Collecting Friendships (making friends abroad, one friend at a time…)
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. As I don’t support this huge money-making “Valentine's Industry” and the social pressure that comes with it, I had decided beforehand that I was not creating a post on IG and Facebook to draw more attention to it.
That was until I received a WhatsApp from a dear friend in the Dominican Republic for the “Day of love and friendship”. This friendship idea is being used in countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, to name a few, apart from the Dominican Republic. I had completely forgotten about the friendship portion, but I immediately remembered the years I lived there when the messages wouldn’t stop throughout the day. Messages from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who took the time to send a quick note to me.
The first year I was surprised (any hidden messages here?), but I quickly adopted and copied this custom of sending little ecards and notes to friends of mine on the 14th of February. I did have to explain my actions more than once to my international friends, funnily enough, though…
Yesterday reminded me that I have friends all over the world, friends I have collected throughout all my international moves, many of them I consider close. I have found friendships that took a long time to build, friendships that just drifted away, and friendships that ended. I have short-time friends and long-term friends, and different-level friends. I have deep-conversation-friends, do-sports-with-friends, and laugh-with-friends. There are in-person friends and online friends, there is a whole patchwork quilt of friends.
Realizing this fact a long time ago makes me feel better whenever I have an “I have no friends here in this new place day". A few years ago, during one of those frustrating moments, I wrote down all my friends by country and surprisingly ended up with a long list. That made me immediately feel better! I then even added a category of “online friends” because some have become dear to my heart! Nowadays, I take this list out whenever I have a “meh” day. If I feel the need, there is always one available in a time zone where it is okay to call, and if not, to at least send a message and let them know that I am thinking about them.
This “making friends challenge” does not only happen to us as adults. Our children experience the same, especially if they live the life of CCKs (Cross Culture Kids) and TCKs (Third Culture Kids). They amass friends in different countries, schools, and classes, might have a huge list in the end, and they can still feel like “I don’t have any friends” in this place we have just arrived in. I've often heard expat parents say, "Oh, my kid(s) make friends so easily, dismissing the problem within two seconds. I have not seen this often happen in my daughter or clients.
Because the struggle is very real, especially for our children. Many of my teen clients say they often felt like they had nobody they could relate to, feel comfortable with, or consider a good friend. It is hard for them and hard for us as a parent to listen to them. So first, it is important to validate their feelings, make them feel heard, and acknowledge that they are in a difficult situation at the moment. Really listening to them can already make them feel better.
I always like to add "YET" when I hear them mention this problem, like "I am sorry to hear that you have no friends yet." We look at the friends they made in previous countries, and, you guessed it, they write them down. With that, they realize that if they could make friends there, they have the power to do it again. This makes them relax, and they feel more confident. Then we talk about where the possibilities of friendships lie in school, class, sports, or a pottery class. Check out my blog post, “How to make friends,” where I go into more detail. You'll find different tips that apply to children and that you can adapt to your own life abroad.
Furthermore, we talk about how to balance keeping old friendships alive and making new ones and how to do that. No need to toss out one for the other! If your children have just moved, it is important to be in close contact with those old friends over the phone, via messages, or via Zoom, as they literally don’t know anyone yet. So, they may rely 90 % on those friends for the first weeks. Slowly but surely, they will meet new people and notice a shift to more or less 80 % previous and 20 % new friends. A few months in, they should redirect their focus to potential in-person friends. The goal would be to have at least a 50/50 balance. Is this easy? Maybe yes, maybe no, it depends on many things, apart from their personality and the current circumstances. Is it worth trying and doable? Yes!
For my daughter, it was more uncomplicated in some countries than in others, and the numbers looked different in every new place. She's made many friends and kept multiple ones, and there, of course, have been struggles. It's exactly the same for me. I remember meeting my two closest friends in the Bahamas within the first months, and I realized that was a first for me in my over 30 years of living abroad. 30 years, this had never happened before, like never! I was so surprised that I could not believe it in the beginning. Since having moved to Mexico, I am back to the normal pace...no friends in the beginning, lots of work of making some, and it is just about getting easier at the moment (after 1 1/2 years...).
Yesterday, I took the opportunity to send appreciation notes to my friends worldwide. I ensured that I told them I was thinking of them and that I valued and still valued their friendship because of a little note, a little kindness prompt. Making friends and keeping them is not easy. It is work, and it does not happen overnight. Rarely does someone walk up to our kids or us and asks, "Do you want to be my friend?" (That only happens in Disney movies...) But with some effort, these friendships can happen so that you can take your list out and know that you have friends in different streets, cities, and countries.
Wishing you many friends from different friendship levels and types from all over the world!