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Maintaining close friendships over intercontinental moves can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

My friend Sophia is leaving Okinawa for good next month, and I’m anguished over it.

Maybe I shouldn’t be.

Contrary to past psychology that said we needed geographical closeness to maintain healthy friendships, research now suggests online communication is effective in bridging distant friendships. Some relationships even thrive without frequent face-to-face contact.

Even so, Sophia’s departure is an emotional transition for me.

I never felt like this before when hometown friends moved away for college, or when I moved overseas several times to teach ESL.

Why should saying goodbye to a friend abroad take such a great toll?

Even with modern means of communication, I believe long distance expat friendships can be especially fragile. Not only can distance complicate our relationships, but a change in context can have impact as well.

Symbiosis

One of the defining features of my close relations in other countries is interdependence. Friends abroad are a vital part of my adaptation to the host country. Unlike home, where I have wider social networks, I am more invested with fewer people overseas.

The first month of living in Okinawa, for example, I befriended Yumie, who was an excellent portal into the culture. Not only did she help translate bills and make phone calls, she offered insight into cuisine and cultural cues. In essence, she helped me gain familiarity, and I can’t imagine the time here without her.

In the case of fellow expats like Sophia, an even stronger emotional dependence was formed. Just like me, she struggled with language, homesickness, and public transportation. We vented our frustrations and joked about what we found to be funny aspects of Japanese culture.

My friends abroad take on a different role and dramatically impact my adaptability. For me it’s natural, therefore, to feel a strong sense of loss in their absence.

Shared Experiences

Through the years of living in different countries, I’ve found hometown pals often can’t connect with my life.

But expat ones certainly relate. What’s more, they have those same unexpected, confusing, and joyful encounters.

Those friends are intensely entwined with the overall experience. It’s hard for me to separate housemate Nicole from my Peace Corps days in Namibia. I can’t remember a single teaching day in the Czech Republic when I didn’t sneak smokes over lunch with Dominic. And currently in Okinawa, I wonder how I’ll continue the weekly routine of eating at a sushi go round without Sophia.

Photo: Linzi Clark

For me, keeping all those memories alive means keeping the friendships strong. Reminiscing about Namibia, Czech Republic, or Okinawa isn’t just a personal experience; it’s a shared one.

The downside, though, is that it’s difficult to maintain that same intensity of mutual experience. Returning from abroad, I’ve found that friends and I often have competing interests for our time. We even transition to life back at home at a different pace. I found it hard to connect with Peace Corps pals who stepped quickly back into full-time jobs, while I struggled with what to do next.

Sometimes periodic meet ups with expat buddies seem humdrum in comparison to the exciting cultural backdrop we had before. In Namibia and the Czech Republic, we bonded over being foreigners together, but in our own country, we didn’t click over the same interests.

I’ve learned that when new memories aren’t actively created, the only common bond is the past. In this way, some expat friendships end up suspended in time.

Narrow Parameters

Finally, some friendships just don’t translate at home. That is, they are defined by narrow parameters of expat life.

You might think I’m referring to foreign friends. Realistically, there may be little chance of ever seeing them again. In addition, communication can be strained when there are language limitations.

But I’m also talking about fellow expats. Despite best intentions to keep up, it’s sometimes hard to engage in those established comfortable ways.

In my own experiences with a boyfriend and a few expat friends, we discovered we were incompatible at home. Living outside one’s own country, some aspects of our personalities were exaggerated or hidden. Sometimes I’ve wondered if we would have been attracted to one another at all had not circumstances brought us together abroad.

Finally, I also believe that some of my friends moved on from their overseas experience quickly. Unlike me, they didn’t hold on to it as tightly nor derive any sense of identity from it. They were eager to start the next phase of their lives.

Making Expat Friendships Last

I don’t mean to suggest that all my expat friendships have fizzled. Certainly, some of them have lasted through the years.

