Expat friendships are key to survival of sanity in foreign locations. Last week I read a blog by another expat on the other side of the world which gave words to something I had not been able to put into words.
“Expat friendships can be counted in dog years.”
Without family, friends or colleagues, life in a new location is pretty empty. Before coming to China, among my worries was whether I would be able to find new friends. Back home, I had a stable circle of companions, built up over the years. Upon arrival in Beijing, my social circle consisted of… my husband. The first weeks I was so overwhelmed with finding my way around this vast city that that it didn’t matter that much. At night, hubby and me would sit on our hotel bed, utterly exhausted.
I vividly remember the first time I was meeting a potential new friend, about a week or two after our arrival. At my national societies’ monthly drink one of its board members had suggested getting in touch with her friend. “ You are both recently arrived expat partners, live in the same compound, similar age, no kids, eager to find a job.” Arranging the meeting felt like arranging a blind date. How to recognize this potential new friend? And where the hell was that Yellow Horse where she was suggesting meeting nearby?
Admittedly, in hindsight the day we met was not a good day for me. I was tired from jet lag and settling in. I had to rush to get to the meeting in time and trouble locating the café. Maybe I should have cancelled. But I wanted to make new friends, right?
Indeed, we had a lot in common. But there was no chemistry. It reminded of what my cousin once told me “of the people you meet, you like one third, one third you are neutral about and one third you do not like.” We would never have become friends back home, and a new location could not change this. I remember walking home with crushed hope. Luckily, a few days after I met A and M at a lunch who would become close friends, and I was fortunate to connect to C, T and many others along the dao. The Mum friends are a special category, having a baby abroad around the same time is a special bond.
I’ll Be There For You
Bonding with new expat friends goes faster than back home. I also found friendships to be more intense. Far away from home and with a lot of time to socialize we bonded over struggling to rebuild our identity as a partner rather than an independent being, exploring the city together, exchanging tips and laughs. We sometimes met on a daily basis, went on weekend breaks together, had a baby at the same time.
Unlike with my home friends, my fellow expats understood me, the new me in massive Beijing, with my hopes, dreams and insecurities. They did not new lengthy emails, they shared my experiences with culture shock, finding our feet and our way around. And indeed, with the intensity of contact, it feels more like dog years than the actual number of years. I am very grateful for all those new Beijing friendships, some brief, some long but forever in my memory