Abroad friendships are strange. I’m using strange in the Spanish sense of the word.
In English, “strange” comes wrapped up with a bunch of negative connotations. In Spanish, the word “raro” can mean weird, strange, odd, awkward, abnormal, or different. So I guess that’s what I’m trying to say, abroad friendships are different.
The normal path of friendship is quite simple: you meet a person whose weirdness you think will mesh well with yours. You invite them to coffee or tea or cupcakes. Then, you invite them for wine or potentially harder liquor. If all has gone well, meaning your weirdness is meshing as you intended, you invite them into your life. You go with one another to siblings’ sporting events and graduations, trips to the gym, or the beach. You become, the common definition of, a “friend.” These friendships are a luxury and a need because they seem to fall into a place without even trying, like these people were always meant to be a part of your life. You need these friendships like you need air, they allow you to breathe.
Abroad friendships happen on a completely different playing field and are significant for different reasons. When you’re abroad, everything happens based on necessity because your first necessities are not always met. Let’s look, for example, at Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs.
If I were to rewrite this pyramid, I would put safety on the same playing field as warmth, rest, food, and water because there is nothing more exhausting than consistently wondering where you are safest. When you’re in a foreign place, or even a temporary home, many of these most basic things are not always guaranteed. Even if they are easily accessible, they require a lot more planning than they do when you are comfortably at home or in an environment that you are truly familiar with. When you do not have accessibility to the same resources, it suddenly becomes ten times more important that you don’t get your iphone stolen, or that you pay attention to which street you have to walk alone and when.
Friendships are the third tier on Maslow’s hierarchy which is why they are a luxury when you’re comfortably at home. When your food, warmth, rest, and safety are “given” factors, the first tier you have to focus on is friendship whereas abroad, it becomes simultaneously, your third level of focus and at first, solely a necessity rather than a necessity and a luxury. The luxury part comes later in abroad friendships, when you’ve gotten over the insecurity and the “get to know you” stage and you just get to enjoy the beautiful bonds you’ve created.
I believe that everything happens for a reason and I firmly believe that all of my friendships are gifts. At first, there is a tangible difference between friends you make at home and friends you make abroad because your home friends become a part of your permanent home and your abroad friends are first, a part of a very fragile, temporary home that is scary and exciting but can also collapse at any moment. Your friendships from home are built on a foundation of commonality: of a community you grew up in, neighborhood gossip, teachers you love and hate, college all-nighters, rooming struggles…and so on. Friendships you make abroad start with less commonality and more differences, which makes them a little bit more vulnerable. It feels like every time you try to strike a friendship with someone abroad you’re asking “do you like me enough to hang out with me?” It’s a bit scarier.
It is also easier to feel closer to the friends you make at home because they usually, get to see more of your life faster. The friends you make in your hometown meet your family right away. They see the baby pictures, the way you interact with your siblings, and your childhood room. The ones you meet in college watch the struggles you face every day for four years, and come back to your dorm and cry with you until 4 a.m. and then sleepover. The friends you meet abroad see what you want them to see: they witness the image you portray when you are at your most vulnerable and also your most free and the only memories of back home that they have access to are the ones that you were able to pack into your carry-on. Sometimes it feels that they are taking longer to form when the reality is, they don’t have the privilege of knowing you in you natural context so the two of you must create your own mutual context in which to know each other.
The moral of this very long story is that friendships are important, no matter where they originate from. But I am also so thankful for the people who have wandered into my life and my heart while I was wandering the globe.