Years ago my husband, who was born and raised in the USA, volunteered on a team welcoming international students to America. He knew that they must feel lonely, and inviting a Chinese student home for Thanksgiving or offering his truck to help a foreign student move were things he could do to help. But his understanding of their struggle was mostly theoretical, because he had never moved cross-culturally himself.
Fast-forward six years, and now my husband has a new understanding of what those international students must have experienced. As an international entering his sixth year in Germany, he now realizes how much an invitation to a local family's house can mean. He has felt the sting of loneliness abroad and is grateful for the people who made room at their tables and in their hearts for a foreigner. What he once understood in theory, he now understands in reality: internationals and immigrants often feel lonely.
One of my favourite phrases in the Bible is where God says He "places the lonely in families". He is the ultimate Father, bringing people into His own family. He sees and acts on behalf of the lonely. We are called to be imitators of God, but sometimes we need help to understand the needs of lonely immigrants and internationals in our neighbourhoods.
Gleaning from our interactions with internationals and from our personal experiences living abroad, I've complied five reasons why immigrants and internationals can be particularly lonely. If you think of more, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!
1. Immigrants and internationals feel lonely when cultural differences make forming new friendships abroad extra challenging.
"Newcomers can miss the unspoken relational cues that locals would understand."
We all know that immigrants leave old friends and make new ones, but sometimes we don't appreciate how how challenging making friends cross-culturally can be. In the book Foreign to Familiar, cultures are categorized into two types: hot and cold. Generally speaking, people from "hot" cultures are relationship-oriented and "cold" are task-oriented. When someone from a culture that prioritizes people (such as an African or Indian) tries to integrate into a culture that prioritizes efficiency (such as Germany or Canada) or vice versa, often there is difficulty in forming relationships. The cold culture's task-orientedness can come across as unfriendliness; the hot culture’s long unexpected visits can make a task-oriented person feel stressed. Cultural differences make newcomers miss the unspoken relational cues that locals would understand. Understanding cultural differences can help you reach out to internationals in a way that makes them feel loved and welcomed in a foreign country. (Foreign to Familiar could be useful if you'd like a quick introduction to cultural differences).
2. Immigrants and internationals feel lonely because long-distance relationships can't replace local, in-person relationships.
Perhaps we think that because of free international texting and video calling somehow loneliness is not so prevalent. Long distance friends are important, but it's still true that "better a neighbour nearby than a relative far away." A neighbour can offer the warm meal, the freshly made bed or the in-person companionship that no long-distance friend can offer. Modern technology has made communicating across the world easier, but even due to time zone differences your international friend might have no one to call in a moment of happiness or distress. Don't underestimate the importance of being someone who offers real "face time" to an international or immigrant.
3. Immigrants and internationals feel lonely because they have changed and their family and old friends cannot fully relate to them.
"Being able to talk to someone who can relate to his experiences abroad is important to him."
Anyone who has lived abroad and experienced new things knows that this comes at a cost—that of being less understood by the people who knew you before. Internationals need new friends who will share their experiences in this new phase of their lives. One Asian friend we met here in Europe comes from a family that by Western standards would be classified as poor. Although his parents had little formal education, our friend had the opportunity to study in some of the best schools in his country and then to study in Europe. He treasures his parents and wants their relationship to be the same as it always was. But now that he has lived abroad and completed a master's degree, his parents treat him differently, feeling that somehow he is of a higher status than they. He is back in Asia now, but some days he phones us just to chat about things that perhaps his family and friends in Asia can't discuss with him. Being able to talk to someone who can relate to his experiences abroad was important to him while he was here, and is still important to him now that he's gone home.
4. Immigrants and internationals feel lonely when they can't disclose the details of their lives abroad.
When living abroad, it is easy for internationals to selectively share their lives with the people back home—often because they feel they must. Whether it is discussing financial success...or academic failure....many immigrants feel awkward telling their families the reality of their situation. Others are dating someone but can't tell their conservative parents who plan to arrange a marriage for them. Your friendship can provide a safe place for them to be real. I once knew an immigrant who had a serious accident but delayed in telling his family what had happened, hoping that the situation would get better. During that season he needed local friends who would support him until he felt ready to tell his family the bad news. We currently have a friend from a dangerous country who is so worried for his family's safety that he almost cannot concentrate on his schoolwork—but it might do more harm than good to express to his family just how much their situation concerns him. Internationals need someone to listen to and share both their joys and their burdens, especially when they feel cannot tell people back home.
5. Immigrants and internationals feel lonely when they are not a part of God's family.
If you are relating to a lonely international who is not a part of God's family, his loneliness is not just a physical loneliness, but a spiritual loneliness as well. You can speak with your friend about the love of the Father and His promise that we can become part of His family. But those words are even more powerful when coupled with hospitality. Through your practical expressions of love, your friend will taste what being a part of the family of God is like. Hospitality takes the theory about God and allows your lonely friend to experience it in reality: the God whom you call Father places the lonely in families.