Friday, May 6, 2011

Home Is Where the Job Is?

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.


Anonymous said...

Searching for friends from your own country seems like a narrow focus but what about other immigrants in general? Perhaps primarily from your own general region of the world or people from other small countries who might have the same difficulties. Is there an immigrant association in uni town where you could become active? I probably offer only obvious suggestions but since I am currently on a lonely, but brief, exchange away from my own home country I wanted to write something.

Chris said...

That's what I also fear. As a student, making friends is relatively easy... after that though, not so much. Problem I've seen family members encounter is that people you meet outside your job just don't understand your priorities and workaholic habits... maybe one day you'll get lucky and move house to a friendly neighborhood? Neighbors tend to make the best friends if you find the right ones.

Clarissa said...

" if I wanted to hang out with people from my own country, I would have never left it to begin with"

-I know how you feel! I'm sick and tired of well-meaning Americans who keep trying to introduce me to "this really nice Russian lady on their bloc". If I were so interested in meeting "nice Russian people", why would I have ever left my own country?

prodigal academic said...

This post rings true for me, and I was born in the US (but not in Prodigal city). It is much, much harder to make friends on the TT than either in school or when I was a postdoc at National Lab. Most people make friends at work, which is more complicated by the tenure process. Also working an intense job (especially with kids) means not much free time to develop a personal network. I am also very introverted (and not particularly good at socializing anyway), which doesn't help. I haven't really come up with a solution for myself, but I do completely understand your feeling here.

Anonymous said...

I have the same problem as an American in the UK - but I'm not sure it's because I am an American as my husband is British. I think in grad school (and even my post doc) making friends was fairly easy as there were lots of new people moving into the area at the same time. Here, everyone already seems to have their circle of friends/family and don't extend it to necessarily include us. They are all quite busy and don't seem to realize how difficult it has been for us to make the same sort of connections and friends.

Alyssa said...

Do we live in the same city? I definitely could have written this post. DH and I have lived here for 6 years now (him 7 - we didn't know each other when we moved here), and we still don't feel like we have close friends. Sure, we get together with certain people once in a while, but it's not a lot.

We are not religious, but have contemplated starting going to church just to meet people! We decided that might be a bit strange though.

I also think making friends in adulthood is a lot harder in general. In school (like you said) you're thrust together with a bunch of people going through the same thing. It's easy to find commonalities. It's just different once you have a "real job" and such.

I don't have any tips - just wanted to commiserate.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, I hear you... I'm American but most of what you said resonated with me.

Anonymous said...

That's what bugs me about so-called nice areas of the country (I grew up in one). It is all about the veneer of being civil and upbeat. It's almost ritualistic, and rarely goes beyond basic chit-chat interactions. Folks can be polite, while still being very insular and not particularly welcoming. You example with the collaborators is a good one.

Meadow said...

In my previous position at a large state university I was there many years and just couldn't break into the local culture. One of the things that really got my goat was the lack of reciprocity. People were happy to take, take, take, but no giving and no apparent reason either like being overwelmed or family crisis. Ironically I made a few friends just as I was leaving only to start all over again.

We professors are like those iterant sufi scholars going from place to place practicing our trade.

It has taken me three years to settle in here. Stangely enough I fit into a group I never thought I'd fit in -- my friends are in an economic class well above "professor." But I don't feel any pressure to compete or anything -- well I do want a pair of diamond earings, oh well never mind on my salary...

It is hard to make friends as an adult. Need a new begining of sorts. For me that occured last semester when my kid started kindergarten. I spent a lot of time at the school and got to know several parents quite well.

Kindergarten may be the only time something like this happens. It certainly didn't happen with the parents of my older kids. They are just friendly parents. Add to this the few parents I know from the preschool and I have a respectable little circle of friends.

I do not consider my colleagues my friends just friendly colleagues some of whom I genuinely like but a good number who just get on my nerves. Most belly sneetches are certifiable (probably myself included).

Meadow said...

