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

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.

Continue reading