The Expat Dilemma of Friends Coming and Going

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This time of the year is often filled with complicated emotions for expats. Spring is on its way and there are several holidays to look forward to, but at the same time the end of the school year is coming closer and a lot of families and friends will move.

To move abroad as an expat is fantastic and somewhat stressing when it comes to friends. To me it has been unusual to get that many good, new friends as an adult. Usually it takes many years in my home country before a person I just met become a close friend. When I moved to Istanbul, five years ago, I didn’t understand that I had to be much quicker! By the time I asked a nice lady out for lunch she told me that she was packing to move. And that happened again and again. My best friends in Istanbul I got the last year, when I had understood the unwritten rules.

Some of the rules are
“She seems nice.” Ask her if she wants to join you for a lunch or coffee immediately. If you still find her nice after the coffee, ask her for her number, WeChat, WhatsApp information or whatever app is the primary in your country.
“How nice that I was invited to a coffee by that lady”. Now you have to act! Don’t think that you are the newcomer after more than one month, or expect anyone else to pamper you more than once. Call her and ask her to check out a place you want to visit.
“I want to visit this place with someone, but how shall I choose one of the five ladies I just met?” Don’t! Invite them all even if they don’t know each other. That will broaden the network for everyone.
“It would be nice to join a group (book club, sightseeing, discussion etc), but I can’t find one” Start one!
“I don’t like to fix my nails or go to lunches all the time, I want something else.” You can be absolutely sure that you are not alone – just tell people what you want and the ones interested will join you. And praise you for your intitiative!

(Not so many men out there, but of course this goes for accompanying men as well!)

There are of course many more rules, but those are the ones that were hardest for me to catch up with. The common thread is ACTION – now!

So you follow the rules and get wonderful friends from all over the world. Then what happens, just when you started to enjoy life in this new country? They move! Usually at the same time. Now you might encounter even tougher emotions than the ones of loneliness and lack of friends you experienced when you arrived. To most accompanying spouses friends are an important part of everyday life. The worries about how life will be when you are alone again might disturb you. And you might not look forward to starting all over, inviting newly arrived ladies for coffee and find out which ones might be good friends next year.

I myself, try to first of all enjoy my friends all the way until they move. It’s very common that friends (especially children and teenagers) part before they actually have to part, in an unconscious way of trying to avoid the pain. Then I try not to envision what next year will look like. Some days it work, some days not … I try to stay open minded and believe in my own ability to develop my friend finding skills and trust that there are a lot of nice people out there also open minded and eager for a coffee!

What is your experience and how do you cope with it? Are you about to move or are you the one staying?

Is it true? How to change your negative feelings about someone in a few questions.

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Many years ago I and some colleagues were discussing another person at the office, whom we disliked because we found him lying about so many things and acting nice, but being mean behind our backs at the same time.

He’s such a false person, one of my colleagues said in anger.
Are you really sure about that?, I asked this particular day. She looked at me in confusion:
Of course I am!
But can you be 100% sure that he is false?,
I persisted.
Well, of course he’s not false all the time, she admitted.
How would we feel about him if we didn’t think this way about him?, I dared to ask.

Both my colleagues probably thought I was crazy, but we agreed that it would improve the atmosphere at the office and make co-operation much easier.

By now they wondered why I was asking these strange questions, instead of just participate in the daily nagging on our colleague. So I had to tell them that I was just reading about The Work by Byron Katie (“Loving What Is”) and that I had one last – reverted – question:

What if it’s WE who are false?

That was just too much! No, they could not even ponder that question! But I persisted: Here we are sitting, talking angrily about this man, but we never tell him how we feel about him. Instead we are smiling and carrying on with our jobs. So you could actually say that we are just as false as he is!

Well, they didn’t really accept that, but to me it made a difference – I was not as hard in my judgement and attitude any longer, because I could see that I had my part in the play as well – and since that day I have often come back to Byron Katie’s questions, if I’m having negative thoughts or feelings about someone.

It’s so easy to pick a negative thought and then hang on to it, as if it’s a truth, just because we have been thinking it over and over. Nothing good will come from that. Since I can’t change anyone but myself, scrutinizing my own thoughts about others, is a good start to improve relationships. And to grow as a person!

Is it true?
Can I be absolutely sure that it’s true?
What do I feel when I think like that?
How would I feel if I didn’t have that thought?
What if I revert the thought: He is NOT …/ I am …./ I am not ….

 

Making friends the expat way.

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If you have lived in a small town for a long time, or maybe in the same neighborhood in a bigger city, you might have the same experience as I have when it comes to making friends as an adult. It takes a long time – sometimes years – before you ask that nice mom at your child’s school or that good college of yours to come home for dinner or go to the theater together. Making friends is an investment for life and you want to be absolutely sure that you like this person and that you can be sure that he or she likes you too, before you expose yourself.

It is also a risk. What if it turns out that the person wasn’t that nice after all? Now that you have invited that person or that family into your social life, they have to return the treat and so it goes on forever!

Living an expat life requires quite another way of making friends. You know that you have a limited amount of time, maybe two or three years, before you will leave this place. And that goes for everyone else too. You’re living in the moment. You have to be active yourself or you will be invisible! You have to grab that nice mom and immediately ask her out for lunch, you have to ask the new neighbor if she wants to join you to the vegetable market and you have to throw yourself out and ask those three ladies at your language course if you can join them on that interesting day trip they are talking about.

You might see pictures on Facebook of the ones you thought were your friends doing things together – without you. Or you will realize that the nice mom always has a good reason not to be able to plan that lunch you’ve been talking about. But you mustn’t give in and lose your self-esteem. This is the way it is. And after a few years you will be a professional when it comes to mingling around and daring to ask people to join you for the most different kinds of excursions. And you will get friends from different cultures, religions, political opinions, child raising philosophies and different backgrounds. You will grow and develop and enjoy being with all these wonderful, funny and fascinating people whom you’ve met in the middle of your life! Some will be closer than others, but they will all share some part of this adventure of yours – with all the ups and downs – and you will never forget them.

But one day your new soul sister tells you that her husband has been relocated and she will move in some months. Your lovely neighbor tells you the next day that they will leave too. June comes and every day you give someone the last hug and farewell. Maybe you will meet, in your home country or in another country, maybe you will never see each other again. Those are heart breaking days. But the sadness you feel is the proof that you’ve managed well in your “expat friendship education”. Go celebrate!

 

PS: All the examples above are fictional and not about any of my friends.