Stranger in a Strange Land: When Being an Outsider Makes You an Insider

During lunch today with a coworker, our conversation turned to the different places that we’ve lived.  I’m American, and have lived up multiple places on the East Coast– from small rural towns to big cities– and have been living in Istanbul since 2014.  My coworker is Australian but lived in London for six years before moving to Istanbul in 2016.  The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to move someplace new as an adult, specifically how difficult it can be to make friends.  One thing we agreed on: making friends in Istanbul has been far easier than any other place we’ve lived, in large part because there is a thriving expat community here and everyone is looking for friends.

I went to university about an hour outside of Washington DC and then moved to Boston after graduation with two of my college roommates.  Making friends in high school and college is easy because you spend all day with hundreds of people your age, and you’re bound to like at least a couple of them.  There are also school-organized social events specifically created to let you meet and bond with people.  It’s a whole different ballgame as an adult without that scaffolding– it’s up to you, and you alone.  I loved living in Boston and did make some casual acquaintances through writing groups, but since I was living with my two best friends, I never bothered getting that close to anyone else; I was already having all of my social and emotional needs met.

That changed completely when I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.  I moved by myself and lived by myself– my first time living without roommates.  I was lonely and had a really hard time making friends.  My grad program was small, almost everyone was older than me, everyone was married or in a serious relationship, and many of them had kids.  I was a very single 24-year-old who didn’t have much extra time for socializing, given my coursework.  I lived in North Carolina for five years and did end up making absolutely wonderful, close friends there, both in grad school and then later at my job, but it took awhile and I felt very isolated for a long time before finally finding a social group.

Then I moved to Istanbul, and making friends here has been so easy.  I was looking online for a local writers group to join, and in the process I stumbled upon a women-only expat group.  I joined the group, went to one of their social get-togethers a week or so later, and BOOM, met my first batch of friends– out of that first group of maybe ten or twelve women, a couple become close friends and I kept in touch/socially hung out with a few others.  Later, I went to other social gatherings put together by the expat group and continued meeting people.  I wasn’t working my first year here because it took nine months to get a work visa, so I had plenty of time to socialize and ended up meeting dozens of women whom I could call friends.

If you randomly throw fifty women into a room, it doesn’t mean that they will all get along, or have anything in common.  However, it’s different when you’re an expat.  There is something– a few somethings, really– about being a stranger in a strange land that brings people together.  Everyone is in the same boat and is building their social network from scratch and looking for friends.  We automatically have at least one thing in common: we are the kind of people who are willing to move to a new country.  Being so far from your support network means that people are often almost desperate to connect to and talk to people who might understand them.  And just the mere fact that you’re both outsiders creates a weird sort of bond; we are yabanci, the Turkish word for foreigners, and that alone makes us identify with one another.

Rather than having difficulty making friends, the problem I’ve run into here is that people come and go quickly.  I have made incredible friends here, and watched most of them leave one by one for various reasons– usually for a job in another country.  The expat community is transient and friendships often feel like a long goodbye, when it’s known that someone doesn’t have plans to stay.

I’ve become less social these days.  I work long hours as a high school teacher and, quite frankly, when I’m not at work wrangling teenagers, I prefer to spend time at home or sightseeing with my husband rather than going to big meet-ups.  I also am incredibly lucky to have wonderful coworkers who have become friends, which has at least partially filled the gap of friends who have left.  I’m pretty happy with my muted social schedule.

Still, it’s nice to know that in this city 6,000 miles from home, new friendships are waiting in Istanbul’s crowded, hectic streets if I decide to seek them.  It’s counter-intuitive, to think that going so far from your own culture would make it easier to make friends, but somehow that’s exactly what happened.

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