• Making Friends

6 Tips for making friends as an expat

Published: October 2, 2014 | Last Updated: May 17, 2020 By | 10 Replies Continue Reading
An expat has problems making friends in California


Hi Irene,

I am a 26-year-old girl living by myself in California. I’m a student and don’t work. Giving a bit of background, I have frequently moved from country to country by myself since I was a teenager. I moved here over a year ago but haven’t made any friends.

In college, the age group doesn’t match and nobody approaches me either even when I make the effort. I am very lonely and I’m trying to make friends, male or female, but have not succeeded. I would prefer someone intelligent and probably older than me.

Just to describe myself a little more, I come around as somewhat attractive (that’s what people have told me). I’m not the clubbing type, and I’m doing okay financially. I’m very intellectual, like to talk about deep subjects, and I can be a little shy but once a conversation opens up, I can be pretty talkative and friendly.

I also have many internal issues. For example, I’ve never been on good terms with my family, and also have some past memories, which I do not want to recall. I had a very troubled teenage life and suffered emotionally and sometimes a bit physically. So most people don’t know anything about my life, and I never talk about anything regarding how I grew up.

My question to you is how can I make friends being in a new country with no one familiar around? How to make the type of friends I would enjoy (the more intellectual ones, not the college kids)? Also I don’t enjoy hanging out with people from where I come from. In other words I am pretty disconnected from my ethnic community by choice. Thank you in advance for your advice.

Signed, Magda


Dear Magda,

When an expat is immersed in a new setting with different language and cultures, it is often challenging to form friendships, especially soon after the move. Yet because you don’t have a set of supports in your new country (either family or friends), friendships can be more important than ever. It is common that expats feel lonely after arriving in a new country.

Your letter suggests that you may be closing off many potential opportunities for making friends:

1) Returning students on campus

Don’t assume you are the oldest person in the pack. While it’s likely many students on campus are younger than you, colleges are actively encouraging the enrollment of returning students who may be your age or decades older. Because of their age, these individuals are often just as eager to make friends as you are. If you notice a returning student in one of your classes, make special efforts to be friendly to that person.

2) Other expats

Don’t lump everyone of your ethnicity together; some people from your country (as well as recent immigrants from other countries) may be potential friends. They are likely to have gone through many of the same social challenges as you. In addition to being able to share “small talk” about culture and common expat life experiences, they can be helpful in offering you concrete suggestions for integrating into your campus/community. Search for expat forums and groups online and ask about them on campus.

3) Be a joiner

Based on your intellectual interests or hobbies, join groups (on campus or off) with like-minded individuals. Even if you feel a bit shy, sign-up for activities and motivate yourself to show up regularly so you can make acquaintances that may later turn into friends. Attend lectures on topics of interest and linger to speak to people afterwards. Take advantage of volunteer opportunities that will allow you to help others and meet new people, both volunteers and the people you are helping. If you are interested in meeting men, you might try one of the online dating services to find other people living nearby who are interested in meeting new people.

4) Don’t be too picky

Don’t limit yourself to people who appear to be an “exact match” because you will be eliminating many people who could turn out to be friends. Focus on what you have in common with the other person rather than on what is different. Like others, you are unique in terms of your background and experiences and it’s unrealistic to think you’ll find someone just like you. As a friendship unfolds, you may realize that you connect at more levels than you may have thought.

5) Don’t get too deep too soon

Although you characterize yourself as an intellectual, try to master or refine the art of small talk. Keep up with popular culture (by reading newspapers and magazines, for example) so you can initiate conversations on non-threatening, non-invasive topics. Think of some opening questions that can spark discussion with new people. Deep conversations will come later.

6) Reach out for help

Take advantage of the counseling or student health office on campus. There is likely to be someone there to help expats find ways to adjust. If the traumas of your past are interfering with your efforts to connect, talking about them to a counselor may help mitigate the effects.

A new semester with new classes should offer new opportunities. I’m hopeful your situation will improve if you are open to trying something different.

My best, Irene


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Category: MAKING FRIENDS, Where to meet friends

Comments (10)

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  1. I have been an expat in Taiwan for many years. If you follow Dr.Levine’s advice concerning expats you may like to check out Internations. I have been to some of their events here and they are a good way to meet up with other expats. They arrange for expats to meet up all over the world. Check out meetup.com and facebook groups if there are any social groups you’re interested in. You might come across a book club, for example, that likes to read intellectually stimulating books.

    Don’t be put off by younger people or assume they’re not going to be interested or that you won’t be interested in them. Some of my best friends in life have been a decade or more younger than me. Be present, friendly, engaged and open-minded concerning those who are around you.

  2. KT says:

    Hi Irene!
    I’ve been having the same problem as Magda. I’m 18 years old and I just moved to Cali last year. I’m in college and I feel lonely since I don’t have any friends to hang out with except for people who I say hi to since their in some of my classes. I lived in Las Vegas for a while and I had many friends there but I feel like we are starting to drift apart since all we can talk about is the past. Their starting to move on with their other half while I feel left behind. I don’t really have a type since I use to hang out with a lot of different peoples and from different social classes and of all ages. I prefer to stay single for a while so that I can focus on my education but now a lot of people (especially my parents) are wondering when I will start dating and such.
    My friends from Vegas and I instantly connected. My mom didn’t really approve of them since they were all guys and she keeps pestering me to get friends that are girls. I’ve tried connecting with girls from my school or who lives around my neighborhood but it just never worked out. The other thing is that when I text or talk to my guy friends, their girlfriends are always writing mean things about me on facebook and stuff even though the guys are like brothers to me.
    I want to meet new people in Cali but it is hard since most of them already have their own little groups. Even when we have to go into small groups to discuss a topic, I feel left out since the others already know each other. I tried joining in but they mostly just ignored me. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?
    Sincerely KT

  3. Denise says:

    Hi Magda,

    I can relate to a few of your problems. However, the main difference is where I live, and don’t want to live, there aren’t the activities I used to have living in SoCal. What part of California are you in? If it is in SoCal or the Bay area, keep looking for activities that interest you. These are very large areas so you should eventually find activities you like and, therefore, people with common interests.

