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My Biggest Challenge as a Newcomer? Loneliness

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 make 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.

I wasn’t allowed to work for the first ten months because I was on a tourist visa. I was expecting money to be tight 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, and with other students at 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 in 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 many 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 to 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 newcomers), 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 takes time, period.

I now have some kind of social life. I know people from all walks 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 does get better. Trust me.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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