I Know We Just Met, But Wanna Be BFFs?: What the Expat Sisterhood Has Taught Me About Making Friends

Making friends has historically been an area fraught with uncertainty for me.

They say that you carry your childhood scars with you, and I, like many of us, had my fair share of playground exclusion, unpredictable “I’m-not-your-best-friend-anymores”, and the disappointment after eagerly taking steps to befriend someone I thought was the bee’s knees only to realise that they already had a crew and weren’t looking to recruit.

I know that it’s a rite of passage for a lot of children, realistically and unfortunately. It is also something that probably shapes our characters, builds our emotional resilience and teaches us, albeit with a slight twist of cruelty, to reach out to the kid on the playground who sits alone.

I would be lying if I said that this experience didn’t affect my adult friendships. But in the last few years, specifically, during this 6-year expat stint and the challenges and joys that come with it, my views on friendship have changed in a way I never would have expected. And now that it looks like our expat adventure is coming to a close, I’ve been reflecting on just how much has changed for me.

We held a birthday party for my brand new two-year-old yesterday. After the flurry of departing guests, thrown out paper plates, collected chocolate cake crumbs and scrunched up balls of wrapping paper that had been gleefully torn open with eager hands (times two, thanks to the older sister’s desire to “help”), my husband put the girls to bed while I settled into my favourite spot on the couch and sent out thank-yous to the people who had come and celebrated with us.

Although I was exhausted, I felt an overwhelming sense of well-being descend upon me.

I’m unbelievably lucky to have found these friends,” the thought kept repeating itself in my head.

And it’s true. Now, in my thirties, I have never felt more content in my relationships thanks to the meaningful and genuine friendships this phase of life has gifted me.

If I’m being honest, I don’t know if I would’ve had the same attitude to friendship if we had never left our home and searched abroad for a different kind of life.

I don’t know if I would have just as easily learned that when you are so firmly thrust out of your comfort zone, you will find yourself turning to other women, living similar lives in parallel, for comfort.

I don’t know if I would have said “yes” to as many invitations to playgroups, coffee mornings, Facebook groups, or girls nights out, because I quickly learned that what truly makes living this expat life, in this home away from home, are the people with whom you spend that time and the connections you build.

I don’t know if I would have learned that some of the most extraordinary women you would ever meet would be the ones who put themselves on the line —or in my case, put themselves out along the dairy aisle at the supermarket— and struck up a conversation about where the best place was to find goat’s cheese. It could be the woman to whom you’re introduced by a mutual friend, and you oblige out of courtesy, but then realise within moments that you may have found a soul sister.

I don’t know if I would have believed that I could pour out my heart to someone while she poured me a hot cup of coffee, even though it’s my first time in her home, and we’ve technically only met two and a half times.

It could be the woman who offers a gentle hint of a smile at preschool pick-up, and you chit chat because you’ve seen each other there at least a handful of times and it seems rude not to, and before you know it you’re inviting each other over to your homes and sharing your lives and hearts in a way you never thought you would with someone you met in such a humdrum setting.

It could be the woman who seems so completely different to you, because she is almost intimidatingly self-assured and knowledgeable about how things go in this place that is so new and so foreign, so how could you possibly ever be friends, but that the truth is, in fact, she has been exactly where you are and knows the emotional and mental whirlwind racing through your head right now. She has been there. She knows. And she’s paying it forward because someone extended —or maybe because no one extended— that same kindness to her once upon a time.

Where I typically would have been timid and reluctant, or politely declined in favour of sticking to what was familiar and carried no risk of rejection or merely incompatibility, I’ve learned that with almost everyone —everyone— once we show each other our real, raw, sometimes uncomfortable humanity, you can find a friend. You can be a friend.

The added bonus of being an expat is that you almost immediately have one baseline thing in common: you’re away from your family, your familiarity, and whether you care to admit it or not, you need people. You need other people. You especially need other people who understand the nuances of what it really means to be living away from home. There are challenges that, if you were to share them with family or friends back home, might elicit eye-rolls or mocking “poor you” looks accompanied by chuckles or reminders that you should be grateful for all the unique things being an expat allows you to experience.

For me, being someone for whom new friendships occasionally felt like a treacherous minefield I’d rather not navigate, the most important thing the expat sisterhood has taught me is the value of being bold, of allowing people to access the real, vulnerable “you” sooner rather than later.

Often, your time to get to know each other is limited, and there’s a silent, lurking threat of someone having to move away at any given point in time, so we realise that we need to delve into the relationship, to absorb all the goodness in each other, and go all in.

I’ve learned to go all in.

And you know what? Sometimes, you don’t necessarily click. You don’t have that much in common, or your personalities simply just don’t gel. Or you drift apart. Or you drop out of touch when you’re no longer living in the same country, or life just happens and you each move on. Sometimes it slows down to occasional emails or messages, or a brief interaction on social media, or, in some cases, the closing of a friendship chapter. It’s a part of life, of friendship, of being a human being and of learning about our connections with other humans.