    Less populated areas are more challenging with fewer options. Everything that I used to do is gone now because of the small town and climate. For example, if I was at Santa Monica or Venice alone one day, I might make a comment to a stranger about something I was enjoying watching, or ask a question about the bike route or a neighboring beach or maybe advice about something. Have you tried searching MeetUps? When I’ve checked the L.A. area just to see what I’m missing 🙁 I find many options. Being alone in California would be a step up for me, rather than being alone here. Visit places you enjoy and you’re bound to meet the right people!

  4. Amy F says:

    In addition to Irene’s suggestions, I have a few ideas for you.

    1 TRY NIGHT CLASSES When I was in grad school, most of the older students (students who weren’t right out of undergrad) seemed to be in evening classes. Many had jobs during the day or small children and the younger group liked to have their nights free for socializing,

    2 CONCENTRATE ON YOUR MAJOR If your program has a student group, join. Then you’ll have people who are at least interested In the same things as you, if one doesn’t exist, talk to one of your professors about starting one.

    3 PROFESSORS AS A RESOURCES If you feel close to a particular prof, find out if she’s doing and research and volunteer to help. You’ll probably only do grunt work as profs likely already have research assistants, but you’ll get to know your prof better, possibly new graduate assistance, plus an asset on your vita.

    4 TRY THERAPY If you can get your emotional troubles to a more manageable place, you’ll place less pressure on a new acquaintance or friend. When you need your friend to help meet your social, emotional, and familial needs, relationships can become too overwhelming and burn out quickly.

    5 GET A PART TIME JOB You might meet some interesting coworkers and customers working in a coffee shop or bookstore.

  5. Laura says:

    You may be selling yourself short and not tapping into the resources of you college. 26 is not old! I used to work at a 2 year college, where you’d expect to find 18 and 19 year old, however the average student age was 24! Students came in all ages and there were resources designed specifically for “adult learners” (over age 25). See what your school has to offer. Consider joining some on-campus groups. You may find student government appeals to your intellectual side. Friends come in all ages. I’m 51 and I have friends that run from 25-70. Don’t limit yourself!

  6. tanja says:

    I agree with the points listed by Irene. I wanted to relate my experiences to you as well. First, I did not get along with my family that well. Both my parents tried the best with what they had at the time. In that regard I am lucky. My parents loved us very much, the way they knew how. My mother was from an abusive family and yet she rarely hit us. She was very good to us, but I felt she would often get embarrassed by my sister and i, we both have a lot of self esteem issues. But, both parents had low self esteem themselves. My mother would always say “be nice” Oh man!!! That is the worst word in the English dictionary. It is an awful word!!!!!

    Anyway, when I went to uni, I was an older student as well. It was in my old city, that I had lived out of for a while and then came back. I did not make that many friends. I was not a clubbing type. I preferred coffee dates. I reconnected with two old friends. both had young kids at the time. No education, one was a high school drop out. But, these were people that lived in my area and I grew up with. One had kids with a lawyer and when they split, she was well taken care of. But, she is a waitress and still is to this day. The other supports her twins who are now teenagers and has had no help from their dad. In any case, when I was not studying at school or working part time, I was with them and they were not necessarily the best for me. I felt lonely with them. I couldn’t relate and it was always negative stories about the fathers of their children and separation and dead beat dads etc. SO, I ended up separating myself from them. I did not tell them, I just used the excuse that I was busy.

    I spent a lot of time alone. My sister, who was married then introduced me to her husband’s friend from high school at the age 27. We instantly hit it off. Not even a year later, I was living with him and found myself pregnant. We married when I was 7 months pregnant. And you know what? the same people I separated my friendship from at the time, I called the “waitress” and told her that I proposed to my husband over the phone and he said yes and we had one month to plan a wedding. My friend organized it all for me at the place she worked and they came to my wedding. To this day, we are not as close as we used to be, but when I went to teacher’s college and did my practicum in my old city, by this time, my mom moved to Germany and my dad lived on disability. So, I stayed with my friend that had the twins. So, at the most important times in my life, they were the ones there for me. We hardly talk now, our lives are so different. I have two small children and I am married and a stay at home mom. They both have teenagers, one is going through a court case for custody and does not live int the same city anymore. One lives in the city and works hard to support both kids and one has aspergers.

    But, my point is that it is good not to close doors. The ones you expect to not be there for you, may just surprise you. I wish we were closer and they would call me more, but they don’t. I wish I had more friends as a stay at home mom, but I don’t. All the people, I talk to now, it is just small talk and I enroll my kids in gymnastics, karate etc and then I get out of the house and get a bit of socialization in, but that is all it is, small talk. My friendships don’t go as deep as they used to, not even with my twin sister. Now, life is about the kids and lists of what needs to be done, activities. I even have lists of how to clean the house and what to do first. I schedule appointments for my family. Most days I feel on robotic mood. I am now 36 and wish that I had those feelings of romance or lust or deep, close friendships like I used to.

    Give it time, it will happen and when least expected. But, you need to get out there, go online and see who you meet, go to the library, get coffee, make yourself available. That sort of thing. Good luck.

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