Creating Friendships as an Expat

I’ve been writing for wordly for about 2 years now and every month out of these 2 years I was thinking about writing this: a piece on friendship. Why was it so hard for me to write? I am not sure. Maybe I didn’t want to offend some people - maybe I was just scared of facing the reality. For now, I’ve decided that the importance of this is higher than my insecurities. Yay for personal liberation! It is a gift for myself and (hopefully) everyone else for wordly’s second birthday.

I always had friends but I felt alone a lot of times even when I was a kid. When I was bullied in my school I still wanted to be my tormentos’ friend. It was very hard for me to imagine being friendless even if it did come with tears brought on by my so-called ‘friends’. It is weird how the urge for remaining social overpowered basics like pride, and self-respect. When you live in a small town you are chained to the friendships you formed when you were a kid. Meeting new people is, of course, possible but when are you planning on hanging out with them if you are going to a different school?

Upon my move to the US I wasn’t really worried about creating friendships. I was just not thinking about it. I had a million things to be nervous about and finding someone to hang out with was far far down on my list. After all: I was about to join the love of my life. Why would I even think about other people?!

Ah, naive girl. Who would have thought that building a healthy life would entail creating friendships with other people, right? To make your fortress stronger you need to create allies. Unless it is a Fortress of Solitude. Then, you know, it’s optional.

Andrew’s friends became my friends. Or to put it better: my acquaintances. I was ‘cool’ for about a second in his friend group mostly because people were relieved (excited?) to see I was, in fact, real. I am assuming all the talking Andrew did before my move here led them to believe I might be fictional. You never know! Maybe it is all a lie and I don’t really exist. Maybe no one exists and we are just a part of some video game. Maybe...alright, that’s enough insanity for one paragraph.

My first Nashville friend found me. Or we found each other and never really let go. Whenever Andrew tried to say ‘B is my friend too’ I would flip since:
a) I was possessive
b) She was the only friend I had

We met at a Returned Peace Corps Volunteers event and even though I have never been a PCV - Andrew was. That means I belong, right? She had just moved to town and was looking for friends. She was waaaay more proactive than I was in forming friendships and I will be forever thankful that she was.

Right now our womance (there is bromance. I am fighting for womance. This has to be a thing) developed into being neighbors and life became exponentially easier. I don’t even know how NOT to live on the same street with my best friend. That’s just crazy talk!

Both of us make sure our friendship work. We put time and effort into us. I understand clearly that friendship, just like any other relationship, is hard work.

That’s probably where I went wrong in the beginning: believing that Sex and the City-type careless friendships stand a chance in the ‘real world’. HA!. Work, time, desire, and effort has to be put into a friendship in order for it to work. As soon as I realized this - it became so much easier to form friendships. Even in my not-so-teenage age.

As we continued to create a bond, one weird thought kept creeping in. Will I be able to have a fruitful and mutually stimulating friendship even when I am not speaking my own language? Of course this wasn’t the first time I had this thought. With Andrew it was different. He had spent 2 years in Ukraine and had an understanding of the Ukrainian soul so to say. My friends didn’t.

There is something about culture that sits deep inside of you and no matter how accepting or open you are - it will forever be a part of you. No matter how good your command of the foreign language is some things will remain unsaid, always. And that’s a big thing to hold on to especially when forming friendships. It is like you are unintentionally lying to everyone around you and feel a bit fraud-ish but you can’t really say anything.

If you ask me if it’s possible to create life-long, honest bonds with people while living in a new county - I will say yes, but nothing is ever 100%.

There are things I will forever crave and won’t stop reminiscing about. Things like sitting in a small soviet-style kitchen with a girlfriend and talking until the wee hours. Drinking wine and poking at cheese. Sneaking an occasional cigarette and opening all the windows so the other roommates won’t find out. Talking and talking and talking about life and sorrows and regrets… It might sound ‘depressing’ but it is like a free version of a shrink.

Maybe that’s why psychiatrists are so popular in the US. Americans tend to not ‘bother’ other people with their problems. Don’t get me wrong: I see both sides of the coin. However, I was also brought up in a different culture and seeing and understanding the other side of the coin doesn’t necessarily mean following it or choosing it as a favorite.

At the end of the day creating friendships as an expat is hard. Creating friendships when you are older is hard. Building bonds with people from a different culture is kind of a base for being an expat. Integration is crucial but how do you integrate without betraying yourself?

