Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Loneliness and the Expat Experience

I met Emm at a party given by my pal Melizza. As Emm notes later in this post, expats and friends of friends are crucial to the survival of expat life. It really can be lonely, particularly if you're used to more culturally open and friendly societies and you move to a somewhat cool and removed one such as London.  Emm and I have compared Texas and her home country of South Africa -- warm weather, wide open spaces, friendly locals, and houses with central heating and air. Often you long for the ease and comfort of the familiar, but there's a reason you moved and more importantly, there are extraordinary new people whom you will meet. Being exposed to expats, not just from the U.S. but from other parts of the world is one of my favorite aspects of expat life. Meeting Emm was and is part of the *best* of being an expat -- new and fascinating friends to create new memories and share new experiences.  Sure, there's nothing like your best friends who've known you forever and know your neurotic charming quirks, but having the immediate commonality of 'expat' makes for rapid friendships and likely ones that last a lifetime.

Be sure and visit Emm's fabulous expat + travel blog as well as A Passion to Understand a blog she began to explore social and political events such as war, genocide, human rights and equality.  She also has a fun blog, Addicted to Media about...well, her addiction to media.

                        Loneliness and the Expat Experience                     
By: Emm

When Sarah asked me to write a little story about my expat experience, I was really keen at first.  I love to think of myself as the type of person who would help other expats to make the move and to settle down in their adopted country.  The weeks ticked by though and still I hadn’t written anything and then came the email from Sarah reminding us that she would soon need to wrap up the expat stories!

The problem is that I have found myself in the middle of one of the hardest aspects of being an expat: the inevitable change in relationships. December 2011 was when it all came to a head.  I had my husband’s parents over from South Africa but never have I felt lonelier than I did right then.  You see, my friends back home are rubbish at keeping in touch.

People often express surprise when they hear me say this.  What about Skype, FooCall, Facebook, email or letters, they ask.  I then have to explain that no, they don’t understand, my friends back home are really rubbish at keeping in touch.  Phone calls, voicemails and emails go unanswered and even unacknowledged and I’m stood up for more Skype dates than I care to admit.  It is heartbreaking but the hardest part is that I get it.

I’ve been the one who was left behind before.  When my friends traveled around Africa or moved to the UK or Australia for 2 year working visa stints, it was as if they did not exist.  Part of me was happy for them but part of me, the part I would never have wanted anyone to know about, was apathetic and a tiny bit resentful.  I was absolutely rubbish at keeping in touch and in retrospect I have to admit that I failed to read their blogs or group emails.

When they returned, it was like they had never left in the first place!  We were best friends again and amazed at how we picked up where we left off.  I know that if I ever go back to South Africa, it will be exactly like that.  I will immediately be assimilated into the crowd and I will never need to feel lonely again.

The problem is that we’re not going back. I have always been a British citizen and my husband recently obtained his British citizenship.  Even if we were inclined to leave England, it would be to continue on our big adventure somewhere new; we certainly wouldn’t be returning to South Africa.

Which is where that tiny bit of resentment grows into something more.  South Africans do not like to admit how dangerous and corrupt their society is and they take it as a personal affront when people leave.

When I put all of this into perspective, I can’t really blame my friends but I do have to admit that the time has come when I need something more.  Being an expat can be the hardest, loneliest, most soul-destroying experience on earth and doing it without friends is near to impossible.  It has really made me open up my eyes to the friendships that I do have, that have survived or have blossomed into something new.

There are five broad classes of friends that expats can turn to when their lifelong besties are overcome by apathy for their Big Overseas Adventure:

  • Other expats: there is something incredible about meeting up with other expats.  They come from the widest corners of the world but somehow landed up in the same city as you.  They share your love for adventure and travel and are usually intelligent, witty, educated and interesting. The best thing about other expats is that they totally get it.  They will sit with you over coffee and just nod and pat your hand while you talk about loneliness, homesickness and bureaucracy.
  • Colleagues: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in London, it is incredibly hard to make friends with the locals.  I had been in London for nearly four years before I was actually invited to the home of another Londoner.  This is especially notable when you consider that I spent the first 35 years of my life identifying as British! So colleagues are important.  Make friends with them, go out for drinks with them and get to know them because they are often the closest you will come to making friends with the locals!
  • Hobbyists: whether it is sewing, blogging, movies or photography, meeting people with the same interests as you is priceless when you are in need of friends. Sites like are brilliant for meeting people but also look out for notices in local shops or community centres.  Some of my closest friends are people I met through sharing similar interests.
  • Friends of friends: whichever city you decide to move to, it is likely that someone you know will know someone in your chosen destination.  These are often the best and easiest friendships to make because there is something intrinsically trustworthy about the friends of our friends.  The two couples I am closest to in London were originally friends of friends but over time they have become part of my inner circle.
  • And finally, there are the friends you never realised you had.  With so much social interaction on Twitter and Facebook, it can sometimes be easy to miss the individuals who are willing to move beyond being just pals or acquaintances, those that have a genuine interest in you and are willing to take the extra step in becoming your friend.  While I was so busy feeling miserable because my besties were ignoring me, I almost overlooked the two or three people from back home who had become much closer to me over time.  We wereemailing each other, catching up on messenger and generally trying to keep in touch.  It is not easy to admit things like this but the truth is that friendships change and sometimes the most rewarding relationships are right under your nose.  My advice is to take hold of those friendships and appreciate them! Put your energy into the relationships that matter.
That said, if you are ever in London, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I work in an office from 9-5 each week day so I am always looking for some company at lunch time!


  1. It took me a long time to finally accept that I wasn't going to find local friends easily and to start looking elsewhere. Thank goodness for my sewing blog and for people like you and Sarah who reach out to sad muppet like me.

    1. You're not a sad muppet! You're stylish, fun and an inspiration to be around. My life in London has improved so much since we met one year ago.

      That goes for you too Sarah! Hope to see you when you get back.

  2. So grateful for both of you rockstar ladies :) Expat life isn't easy, but it's made much much easier by awesome friends!!!

  3. :) Thank you for this project! Love next, right?