Stranger in a strange land
June 26, 2014 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I am lonely and alone in a different country. How can I be okay with being alone?

I am doing a rotation for six months in a very poor country. All of my coworkers are incredibly kind and great, but there is a language and culture barrier. I am also a young single woman, (here most young women are married and maybe 20% of them work), and very obviously of a different race. A lot of people will yell "foreigner" if I walk around. The majority of the time, I am in a small compound where I have an apartment or at the office. I don't have a car and I am not allowed to take public taxis or buses for safety reasons. I have a roommate but we do not speak the same language. She is nice enough but not a friend.

I am lonely. I don't know any other expats (there are some here, but I don't know how to make friends saying "hey we are both expats let us expat together"). I don't have internet at home. I am keeping in touch with my friends and family pretty well, but at home, I live in the big city with my partner, family, friends, bars, restaurants, a metro, and so on. I am reading a lot because I love books. But I am lonely on an existential level and I don't know how to deal with it cognitively.

I know I am lonely because I am alone. I am doing my best to get out, go to cultural things and restaurants and so on when I can, going out with my coworkers, but 5-6 nights a week I am alone and trapped on the compound and lonely. How do I start being okay with being alone and finding some support within myself for the next five months?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Are you worried that saying "hey we are both expats, let's expat together" is weird and awkward? Because that's kind of how is done, when you're an expat. The bar for making friends is extremely low. When I was an expat, it took just being in the same room to have a reason to go to dinner, and going to dinner once to be a reason we were friends. Not necessarily deep friendships, but very very fast. I came home from expat life surprised at how hard it was to make friends at home!

I guess this doesn't answer how to be ok with being alone in a foreign country but I would say that it is totally ok to strike up an awkward conversation with a fellow expat and you may find that even the flimsiest foundation is a perfectly fine one for a friendship in a foreign land.
posted by sestaaak at 4:03 PM on June 26, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't have internet at home.

Why not? Could you get a smart phone, or visit an internet cafe? Or maybe find some time on your lunch hour to do some personal googling? You need to find shit to do with new people, it's 2014, the internet is almost certainly the best way to do that, although without knowing your specific situation it's tough to provide more suggestion.

I don't know any other expats (there are some here, but I don't know how to make friends saying "hey we are both expats let us expat together").

Suck it up. Ultimately, your alternatives here are to be lonely for six months or to approach strangers seeking friendship and risking awkwardness. Your call, of course. But they're strangers; even if it is awkward and you don't end up making a friend, you are still absolutely no worse off than your current sucky situation. You're risking nothing but momentary embarrassment.

As for practical help finding people you might want to hang out's really going to vary a lot depending on where you are. In many countries, a biggish city will have a bar of cafe that expats favor; if there's some kind of sport that's popular in your home country but not where you are you can look for one that shows big matches. You don't have to be a fan of the sport; the point is to bring you into contact with some people from back home.

If you're someplace like the Gulf or a smaller where there aren't any bars to speak of and people usually entertain at home, you might be in for a tougher battle. Is there an international school? Even though you don't have kids, a school with lots of foreign students might have a bulletin board or a parents group that does social stuff you might find interesting. You might contact your embassy in the country to see if they're promoting any cultural events --- the U.S. State Department often sponsors American artists and performers of various fields to tour foreign countries, and if they're putting on a show you might be able to go and meet some other countrymen who are in with the embassy/aid worker crowd.

I'm sorry if I sound harsh --- the thing is, I've been you, on my own in a foreign country starting from scratch without knowing anybody, and it's damn hard. Damn hard. The thing I finally learned was that my being afraid of how hard it was didn't make it any easier, and it's to my lasting regret that I didn't push myself out more, didn't take more risks, make more of an effort to come out of my shell. For I found that when I did do that that I actually did make lasting friendships. But I know I could have made more. You don't have to decide this is just something terrible you have to man up and suffer through for the rest of your time. You can't escape lonliness entirely, being far away from the things that you care about, but you don't have to go down without a fight, either.