But there was a time when the possibility of those things was enough for me not to even want to dip my toe in the water. And if I hadn’t learned to just dive in sometimes, I wouldn’t have been rewarded, as I have been now, with the women who I am not only privileged, but so, very grateful, to call, my friends.

I hope every single one of you knows who you are. And if you’re sitting there wondering, is she talking about me? Yes. I am. Thank you for your friendship, sister: however that looks or looked, however long it lasted, or however long it may continue. My hope is that it does continue, and for a long, long time.

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The Generation That Doesn’t Belong

I’m sitting in a café right now, tapping away at my keyboard, fully embracing the cliché of a struggling writer punching out yet another piece of their soul while surrounded by the wafting aroma of Aceh Gayo coffee being slowly extracted, and swatting at the occasional mosquito I’ve come to accept is part of life in the tropics. The window to my right overlooks a stream of sputtering motorbikes, punctuated occasionally by large SUVs with glossy, tinted windows. Even on an early Sunday afternoon, there is no reprieve from the tightly packed traffic on Jakarta’s roads.

Like many of you, today I’ve been reading about an upsetting, extreme example of what clinging to the oversimplification of identity can result in – and it got me thinking about my own sense of identity, and what identity even really means to me; what it might mean to my children one day. And now I see that this piece has been wanting to burst out of me for a while.

Roughly a week ago, while I was still on holiday in Egypt with my family, I went on a grocery store run with my father to pick up some last minute items for the journey back home. Like a bona fide Egyptian girl should, I always stock up on big, sturdy jars of tahini to take back with me to Indonesia because there isn’t a guarantee that it’s always in stock at my usual store. Continue reading

I Won’t Tell You That You’re a Good Mother

I’m not going to tell you that you’re a good mother.

I won’t even tell you that you’re doing a good job.

Because when I do, you’re going to think back to this morning when your toddler threw that sticky clump of oatmeal at you, and you snapped. You just snapped. She’s small. She’s frustrated. You’re the adult here. But you didn’t recognise your voice as the anger and helplessness rumbled in the pit of your stomach and you growled furiously at her. You didn’t feel like a good mother then.

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What Does Your Husband Do?: The Secret Identity of the Expat Wife

Of all the questions a modern woman expects to be asked when meeting someone for the first time, “So, what does your husband do?” is not one that would’ve been on my radar. In fact, it would have grievously offended my pre-expat-wife self.

What do you mean, what does my husband do? How is that relevant to who I am as an individual? How does his career, his role, his position – define me? 

And yet, after expat-wifing for 5 years now, it’s a question that no longer causes me to bat an eyelid. In fact, after being asked my name, my kids’ ages, where we live, my often-spoken, almost pre-rehearsed line about his position at X company dances at the tip of my tongue, waiting for its inevitable release.

I am a dependant. I am someone else’s Plus One. I am so-and-so’s wife or so-and-so’s mother. The homemaker, the baby-caretaker, the healthy-toddler-muffin-baker.

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We, the Mama Martyrs

We, the mama martyrs, will never admit that this is who we are.

We, the mama martyrs, are terrible at accepting help. We think we are somehow lesser mothers, or not entitled to sport that badge of honour, if we don’t do everything – everything – ourselves.

We, the mama martyrs, will make excuses, over and over, for why we have to keep essentially torturing ourselves, and running ourselves into the ground, because it is for the sake of our children, and more importantly, because that’s what a good mother does.

We, the mama martyrs, need to stop. We need to stop.


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Don’t Let Me Forget Their Littleness

Here I sit, between them on my bed, the toddler on my left and the baby on my right. They’re fast asleep, peacefully dreaming of the things little ones dream about. If I listen closely, I can hear their steady, soft breaths, and see their little chests rising and falling almost in unison. In this still, quiet moment, I beg the universe:

Don’t let me forget.

Don’t let me forget the way her fine, silky baby hairs tickle the tip of my nose as I breathe in her perfection, or the way she giggles as I bury my head into the cushiony folds of her chubby neck. She smells like milk, soap, and baby powder, even though I didn’t put any baby powder on her. She smells like love and hope and some magical, mysterious ingredient that only babies possess. Continue reading

Hey Sleep-Deprived Mama, Take Yourself Out On a Date

If you’re a sleep-deprived mama that stays up late for no reason, I get you.

No, really. I get you.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that at one point, someone has said to you: Okay, you’re sleep deprived – it’s essentially all you ever talk about, so why are you still up now that the kids are in bed?

My very logical, rational husband doesn’t understand why, despite the fact that I haven’t slept for longer than a two-hour stretch over the past couple of months, I still stay up well past the kids’ bedtime. You say you want ‘me-time’ – but isn’t sleep the ultimate ‘me-time’? he asked me once.

Before I had kids, the concept of ‘me-time’ was pretty stock standard. I’d take the full hour lunch break at work and walk through the shops with no agenda whatsoever. On the weekend, I’d set off to the gym on my own for an hour and then stop by my favourite cafe and grab a cappuccino. Sometimes I’d get more than one bout of ‘me-time’ in one day. It was great.

Me and myself had the perfect amount of quality time together.

