“A realistic goal for the semester is to make one good French friend.”
I scoffed then. It was early September, during orientation for my study abroad program in Bordeaux. Confined to the stuffy university classroom, I was antsy. I longed to begin the experience already, to be free from the long hours of powerpoint presentations and overwhelming logistics. I had grand visions for the semester. Only one good French friend? I assumed it was a given–I was positive that things would be much easier than my program director made them seem.
In my American high school, we flocked to foreign exchange students like they were celebrities–we eagerly invited them to hang out, grab lunch, share their culture. So I thought that making friends would be effortless. I naively expected the same wild enthusiasm as a foreigner in France.
I was very wrong.
My initial reception was lukewarm, at best. One of the first barriers was the anonymity of the large university system. It was very possible to go to class, leave, and never make a peep. In fact, most of my courses were lecture-style, making it difficult to get to know my classmates. Another obstacle was infiltrating the tight-knit friend groups–courses for majors are basically predetermined, so the French students have already spent countless hours together in the same classes. The third problem: exchange students were ubiquitous. Because of the Erasmus program, an EU student exchange initiative, the French students were used to foreigners coming and going. And finally, there was a lack of campus community since most students lived off-campus, and university activities weren’t as vibrant. So the only time I really saw my French classmates was in-class.
It quickly became clear that French friends wouldn’t flock to me–I’d have to do some flocking of my own.
Our program director had warned us that the native students were generally shy. I normally have no problem connecting with more-reserved people, but in a foreign country, pledged to speak a foreign language, I was initially shy too. For about a month and a half, my French “friendships” consisted only of making very safe small talk between classes.
By late October, I began to wonder if I’d even make that one good French friend. My flocking had been too passive–and so I amped it up. I asked math classmates if they’d be doing group study sessions for the upcoming midterm. When they weren’t sure at the time, I asked again a week later. The next day, I found myself chatting, snacking, and furiously solving differential equations with budding French friends.
With just that initial step, making resonant connections became more and more natural. Hangouts with the native students turned from group study sessions to movie outings, ice skating, coffee dates. The momentum is there. You often just have to make the initial push: starting a group message on facebook, organizing trips and inviting others to join, suggesting a study break.
Sure, not everyone will be wholeheartedly receptive–I got my fair share of weird looks when I tried to strike up conversations, and there were definitely courses where I didn’t connect with my classmates. But more often than not, the French were unbelievably welcoming after we warmed up to each other. When I complimented a film classmate on her scarf, she gave it to me as a gift the next week. When I discussed getting to our orchestra concert by public transport, a fellow violinist offered me a ride. When I chatted holiday plans with a literature classmate, she invited me to spend Christmas with her family.
Did I make my one good French friend? I’d like to think so. But study abroad friendships felt somewhat tenuous to me–I was in France for such a short time, we live on different sides of the ocean, our native languages are not the same. And what does “good” mean anyways? After a semester of inhabiting a foreign tongue, I’ve become all the more attuned to linguistic nuances. Is a “good” friend different from a “close” friend?
For me, a close friend is caring about each other’s well being, selflessly helping one another, keeping each other up-to-date, talking about anything and everything. I have very few close friends in general. And I think it’s wholly unrealistic to expect to make close friends in such a short time, in a foreign country at that. All my close friendships have been nurtured over several months and countless common experiences. A close friendship requires lots of constant effort–the same initiative it took to make friends in France.
A good friendship, on the other hand, is a connection that has the potential to become a close friendship. It has nearly all the same criteria, but something is missing–maybe it’s more situationally-based, maybe it lacks the same vulnerability. Because of our communication challenges, I feel as if my French friends and I didn’t become particularly close–there were no soul-baring talks, late-night philosophical debates, revealing personal histories. But while the language barrier may have diluted the depth of our conversations, it certainly posed no obstacle to our actions. I was shown incredible kindness–and I hope that in turn, my gratitude was clear.
Above all, good friends are those I can carry with me always. And that has nothing to do with whether we remain in touch or not–it has everything to do with their impact. I will carry my French friends’ inspiring compassion with me for a long while–as I continue to study abroad (this time in England), and when I return to the States. I’m ready to pay their positive impact forward.
Though it wasn’t easy, I did find my good friends after all.
Written by Lily Fang ’18