Beware Expat Friendships

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Beware Expat Friendships

In this guest post Chris Marshal explains why he thinks you should take your time when it comes to forming expat friendships….

I received an email recently from an old friend who I haven’t seen or heard from for the best part of 25 years.

He moved to Hong Kong in 1989 and although he has returned to the UK regularly on holidays, during his visits I have always either been working away or living abroad myself.

His email was the first contact that we had had since he moved (clearly neither of us are good at keeping in touch!)

This is how his email started: ‘Sorry it has taken me so long to re-boot our friendship. I suppose we are at that age when we look back and realize the difference between friendship and acquaintances! I seem to have plenty of the latter – but to tell you the truth – I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that friendships grow out of shared experiences during our formative years.’

I couldn’t agree more. For years now I have been bemused at how quickly expats claim to have formed lasting friendships with their fellows, and I never find myself surprised at how quickly they fall out with each other.

It appears that a couple of alcohol fuelled nights out and the label of ‘expat’ is all that’s required to become best friends. These new-but-firm expat friends share personal and financial information with alarming rapidity, and often seem to engage in grown up versions of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ (or in this case, my pool’s bigger than your pool).

Conversely, if you dare to bring a new ‘bestie’ (aka fresh meat to bore with your stories) into an established expat friendship group you run the risk of being sent to Coventry.

It all sounds very childish I know, and it helps to prove my point that it really is in your younger years that you make those lifelong friendships which go on to shape and define you.

My friend was spot on: friendships grow out of experiences shared during formative periods of our lives. For my friend and I this was a four year period when, after returning home from our separate universities, we both worked at the local university on the Open University Courses (he was admin, I was the bar – we were both very popular as between us you got the best rooms and the late night drinks).

During this period there was a lot going on in our lives: college and living away from home, working the holidays to earn money, sport (him rugby, me football so we never played against each other at college), and a rather bizarre girlfriend situation… Long story short, I was going out with a girl but it ended when I moved to America for a year. My friend, (only I didn’t know him at the time) went out with the girl while I was away in America. According to him for the whole year all he heard from her family was what a great guy I was. I returned to the UK to start college and he had left the scene. I started seeing my old girlfriend again, only to hear from her family about how great ‘he’ had been. When we did eventually meet up by rights we should have disliked each other but we didn’t and we went on to become great friends, because as he says in his email: ‘When I look back – Christ we had great formative years!’

I’m sorry but I just can’t compare this kind of deep-rooted friendship to the expat friendships that people claim to make. Trust me, doing the same thing at the same time as some other people isn’t the type of formative experience that will bond you to them for life.

Expats can and do make friends of course, but these friendships should take time to form if they are to prove fulfilling in the long term. It is not a case of ‘expat lands at airport, expat goes to bar, expats finds best friend’…. that kind of rapid progression may have worked on your first day of school but trust me, it won’t work as well for adult expats!

Unfortunately I see a lot of expats that are returning to the UK after their dream of living in countries like Spain turned into a nightmare due to the global economic crisis. With my work I am fortunate enough to be in a position to help these expats transport their much loved pets back to the UK, but rarely do I see a friend helping them out with the often distressing process of repatriating. Furthermore, we regularly meet up with the people we’ve helped (particularly those who have returned to the UK ahead of their pets) and very rarely do they say that they are still in touch with their expat friends.

As for my friend and I? If all goes to plan (which would be a first) we could both be in the UK this Christmas, in which case I might finally get to catch up with him!

Chris Marshall
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Chris has lived and worked in the UK, USA and Spain before settling down in Almerimar, Spain in 2003, where he spends his time time running Almerimar Life, writing on a freelance basis for a number of papers and clients blogs, broadcasting regularly on a number of radio stations and along Sands running ALStrays - a cat re-homing and transport project he set up with his wife, which also transports dogs to the UK and throughout Europe