Cultivating a Community While Abroad

It can be easy to find yourself isolated while traveling or living abroad, well really in many times in your life. We aren’t really taught how to make friends. We typically learn throughout our lives on how to make friends and evaluate their worth of maintaining, but as adults, it feels so much more difficult. You typically build friendships with people who share a typical routine with such as coworkers or classmates. This is made even more difficult when you work remote and can go days without physically interacting with another human. We can forget at times to seek out these connections, but quickly remember when we do not have them. There are many ways you can build a community while abroad below are a few helpful tips.

Volunteering- this is such a helpful tip on many levels. Research shows that not only does volunteering promote social connectedness but has also been linked to physical improvements as well. It makes sense there is a socially connected piece, you identify a cause that you align with that helps you feel that you are making progress towards something you’re passionate about. That alone can make you feel good, but then you become linked to a group of people who have something in common with you AND live in the general vicinity.

There is an extra bonus as well, when I was in Thailand, I volunteered at a local children’s home where they taught me all about their cultural norms, language, politics, and holidays. In Thailand, they have a holiday called Loy Krathong where you make a small float and place it in the water as an offer to the water spirits. The children’s shelter I was working at invited me to join in making my own float for the ocean while they explained all the tradition that went along with the holiday. It made me feel like I was a part of this new culture, I knew more about it and got to learn more traditions to incorporate into my own practices.

Community activities– Each culture and community have their own activities for the people in the community. Why not seek out activities you enjoy or are very excited to try? There are many ways in which you can do this, you can check out the local English paper or magazine, search the internet for events, look for posters or announcements in local coffee shops, ect. There is a website called Meetups that is a platform to connect people by allowing people to post invites to different events such as language exchanges, movies, native cuisine, or hiking. If you can’t find a group that you’re interested in, you can create your own. This is a perfect time to explore the new city you ate living in while making new friends. Joining a new group can feel intimidating but try to remind yourself you have nothing to lose.

Connecting with neighbors– Coming from Texas this is a big one in our culture. Throughout my life, I have always known all my neighbors, even when I was an adult living on my own. When you move to a new place it is custom to go over to all your neighbor’s homes to introduce yourself and perhaps bring a little gift. The gift part is not as important as extending the olive branch, but I typically bring cookies or a candle (both are cheap and versatile). You might not be best friends with all your neighbors, but at least this helps make you feel more a part of the community. You can greet them as you come home, ask for local tips, and potentially have a little more security. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a neighbor call me while I was traveling to let me know they saw something suspicious around my home. It is nice to know that you are not alone in that community.    

Sunday dinners- According to a research study out of Oxford shows that sharing a meal together not only increases social connectedness but also increases an individual’s satisfaction with their lives. While it might seem overwhelming to cook a 5 coarse meal for 30 strangers, there are many ways in which you can do this. If you don’t feel like cooking, you can start at a local restaurant or hold a potluck where everyone brings a dish to contribute. It is not the food that helps build a sense of community as much as it is connections. There is no pressure to host a large group either if the girl you sit next to at the office seems nice to invite her along to join. The volunteer coordinator is funny to ask him along as well. You don’t need to only have you Sunday dinners with family, you can fill the table with people that you like or find interesting. Share a meal and great conversation on a regular basis can help bring that community closer, just look at the research.

Simple smile while walking down the street- When living in big cities especially ones that we just moved to, we can become accustomed to looking down or not acknowledging people as we walk down the street or halls. Try looking up and smiling at people as you pass them. A smile is the most recognized body language in the world. Plus, a smile will release endorphins in your body like you are happy, even if you’re not necessarily happy at that moment. Looking into someone’s eyes and smiling makes you much more approachable, you don’t even need to say hello to them, but chances are you and that person are much more likely to engage with each other in this state as apposed to ignoring each other or not making contact. Perhaps while you are smiling over at someone you might just find yourself in a conversation with your new friend.

FB group pages/ social media- If you are having trouble meeting people in person or perhaps feeling a bit shy and want to practice connecting with strangers, the internet is a good place to start. When I first move to a new city, I always find a local’s page on FB and post on my interests, a little about me, and ask if anyone is interested in grabbing a coffee. This has never failed me in the last 5 countries I have lived in, people from all walks of life all reach out to me and help me get acclimated to my new community (some places were faster than others). There are also group pages with common interests with people from all over the world in them. These groups can range from social anxiety to women who love to travel. In my experience, these groups are very inspirational and can help when you are struggling with really anything. There is a Facebook group I belong to that is free for all on advice and empowerment. I just checked the last three post and it consisted of advice on moving to a new city, safety notice for international travelers, and assistance on how to photoshop a picture. It is a pleather of great information.
As mentioned above this is also a great place to practice small talk if you get anxious around new people. Try to give yourself a goal of commenting on two to three comments a day on complete stranger’s posts in a group you enjoy. As you feel more comfortable with that you can move to direct messages to incite conversations and then to in-person conversations. Little by little you will start feeling much more confident to start small talk with new people.

There are six helpful hints on how to cultivate your community. We know that a sense of community is important to our mental health. If you think about how you handle crisis situations, I am sure reaching out to a friend or loved one is on that list. Do your best to cultivate healthy and meaningful relationships in your life for your overall wellbeing. You deserve it!