About a year ago I reached a point where friendships with Americans were just not completely ‘it’ for me. I needed those late-night kitchen talks. I needed to shed a tear about everything that is happening and I needed a friend to be there and to hear me. I needed a Ukrainian or Russian speaking friend. I needed a save. My attempts at finding someone to be friends with by going to the Nashville Eastern European store did not end up being a success. To this day (even though I shop at that store fairly frequently) they address me in English when I walk in. For them I am gone. I can’t be Ukrainian. I am an American now. However, I was determined to put all of that aside and find me a friend (gosh, the things you have to do when you live in a foreign country). I was ‘fishing’ (I know it sounds gross but that is what I was doing, trust me) for anyone who would be remotely right for the part. After awkward chats with new mommies and grandmas who don’t leave their house unless they are going to the Ukrainian store - I had to admit defeat.

The Universe is a mysterious lady. When you really need something or someone - she will put in a request for you. And so, my request was granted and one day I received a message from a girl named K, who had just moved to Nashville from Kyiv. She could have been a serial killer but I did not care: I needed a native friend. STAT. Full disclosure: she is not a serial killer. Or at least she hasn’t revealed her identity just yet.

Each time I lived in the States I had a couple Ukrainian or Russian speaking friends. I always called them my ‘circumstantial’ friends just because we were bound to communicate somehow because the thirst for the native tongue is real, y’all. Funny enough, my ‘circumstantial’ friends are still some of the closest people in my friend circle. Some of my ‘true’ friends are no longer interested in having a friendship with me. Funny how that worked out.

And here I am, twenty six and no cafeteria to make friends with during lunch hour. I should just create an app for expats looking for friends. Unfortunately, there is no one here to kid: that app will turn into a ‘date a foreigner’ shindig faster than the speed of sound. Or a free immigrant registry for the current administration.

If you live in Nashville I am looking for more friends! Here is what I have to offer:
  • My addiction to coffee
  • Occasional tears of desperation
  • My obsession with Harry Potter
  • Ukrainian chocolates on me
  • Sarcasm and eye rolls
  • Mimosas
  • Candles and notebooks
  • Free advice on any topic (please use this with caution and at your own risk. No responsibility will be taken from the actions that inevitably come out of that advice)
  • I can’t be the muscle of any operation just yet but I can turn on my Ukrainian face and verbally destroy any or all of your enemies
Beware: you will have to take pictures of me at random places ‘cause Instagram (insert eyeroll). But I am an ok human, I swear. And the best part is - I can talk to a tree if I have to in case you were nervous about potential awkward pauses.

Today I am very grateful to have the friends that I do here in Nashville. They are amazing humans who for some reason don’t hate my company. I try my best to be an equal partner in all of my friendships and put in work and time into nourishing something as fragile as human relationships. So, next time you can’t find a person to go do things with - shoot me a text. We will give this whole friendship thing a try.

Olia Hamolia for The Hello Series

Alisa's note: 

Ok, I am seriously excited about this one. I love The Hello Series so much. Thanks to my determination to share the stories of Ukrainian women in the US, I have met so many wonderful humans and Olia sure is one of them. No, we haven't met IRL just yet but I am sure the day will come when we'll sit in the most Instagramable coffee shop and think back to the time when I first sent her a message. Joking aside: this is one hell of a strong woman. I am proud to call her my virtual (for now) friend. Get yourself some ice tea and settle in - this one is a great one. 

 To be honest, this is probably my fourth attempt to write this😂 In fact, I'm so ashamed to admit that Alisa reached to me a couple of months ago with a request to share my story. I was thrilled by the idea and even asked about deadlines promising to send back my text within two weeks. Well, it's better later than never, right? (Great thanks for Alisa's patience😇)

So who am I and what's my story? My name is Olia that funnily rhymes with my last name HamOlia (at least, I think so😂). Mostly, people know me by my Instagram nickname @olka_gamolka. Three years ago I was super lucky to win in a green card lottery from the first attempt.

So a year ago I packed all my Ukrainian life into 4 bags, took my husband and my cat, and flew across the Atlantic. A year ago I saw America for the first time, I admired the beauty of Chicago and I cried a lot of tears cuz this city didn't seem to like me😂 I had endless paper issues (my ID was lost twice and my green card took 6 months to arrive instead of a month), plus unsurprisingly nobody wanted to hire such a hardworking Ukrainian so I was already planning my quiet death from hunger (exaggeration is def my thing😂). Then I felt disappointed by fake people from my native land many many times cuz everybody wanted to "teach" and tell you how little you deserve😑 In two months I left my husband and got divorced, then I finally found myself again and started building my life from the scratch. This spring I found my first apartment just for me and my cat, I bought myself my first bicycle and started living by the Michigan lake in my favorite neighborhood in Chi. Almost a month ago I even found courage to start my own tiny project in Instagram - since the moment I got to know I won in the lottery I've dreamt to promote Ukrainian designers in the USA. So now I hope step by step I can make my dream come true🙈