Oh and one more thing. You all are the only people I can vent to about academia which is a huge part of my life. The issues are too specific for my friends. Thank heavens for virtual friends.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are talking about. I am also a recent immigrant with two children (~5years). One of things helped me is to make friends with my children's friend's parents. I know you said that it didn't worked with you, but I would say that is still more open option than the other options. I constantly invite different set of parents with whom I think I will be comfortable and over the years, some of them has evolved in good relationship. I guess at later age, it just take additional time to make friends as compared grad school. My children go to different activities, and I also meet other parents there as I hang out for an hour sitting and waiting. This has provided some good friends as well.

Another option could be to join club with other hobby, like music or something. These are places where you will meet other normal people, not just academics.

Anonymous said...

"if I wanted to hang out with people from my own country, I would have never left it to begin with"
I thought you are some kind of economic migrant, and moved where the money was.
But, if you (and the Russian commenter) are determined to deny that, and pretend that you ran away from your kin, it's time to ask yourself why would anyone in their right mind will want to accept you as a friend. After all, your nation is one of jerks. I don't know much about them, but anybody listening to you will get that idea. You that you had to change continents to run away from them! Or so you say.
I can't stand this sort of snobbery. I am surprised you got so far in this society, while denying your value for so long.

"just because someone is from my country certainly does not mean we can automatically be friends"
Well, same goes for Americans. Just because they are Americans, it doesn't follow they are friends, or that they have friends. And churchgoers too. You overestimate the friendship between American people. Just because they talk about weather doesn't mean they care about the people they talk to. The conversation places a different social role in America than in most other countries.
Better accept that people at your age, with children, and with a baggage of foreign culture that they despise, cannot go too far in forming new friendships. It's not high school romance time anymore, it's not dorm party time, it's time to work and provide for your Cost Centre(s).
If you still want to be gratified by quite lame conversation with random Americans, try food. Even in a diet-worshipping place like Boston, I saw their eye sparkling at the mention of whatever dish. If you also feed them, they will gratify you with many benign words about weather and baseball.
This works especially well if you serve them anything bland, that won't shock their tongues, but pretend the food is from your country. But wait, you can't, because you hate your culture!

Anonymous said...

Wow, someone is bitter! (at 9:10am)

My dad is an immigrant and my mom is not, and I grew up in the Midwest in a town that I now live in and went to grad school in and work near. I am one of those Americans who doesn't want to leave and is strangely attached to the European-ish model of staying where you grew up. We'll see how that works out in the end... it helps that there are 7 SLACs within 20 minutes of my house.

I understand very much what you mean in your post. I have a lot of networks beside academia: "church," my cultural networks from the immigrant heritage, sports, high school, some college (even though I went to college in California). I did not need to develop them primarily through academia, and my academic friends from elsewhere are having trouble.

Anon9:10, calm down. My grandfather for years introduced me to every (insert ethnicity here) man under 36 as a match-making endeavor. I did eventually marry one of them... but there were a lot of boring or rude or uninteresting (insert ethnicity here) men in the meantime. It's a rather artificial binder, just like being a Cubs fan.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 9:10, what is that huge chip on your shoulder?

I am in a similar situation, but single and childless, so I don't even have the company of immediate family. Communities here also center on church and family, neither of which work for me. I'm American, but born and raised far away from here, and all of my close friends live on the opposite side of the country.

I do have one tip, which is that if there are specific activities you and/or your spouse like to do, that can be a good way to make friends. I posted some personal ads looking for activity partners and met some very nice people in other departments with whom I hang out occasionally. It's not as good as having close friends, but it's much better than it was.

GMP said...

Anon at 9:10, for all your Russian-bashing or otherwise xenophobic needs, I recommend you find another outlet. I will happily delete such comments in the future. (Btw, I am not Russian, not even close.)

No one here hates their own culture. However, immigrants cannot be expected to want to hang out with people from their own country exclusively (btw, those who do are then accused that they don't want to assimilate; those who don't are graced with comments about hating their own country *eyeroll*). I do know a number of people who would never consider emigrating precisely because they don't want a life without the social support they enjoy in their home country.

To everyone else, thanks for your thoughts and comments! Making new friends once out of school does seem hard, seemingly irrespective of one's origin. Loneliness is probably much harder on single people, as Anon at 11:57 says. I know several recently divorced people in their 30's or 40's (some single parents, some not) who say that it's really really hard to meet new people.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - my husband and I have a similar struggle. We know that we are somehow contributing to it. I graduate in one year and making friends at this point seems like it is more work than it would be worth. I am a female mathematician and often when I get introduced to other female mathematicians there is an awkward pause on the part of the person making the introduction that makes me feel they are thinking "Look! I found another female mathematician! You can be lifelong friends! Aren't you so excited?" Just because a woman is a mathematician does not mean she and I are a good match for friendship.

jenny said...

