The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

The many Farewells of an Expat Life

on July 27, 2014

If there’s one thing I’ve been unprepared for with living this Expat Life, it’s all the Farewells that come with it.

Last November, I mentioned that in five years we’ve said Goodbye to over 30 families, it’s now ratcheted to nearer 40. That’s on average a leaving do every two months. Singapore is a very transient hub, it’s to be expected I know.

There are wonderful experiences to be had from living abroad. There are many interesting people to meet. There are fabulous friends to keep even. But just when you’re getting really comfortable with someone, it’s time for them to go to pastures new. I guess we’re not all on the same time line. Some have already served their time just as we arrived and some were never planning to stay that long anyway.

Neither were we. But suddenly, a six year anniversary is creeping up.

I thought the Goodbyes I said to my family and my closest friends way back in September 2008 was the most difficult. Leaving behind a life I knew well at a time when I was on the cusp of beginning a new unknown one as a parent. It’s funny how you don’t really give much thought to moving away from home when you’re truly young. Some twenty years ago now when I moved away to Manchester was the most exciting new experience and I couldn’t wait for it to happen. Same with moving to London. But this move to Singapore was different, to completely extract yourself from a life familiar at a time when you’re feeling quite comfortable and not quite so into new adventures but preferring the blanket of stability.

It was hard and it still is, that ache in your heart on every trip back to see everyone. How much you miss them and every time you notice how everyone has changed a bit; how children have grown up a lot that you’ve missed out on but back to an Expat life you must go, for now.

I thought leaving behind what I had was the most difficult part. I was wrong though. I certainly wasn’t expecting how hard it would be to say the Goodbyes to the people I have met in Singapore and some I’ve known for just a couple of years. What is that all about?

I liken my first year or so as an Expat Fresher where you wonder whether you’re going to meet any new people at all and if so where and how. In my situation with the absence of gainful employment but being with child, it was surprisingly easy to start building a network of people after the first few months of barely meeting anyone at all to talk to. Having children opens many a social door.

So you join this New Mother and Baby Group, that coffee morning, another New Mum’s Walk in the Sweaty Park Group. You smile and engage in conversation with any person you come across and maybes you meet up for coffee, a play group, a Walk in the Sweaty Park to see how it all goes.

I would consider myself a sociable person. In gainful employment, a lot of what I do is about engaging with people. I don’t find it particularly difficult to talk to new people. But at the age of 34, I would say that my social networks were more or less defined. I knew what kind of people I enjoyed spending my free time with and more importantly they knew me.

So here I was, about to start again. But unlike starting University where a lot of people reinvent themselves, I was quite happy the way I was. However, what I wasn’t expecting is how utterly life changing that life changing event called having children really is. Because it does change some part of you, even if you think only temporarily. So now I was meeting people under the guise of New Parent and the focus is so different. It’s not about whether I would like to sit with you in a pub for several pints anymore but whether you and I are sharing the same thoughts about this Parenting malarky with our children being of same age. I would say pretty much all my friendships have been built on these grounds bar one or two.

And because of this start, that’s why losing some of these friendships is so difficult. These women who in the absence of parents, best friends, local health visitors became the support network you really can’t do without when life and emotions turn you upside down, they pick you up and put you right again. I’ve mentioned before just how lucky I was to meet Mrs BA who extended warmth and friendship without needing to. Who opened up networks that I’m still attached to and whose kindness and generosity reminds me that we all can make someone feel better whilst they find their feet.

Not all meetings have ended as well of course. Some don’t get beyond that first play date, some can peter out after several months or some just decide that you really have nothing in common but the age of your children. One even went to great lengths to avoid giving me their phone number and I didn’t even realise! But all this is totally fine because it’s healthy and time saving for all if you recognise you just don’t like someone. I’d rather that than just be used to pass the time.

As the years have gone by, missing the friendships that have left me the most bereft are the ones where I have felt I’ve been able to be the ‘Me Before Expat’, which also equates to the ‘Me Before Children’ and getting to know the ‘You Before Expat’ and the ‘You Before Children’. The friendships that bring in parts of life outside of the immediate, the ones that share news of other happenings and different lives they’ve led. I suppose the ones who invest a bit of themselves in you.

As I become more experienced at watching people leave, I can feel I’m starting to become less affected by it all. I still miss them and I miss our chats and afternoon catch ups with the children but I recover a lot more quickly. Otherwise in between missing my own family and friends in the UK and the 40 or so families I’ve met here then I’d be one big blubbering mess! That’s no way to function.

Sometimes though it can feel quite an effort to put yourself out there and make new friends which you have to for the aforementioned reasons of transient hub. I’ve had a few half serious conversations with seasoned Expats about exactly how much should you invest in new friendships. Is there much point if they’re on a fixed term contract and you’re not because they’re going to be leaving anyways and if you find out that someone you see on a regular basis is contemplating leaving, does that blacklist them too? Should I be owning up to the fact that after almost six years then our time is coming to an end too with potential new friends? Would our friendship be built on a dishonest foundation if I didn’t make this fact known and would they resent me when I jilt them a few months from now having led them on under false friendship pretences? Should I even be hinting to seasoned friends that I could be leaving in case I’m unceremoniously dumped ahead of time? I am of course joking. I’m quite sure they wouldn’t do that….

It’s become a minefield but one which I’m still willing to navigate because it’s not about how long you or I are staying for. It’s about what we gain whilst we are here. If you make true friendships you’ll see them again and it’s a huge joy when that happens. When you know that I like you for all the right reasons and not for reasons of convenience or just to pass the time whilst we’re here. I’ve recently had several reunion encounters and it was like just yesterday we saw each other. Like how it feels when I see my UK friends.

So I’m glad I was plucked out of my comfort zone and had to learn the art of Making New Friends in my Thirties, something which I recently read an article about being such a difficult thing to do. It’s opened my world to people who are from all over the world and who now live all over the world. It’s huge out there and I can travel to many a far flung place and actually know someone. Someone who I would love to see again. There’s one in Dubai, a few in Australia and New Zealand, the USA, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Ireland, I could go on.

And I hope we don’t lose this art of Making New Friends in our Forties either whether an Expat or person back in native country because at any age and for any reason you could come across someone starting over again. You could make one big change for someone just by inviting them for coffee.

The true privilege of living this Expat Life are the people you meet. And so I think I’ve been very privileged indeed.

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