Expat experiences: making new friends, approaching foreigners

The other day at the gym, a Chinese/Indonesian woman I know comes up to me and says, “Why don’t you ever talk to anyone at the gym?”, “And you always wear headphones, so no one can talk to you. And when you workout you don’t smile.”

Those of you reading this from the States or similar countries will agree with me that this isn’t exactly something a gym-friend would normally ask you in America. (gym-friend is a term I coined 10 seconds ago, referring to people you only see/know/talk to at the gym).

My answer to her was, “I guess because when I’m at the gym, I’m here to workout and not socialize. I don’t mean to be ‘sombong’ (stuck-up).” She said, “Then how will you make new friends?” Her question got me thinking.

All too often we expats, living and working in a radius of familiarity, tend to become a bit isolated and stuck in a habit of hanging out with the same people, but to an Indonesian, we may come across as being unfriendly or perhaps even a bit stuck-up. I can only speak for myself, but this isn’t the case at all. I’m always up for meeting new people, practicing my lame Bahasa Indonesia, and think of myself as pretty open to talking with Indonesians as much as possible. And yet, despite this view of myself, I was observed as being otherwise.

It makes you wonder, after 6 years of living and working around here, do others feel the same? Is this a reputation that many expats earn and perhaps deserve?

To quickly address her comments: In regards to the gym atmosphere, I’ll admit, I’m there to get a good workout in, not hang out and talk. However, I’m in the vast minority – most of the members spend about half (or more) of their time socializing and the other half doing some form of exercise. If I don’t smile, it’s because I train pretty hard and am often working my ass off in doing so; weight-lifting and smiling just don’t mesh where I’m from. The headphones are a way of blocking out the R&B-love-song techno thing they have pumping at times, and allows me to focus. Furthermore, how would you feel if some sweaty white guy out of breath walked up and started chatting with you out of the blue?

Expat men already have a bad rep as it is in Asia. If I start conversing with the cute girls at the gym, won’t that simply reinforce everyone’s opinion and get them thinking, “See, I told he was just like the rest…” Unfortunately, there’s often an automatic assumption that if a bule (foreigner) is speaking with a young woman, he’s really just trying to get in her pants. This theory is further reinforced by the wandering eyes I notice whenever the aforementioned skimpy-outfit-wearing gym-friend is talking to me. The eyes of those around us tell a lot.

Should I make more of an effort to get to know those I’ve regularly seen at the gym and the same locations all these years? Probably. Should I make an attempt at smiling more often, and lighten up a bit? Definitely.

But you know what? This goes both ways; it’d be great for all you Indos out there to also take a chance and approach us as well. Most expats that I know are quite friendly and always up for speaking with new people, and making new friends. After all, isn’t that why we’re here, transplanted from our homes? To forge new relationships, be it business, friendship, or love?

{insert predictable words of advice}

Take a chance. You just might learn something new.