I was in the gym the other day, trying out a new class. The name of the class was “Shape” but to be honest I had no idea what I was getting myself into. One of my new year’s resolutions was to try out some new exercise routines and find one or two that I could stick to – so here I was.I’ve never found gyms the friendliest of places. It always amazes me when I hear people say they met their best buddies at one. Personally when I am exercising I prefer to focus on the exercise, not on socialising. But on this particular occasion, I was so clueless about what I was about to do (others had already collected little bundles of weights, plus steps and mats – which was making me nervous), I decided to actually speak to one of the other ladies in the class.
And I’m glad I did, because she was lovely. A South African, she helped me gather together what I needed, discussed how hard the class was (it was fine – well, I coped) and at the end we exchanged information about other classes we had tried out. I am sure I will see her again and hopefully we can carry on our conversation – even if it goes no further than the confines of the gym, for me it will be a little victory. Because making friends with local people – wherever you are in the world – is never as straightforward as you may think.
Although I have a wide and interesting group of international friends here in Pretoria, none of them are South African. And that’s saying something, because the people of this country are friendly, open and easy to talk to. So it’s not them that’s the problem – it’s me. Or rather, it’s the situation I am in. At the end of the day, who wants to make friends with someone when you already have a busy and full social life and that person isn’t likely to be around for long?
South Africa isn’t the only place I have had this problem, although it is particularly bad here because my children attend an international school. As the school is basically where we have made all our friends, and as there are very few South Africans at the school, we have not made any obvious connections this way. In St Lucia my children went to a local school – albeit one favoured by most expats. Here, they mixed as much with children born and brought up on the island as with those from other countries and, accordingly, many of my friends were locals.
Even there, though, I spent a much greater proportion of my time hanging out with other expats as with the St Lucians. And not surprisingly really – after all, the St Lucians had families and old friends to spend their weekends with. It would be very arrogant of me to think they would drop those ties in favour of spending it with an English family who were only likely to live on the island for at the most a few years. In fact, I was perpetually grateful to those St Lucian friends I DID have, especially the ones who took me under their wings, fed me local food, took me to local places, invited me to their homes.
Nevertheless, plenty of people do make friends with people from their host nation. I suspect most of them because they spend a bit longer than the average 3-5 years in one place. Or they have married a local so their way into friends and family is naturally open. But there are other ways to do it – and I think the key is meeting them on a level playing field.
What do I mean by this? Well, usually work isn’t it. Even though you may work alongside many people from your host nation the chances are your pay, your terms and conditions and your accommodation is going to be very different from theirs. You may have a ten minute commute into work; they may have to get up two hours before you to arrive at the same time. You may know that should there be an emergency, someone will ensure you are safe and looked after. They know they’ll probably have to fend for themselves. You may get an allowance that changes with the cost of living. They just have to deal with the rising prices and dropping local currency.
I’m not saying of course that you can’t be friends with your co-workers – many can, and are. But often those friendships end at the office door or, at the very least, the bar door when after-works drinks have ended and you go your separate ways.
School is certainly another way to meet people, if your children are at a local school. But again, most of the people you meet will already have friends and families they want to spend their free time with.
But there are plenty of other options. If you are pregnant, join an antenatal class. Here you will meet a whole group of parents all about to enter parenthood at the same time – you are all in the same boat, the playing field is level.
If you have a particular hobby, find a local club rather than one run by expats. There’s nothing like a shared experience such as diving or paragliding or photography to start a proper conversation. I have never known a boat remain silent when everyone is up from their dive. Once the ice is broken, you may find people far less reluctant to let you into their lives.
Or volunteer with a charity – again, once you are all mucking in doing something together, the barriers between who is local and who is a foreigner will soon fall. Even if you only see those people in that particular setting, you should at least get the chance to talk to them and get to know a bit about their lives.
And this for me is the key. Whilst I love the friends I have made from all over the world, I want to know more about life here in South Africa, from South Africans. What was life like growing up, how do they feel about all the changes that have taken place over the last few years? What do they think of the politics, who will they vote for? Hearing more about life in your host country from the people who live here and have always lived here can only enrich your expat experience.
So if you live in South Africa and see me coming, please say hello!