Are friends, real friends, friends forever? They certainly are, according to the well-known philosophy of Winnie the Pooh: “We’ll be Friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.
In sentimental poetry and cards you will come across that same line of thinking. “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” – Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.
The reality is a bit more complicated, as many expats will be able to confirm. In a lot of cases it’s hard to maintain a friendship once you have moved abroad; no matter how warm the friendship was while you lived in your home country. Email contact becomes less frequent and you don’t call or visit each other as often as you used to.
Should you feel guilty about this? Not at all, according to research conducted by sociologists at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands). They asked over one thousand people about their friendships. Seven years later they approached the same people again. The study concluded that within seven years half of our friends disappear from our social network.
The reason being that people generally do not choose friends for who they are, but for where they live or work. When those places change, the friendships change too. Friendships developed in the workplace, at parties or during holidays are particularly vulnerable. When one of the friends takes up a job someplace else or when the holiday is over, the friendship is likely to come to an end. We have to be practical, however difficult it may be.
Children are able to do that more easily, and we should encourage this behavior. Expat kids have to make neighbors in the global village. As soon as they get a comfort level with the language, they can make friends, or as soon as they start playing with local kids around, they will pick up the language and get rolling. It goes hand in hand, we don’t know which comes first, but the efforts always make us more at home in the host country.
Connecting with a local friend for me 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. She confessed that while helping me with my account & currency issues at the Bank of China, she also learnt about the different (strict) rules that apply to locals, and to expatriates. I am glad she empathized with my situation. Then again, Fellow expat friends help to form an even stronger emotional dependence. Just like me, they have struggled with language, homesickness, and public transportation, at some level. Our meeting at Starbucks on Monday mornings is such a re-assurance. We can laugh it off, and make life easier for each other.