The Lonely Immigrant

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Two Silhouettes, Ottawa, Winter 2011

Immigrants I’m in contact with often mention how challenging it is to make new friends in their adoptive country. Sure, we can stay connected with “home” easily through the Internet and social websites made it easier to keep in touch. But meeting new people in real life can be tricky at first. I know. I’ve been there.

When I first came to Canada, Feng and I settled in Ottawa. It was just the two of us there. Feng grew up in Winnipeg and didn’t know anyone in Ottawa—and frankly, before landing there, I didn’t even know where Ottawa was exactly.

For the first 10 months, I couldn’t work because I was on a tourist visa. I had expected that year to be difficult money-wise but in fact, loneliness turned out to be my biggest challenge. I was still a student in France so I’d spend hours at the library (free Internet!) browsing books and preparing for my final exams. Online, I’d chat with my friends back home, with other students in my university in Paris. In Ottawa, I had no one to talk to but Feng.

The problem was obvious: I wasn’t working and I wasn’t taking classes in Canada so I had no opportunity to meet people. Our neighbourhood is awfully quiet and people usually mind their own business. They ship the kids to school in the morning, go to work, come home and keep to themselves. I didn’t have the opportunity to socialize with anyone. Besides, my English wasn’t that good and I was self-conscious when chatting with strangers.

Let’s just say it was a tough year. The first few months were fun because I was discovering a new culture but it got pretty depressing after that. I’m not sure I would have come back to Canada if I hadn’t gotten a work visa. I had never felt so lonely my entire life and I knew it wouldn’t get better until I got some kind of immigration status that would allow me to ease into the culture.

At first, I still had a lot of friends in France. This was only three years after graduating from high school and we had kept in touch. We were all making our first steps in the real world, moving out from our parents, getting jobs, boyfriends and a whole set of new responsibilities. But the longer I spent abroad, the harder it became to stay in touch. Some of my friends didn’t see the point: “you’re missing out too much, I just don’t know how bring you up to date with all that happened lately”, as one put it bluntly. I wasn’t there when they were struggling to rent a place in Paris, when they broke up and found love again, when they failed or passed an important exam. And my friends couldn’t understand what I was going through either. I went back and forth between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I showed up worried after a bad morning queuing at the Canadian embassy in Paris, or I’d be applying for visa extensions. We were living in two different worlds and started to drift out.

It didn’t get better right away. First, I wanted to avoid the “expat trap”—hanging out exclusively with other French immigrants. Fortunately, Ottawa is not Montreal (the Canadian mecca for French) and while I do know some immigrants most of them are well-adjusted to their new life in Canada and past the “everything-was-so-much-better-in-France” stage. Second, friendship has its cultural quirks and I had to improve both my English and my knowledge of Canadian culture to understand how things worked here. Finally, making friends take time, period.

I now have some kind of social life. I know people from all walk of life, Canadians and new immigrants, and I don’t feel as lonely as I used to.

So if you ever feel lonely in a foreign land, remember that: it gets better. Trust me.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

32 Comments

  1. I think it did take me at least a year here in Canada to finally meet more people and to think I didn’t have trouble with the language! I missed my friends a lot from everywhere which was hard, but oddly enough I never wanted to leave… I think most immigrants or expats do go through this for sure!

    • One year is definitely not bad, it took me longer than that!

      I also missed home but never really wanted to leave. Strange, isn’t it?!

  2. Canada is tough for people who come from asia seeing as asian cities are densely populated. canadian cities, especially suburbs, are practically dead places where it’s quite normal to go without seeing a single person on foot!

    that’s why G20 in toronto was awesome… so much going on in TO at that time… gotta love that! 😛

    • You are so right! Even coming from France I was a bit shocked to see empty streets in my neighborhood. I couldn’t even hear the neighbors!

      And this is Ottawa, just imagine Saskatchewan 😆

  3. Hi ! thank you so much for this posting ! Lately, I’ve felt pretty sad, and thought that I’m usually alone. But your post totally makes sense ! I feel better after reading it ! Hope I can meet more people that I can call my friends, and feel more comfortable here soon ! Thanks !

    • I’m sorry to hear you’ve been feeling lonely. I know it’s an awful feeling and I certainly hope it will get better with time, like it did for me. 🙂

  4. It’s posts like these that make me think how atypical my experience is. Since I have been brought up in a diplomatic family, we traveled a lot. Thus, I never got to form long-lasting relationships with friends from just one part of the world. I made friends from all over the world instead, which is fine, but the thing that is lacking is longevity. Thus, I always thought that friendships are these in-passing things, they come and go.

    So, whenever I move, I don’t really feel lonely, as for me, that’s the normal state of things. Of course, I make friends along the way, and if I get to keep them for a long time, that would be great, but I am not expecting that they would be forever.

    • I guess that like you said, it’s due to your unique upbringing. It must have made studying abroad in a foreign land much easier at first, I bet you get over homesickness easily as well. All in all, your philosophy is a good one.

  5. Salut Zhu,

    Everyone of us who has immigrated(even shortly), know lonliness. Once the excitement wears off and you begin to realize how things work, it honestly gets worse before getting better.

