Tonight at dinner, I mentioned to my husband that, even though I have been in GMP Uni City for 7 years now, I don't feel at home. I felt much more at home in the city where we went to grad school, even thought I spent only 4.5 years there. My husband just said "That's because we had friends there. Here, we have no one."
Of course, he's right. It's not that Grad School City was particularly welcoming to foreigners of all stripes (I'd say, quite the contrary), but just the fact that we went to grad school, and were surrounded by other grad students from all around the world, made the barriers to forging friendships fairly low. There were also some people from our home country that we hung out with, but we made a number of American friends and a number of friends from different parts of Asia, Latin America, and Europe. We were quite broke (raising a kid on grad school stipends) but overall it was fun.
The part of the country where we moved is populated by very nice people. They are actually a bit too nice for my taste. I find that all the nicety makes an impenetrable front to honest human communication -- if you are going to have a relationship with someone that goes beyond chitchat and pleasantries, the guard has to come down at some point and you need to show your true colors.
I was actually fairly surprised by some aspects of life in Uni City and State. There are a number of faculty who are from the state or the general area (neighboring states), and came back here to be close to family. Also, from the experiences with the parents of my son's friends, a great number of them too are from the city or its close vicinity, and have the support system of extended family close by. This pattern is common in Europe (people not moving far away from their ancestral homes) and I was surprised to find it in Uni City and State. For outsiders like my husband and me, these close knit circles are quite hard to penetrate; certainly, not helped by the fact that we are actually foreigners, so we must seem, well, foreign to people whose families have lived here for generations.
In terms of making friends at work, this hasn't really worked out all that well. I have two colleagues from the department whom I would perhaps call friends, one is from Northern Europe and the other from East Asia. With my friend from East Asia, we've invited him and his family over a couple of times, and they do come and we have a great time, but it's never reciprocated. It is my impression that their real friends, those with whom they do visit regularly, are all from their home country, so my family does not qualify. My Northern European friend and his family have been quite nice, but his significant other (from a different country) has been pulling to get back to Europe and we've also had some friction as described here, so we have cooled down a bit.
I have close collaborators and a couple of mentors. One of them tells me that you should never have friends from the university -- it's not safe. I agree that on the tenure track you should keep your anxieties and doubts to yourself, because your colleagues do end up evaluating you, but after tenure? Is it still not safe? Perhaps by then it's just too late and the relationships are set in stone. I hung out with some junior faculty who started in other departments at the same time I did, but most were single or married but childless by choice (so different lifestyles) plus everyone was so laser-focused on work and busy that I always ended up looking like a major slacker for actually wanting to get lunch together.
I have some good close collaborators, but we've never crossed the line of actually going to each other's homes. I suppose that's where we will stay. I have a couple of other collaborators with whom all nontechnical communication is so superficial and coated in so much sugar that I am afraid I'll end up with diabetes. I have tried several times to penetrate the sugary barrier of nicety and actually connect with them as real people, but my efforts have always been greeted with additional layers of aloofness, so eventually I gave up.
My husband has an academic staff position and works with a very small group of people, so his pool of acquaintances is not particularly large to draw from (plus, he's not a very social person; he only talks to me because he must and because his tongue will atrophy if he doesn't use it :-). So neither one of us meets anyone outside of work. Perhaps it's true for most people. The people we do meet are our kids' friends' parents, but they never seem interested in hanging out with us.
But, I see that American faculty who are not from here seem much more integrated with their neighborhoods and communities. Part of it is perhaps their church attendance (another thing I did not expect -- a very large percentage of faculty are regular church goers), which is yet another aspect that makes my family ever more foreign. We are not religious at all. Likely, there are other aspects, and it does probably boil down to being foreigners -- I am sure there are many pan-American aspects of the culture that we are simply not familar with, secret handshakes or something..? If there's "Fitting in for Dummies," someone send me a link stat!
I have a friend who's a faculty in a CS department some 5 hours drive from here, at a great school. He also recently complained to me that "there is no one here who ever asks you how your day is going." He says he's contemplating leaving for this reason alone, to get to some place where he and his family wouldn't be so isolated. Someone said that we should hang out with people from my home country. There are three problems with this suggestion: there aren't any around (mine is a small country); if I wanted to hang out with people from my own country, I would have never left it to begin with; just because someone is from my country certainly does not mean we can automatically be friends.
I am not sure what the solution is. I have a good job, we have a nice comfortable life, and the kids are happy and well-adjusted. For my older son, this is home, and he's always very much against moving whenever I mention that we might. Perhaps, as immigrants, this is simply how it has to be: we have to suck it up with no support system so our kids would be comfortable and feel they belong. But it sure would be nice to have someone in real life to vent to.