall, etc), we considered seriously if we would want to pursue making them our friend.
We went out with our language teacher and had a friend of a friend take us shopping for plates and some home appliances. I met a barista at a coffee shop, exchanged numbers, and met her out for coffee several times. She spoke no English and I spoke very beginner Arabic, so we made quite the funny pair. Spending time with her was exhausting for my brain but I’m so thankful for that time.
Advice I give to people new in the country? Find local friends. *
- Frequent a particular coffee shop and get to know the baristas.
- Go to a local gym and get to know the regulars or the other people in a class.
- Ask your language teacher if you can hang out sometime.
- Find a place to go play sports.
Push hard in the beginning, when you are new and still full of new adventure energy.
A Time for Expat Community
There will be a time when you will need community of people from your passport culture or whatever culture you call “home.”
You will need to sit down with people who know why you put a napkin in your lap at the table or people who also like to drink water while they eat their meal (not wait until after). You will want someone to share your successes and wild failures with, someone who will laugh with you about your faux pax and will understand why you totally botched the situation.
Seek out expat community, if it exists where you are. People from our own home culture are often the most obvious connection, but sometimes expats from other western cultures are equally helpful in building a community.
Sit down to a meal together. The conversation may get deep quickly. Look for a friend or two who can encourage you and who you can encourage as you each labor toward your goals. Appreciate each other’s successes and commiserate with the challenges.
What to Watch For
A word of caution: If your intention is to be among locals, be careful how much you get involved in the expat bubble.
It is not the intention of every person who goes overseas to be involved with locals. But if you desire to be among the local population, you will need to protect your time and continue to work at those friendships.
There is a balance. It’s not always an easy one.
Overseas Friendships: Straddling Both Worlds
After several months of attending a large Egyptian church, we decided to start attending an English-speaking church. It was closer to our home. We saw the value in attending a church where we would be among people who lived near to us. Community felt important.
We were hesitant about getting into the expat “bubble”. Would we be surrounded by other Americans with little time left for making friends with Egyptians? To keep pushing into local culture, we would also attend an Egyptian church near our home.
Yes, we went to two church services, back to back, because that allowed us to be with an English-speaking community and to immerse in local culture.
To be completely honest, we usually attended the children’s Sunday school class at Arabic church with our toddlers because
1.) The other parents did also. It seemed the thing to do.
2.) That was the level of Arabic we could understand at the time.
This wasn’t always easy but it was important to us to maintain the balance. This was a way for us to have overseas friendships with other ex-pats (and some English-speaking Egyptians, maybe those in cross-cultural marriages). These friendships encouraged us in our life away from our first culture.
And the second church helped build our language skills, our cultural awareness, and friendships with locals in an organic way.
…And Keep Pushing
Due to several life circumstances, I find myself in another season of needing to push for local friendships. When the fall semester brings regularity to family schedules, I will push into making more friendships and cultivating those that are starting.
As I said before, the balance is not easy but it is important. If we spend too much of our time in community with other expats, we can easily look up one day and realize we don’t have any local friends.
We don’t mean for this to happen. Friendships with other expats can seem easier — similar focus, similar world perspective, similar traditions, similar faith. While this expat community is important for the “filling up,” we can find that we are out of touch with the local population.
Unless our calling is to expats, we want to guard against losing touch.
The twin Anchors of overseas friendships
It is truly a gift to have close friends from the local population. Life overseas can be challenging and there are times when you can wonder about your calling or if this is the right place for you.
When happens, I remember my Egyptian friends: the conversations we have, the ways we’re involved in each other’s lives. I remember all over again the gift of being right here.
And on the days when the highs are far fewer than the lows, I look to my American friend to laugh with me about the annoying situations I just had to endure. I laugh with her; she gets me right away and she’s committed here, too, and we know a little humor goes a long way.
Missionary life, done well, does not allow you to get comfortable. You keep laboring, pressing on toward the goal.
Find overseas friendships in which to pour out with your love and service. And find ways to be filled back up.
Catch Sarah’s post next week on ways to make local friendships.
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