I hear you, GMP. I miss my childhood friends, in my home country, to whom I could vent and really connect to. Even to them I am strange now, as they did not follow an academic path and their culture has not changed I have. Being a mom, with a career, I just don't have the time to invest in making personal friends anymore. We do have quite a few family friends, though not the "close friend" kind.
I am in a mid-size school, with lots of young people with kids in the same department. I must have lucked out in that respect (actually, this was one of the most appealing things about this university. I remember interviewing at places where nobody had young kids in the whole 25-30 person department). We just invite people we like for dinner (or just pizza if I dont have time, or the inspiration to make dinner), and perhaps a trip to the local park with the kids, on weekends. Most times it gets reciprocated, sometimes it doesn't, but we don't really care. We too have been unable to connect to any of the locals, either within or from outside the department - this too is one of those sugarly nice places where everything is wonderful and disingenuous.
In grad school, I did have a few friends from my home country. However, my husband was born in this country, so he did not really fit in with those friends, or even speak the same language when we got together. Goes both ways, I guess.

FrauTech said...

Oh man this could have been written by me with a few minor changes. I'm not an immigrant, and in fact live in the same town where I grew up. When I went to college I ended up losing most of my high school friends. In college I was working and had a similar social situation to what is described with grad students working together in labs and it was easy to make friends. But when I moved on I lost those friends as well (as we no longer had much in common).

Now any "friends" I have are through work, and like others have advised, you can't get TOO personal with those you work with, especially the closer they are to your department. Even then I work 50-60 hours a week, commute, want to see my husband, and don't know if I have time for friends because the level of commitment they'd probably want from me is much higher than I can handle. My husband sounds like your husband, anti-social and mostly happy with our lack of friends, and we also are not religious. Most of my social network therefore is coworkers, my family, and of course the blogosphere to whine and complain and vent where we can't anywhere else. I feel lucky with the family I have in town, but at the same time family is not friends and it's always a little weird to me to not have a real "friend" anymore. Btw to the commenter who suggested living in a home area, that only works if your neighbors are people you might actually get along with. All mine are super-religious, unemployed (by choice I think, unemployment or government welfare type programs would not support a mortgage in this area) and we've learned mostly to keep to ourselves.

Doc (The Healthy Ph.D) said...

I think this resonates with people from all backgrounds. I am American and don't live close to my family regionally, so I have to forge my own friendships. I find that with the growing age of technology, I am able to keep friendships and relationships with people who are quite far away, so maybe you could rely on Skype, Gchat, etc with your friends in other locations.

Anonymous said...

Like others here, I'm American and living in the US and I feel the exact same way.

I've moved around a lot in the course of my academic career, every few years or so. What's also very frustrating is that I seem to meet really cool people *right before* I leave a particular place. Just this week, I met two awesome women that I think would make fantastic friends, but here I am, looking for jobs because my postdoc is ending soon. Sigh...

Inhospitality said...

What can the better-integrated do to help, if we find ourselves in that situation with you? It'd be helpful to have a clear understanding of that, at least in order to articulate our resentments of unwelcoming colleagues.

inBetween said...

I don't think it is much better for those of us who are American. My university and dept are full of people who are not friend material, in that no one trusts each other and like you said, if you invite someone to lunch they think you are a slacker. I think this is just academia and has much less to do with your being an immigrant. It is a lonely and cut throat unfriendly profession.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry - being isolated is hard - we all (or most of us) want connections to other people that go beyond work. I am an American living in a small Uni town and in an isolated position for the time being (I hope it's just that). Few people in my dept have reached out and my husband and I have sort of hunkered down together. Reasons other than the social situation are forcing us to look at moving on and it just feels like too much work to reach out to people and make friends. My husband's theory is it takes 3 years in a place to really have friends - maybe it takes longer if you have kids, a TT job, and are an immigrant - so I hope you are at the tipping point where real connections start to get made. Good luck!

Alex said...

