A while back, I wrote a post on how to talk to a foreign exchange student. Since then, it’s been my most-read post and the most common search engine terms that brings people to my blog are variations of: “how to befriend the foreign exchange student,” “how to make the foreign boy/girl like me,” and my favorite, “we have a foreign student staying with us and it’s awkward.”
I had no idea this was such an issue. From the viewpoint of a foreign student, it seems so easy for the comfortable and well-adjusted locals to reach out. It’s us foreigners who are unsure of cultural norms or are hesitant to introduce ourselves to the laughing group at the ping-pong table, even if we really want to play. Everything seems so inclusive when you’re dropped into another culture by yourself.
So, I can’t speak for all foreign students, but I think it’s safe to say we want to be included. Why else would we come to a foreign country if we didn’t want to experience it? A lot of people who seem aloof and mysterious just figure that looks better than seeming awkwardly alone and needy.
So talk to us. What do you have to lose? If the foreigner thinks you’re weird, you can just convince him it’s not you personally, it’s cultural differences. Because why not?
As for what to talk about, remember, she’s a foreigner, not an alien. She has a family she loves, guys she thinks are attractive, achievements she’s proud of, and insecurities she can’t get over, just like the rest of us.
But if you need somewhere to start, ask about home. Ask him what part of Brazil he grew up in, what Russian stereotypes she thinks are actually true, how he’s different from a “typical American.” Ask about her family and childhood, what foods he misses, how her university system is different.
It’s not like you’re even just making polite conversation. These things are interesting.
If you want, learn to see your culture from the outside. Ask him how your country is different from what he had imagined, what your culture does that seems weird to her, how he’s adjusting to the imperial system. Foreigners may be a bit less willing to elaborate on this topic for fear their impressions are incorrect or offensive, but if you show yourself to be open and able to laugh at yourself, they may feel more comfortable.
And if they ask about you, don’t sell yourself short. Even if you think the details of your life would be boring to an exotic stranger, he probably doesn’t. If he’s asking, he’s interested.
As for moving past a conversation into friendship–or more, I don’t know your motives–invite them to do something. And then do it.
My problem in Costa Rica was that I didn’t often get invited to do things. That changed in the second semester when I had some steadier friends, but the trick was getting steady friends. A language partner didn’t become more than a language partner until we did something outside of our required weekly meetup. My host brother didn’t become a friend until we hung out outside of the house.
An American friend of mine said she developed a crush on a Japanese student, so she kept asking him along when she was doing stuff. They’re married now, so that seems like it could be an effective technique.
Make sure that if you invite a foreign friend to do something, that you actually do it. A friend of mine from the Netherlands who studied in New Jersey said that a common cultural frustration for her was that people would propose they get lunch on Wednesday or do something over the weekend, and then when she would call them to follow up or specify a time, they had forgotten or gone home for the weekend.
I think we as Americans do this all the time and don’t even notice it. We don’t feel like going, or something else comes up, and we don’t really bother telling the other person, because chances are, they let it slip by, too. Even when we determine a time or place, the commitment’s iffy. This is not ok to do with a foreign student. It’s possible she’s been hanging out between the dorm and the cafeteria all weekend, twiddling her thumbs and looking forward to whatever plans you made, because she has nothing else as interesting to do.
She may not have the wide friend selection you do, the family to go home to, or even a car to go to the grocery store. And sure, it’s fun to hang with the other exchange students, but that’s not what she’s here for.
As a quick note, if you came here looking for advice on how to get the foreigner to like you, please make sure you see the foreigner as a distinct person, not just the guy with a British accent, the Swedish girl with blue eyes, or the boy from France who must be an incredibly romantic lover. As a blonde, I went through this in Costa Rica, and while it was flattering at first, it quickly got frustrating and annoying.
In short, a foreign student is an individual who simply grew up in a different context than you–so connect with him as an individual and look at the cultural differences as an extra element of interest.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret to talking to a foreign exchange student.