That’s What Friends Are For . . . More or Less
My experience with the friends I already had in Qatar (and what I learned about myself)
My experience meeting new people
Keeping up with the people I met after returning home
The effect Qatar had on my ability to be social
A photo of a solitary man overlooking the Doha skyline. As beautiful and dramatic as this is, you don’t want every day to be like this… that’s where friends can prove useful
Simply put, making and keeping friends is difficult sometimes. As young adults, relationships can get more complicated, the concept of a “friend” may evolve, things like busy schedules come into play, and people are still changing, which means growing apart becomes more and more common. Then things like social anxiety or plain ol’ depression add another layer to the ability to pursue friendships and maintain the ones you have. Now, add all these different variables to a semester-long study abroad experience: You’re halfway around the world in a country full of strangers (from over a hundred different countries), you may not speak the language(s), you probably don’t know the social norms, you may be in the minority (racial, gender, and/or sexual), and you’ve entered the situation already knowing you’re going to be gone within a few months.
All this considered, being an exchange student can be incredibly isolating. In fact, social isolation (and its subsequent depression & withdrawal) can be one symptom of the culture shock some people experience while abroad. So, how do you prevent that? I gotta be honest, I don’t have a straight answer for you. I haven’t got any secret tips or pep talks for you, but I do have stories of my experience when it comes to the relationships I built while studying abroad.
When you already know people there
I had the luck of knowing some people before I arrived in Doha, all of which I met during my study abroad experience in Morocco (8 months prior to my Qatar arrival). In fact, they were the ones who encouraged me to apply to the VCUQ study abroad program because they were all faculty and students from VCUQ. So, did I spend much time with them? Yes and no.
The faculty I didn’t spend much time with, naturally. When it came to the students, one was incredibly busy working on his graduate thesis, so I think we may have spent a total of two hours together over the course of four months. The other, however, was a recent alumnus who I really vibed with when we met in Morocco. With us being in Qatar together, I made a point to take her up on whatever she invited me to . . . weddings, family get togethers, sleepovers, movies, clubs—whatever was on the agenda I was down for—but wow it was overwhelming. Thing is, I didn’t recognize how overwhelmed and uncomfortable I was until a few weeks in; I wasn’t used to eating out, drinking alcohol, sharing a room, being in a stranger’s house for longer than an hour, having maids doing things for me, or being around so many people (especially someone else’s large family).
I also had to realize that my friend—though I loved her to bits and pieces—was also a source of anxiety. I often didn’t have it in me to keep up with her actions and thought process, but I made myself do it anyway, and as a result, I was mentally, physically, and emotionally stretched thin. You’ve got to remember, I was also in the midst of adapting to a new country, a new school, and an unexpected graduation situation; as much as I wanted to keep pace with her, I often felt like a robot on the fritz, especially because it often seemed like she didn’t remember what I was going through (and she probably didn’t remember because listening was not her forte, which added another layer to the stress I was under). Even though I had a friend, I still felt isolated, perhaps even more so than if I had actually been alone.
I’m not trying to bash her, not at all; she’s a wonderful person a hundred times over who contributed to my Qatar experience in a lot of good ways. I’m glad she was a part of my life, but in Qatar our relationship evolved, as all relationships do. I recognized that “the yokes weren’t equal,” as my grandfather would say; I realized my role in the relationship and how I felt, and I realized I had to back off for a while. Even though for a long time she was my only real friend in the country, I decided to take some steps back from my expectations of our friendship, not out of malice, but in the name of preserving it in the long run—and more importantly—preserving myself.
I say all this because at the end of the day, you shouldn’t sacrifice pieces of yourself in the name of friendship, whether you’re at home or abroad. I know the alternative of being friend-less in a foreign country for four months may be scary, but putting yourself first in your life is important, and that’s something I’ve always had a hard time grasping. It wasn’t until my experience in Doha that I consciously chose to put myself first, and it was a good and healthy decision.
Making new friends
Some of us with the Executive Dean and his wife’s welcome party, from VCUQ’s Instagram.
Four months is such an awkward amount of time when it comes to relationship building, right? It’s too short to explore a friendship at a comfortable pace, but too long for you to be accepted as a hermit who isn’t interested in getting to know anyone. However, I decided to just go for it; I decided to pursue friendships even knowing that’d I’d be out of their lives (presumably forever) within 16 weeks. I know, that’s easier said than done, but if you hang around for the conclusion, I’ll explain how I was able to do it.
For the time being, though, I’ll tell you how I encountered the new friends and acquaintances I managed to get while in Qatar.
The people I already knew at VCUQ—both the faculty and students—either introduced me to new people, or suggested I hit them up. This was easy because VCUQ was so small, especially compared to VCU-Richmond. I was often encouraged to seek out other black students—people like myself—because they make up one of the smallest minorities on campus. Honestly, I feel like I met every black student at VCUQ . . . not a hard task considering there were so few.
