When ex­pats move away from home, are they putting true hu­man con­nec­tion at risk?

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­trin Büchen­bacher

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.

Photo: IC

Fol­low­ing each other’s so­cial me­dia isn’t enough to keep a long-dis­tance friend­ship alive.




Pho­tos: Ka­trin Büchen­bacher/ GT



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