About finding friends at work: It can be tricky, but if you can find a friend who shares the same excitements and frustrations about work, that is incredibly valuable. I have a work friend like that, and it's invaluable to have somebody to tell me that I'm not crazy when I see unethical behavior, when I see laziness, when I see low performance. When I see things going wrong and everybody else is "Eh, whatever" my one good friend at work is there to agree with me, and likewise when she notices something wrong and needs somebody to tell her she isn't crazy. My wife and I spend a lot of weekends hanging out with her and her husband.

On the other side, I have a lot of cow-orkers who are happy and smiley and on superficially good terms with everybody. The problem is that they are incapable of making necessary distinctions, they cannot recognize poor performance or unethical conduct, they just think everything is great. Whatever a person does, or doesn't do, they think it's great. If that's the price of being everybody's friend, I'll stay lonely and keep my soul in the process.

Oh, and you said that Russian-bashing isn't allowed, but how about this awesome picture of Putin with a sniper rifle?

I thought it was amusing.

GMP said...

Alex: I have a lot of cow-orkers

Ahahaha! Cow-orkers! A Freudian slip?

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

Kids, 2 body problems, never staying more than a few years in one city, who needs it? Ah but for the love of our fields....

Thank you for writing this. I am not an immigrant, though my parents are, and I vowed as a child not to live as isolated a life as they chose. So what do I do? I've lived on 3 continents in my adult life, and may emigrate semi-permanently from the US soon. And of all the careers, I choose academia... My partner and I have been having similar discussions recently. Especially since we haven't had the energy to make a lot of friends in our respective cities with a current toddler, and TT searches coming up. Just venting. Thanks again.

Z said...

[testing - i think i understand the system, your comment is going through if a capcha comes up]

Z said...

OK, sorry about that test comment, I tried with real comments twice and failed, so I did a test.

I came from SpanishProf's blog where I'd comment, too, if a window would open up ... I am having technical problems, it seems.

Anyway - I relate to SpanishProf's post, she's from Buenos Aires and in US has lived in South and Midwest, and I'm from SF/LA and elsewhere in US have lived in South and Midwest, and my impressions and experience in these areas are the same as hers.

Where I live now in US, I understand culturally a lot better than I would have done had I not lived in northern Brazil first. My culture shock there was huge, but oddly enough, figuring things out there socially paid off in an unexpected way, i.e. I was able to understand people here almost intuitively when I arrived.

I've lived in various countries and everywhere, school/work were never the best places to find friends. I tend to find more through outside activities - recreational, civic, whatever.

In my field, many faculty are foreign and they came to US brought to a PhD by a professor from their country who had a job here. They got an automatic social life from their department, and lived in a sort of cocoon. Then as assistant professors they expected this to continue and it just doesn't in the same way -- by that time people have more complicated lives and may also just want a break from work and all work related people after work.

Right now I've got 2 new hires who are a little disappointed I am not hanging out with them more. It's not that I don't like them, I do. But there are recreational things I do and would take people along, but it becomes non recreational if I'm functioning sort of as tour guide. And I have a lot of other responsibilities they don't, and also what they want to do is talk non stop about the department, and I am just so over it. Then there's this third new one, also foreign that I relate to on a deeper level and know we would be real friends, but she's as overcommitted as I am at this point, so we just smile in the halls so far.

Spanish prof said...


I hear you about the "church" thing. When we first move to my current town, my husband (American and agnostic) and I (cultural Jew) tried the Unitarian Church to see if we could make friends. We got bored, and none of us likes waking up to go to Church on a Sunday. My husband is an illustrator and graphic artist, so he found a circle of colleagues in the city with whom he hangs out and I occasionally join. I like them, but sometimes they "geek out", spend an hour talking about a certain comic artist. I guess he can say the same about my colleagues. However, if you ask him, his two best friends are not in town: one lives in New Orleans, the other in New York.

I don't think there is a solution. At least for me, I made I choice to come to the US. It was for a combination of reasons (getting away from a too-absorbing family, learning to know myself independently, a country that every 10-12 years seems to implode, etc). I don't regret my choice, even if sometimes I feel lonely. I am lucky enough that I get to go back to Buenos Aires once a year, for almost a month. I wish I had a bigger support system in the US, but no situation is perfect.