Here’s a story for you: On my first night in Doha, I attended my friend’s sister’s wedding (which you can read more about in the post 13-Hour Flight and Unusual First Night). I didn’t know her sister, but as a result of the wedding, I met her, her other siblings, and the siblings’ friends who were in attendance, many of which went to VCUQ. So, during the exchange students’ tour of campus, I naturally said ‘hi’ to all the people I had met at the wedding. Couple this newfound familiarity with the people I’d already met in Morocco and the barrage of faculty I had been obsessively emailing prior to my arrival, there were a lot of people around campus I was saying “hello” to. One of the other exchange students said, “Damn, Nia knows everybody,” a feat considering we’d been in the country for less than 24 hours.
I mentioned how small VCUQ was, but really, Education City was its own little bubble too. I talk more about this in the post Explain Education City, but in short, the six degrees of separation between people suddenly shot down to two; it seemed like students, alumni, faculty, and all their families (many of which were huge) were interconnected. I actually started to vibe well with my friend’s siblings, some of which either went to VCUQ or were alumni of EC, but it began to feel unexpectedly problematic and I decided to back off. However, the friend of my friend’s sibling—another alumni of Education City—ultimately became my sweetheart.
When it came to meeting new people or hanging out with recent acquaintances, going to campus events was a great way to do it. Back home, I didn’t go to many VCU events for a variety of emotional, practical, & financial reasons—and the ones I did go to rarely had repeated faces (because VCU is huge)—but Doha was different. Many of the reasons I didn’t go to events at VCU simply didn’t exist for me at VCUQ, Education City, or Doha in general, and I wound up going to or stumbling upon a substantial amount of EC events (at both VCUQ and other universities). And, because the community was so small, it was frighteningly easy to run into people I recognized.
The photo to the left was taken at VCUQ’s 20th anniversary celebration, and the photo on the right was taken at Northwestern’s annual student film premiere event.
Make friends with other exchange students. There were four of us exchange students from VCU and a few others from other universities around EC. Two of us—me and another VCU exchange student—decided to room together (which gave us more amenities than the freshmen apartments we’d been put in, while cutting the cost . . . read more in the post High-class Halls). However, when it came to spending time with the larger group of EC exchange students, we all interacted only twice throughout the semester, and the four of us from VCU, well, we honestly didn’t get very close. I won’t detail the reasons why, but I will say that our group had a variety of different attitudes, degrees of curiosity, and comfort levels when it came to riding solo versus in a group. We didn’t hate each other, nothing like that, but we still wound up barely seeing each other (although, one of them did ask me to accompany them to India a week prior to her departure . . . I declined). Even still, though, whenever I wanted to do something that warranted extra company, they were always the first ones I reached out to.
On the left is us VCUQ exchange students, and to the right are some of the exchange students from other universities. There were a few more Texas A&M exchange students that had yet to arrive in the country, so they’re not in the photograph. Coincidentally, the only male exchange students came from Texas A&M (along with some more women, of course).
Socialize with people in your class. I know, that sounds like it should be obvious, but coming from VCU-Richmond (a PWI with 100+ people sitting in lecture halls), getting to know the people in your class can be intimidating, especially as a minority. The classes at VCUQ, however, were teeny tiny, no more than 20 people, and I often saw repeated faces in both my studio and elective classes. Further still, the university tends to be about 50% Qatari and 50% international students, so being “other” wasn’t identical to the feeling of “other” in the U.S. (I talk more about it in the post A New Definition of Diverse). Thing is, as an exchange student—especially a senior exchange student showing up in literally the last semester of a graduating class—it can feel difficult to penetrate the group. After all, these people have known each other for up to four years, and even the ones who haven’t still naturally formed cliques, as one of the other exchange students noticed. However, she also said that these students were always very friendly, as were the students in my classes. They would find me supplies, help me navigate the building, welcome me to the many mini feasts they hosted in the studio, invite me to hang with them outside of class, or offer to get me things from Starbucks if they were going. I wound up not spending a lot of time with them, though, either because I didn’t have the cash, our schedules clashed, or I was out of the country, but the classroom environment with them felt less socially stressful than in the U.S.
I was once gifted with fried shrimp from the girls’ in my studio class.
Don’t forget about befriending upper/lower classmen, and people outside your major. Both of these things were a lot easier to do at VCUQ than at VCU-Richmond . . . the beauty of having every arts major and grade level in one three-story building. The grad students were incredibly easy to access and though busy, they were very open about their projects and experiences at VCUQ. There was also one time where the PAPR sophomores toured the seniors’ studios to ask us questions, and because the classes were so small, it gave us a lot of breathing room (both literal and metaphorical) when it came to discussing our art practice. Overall, it just felt like the VCUarts Qatar community was more closely knit than VCUarts in Richmond.
Also, when it came to students, I confused a lot of people, so don’t feel bad if this happens to you too. My whole life I’ve been someone who was better with appearances than names, but Qatar sort of put a wrench in my usual identification process. See, most of VCUQ’s student population was female, and about half of them were Qatari. Many Qatari women wear the black abaya and shayla—a loose black dress and hijab, Qatar’s national dress—which meant a lot of students were dressed alike. As someone who better remembers people based on things like hair, fashion, and build, I had a really hard time remembering who was who (especially because I have a tendency not to look at people’s faces while talking to them). To boot, every third person seemed to be named Maryam, Sara, or Noor, so even if I did remember their name, I had to remember which Maryam was this Maryam and not that Maryam. I was there for four months and of every Qatari student I met, I admittedly could only match up the names and faces of four people.
