Expat Friendships – Ashley’s Story

This is the first in a series on the importance of friendships when you’re living abroad. This week features American Ashley Gamble Grandisch, who has lived in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin, and currently Kuala Lumpur. She is married to a German and has two young sons who speak English, German, and Spanish.

It seems the more hardship the city or country is, such as a third world country, the closer the expat friendships become. I think it’s because we have each other. We are all going through the same stuff and need each other to feel a sense of community. I think it’s much easier to make close friends quickly. Once you’ve had children, it starts with the school. The international school environment brings a community feel and gives people an obvious catalyst to meet others.

For me, one of the most difficult things about expat friendships is that it’s very transient. Most people stay in a place for two to four years, so it’s hard when your good friends (or friends of your kids) leave. You feel left behind constantly, or need to start from scratch again. Both scenarios feel tiring to you and your family. So, how does that affect friendships? Can they truly be deep? Many of mine have been, I’d say, and with the help of Facebook we have kept in touch and have a special understanding with each other, which has been long lasting.

In a less harsh environment, such as Europe, it’s been a bit more difficult to make friends. The process takes a bit longer, as many people don’t need to rely on an expat community for survival nearly as much.

Another challenging issue for women like those in my social circle is what to do with ourselves. It can be difficult for spouses to get work visas. This means we have the luxury of not working full time and being fully there for our families, but how do we achieve balance? Many of us still want to feel useful, use our brains, and develop ourselves professionally too. I’ve seen people fill their time taking courses, learning something new that they haven’t had time to do before, volunteering for their kids’ school, working with an NGO, or finding a creative outlet, from starting a small business to teaching courses. Those who don’t do this tend to be unfulfilled and unhappy. You have to be resilient and creative – and be willing to create something for yourself!

As an expat, most of the time we have to be fully there for our families, as the husbands are working a lot and often out of town, so it’s easy to feel alone. I see friends come together to help each other out when needed, especially as husbands or grandparents may not be around much. We rely on each other a lot more than the average friend. This brings real community.

I’ve also made an effort in each location to make local friends. This has been harder, as most of them work full time and have already established their social circle. It takes time and usually some sort of common interest, but it’s been extremely valuable for me to have made local friends in every place I’ve lived. It helps you establish roots and learn more about the local customs and people.

Again it goes back to your friends and support group. We help each other a lot. The key is to surround yourself with positive people, whose support, energy, and creativity make the good things better and dilute the negatives.

From what I’ve seen, it’s extremely difficult for people to repatriate back to their home country. You’ve grown so much and seen so much, and often friends from home have moved on from how you were in their lives before. It’s really important to anticipate this and re-invent yourself when you head back home. It’s also surprising whom you connect with once you’ve returned.

So, in conclusion, I’d say that it’s easier and quicker to make friends as an expat. Many expat relationships can grow quite deeply in a short period of time because of the survival and community.