Last week I had a 2-hour telephone yakfest with my dear friend Kate. The fact that we both have busy lives, coupled with a 12-hour time difference, means we don’t get to chat as often as we’d like. When we do finally manage to connect, we pick up the conversation right where we left off — almost as though we’d never been apart.
Kate and I were neighbours when I first moved to Singapore. Soon after we met, her life took one of those crazy turns that no-one could have anticipated. She’d only been in Singapore a few months when things fell apart, and as she hadn’t yet built a support network, she turned to me to fill that role. Within that crucible of confusion, despair, and loneliness, an enduring friendship was born.
Consciously or not, most expats realize they have a limited amount of time for developing friendships before they’re shipped off to the next assignment. Maybe it’s this ticking clock that accounts for the lack of middle ground in their friendship modes. There seems to be two extremes: the casual acquaintance and the instant soulmate. Some expat women I know operate exclusively in one mode or the other.
The relationship I have with Kate is in many ways typical of the second variety: it evolved fairly quickly from casual to intimate, and it was intense almost from the start. I don’t know if we’d ever have become so close if we’d met under other circumstances, but I’m awfully grateful that the gods of expatriation threw us together when they did. My time in Singapore was better because of Kate, and she’s remained a constant source of love and unconditional support even though we’re now separated by 15,000 kilometres and a dozen time zones.
Psychologist Paul H. Wright, who has extensively studied the nature of friendship, has identified five friendship values that arise from having these close personal relationships:
- Utility: using your time or other resources (such as money or influence) to help a friend achieve her goals or meet her needs;
- Stimulation: sharing knowledge, introducing new activities, and generally being fun to have around;
- Ego support: making your friend feel special by encouraging and supporting her;
- Self-affirmation: mirroring those elements of her character she values (not the ones she wishes she could change);
- Security: sharing a bond of trust and commitment.
For those of us who believe, as Aristotle did, that friendship means “a single soul dwelling in two bodies,” Dr. Wright’s findings seem a bit clinical. No offense to the good doctor — I appreciate the research value of his work — but seeing friendship boiled down to scientific variables takes some of the magic away. If I evaluate my closest friendships, I can see that they easily score off the charts on all the values listed above. But who wants to analyze their deepest human connections? I’d rather just enjoy the company — and these days, the memories — of those fabulous women (and one fabulous man!) who rescued me from loneliness and made me a better person for knowing them.
Being the new kid on the global block as an adult has its hardships, especially for the spouses. (No built-in social network waiting for us on arrival!) Expat women need friends because discovery is always better when you have someone to share it with. Because friends will give you an honest answer to the question, “does this sarong/salwar kameez/abaya make my butt look fat?” Because friends are willing to practice your new language with you ad infinitum if you’re not yet ready to inflict it on the local populace. And because the very best friends give you the courage to push yourself a little out of your comfort zone.
(That last one’s a shout out to my friend Sally — who’s Singaporean but wouldn’t mind being lumped in with us expats — in recognition of the night she got me dancing on the table at Esmirada and smashing plates on the floor while the waiters clapped. Sooo not my style. Yet so satisfying!)
Do you have an expat friendship story? Feel free to share in the comments section below.