As for bearing up under the time you do have by yourself...I'm not sure this is feasible for you, given the safety concerns you allude to, but inasmuch as you can do this safely, I found that exploring in some fashion was something the piqued my curiosity enough that I didn't experience loneliness while doing so. Going out to a part of the city or the surroundings where I'd never been before, maybe doing a hike or sitting in a cafe people long as I had a novel experience to challenge me I tended to feel happier. You might try keeping a journal for these times, as a way of having a conversation with yourself, or writing letter to people back home about what you're seeing and feeling. It can help you work through what you're learning about this new place, articulate the experience to yourself in a way that deepens your appreciation and understanding of it.

Good luck, kid, you'll make it.
posted by Diablevert at 4:09 PM on June 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Saying "hey we are both expats let us expat together" actually sounds like a great way to approach this to me. It's sort of like being a new mom - you have a baby and so do I! let's get a coffee! It may turn out you have nothing else in common, and would never be friends in other circumstances, but that one thing you have in common is enough to build a couple of hours' conversation around, and that's always a good thing. Think of it more like looking for a lifeline to hold onto than a search for a soulmate.

You could also try setting up a Metafilter meetup - it's possible friends are already nearby, and you just don't know it?
posted by Mchelly at 4:49 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay, I think there are two issues at play here. First the feeling of a hostile, repressive culture and second the loneliness/boredom in the evenings.
It is tough to live in a country where you feel like the people are not welcoming, but the best course of action is to be extra nice. Not knowing where you currently are, I can not be sure but the people yelling "Foreigner!" are likely just excited to see someone from a foreign country. So I would smile and say something like: "Yes, thank you. Have a great day!" in their native language. Something not very engaging, that will stop them in their tracks and leave them with a good impression of foreigners. It will also make you feel more in control of the situation and not like you have to passively take people shouting at you. Also try to smile, it is proven to improve ones mood. And people will generally smile back. Do it when you are out and about and also smile at home.

Re: the loneliness / boredom:

Yes, try to find more activities and people. Check if you could volunteer for some org and if your embassy has any kind of women's/social group or regularly hosts events. If you can not be out after dark and need stuff to fill your evenings with at home, I 'd make it the 5 months of projects! Write a journal, get a great cook book and cook every recipe, converse with a pen pal (there are really cool mail art exchange groups you could join), try something crafty (knitting? drawing? making jewelry? paint your nails in crazy patterns? collect local flowers and leaves for pressing?) - pick some project and enjoy seeing progress over the next 5 months.

Also have your family and friends send care packages of your favorite treats, newspapers, magazines and bath salts and have them write little notes that you can put up on the walls of your room. I bet encouraging notes would make you smile even more. Do you have a radio at home? In the West we are so used to having TV's and radios play all the time while we surf the web, run errands and do chores. Sometimes a new country can feel so quiet and empty. Turn on the radio! Even if you don't have any English language stations, just having it play in the background could really make you feel more at home and safe.

Depending on the country, you could check if there is a possibility to foster a pet for the duration of your stay. And lastly, you do have a roommate, so you are not alone at all. Find non-verbal activities that you could share (DIY projects, cooking, taking pictures, dressing up, watching movies) and try to learn some of her language if you like her enough.

Oh, and the internet. I spend time in a foreign country every year and I use an usb stick that takes a local sim card. I just buy minutes for the data package and can surf away on my laptop. Maybe something like that would work for you as well?
posted by travelwithcats at 5:08 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you could name the country and the city I am pretty sure someone here knows someone there and could give you an introduction.
posted by adamvasco at 6:40 PM on June 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

On the other hand, no-one should be forcing you to just suck it up. You are allowed to break your contract and bail if you are feeling "a bad fit"/deeply miserable and mentally messed-up in a serious way. But you can also try to give it a bit more of a chance first.
posted by ovvl at 8:14 PM on June 26, 2014

I am currently an expat, and "hey we are both expats lets hang out" is totally a thing. Talk to your embassy, they might have a list of groups who get together, where I am there is a mens association, womens association, golf association, fine dining association, business networking association etc etc etc. There is likely charitable work that expat groups are doing, helping orphanages or what have you.

