“So, do you have any Peruvian friends?”
We all laughed the nervous laughter of people who do not, in fact, have any Peruvian friends.
“Well, we’ve met people in our classes…”
But the Peruvian we were with shook his head and asked how it was possible that none of us had made real Peruvian friends after being in Lima for three months.
The truth is, it is so, so difficult to make friends while studying abroad. In Costa Rica, I got extremely lucky because the abroad program I was with introduced us to two Costa Rican students who I later became very close friends with. However, here in Lima it has been significantly more difficult. For starters, while Costa Rican towns are small and quaint, Lima is a massive city. It is not easy to just walk up to someone and start talking because chances are, all of the people you see out walking on the streets or on the buses all have things to do and places to be. At the university I’m attending, everyone already seems to be enmeshed in their groups. And any shred of confidence that I might ordinarily have in the U.S. to approach unknown groups of people is completely obliterated by the language barrier. Yes, I speak proficient Spanish – but that’s not necessarily enough to have a free-flowing and interesting conversation with someone your age.
In contrast, making friends with other foreign students while abroad is quite easy as you’re all drawn together by your mild cases of expat/Hemingway-syndrome. You may love where you are, but the country you are in is not your own (nor is the language) and thus you always feel like an outsider.
Several people in my abroad program have brought up the idea of your personality being “different” depending on whether you’re speaking in Spanish or English, and I find this to be absolutely true. I imagine this could be applied to any language you’re learning. For bilingual native speakers I’m sure this is not the case, but for me, learning Spanish now at the age of 20, I very much feel that my personality is different when I speak in Spanish. I am more reserved and more formal, simply by virtue of the fact that I don’t know how to speak Spanish like people my age here in Lima speak Spanish. I am realizing now that your native language is very much a part of you and, as such, has a vital role in shaping the person that you are able to become simply by defining the boundaries of what you can express and how you can express it.
I really wish it was easier to make friends. I definitely did not come to Lima with the intention of spending time almost exclusively with other American students, but it sort of is turning out that way. I wish that social inhibition did not exist and that I could, without fear of my crappy American accent and 7th grade Spanish vocabulary, go up and speak with other students on campus, and get to know them outside of the capacity of the classroom. If you are reading this and you know of foreign students on your campus, especially foreign students for whom English is not their first language, go sit with them in the dining hall! Talk to them in your classes! Sit with them in the library! Chances are they, like me, would like to make friends but are not sure where to start – and a little effort most definitely goes a long way.
This post originally appeared on the Brown Girl blog.