Settling Down and Fitting In

It aggravates Jared that I have a phone, but I never take it out of the house.

“Look,” I explain. “About four people have my number. Three of them are in the United States. The other one is you.”

I still haven’t adjusted to the fact that I’m entering a lifestyle where it’s normal not only to have a mobile phone, but to use it. Because at some point, I’m going to have to meet people. Make friends. Exchange numbers. Call them.

And it occurred to me that I haven’t had to do that in a long time.

One of the side effects of being an introverted temporary expat in a relationship (it’s a thing) is that if you aren’t motivated to meet anybody, you don’t really have to. The stimulation of your adopted home is often enough to keep you busy, along with your partner, job, phone calls home, and meetups arranged by other local expats.

Skimboarding in Newcastle

See? I don’t need a phone. I’ve got the ocean. And a skimboard.

Slowly, I’m embracing this return to ‘settled’ life in an English-speaking country, and doing things that might result in me talking to and befriending strangers. I’m signing up for a French class and joining the Hunter Writers Centre. This weekend, I attended two sessions as part of the Newcastle Writers’ Festival: one on memoir and one on travel.

The sessions were packed; who knew there were so many established writers, budding writers, and interested readers in Newcastle? All of these ready-made friends that I have something in common with?

Well, maybe we had something in common. I don’t really know because I didn’t talk to anybody. Except during the travel session, when my sunglasses fell off the back of my head and I said “Sorry” and “Thank you” to the woman behind me who retrieved them.

And I realized a really irritating fact that I haven’t been forced to remember in a long time:

I’m kind of shy.

When you’re on the road or working in a new country, it’s easy to come out of your shell. You have to. It’s a survival instinct, in a way. In places where you don’t speak the language or even stick out physically, you’re forced to interact. And you always have ready made conversation starters:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you been?
  • Where are you going?

Not the most stimulating or creative questions, but they work.

But in a crowded room full of other people who look like you and talk like you, it’s easy to blend. No one knows you’re foreign; no one will call you out for being different. And if you ask someone out of the blue where they’ve been and where they’re going, it’s weird.

Newcastle Writers Fest

Photo from of the Newcastle Writers Festival facebook page.

When they asked if anyone had questions at the end of the sessions, I was transported straight back to school. You have questions, my inner voice said. Ask one of them. My heart pounded in my chest and faint beads of sweat developed at my hairline. I worked up the courage to raise my hand.

And then I didn’t.

“So, did you make any friends?” Jared asked, half-joking, when I returned from the writer’s festival.

“No,” I said. “Everyone was kind of old, actually.”

That’s right, it was the other people’s fault that I didn’t talk to them. How dare they be kind of old? (Which, by the way, wasn’t even true, nor is it relevant.)

I’ve lived in six countries, and traveled through many more. I’ve talked with strangers from all over the world, many of whom barely speak English. I’ve worked my way through more obnoxious jobs than I care to remember.

But all of a sudden, in a room full of people with whom I share a common language and interests, I go mute.

This is obviously something I’m going to need to work on. I’m thinking of using pop culture to craft my opening line. Maybe something like this:

So hey – I just met you, and this is crazy…But here’s my number, so call me, maybe?

I’ll be coming out of my shell in no time.

10 Responses to “Settling Down and Fitting In”

  1. Think of the first meeting as just a warm-up. Next time you go, you can smile and say hi to some of the familiar faces. 🙂
    p.s. I love how you ended the piece with those lyrics.

    • I just joined the Hunter Writers Center, which is the organization that sponsored the writer’s fest. So I figure I’ll see some of the same people and this will force me to get a grip and open my mouth!

  2. I love this! And I can definitely relate to it. Social chit chat is so much easier when you’re abroad – your conversations are all mapped out for you, and you have things in common with everyone you meet.

    Social chit chat at home is a completely different story. You’re out of touch with pop culture and you no longer have anything in common with your old friends.

    Not to mention the fact that being an English teacher abroad has deteriorated my English skills! I feel like a moron at home when I accidentally lapse into my ‘Konglish’ habits…

    Glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has turned into a wallflower in English-speaking countries!

    • We got into an easy conversational loop in Korea, right? “Yes, the food is spicy.” “Yes, I have tried kimchi,” “No, I’m not married,” etc. And it took me forever to speak English properly again! I almost want to introduce myself by saying, “I’m Lauren and I lived in Yeongwol for two years. Please excuse my lack of social skills and/or coherent sentences.”

      Hope Turkey is going well!

  3. I blame Western society! It’s not that we are too scared to talk to strangers. It’s that we’re concerned about how they’ll react because that just isn’t the done thing on this side of the world. I think it’s a massive shame and it’s one of the reasons I love to travel and don’t want to stay in London. Let me know how your introductory line works for you!!!

    • You know, I thought I totally stopped caring what people thought about what I did/said…I just tried not to offend anyone and get on with my life. But maybe I am concerned about how they’ll react – because where does a conversation go from the opener? What if I don’t want to commit and can’t make a speedy exit. Sigh. I over-think these things.

  4. This is totally me. I find that I always have big plans to meet people at events like writer’s conferences or in classes, but it never happens. I’ve been most successful at meeting friends through people I know. I’m not sure if we just have more in common, or what, but friends-of-friends almost always end up friends of mine. Maybe it would work for you too?

    • Yep, that happens with me, too. I find that at conferences, I adopt the wait-and-see strategy (which never leads to much), whereas when it’s through friends it’s much easier to just start talking. In classes (especially small ones), I usually find it much easier to chat to people, so I’m looking forward to starting these French classes!

  5. Small talk at big events is always hard. Start small – just have a goal of talking to one person or something – and go from there. When Perry & I moved back to MN, we knew no one in the Cities really, and it was hard for a while… Very little social interaction outside family. But then I went to grad school and he found good people at work, so now we are set. It’ll all work out – no worries!

    • Good advice. Things are actually picking up, and now that I have work rights, I’ll look at getting part-time work. Just started a weekly French class and that’s perfect – even just getting out of the house a few times a week helps!

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