My first week in Doha a lot of VCUQ people offered to take us exchange students out. Some were student ambassadors, and others were just nice people, but either way they were doing their best to introduce us to Qatar and VCUQ, and to make us feel welcome. I, personally, was overwhelmed by it all (and I talk more about it in Being a Graduating Senior Exchange Student During the 20th Anniversary at VCUQ), but for all you future socializing exchange students, perhaps you can take comfort in the knowing that there will be many occasions your first few weeks where new people will come seek you out.
Later in the semester, one of the faculty members invited us exchange students to her house for brunch. Only two of us went, but we got to socialize with the other people she invited, including other VCUQ faculty and a Nigerian-English family. Though I felt pretty awkward (especially with that one woman repeatedly claiming I ate like a bird and smiling creepily), I appreciated the experience because it introduced me to new people, people from a different community, more black people (a minority in Qatar), and I got to see my professor outside the classroom (which was awkward in this instance, but appreciated nonetheless).
Also, being friendly can lead to some sweet surprises. The women who worked at the Coffee Bean in VCUQ always engaged me in conversation, asking about my major, my weekend plans, and even assuring that my partner’s family would like me. They even cared whether or not I remembered their name, which sounds like a normal human thing to expect, but I’d never experienced that at any of the coffee places near campus at VCU-Richmond. I know everyone who works in customer service is encouraged to be happy, smiley, and personable, but I’m sure we can all agree it’s in no way a requirement (as in to say, grumpy and impersonal customer service peeps are in no way unheard of). So, it was really nice to leave my lonely studio, walk downstairs for a mid-day muffin, and have some pleasant moments of social connection with people.
This is the note they left me on my blueberry muffin box one day!
And if all else fails, you can always make friends with the local wildlife. Note, though, that most people in Qatar are not dog-people. Dogs are often considered dirty in Islam, so people tend to get cats, but I was lucky enough to find three house dogs during my stay in Doha! The only downside is that it made me miss my own little dog (a 9-year-old cockapoo).
My misadventures with various house pets.
Keeping up with the friends I made
Social media is incredible in that there are so many ways to reach people. Instagram and Facebook were primarily how I kept up with the people I met in Qatar, but I think that WhatsApp was by far the most useful. A lot of people in Qatar used WhatsApp and other internet-based apps for communication because it was free (and, apparently, it was very common for texts to cost money on peoples’ phone plan, unlike in the U.S. where most everyone has unlimited texting). It’s funny because I didn’t know WhatsApp existed until my 2017 Morocco trip, but after my time in Qatar I used it literally every day. However, WhatsApp was really only good for texting and voice-messaging, not calling. From what I understand, calling via WhatsApp was blocked until 2019 because it was bad business for the phone companies, but even after they lifted the block, the call quality wasn’t very good. However, it didn’t matter much because I only used the phone three times to speak with someone I met in Qatar in the year and a half I had been out of the country. Otherwise, if I needed to speak to someone in real-time, I used Discord (the video & chat app for gamers); Skype didn’t work between Qatar and the U.S., but Discord was almost always reliable.
Also, just keep in mind that Arabia Standard Time is either seven or eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (depending on Daylight Savings Time in the U.S.).
When it comes to the relationships I made in Qatar, honestly, most of them dissipated almost immediately. At first, I figured it was because they were busy, or maybe they were just bad at answering their phone; after all, my closest friends in Richmond are both those things, and they’re still my closest friends. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of communication, but when I started hearing from third parties that the people I’d befriended in Doha were in Richmond—or better yet, finding out via Instagram—was when the hurt sunk in. However, after a while I got over it, not in bitter dismissive way, but by accepting that the relationship I had with these people was different than what I had initially understood it to be. Tis life, you know?
For me, making friends in Doha was easier than in the U.S.
At the airport before my departure back to Richmond
I’ve never been much of a social person . . . sort of. I actually love meeting new people, but the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced through much of my life made that difficult. My time in Doha, though, was the first time I really breathed; it was the first time in a very long time I didn’t feel sad & unmotivated 24/7. I definitely still had my fair share of anxiety attacks, and there were still a lot of blue feelings and circumstances that followed me from the U.S., but a lot of other things didn’t. I wasn’t flooded with happiness all of a sudden, but I did find an abundance of ease, calm, and peace of mind. I was much more comfortable in Qatar than in the U.S., and that comfort allowed me to be more social than I had ever been back home.
Making friends and being social isn’t always easy no matter where you are in the world and studying abroad naturally adds its own set of challenges to the situation, but I found that in Doha many of my usual challenges were removed. The atmosphere was different; people seemed less stressed and more friendly, I felt more easily accepted there than at home, and most importantly I felt better. And, though many of the relationships I forged didn’t stick, they still contributed to my experience abroad and ultimately gave me a better understanding of myself and what I want out of a relationship.
Also, because I couldn’t help myself—and just in case you need a smile—here’s what inspired the post title.