Making Friends in Foreign Places

I went for a walk alone one Friday a few days after I moved to Singapore. It was night. I was still living out of a hotel. I was horribly jetlagged, and the stress of the final move had caught up to me. So I went for a ramble to try and wear myself out a bit. I was trying to find my way to the riverfront restaurant area but was having a terrible time orienting myself.

Exhaustion, stress, and melancholy were definitely catching up to me and I very much wanted to see potential. A glimpse into a life that I might have after I had settled more into Singapore. Frankly, I wanted to see friends and expats out together and pretend that such groups were near on my horizon. But, after nearly two hours of wandering, I found the container port of Singapore, a closing night market and not much else.

It was not an auspicious start.

By sheer luck though, I did eventually land on Blair and Everton Roads. And that’s when I saw it: a true-blue expat party. Amidst the colorful Peranakan shophouses there was one who was awake. And her family was holding a party. The women were in flowing sundresses and cute outfits perfect for the oppressive heat, the men in smart casual linen. Everyone seemed to be so happy to see one another as they drank expensive glasses of wine and champagne. It was clear these were very well-off expats. But more importantly, they looked happy and were not alone.

I slowed and stared. I ached like a middle school girl to fit in and be invited to such a party. Ached to know that many people. Had this been Atlanta, I might have been on the other side of this scene, on the other side of the street. One of the friends at the large house my friends had chicly decorated. Not a few weeks before I had been a member of the band, the cherished friend who was the reason for a 20 person get-together. Invited to wine outings and lunches and parties for days. And less than 14 days later I was the lonely outsider, looking in from across the street. Lost in a foreign city that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate and unable to find refuge in sleep from the vicious jetlag.

Fast forward nearly a year and a half later and into yet another foreign city. I woke up this morning with a touch of a hangover. Last night I relaxed with friends in their leafy backyard. We watched the rain patter the surface of their pool lit by large glass lanterns and ate an incredible meal cooked on a custom Argentinian style grill. We talked about everything from work to surgery to broken hearts and losing face. On my way home I texted a few friends on the West Coast of the US, confirmed photo details with a friend in Singapore, and reminded another friend from SG that we had to finalize our plane tickets to visit yet another friend in Vietnam.

How did everything change? How did I make expat friends?

The fast answer: slowly. One of the rougher lessons from expat life is that the friend-making skills from our school years are critically necessary again. But it feels strange to use skills we might have honed the most back in our teenage years, or even earlier, and then let soften in lieu of other relationship skills. It takes some time to strengthen them again.

Don’t Wait to Meet People. Making friends as an expat requires some focus. 

A colleague of mine had moved out from the US just as I was leaving Singapore for Bangkok. Over wine one night she mentioned that one of her regrets when moving to the US from Belgium was that she had taken too long to start making friends. She had gotten everything settled just so in her apartment and job, and then looked up to realize 3-4 months had gone by and she barely knew anyone. She could have been describing me. About 11 months after I moved to Singapore I finally felt I was settled. And then I moved again.

Do what is authentic to you. 

So what have I done to make friends? Networking is my most successful method. Either my friends are from the office, or they are friends of friends from earlier in my life. Asia is a great place to live and work if you like to be included in general group activities. I also tend to meet lots of kindred spirits while traveling. Plus, I’m lucky both that I like to spend time alone and have some incredible friendships that weather the cross-global distances well.

How do other expats make friends? A lot of people go to networking events and expat parties (groups like Meetup and InterNations are popular.) You might attend Embassy parties, or follow different Country groups on Facebook for their events. I generally hate large parties, so those aren’t usually a good venue for me. But I have been lucky with some street photography groups and I’m planning to test out a cooking group. I love to hang out at a pub with friends but hate small talk with a group of strangers. So I find buddies first, then schedule a pub night. Others happily dive right in. Expats in most cities organize events both large and small. Here is one of the largest Singapore groups (for women), and a nice Bangkok one I like.

Do what you love, and plan to weather some trial and error. 

Most of the advice I received was to go places where I had common interests with others. I think that’s a good start, but I would say it’s even more important to do things you would choose even if you already have many friends. Because the hardest part is that this process is trial and error. If you attend an event because of the estimated attendance rather than actual interest, and the attendees aren’t your cup of tea, then it’s a harder let down.

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