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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How Expats Everywhere Finally Find Their Tribes

Brian Mahan explains the special challenge of moving abroad and fitting in

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“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”  —Tim Cahill

As an expat, it’s all about finding your tribe. It might feel like you’ve got two left feet and stepped into a salsa class for the first time. You might step on a few toes initially, but you’ll find your rhythm with time. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone, being open to new experiences, and, most importantly, being your authentic self.

Deep and meaningful friendships provide emotional support, help us cope with stress, and contribute to our overall health, longevity, and well-being. 

But cultivating friendships in a new country is not always easy. It can be challenging to find people who share your values, challenge you, inspire you, and, most importantly, accept you for who you are, warts and all.

When I first arrived in Mexico, everything was new and exciting. The vibrant culture, the delicious food, the warm and welcoming people. The common ground of simply being an expat kept my dance card full. I was quickly swept up and into a vibrant social life that I found to be even more robust than what I had after being in Los Angeles for 30 years. It was intoxicating. It felt like a perpetual vacation. I had to start reminding myself that I live here now. And I needed to regroup and lose the twenty pounds I had gained. 

But slowly, over time, and particularly after a series of devastating life events, it was sobering to gain clarity on the difference between fair-weather friends, acquaintances, and real meaningful friendships. After my partner and I broke up, I quickly faced the “fifth wheel syndrome.” And with that also came the disorientation of being single in a different culture and country. So not only had the crowded dance floor of my social life begun to clear out, but I also had to find the internal resolve to redefine my experience here as a single man while nearly all of my acquaintances were coupled. Dinner reservations for a table of 3, 5, or 7 just didn’t seem part of the new melody. But I quickly learned to say, “Una mesa para uno, por favor.” 

Navigating the social landscape as a single expat in Mexico has been a journey of deeper self-discovery. 

It’s been about doubling down in my quest to be comfortable in my own skin, embracing myself, and filling my calendar with the things I genuinely enjoy. 

Finding your “inner circle of real friends” in a new country starts with being open and proactive. Sometimes, it might feel like you are the only one initiating connection by sending texts, making calls, and planning group events. 

Be careful to avoid gossip while keeping in mind that if someone is gossiping about someone else, they will likely soon be gossiping about you. And don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger. You never know. They might just become your next best friend. Or, at the very least, they could introduce you to the best taco stand in town.

People are drawn to authenticity. Fill your alone time with experiences that you enjoy, have meaning, and matter to you. Then you will have more to chat about than cocktail party small talk. Intimate friendship occurs through transparency. The more you know about someone and the more they know about you, the closer your relationship will become. Share your experiences, your passions, and your dreams. 

But more importantly, show interest in others and listen to their stories. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Perhaps a gardening metaphor is more appropriate than the previous dance metaphor. Relationships are more like gardens than dance partners. They require time, energy, and effort to till the soil, plant the seeds, and provide the right amount of water, light, and fertilizer. And it’s important to know when to prune and weed. And you don’t want to keep pulling the seedlings out of the ground to see if their roots are growing.

So, don’t be disheartened if you don’t find your tribe right away. It takes time. You may have entered into a group of people who already have well-established mature gardens. Be proactive in tending to the garden of your social life, or it will likely wither. 

And remember, family is not always about blood. It’s about who is there to lean on when you need them the most and how you show up for those whom you have come to care about. 

Embrace the local culture and customs while still maintaining your own identity. So, as you embark on your expat journey in Mexico, remember to take the time to foster true friendships. 

Because as the saying goes, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.”

Brian D. Mahan, SEP
Brian D. Mahan, SEPhttps://briandmahan.com/
Brian D. Mahan is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who lives in Mérida. Brian is a teacher, lecturer, and the author of I Cried All the Way To Happy Hour —What To Do When Self-Help Or Talk Therapy Haven’t Really Helped. He specializes in breaking patterns and changing limiting beliefs by healing shock trauma, developmental trauma, and toxic shame.
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