26133626 Attractive woman with a gorgeous warm smile

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Dear Motherhood, I Miss Me 

I wanted to run away from my kids yesterday.

Everything just kind of came crashing down all at once. There were several factors at play. Suddenly, I just felt tired. I felt alone. I felt like everything was on me, and that I had no way out.

Motherhood has this way of consuming every atom capable of feeling love in your body, and then multiplying each and every one at an exponential rate. It can make you want to sacrifice everything, and anything, for another, without having to think twice. It is exhilarating, beautiful, fulfilling.

But motherhood also has another side, which we feel guilty talking about. We shouldn’t really talk about it, right? I sound ungrateful. I’ve been blessed with the privilege of raising these amazing children. I shouldn’t complain. I could have it a lot worse. I should focus on the positives, because the negatives will just bring me, and others, down.  

25202180 i love my momThe truth is, at one point or another, you’ll feel it. You will. You’ll feel trapped. You’ll get tired of being so completely depended upon. You’ll miss your freedom. You’ll think back to when you were just you, and only really had to take care of yourself, and you’ll miss that. You’ll miss the luxury of thinking to yourself, “I think I’ll go to bed now”, and then rest assured that you will only wake up when you decide you’re ready to do so. You’ll miss sitting in a cafe reading a book for three hours. You’ll miss shopping alone, without any time restrictions and without having to do the mommy-jiggle-shake-bounce while you try and lull that ticking time bomb baby to sleep as you hurriedly examine ingredients lists and price tags. Continue reading

Where Aren’t You From?: A Third Culture Kid’s Identity Crisis 

The question “where are you from?” is a difficult question to answer.

Yes, of course, sir. If your daughter is Egyptian, then your granddaughter is also Egyptian.”

The immigration officer greeting us at Cairo airport warmly assured my father that neither my daughter nor I needed a visa to enter our country of origin. He handed back the crinkled copy of my birth certificate – a document which, despite me having only lived in Egypt until I was three and a half, and despite the fact that I had not set foot on Egyptian soil in over 18 years, was all that was required to legitimise my, and apparently my daughter’s, claim to Egyptian heritage.

My husband and I had decided to surprise my parents and accompany them on a trip to Egypt, my place of birth and my first nationality, in October 2014. Our first daughter was 7 months old at the time. It was a significant trip for me, not only because it had been so long since I’d been back, but more so because I found myself constantly asking the question:

Am I really Egyptian?

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The Universality of Motherhood

The universality of motherhood has a tremendous power to unite.

Let me tell you a little story. Earlier today, I decided to take the girls down the road to a nearby mall. Tuna appears to have outgrown all of her clothes overnight so I needed to take her shopping.

It’ll come as no surprise that shopping with a toddler and a baby is not the most peaceful of activities. Eventually, Puff started crying because I’d been so focused on trying to get Tuna to try things on (which I confirm is torture for both the parent, and the child) that I’d forgotten to feed her since we left home. So I put her in the stroller and swung Tuna onto my back in the carrier and headed to the parents’ room.
You see – we’ve only been here just over two weeks. I still haven’t figured out the protocol in Jakarta when it comes to nursing in public. It’s a new place. It’s a different culture. I want to respect my surroundings as much as I can. I’ve nursed in public before with a nursing cover, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone else do the same. Plus, the baby and I both hate the damn thing.

The parents’ room was large with several changing stations and places to sit. Tuna ran around and kept threatening to head straight out the door while I desperately tried to get her to sit still so that I could keep an eye on her while I tried to calm my baby. I frantically started searching for the nursing cover in my bag when I noticed a mother sitting across from me nursing her baby, without a cover, and totally comfortable.

That was all the confirmation I needed. Forget the cover. You didn’t have to ask me twice.

I relaxed and settled into it and the baby was happy. The lady and her friend interacted with Tuna. We all exchanged smiles at each other. The toddlers high-fived each other. Tuna tried to run out the door again at one point and another mother guarded it and tried to distract her while I changed the baby.

We didn’t speak the same language. We came from different backgrounds. We didn’t know anything about each other and didn’t necessarily have anything in common.

Except that we were all mothers. And in that moment, we were all part of the same village.

I love that the universality of motherhood transcends language, culture, religion, and things that sometimes divide people.

It was a simple, everyday situation, but it made me appreciate that despite all of our differences, so many of the things we go through as mothers, are the same.

So, thank you to the mom that made me feel like it was totally okay to nurse without having to cover up because she knew that sometimes using a nursing cover results in a shrieking baby who attracts even more attention than if you tried to nurse without one;

To the mom that stopped to help me clip the back strap of the baby carrier because she knew how wriggly a 4-month-old can be;

To the mom that held my toddler back from jumping onto the road while I was loading up the taxi because she knew how you never have enough hands when you’re with the kids;

To the mom that gave me an empathetic smile while I tried to wrangle a tantruming two-year-old in the supermarket because she knew that kids choose only the most public places to have the most demonstrative performances;

To the mom that gave me an understanding look while I carried the toddler on my hip and pushed the baby in the stroller, because she gets that sometimes the big one wants to be the baby for a change;

Thank you.