While any friendship near or far has potential to break, expat friendships may need careful adjustments once you return home.
The following advice has helped me extend relationships beyond my time abroad.

1. See each other and create new memories together. One friend and I meet every year for a weekend or longer trip somewhere in the world.

2. Consistently keep in touch. Rather than just Facebook or email, phone calls go a long way in helping you feel closer.

3. Accept your friend’s life changes such as marriage, baby, or even another abroad experience.

4. Accept aspects of your friend’s personality you may never have witnessed before in a foreign setting.

5. Accept that your friend has other familial and friendship obligations at home.

6. Bond over the past, but focus on moving the friendship forward.

Community Connection

What’s been your experience with maintaining friendships you make while abroad? Any tips? Advice?

Expat Life

 

About The Author

Mary Richardson

Mary Richardson is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia. She currently lives in Okinawa, Japan, where she is a tour guide and travel writer. Read her stories at worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com/.

  • http://saffakidlife.blogspot.com jenna

    thanks for writing this mary, it’s reminded me of so many faraway friends and the need for me to make a consistent effort with them.

    when i lived in north carolina as an exchange student i made so many new friends, but four years later, i’ve only managed to maintain a handful of those relationships, which is realistic i guess, considering i haven’t seen many of them since then.

    it reminds of one of my mother’s favourite quotable quotes: “people are in your life for a reason or a season”. her reciting this line has often helped me to put these kind of relationships in perspective, especially when i left a boyfriend behind in NC and couldn’t quite get my head around it at the time.

    having a friend move away, especially one that you’ve described as being so much a part of your expat experience, must be very tough though!

    • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

      Dear Jenna,
      Thanks for your comment!

      I love your mom’s quotation! think it is realistic that we only keep up with a handful of people years later… it does surprise me, though, about some friendships that seemed like they’d last forever.

  • http://twitter.com/steph_fig steph_fig

    “…In this way, some expat friendships end up suspended in time.”

    They make for wonderful memories though. Ü

    • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

      Yes, you are right that the memories are fantastic!

      Only in some cases, I’ve noticed if the relationship fizzles, it takes me a while to reminisce without getting my feelings hurt… eventually I get over it though and can still value the time we spent together.

    • Ariane

      I was going to comment on both of those quotes that you and the person ahead of you cited. 

      They really have explained my relationships with people.

  • Chris

    Mary, I love this line: “I’ve learned that when new memories aren’t actively created, the only common bond is the past.” Not only is this true for expat friendships but all friendships period. It’s a succinct reminder that we need to keep creating new memories and shared, bonding experiences to keep a friendship alive in the long-term.

  • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

    Chris,
    Thanks for your comment!

    Yes, you’re right that it applies to all friendships… I guess for me, the expat ones feel so much more intense than ones at home. It’s funny how with some people,though, we can pick up years later with no problems, but others need the maintenance.

  • http://www.woodruffinns.com victorian inn bed and breakfast

    It is a human instinct and nature that he needs social circle and friends around him.Expat friendship is also a good way of making friends and bringing close bond and relationship between each other but it really hurts when a friend departed from u after so close attachment.The above tips are simply helpful in re bonding with your friend and making a lifelong friendship even after departure.

  • oolung

    Thanks for a great article (you actually sort of stole my idea, but dealt with it better than I would have :-) ). It was very painful for me when one of my friendships frizzled badly after I came home, and in spite of my efforts.

    I think maybe part of the reason is that with modern means such as facebook for some people it’s harder to go this extra mile. Before, when we had only letters, you knew that if you don’t actually write the letter and post it, it’s going to be over. Now we have a sense of being connected because the other person is at fingertips’ distance. After all, I HAVE seen their new fb status, haven’t I? I’m connected! But the thing is, reading the status is not enough. Comment on it. If it’s about something important, write an e-mail and ask, be interested. This friendship will not survive on its own. The illusion of being connected may make it actually easier for the bond to fray then when you know you just have to reach out. Instead of real friendships, we may end up with empty shells of them surviving in the net.
    (Having said that, I’m not saying I don’t like facebook: it’s a great thing. Just let’s not get overly dependent on it…)

    A thought aside: I also think it’s much easier to keep in touch when you have mutual friends. Then it becomes a sort of web and provides additional points of interest over which you can all bond together.

    • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

      Dear Oolung,

      I think you’re right that it’s easy to get lazy with those updates on fb and not try to connect on any deeper level. Yes, it does help to have mutual friends too… if one friend says she’s talked to so and so, then I also feel compelled to keep in touch also. Thanks for your comment!

  • http://www.eurotriptips.com Eurotrip Tips

    Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to make many friends abroad – but I have a stronger relationship with my friends how have travelled vs those who haven’t. It’s like sharing a secret, a unique story no one else knows about. I can’t imagine how strong the bond is when you actually travel abroad with your friends or actually befriend people abroad.

    So yes, I do believe expat friendships last if you put a little time into it.

    • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

      Yes! I agree with you so much about bonding with other travelers and people who have lived abroad! You do share a “secret”- even if you were in different countries.

  • http://www.connvoyage.com Connie

    I think expat friendships, as with all kinds of relationships, communication is key. Even though you’re miles apart and may not be able to see each other for some time, sending emails and correspondence does wonders to maintain the relationship. Thanks for the reminder to be better at staying in touch with all my friends!

  • http://www.worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com Mary R

    Thanks for your comment Connie. I like your idea of correspondence rather than just email. I personally love getting letters and cards from friends all over the world! It’s a little extra effort, but so worth it.

  • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne

    I can relate to this so much, Mary. I’ve had expat friendships fizzle as well, but some have evolved over the years in different countries, and they’re some of my most cherished relationships now.

    I think a lot of your thoughts here can apply to romantic relationships too. I met my partner when we were fellow expats, and it was certainly an unexpected learning curve when we introduced each other to our respective home countries. I felt that I was suddenly witnessing this different side of him on his home turf, and I’m sure he felt the same way of me. Some traits that I had seen as part of his character turned out to be circumstatial behaviour overseas, and vice versa. But we always learn new things about each other and from each other.

  • http://www.globalcoachcenter.com Margarita Gokun Silver

    I think expat friendships have been the most amazing friendships I’ve ever had — and we all make every effort to keep them! In fact, I was so inspired by planning and organizing a re-union of the eight of us two years ago that I even wrote a blog post about it:

    Flight $500, Hotel $150 … Expatriate Reunions — Priceless (http://globalcoachcenter.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/expatriate-reunions-priceless/)

  • http://twitter.com/BlkChickOnTour Terri Lundberg

    I”m an American expat living in Saudi Arabia.  This is the second time I’ve lived outside of the US so I think in the expat world I would still be considered a newbie.  I’m finding that it’s hard to maintain the intensity of the friendship if I leave my “expat” world for a few months.  Just recently I had an extended trip home, I came back, and my so-called best friend, doesn’t seem to want to hang out with me anymore.  IDK.   Then there was another friend who everything was cool while in expat world, however, when we met up in the States, it was like we’re not compatible at all.  Like we were not even the same people who was just hanging out 3 months before like we were besties.  I tend to be sensitive about losing friends. I’m starting to wonder if all my friendships during my expat experience are going to be superficial friendships that are will not last past the day I get on a plane to leave.  Oh well…I guess time will tell.

  • ValerieHamer

    After eleven years away I’ve seen so many people come and go from my life. Those I was super close to in Asia remain so, and I have visited most of them since they left. Many more people stay in touch through the net, and that works fine.

    These days I see all these connections as being quite different, not all are meant to be forever – but none of them would have happened if circumstances were different. Moving on is a painful time for everyone but the gift left behind lasts a lifetime.

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