LEFT - BEHIND FRIENDS
When expats move away from home, are they putting true human connection at risk?
Mobility is at the very core of our modern lives and it is the one thing that many expats living in China have in common with their local Chinese friends. While many Chinese have left their provincial hometowns to
attend university in another city or find work, foreigners here have come to China to pursue new educational or career opportunities. What we leave behind in our respective hometowns is a social support system that has taken decades to build consisting of our closest human connections: family and longterm friends.
“Friendship is viewed as discretionary,” Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and a friendship expert, once told the New York Times. “It takes a lesser priority in people’s minds than work or family.”
While our generation is quick to move across the nation or even an ocean for a new exciting job opportunity or to follow the love of their lives, they rarely consider how hard it is to make new friends that are equally close to them as the ones left behind back home.
Ali Haider, 22, who left his home country Pakistan to study computer science at the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication, is a man with many connections. When Metropolitan met him on campus, he shook hands with literally every other foreign student passing by. His phone also kept buzzing with incoming messages and calls, proving just how popular this Pakistani is in Beijing. But it hasn’t always been that way.
“Back in Pakistan, I had a lot of friends to communicate with, but when I first came to China, it was difficult to make friends,” Haider admitted to Metropolitan, adding that he now rarely contacts his friends back home, except for his best friend, whom he calls regularly to exchange ideas.
Haider’s fellow countryman, 19-year-old Muhammad Wajahat, said that his relationship with all of his childhood friends changed “drastically” after he moved to Beijing, mostly due to the big time difference.
“I also lost some of my friends because everyone’s busy in their own lives,” he said. Luckily, Wajahat found a new best friend in Beijing with the same name: 20-year-old Muhammad Talha Hussain. “The friends who didn’t really matter before are long gone now, but people who were close to me are still there,” Hussain said.
Social media fallacies
How can a long-distance friendship (as opposed to romantic relationship) be kept alive? For this generation of global citizens, the answer is simple: social media. Instead of a phone call or even an email asking how they are doing, old friends now follow each other’s social media posts for instant updates.
“I update my Instagram or they update theirs, and we reply to each other,” Hussain said. “That’s just how we talk these days.”
Indeed, social media can be a dangerous fallacy. According to US-national Carnisa Berry, a relationship coach who moved to Beiing
with her family six years ago, her number one tip on how to manage ships is not to make assumptions about the other person’s life based on what they share on social media.
“Don’t assume that because of those Facebook posts that everything is okay in your friend’s life. You have to ask,” Berry said, explaining that, in working with her clients, she has found that most expats struggle with loneliness.
“I do miss my friends back home,” Thomas T. Tarpeh, a 24 year-old Liberian, told Metropolitan. His social life "turned upside down" once he came to China, as his inability to speak Putonghua prevented him from coner necting with locals. Another obstacle Tarpeh encountered was that young Chinese people
spend most of their time indoors instead of at public spaces meeting new people, as Westerners tend to do.
At the same time, an eight-hour time difference prevented him from a timely exchange with his best friend back home. When he’s up, they are in bed, and vice versa. Sometimes, his best friend complains when Tarpeh doesn’t send him regular messages. “A long-distance friendship is a pain!,” he concludes.
Berry advises her clients to have an open conversation with their friends back home about the frequency and type of contact they expect now that they live abroad. Sometimes it means admitting to your friends back home that you feel lonely and asking them to accommodate the time difference so that they can have a chat every now and then.
“If you said that to your friend, they might understand the importance of setting up a schedule and speaking [on the phone] once a month or even once a week,” she advises. “Sometimes we just have to be bold enough to ask for what we need, but we also have to be mature enough to accept when the answer is no.”
Going the distance
While maintaining a long-distance friendship can be hard, there are some benefits to it. Moving away from home lets us realize the importance of a friendship and boosts our skills to make new friends. In some cases, relationships with “important” people we left behind will improve.
Finnish entrepreneur and expat Johanna Heikkinen thinks distance is a good way to put the quality of a friendship to the test. She believes that if a friendship doesn’t “go the distance,” it just wasn’t meant to be. “Those friends who are meant to last forever, they are still there, even though we are not in touch frequently.”
According to Heikkinen, frequency of contact is no indication of the depth of a friendship, as texts or phone calls can only replace face-to-face interaction to a certain extent. Therefore, she has hopes that her friends will come visit her in her new adopted home. Nonetheless, once a year she travels back to Finland to catch up with everyone.
This is when the hidden benefits of longterm friendships really kick in, at least according to relationship coach Berry. “When you live abroad, the time you spend together with your friends and family [when you return home for holidays] becomes quality time, not just quantity time,” she explains.
When two old friends only see each other for a brief period, both tend to cherish their time together much more. As a result, the love for that special friend can grow even fonder. “There’s a deeper connection with a person when you know that you are only going to see them for the summer or for two weeks in the winter,” Berry concluded.
Following each other’s social media isn’t enough to keep a long-distance friendship alive.