It might feel a bit weird and forced at first, but you can initially bond over the expat experience and develop deeper friendships from there.

Good luck!
posted by Admira at 8:22 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Millionthing the "let's expat together" as the other expat(s) probably either feel(s) the same way you do, or used to and now knows a few more people, so win win either way. Also, internet! (even if you have to make a daily stroll to somewhere to access it for half an hour) and in some ways...embrace it. It's kind of amazing to be soul crushingly lonely and puts a lot of other things in perspective. Read books, journal, immerse yourself in local culture as much as possible/you are able and know that you will really really appreciate everyone and everything that you missed upon your return.
posted by bquarters at 8:38 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Distraction seems like it might do you some good. Can you find a way - meditation, journaling - to prevent your mind from spinning out on "I'm lonely"? Maybe focus on finding some things to appreciate about your location every day and concentrate on those. It might not feel like it but six months is really a very short period of time, you'll be home before you know it.
posted by deliciae at 9:13 PM on June 26, 2014

Deliciae has the right idea. One way I keep from being bored and lonely is by learning a new skill. What about learning the local language? Sure, you're only there for six months, so you probably won't learn much, but it can keep you from feeling bored and lonely.

And if you can find a language exchange you'll be able to meet people as well.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 3:57 AM on June 27, 2014

Expat-y thing with other expats is the way to go, especially in foreign countries where outsiders are relatively isolated! Counter-intuitively, mingling with expats will give you better ties to the local culture and community, since I guarantee there is at least expat in your town who has been around forever and will have great suggestions about how to spend your time and better integrate.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want help finding local groups. I'm a professional expat and very good at finding those things--I also have a lot of personal connections to expat scenes in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in particular.
posted by whitewall at 6:33 AM on June 27, 2014

The good news is, you have six months - this isn't a lifetime. I know every day can be awful and long, but there is an end in sight. I spent many long weeks like you, only there weren't any expats or internet. I fully remember going to bed and feeling so isolated and unhappy. I did mark every day off on a calender, and just making it to another night and marking a check surprisingly helped. That was one day behind me, and it also made me think about what I had done and learned that day.

I spent a lot of time journaling, as suggested above. I wrote about the people, and things I had learned, and things I missed. I made a lot of lists - a list a day almost, of things like "skills I would like to learn" or "foods I love." I spent a lot of time trying to learn the language, and learning how to cook the local foods.

The expat suggestions are good. I was so lonely that when rumors that someone from Italy might be coming to our village (who didn't), I spent days looking forward to talking to someone who might have a tiny bit of a cultural similarity. So, even if you have little in common with the expats, you have common cultural bonds, and that will be enough.

If you can, look at this like a time of self-reflection. It's rare these days to be able to fully remove ourselves from our lives and re-evaluate everything. I came out of the experience knowing I could survive pretty much anything - it's stayed with me, even years later. Best of luck. You can do this.
posted by umwhat at 7:32 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Start by telling yourself it's ok to spend 5-6 nights a week by yourself. I don't recommend the "Let's expat together" with other expats unless they are female. You don't want to give the wrong idea to some people who can take advantage of your loneliness.

I would suggest that you download drama, music, books and articles etc from the internet at work and read/watch them in the evening. Or even go to the office on weekend to use internet (it's still better than staying at home). Use this period as a self-improvement period and start a hobby you can do at home (cooking, drawing, yoga etc). You mentioned you're in a very poor country, I still can't help but wonder if there is any chance you can travel to other places or out of the country (perhaps a workplace field trip).

Lastly, if somebody ask you how was your 6-month experience in this exotic country, what would you say? Will you bore him/her the details why you spend most of your time alone? Or will you explain how you make good use of your time given the poor situation?
posted by liltiger at 10:37 PM on June 28, 2014

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