(Originally published on The Unofficial Field Guide to WashU ArtSci March 8, 2016)
When talking to friends from home, one of the first questions I get is, “Have you made any friends?” or “Have you gotten to know any English people?” I reply honestly: “Not really.” Then they look confused or sad and ask, “Well, why not?”
Why, indeed. It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about. The people that surround me aren’t unwelcoming; in fact, they’re incredibly pleasant and open people. So it would seem like it’s just a "me" problem, right? Well, yes. But also no. In new environments, I am a fairly shy person. I try not to talk too much so that I don’t seem obnoxious. I tend to be afraid of starting conversations for the same reason. Usually, I open up more as time wears on, but being abroad has been a bit different. I arrived with a very small crew of people that I was already acquainted with, so I wasn’t totally alone, but I haven’t made close connections with my flat mates yet. They’re a collection of four very nice people from around the world, but we haven’t hung out all together, and I never see them for more than 30 minutes every couple of days.
In the Stamford Street Apartments, where I live, there isn’t a lot of shared space. The five of us share a kitchen which has seating for four, but it’s not exactly a locus of social activity. Two of my flat mates attend school together in Paris, and the other two arrived here first and have gotten very close. That leaves me in the middle, feeling a little isolated. I don’t feel alienated by any of them, but I know that I’m not on the same friend-level yet.
In the classroom, the situation is completely different. As I’ve mentioned before, classes only meet for two hours a week, and half of that time is spent in lecture where the only person speaking is the course lecturer. In seminar, there isn’t much room for idle discussion, so there are no quiet chats during breakout sessions. It also happens that most of the students at KCL don't live nearby, so they’re not keen on lingering around after class lets out at 6pm. I haven’t eaten at the student cafeteria (I actually have no idea where it is), so I won’t be meeting anyone there. I’ve heard that the student bar also isn’t as great a spot to make new friends as expected. From what I can tell, student culture is a bit more isolating than at WashU, and for someone who is a bit socially awkward, making friends with the local students is close to impossible.
While having a large collection of new friends would be nice, I’m learning to enjoy my own company more. I used to be someone who always needed a buddy. If I wanted to do something but no one else did, then I wouldn’t do it. During my time in London, if there’s something that only I want to do, I just do it alone. Despite this newfound self-appreciation, I admit that I need to do a lot better with getting to know others, starting with the people I live with. That’s why tomorrow, the five of us are going out to get lunch. It should be a good opportunity to go from acquaintances to almost-friends. And if not, at least the food will be delicious.