Being a one-year-old immigrant, what can I say? Life in the USA isn't a piece of cake as many people say and America isn't a place for the weak. I still cannot understand why so many bloggers try to paint a pretty picture of a trouble-free immigrant life in the USA where straight in the airport you get a bag with million bucks, a free Jeep, iPhone and many other things😂 Still, looking back at all the 💩 I went through, I am truly grateful for everything cuz it made me realize who I am and what I am capable of! In fact, only when I moved to the USA I managed to get myself together and understand my aims and life goals. I learnt how to appreciate what you have and simply enjoy life😂 Here I met my people and learnt to expect less from others (still working on that😂) So I can say that my story has just started and I hope you will hear about me with my Ukrainian shops nationwide in the USA😂 (I know I'm very shy)

*The Hello Series features stories in their original form written by Ukrainian expats living in the USA*

Tattoos: Ukraine vs. USA

If you know me, you know that I have a few tattoos I dearly love. I am also planning on a few more and don’t really set myself up with limits as to how many. I love having art on my body - I love having pieces that are meaningful and those that are just for fun. Tattoos are the way of expression and the more grown up you get - the less ways of that expression you get. For me personally - it is crucial to keep it alive.

Growing up in a small-town Ukraine tattoos were always a taboo so now, when I go back, I always need to sort of prepare people for the fact that I have ink on my body. You would think ‘my body - my choice’, but then I would know that you clearly did not grow up in a small town where your neighbors are waiting for your visit each year so that they can have something to gossip about. And trust me: I gave them plenty in the last couple of years. From becoming a flight attendant to getting yet another tattoo: I guess I am glad to be of service to our elderly.

Circling back to tattoos. First time I ever saw a large quantity of people who clearly did not all go to prison in order to get one (a constant misconception of the small-town folk) was at the Wet’n’Wild in Florida and I was 16. Whether it because we had to stand in line for what felt like hours or because that was what I needed to see at that moment - I will never know. What I do know is that normal people like you and me are totally ok with getting inked. And not all of them have been to prison otherwise my host family wouldn’t have brought me to this water park. Or so I hope.

I started thinking about my first tattoo back then. I couldn’t get it in the States, ‘cause I wasn’t 18 yet and I was a bit nervous about the quality of tattoo artists back home. In college I was already determined to get a tattoo sooner rather than later (so glad I didn’t. I thought about getting the most generic first-page-on-Google stuff I would have regretted later on). By the time I moved to Kyiv I was already researching tattoo artists.

I don’t know why I never got one in Kyiv. One of my tattoos will be done by a Ukrainian artist, I promise. The capital of Ukraine is getting less and less prejudiced about body art by the minute and a lot of my local friends have multiple tattoos. I am so happy to see that, ‘cause with each inked arm, leg, shoulder, or ankle people are getting more and more open to the fact that humans are all different. And different does not mean wrong.

I will probably never forget the first time I got a tattoo. It was a small thing - my wedding ring - but I was so nervous! It took what felt like 15 minutes (nothing compared to my longest one so far: an hour and 40 minutes). It was such a rush! Of course, I was getting something on my body that proclaimed my eternal love to my husband but it was also the thrill of stepping outside those invisible lines we sometimes put ourselves in. And, needless to say, after that I was hooked.

The common questions Ukrainians will ask me about my tattoos are: How bad did it hurt? How long did it take?
The common questions Americans will ask me about my tattoos are: What does this one mean? Who was the artist?

One of the things that I find very ironic is how socially acceptable it is for American people to have a bunch of tattoos but then if you want to work in a ‘professional’ environment you have to cover most of them up. I understand that I don’t speak for most of businesses but in general: yeah, you have to cover things up. I had to cover everything up when I was flying, including my wedding ring tattoo.

On the other hand, a country like Ukraine - where ink is just now starting to become acceptable is totally cool with you having your art out and about (again, for the most part).

My roommates were getting married a few years ago and I was lucky enough to be invited and present at the ceremony, The lady who was marrying them was tall, with a very slick updo, and wore this sky-blue colored dress, looking like World Peace herself. At some point during the ceremony she had to turn around and we saw that the dress was backless (gorg!). We also saw a giant tattoo of a snake that ran along her back! We all chuckled, just because of her literal business in the front - party in the back, but man-oh-man it was amazing.

All that to say: some countries are less accepting of some things. Ten years ago having a tattoo in Ukraine meant you most likely served some time. Now you can set people off to a happy live together without giving your tattoo a second thought. As long as your tattoo doesn’t offend anyone - why would you want to hide it? In the US I thought the year of 2016 was the year of being offended - maybe it is time to move forward?

Here are some inspo artists for ya!


^ Female artists are ROCKING Kyiv’s tattoo scene, by the way. #GirlPower


Go get inked if you want to. Or don’t. We live in a free country.

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