    You were like myself; I had mt second half and that prevented perhaps feeling truly depressed if I was totally alone. Then, I had a “belle-famille”, even if a small one.

    I already had a lot of friends already drift away when I was in the US. So, I had very few left when I immigrated to France.I am sorry to hear that some of your friendships have not stood the test of time.You have grown in different directions.

    Keep on smiling at life; you have come a long way, baby. 🙂

    • It’s not that bad as it sounds, I actually connected with some of my old friends again once we were all a bit more “settled” in our respective lives. True friendship never dies I guess.

      You must have felt like I did when I first came to Canada, moving abroad is a big decision.

  6. Great article. I’m Canadian, now living in Germany and although I’m learning German, my German is not yet good enough yet in social circumstances which makes it tough. I also find that while I can be shy at first, if you’re an immigrant you need to be the one to make the first invitation and really make an effort since making friends is hard work. Agree that it takes time, but that first year can be a tough one.

    • Hi and thanks for reading and sharing your experience!

      I totally agree, it’s often to the newcomer to make the first step. Except that it’s harder for us, the language and cultural barrier can be intimidating at first. I’ll go have a look at your German life. Never been to Germany myself but I heard it was a vibrant place to be.

  7. Hi Zhu,
    I am back to the blogosphere, I had to get away from everything due to personal reasons. I had not visited your blog for a while and I see that it is still the best immigrant blog around. I experienced a lot of loneliness my first year here in Saint John, it is a small city and there are not as many immigrants as in the rest of Canada.
    You are right, things do get much better, in my case I had two wonderful Canadian friends who “adopted” me and were there for me all the time.
    After a few years I do not feel that lonely anymore. It just takes time and a lot of effort.

    • Hi Jorge,

      Good to see you back!

      Even though Ottawa is a bigger city and probably has more immigrants than in Saint John, it’s still not Toronto or Vancouver and it’s hard to be a newcomer here at first. But like you discovered, it gets better after a while. Glad you found people to “adopt” you, you deserve it! 🙂

  8. Hi Zhu!
    Lovely post! I still lament the fact that I do not have enough friends. Atleast not the kinds I had in India, the ones that would show up at my place unexpectedly (before the cellphone days) and force me to go out. Ofcourse the best and long last friendships are usually those forged during childhood. Most of my friends today are through Chad. ^_^

    • I agree, most of my good friends are childhood friends, even though we don’t see each others a lot we can reconnect in a matter of minutes. Canadians don’t like to show up uninvited… one of the first things I learned here!

  9. Hi Zhu,

    I have read about 3 of your articles today and i have to say, they were really helpful. I was starting to give up. Thank you.

    • Don’t give up! Granted, going through the immigration process is stressful but hey, it ends after you get the permanent residence status 🙂

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  11. Hi I recently immigrated to eastern US from western canada to marry my american husband. I have no friends here it’s not an exhaggeration i have none. it wouldnt be so bad but my husband isn’t really from the area we live in either and he was so wrapped up with long distance relationships and immigration he didnt make any friends either before i came. he works from before i get up to about an hour before i have to go to work and when i get home he’s sleeping. i’ve never been so depressed and homesick in my own house before. I’m afraid to drive in this city and couldnt drive our car if i wanted to because i don’t know how to drive standard. we have no extra money we’re pretty much in the red when i go for my pap because of the health plan we have. I can’t afford to take the bus or the train anywhere not that i’d even know where to go. I have no idea how i’m going to make friends but i’d take any suggestions 🙁 xoxo the lonely immigrant

    • Hi there,

      I know how tough it is at first, and if that can help, lots of newcomers feel lonely. One way to get out of loneliness is to volunteer and looking back, that’s what I would have done–at the library, at the shelter, anything, reliable volunteers are always needed.

      I started feeling much better when I found my first job, so working is also a great option, even if it’s not your dream job at first (I worked in a call centre!).

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  13. La solitude extrême a été mon pain quotidien depuis plus de 5 ans. Mois après mois, je me suis dit que ça irait mieux avec le temps, et puis non.

    Je vis dans l’Ouest et ne m’entends pas (n’ai rien en commun) avec la vacuité locale. Rien à échanger.

    Difficile de s’y habituer, mais j’en ai accepté le principe.

    • C’est dur à entendre! Je ne sais pas si c’est un bon conseil, mais ça me fait mal au coeur que tu te résignes à la solitude. Sans enfoncer des portes ouvertes (j’imagine que tu as essayé beaucoup de choses), as-tu pensé à changer de province? Es-tu coincé là-bas?

      Reste pas tout seul, parle-nous 🙂

  14. This is so true. Sometimes, in a very rare circumstance ,even if I manage to get in a conversation with the locals/officemates, I still feel lonely and feel that I’m not connected with them. No one would ask me to hangout, and my group of friends are limited to my own cultural community.

    Im not saying its not good to hangout with my people, but like you say it feels like an expat trap.

    • I’m sorry you are having to experience this too. How long have you been here? It took me a long time to understand other social clues, the way people hang out here…

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