As an American married to an immigrant, I am privy to some conversations that I otherwise wouldn’t be, where immigrants talk honestly about what they wish their host country friends knew, secrets they wish they could share with them about how they feel in cross-cultural friendship.
I truly believe that lack of communication is one of the biggest deterrents of true friendships, especially across cultures, so let me go ahead and spill the beans, ok?
Here are the four most common secrets I hear from immigrant friends, the things they wish you knew:
- More small connections are better than big, infrequent ones.
It’s tempting to want to go all out making immigrants feel welcome at a church-sponsored event or on an all-day Saturday project involving a pick up truck and heavy furniture and then to check “serve immigrants” off your list until next year. In a similar vein, I’ve had more than one immigrant friend tell me about having a great first conversation with an American, sharing stories and really connecting and swapping phone numbers, but then feeling confused when the American never got back in contact for several months, or not at all.
Don’t discount the powerful message it sends your immigrant friends when you check in with them by phone (or social media, if that’s their thing) on a regular basis. This doesn’t come naturally to me, as I feel that if I call, I need to stay on the phone an hour and hear about every detail of the person’s life, but my Ethiopian husband often reminds me, “You only need 5 minutes. That’s all they’re expecting.” And it’s true. Call, check in, hang up, repeat. Know that small gestures like this have as much power as large ones to deepen a friendship and make immigrants feel welcome.
- They want to serve you too.
When you make friends with an immigrant, the power dynamic is skewed in your favor. You’re the native. You likely have a more stable living situation and job. You have an established network of family and friends. Because of these things, it can be easy to hyperfocus on giving to and serving and doing things for your new friend without allowing him or her to reciprocate.
While it is certainly true that immigrants usually have clear areas where they are in need of help or counsel or service, they also have much to give. Actually, one of the things that gives us a sense of well-being as humans is being able to contribute and help others. Consider how to receive as well as give in your relationship (for instance, eat a meal at your friend’s house if you’re invited, and ask your friend to teach you how to make the food if you enjoy it). True friendship grows with a healthy mix of giving and taking—that’s what community is all about.
- They want to be the expert on their country.
When most immigrants arrives in a new country, they suddenly feel as if they know next to nothing. The rules have changed, and they no longer know how to play the “game” of life. It’s demoralizing and difficult. One thing they do know about, however, is “back home.”
As their local friend, you know a lot of things about almost everything in this country. Don’t try to be the expert on your friend’s country too. Let them be the expert at least on this one thing: let them teach you.
Practically, this looks like asking open ended questions rather than assuming you know. For example, don’t say, “So, I saw on the news awhile back that a lot of people are starving in Ethiopia…” Instead, ask, “What are the staple foods in Ethiopia?” and let them tell you their perspective on their country.
- Culture shock comes in waves.
Anyone who puts a neat timeline on culture shock and describes it in a linear way has likely not been through it themselves. As mentioned above, culture shock is the feeling that you no longer know the rules of the game of life, and you’re having to figure them out on the fly.
There are honeymoon periods, usually at the beginning of a new season (after a move, for example) when an immigrant can feel euphoric and in love with their host nation.
But there are other times (more frequently) when everything feels overwhelming and scary and offensive and strange and an immigrant feels his or her fight or flight response activating. The result of this may be taking offense to something small, withdrawing from social things, or being sharply critical of the host culture.
These things are completely normal, but they’re not easy to experience or to watch. And these negative feelings may come in waves, with intermittent good spells where everything seems to be just fine.
Remember this as a friend to immigrants: when they are feeling sad or angry or hopeless (and maybe not returning your phone calls or seeming offended by what you said), usually the best response is to keep reaching out, reminding them that they are not alone in this new place. That you are there for them. That there is hope.