Expat Friendship - Fizzle or Forever?


Expat Friendship

by Hayley Doyle


Like many expats, I took a leap of faith to become one. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, to uproot and settle in the desert, but there was a strong sense of just going for it. Now or never. Why the heck not. At the end of the day, I could always come home…

The latter actually built a wall between my new life and my old life. Every time I ran into a problem, the go-to solution was to think about returning to the UK. Crying at the roadside, lost, not understanding the u-turn system. Navigating my way through Visa issues. Feeling lonely…I missed my friends. My real friends.

Shortly after I arrived, I went to a party with a colleague. I was the New Girl on the block. I was introduced to lots and lots of faces. And oh, how everybody was so incredibly kind and interested, which is part of being an expat; if you aren’t new in town, you certainly were once before, maybe not even that long ago. For every newcomer in town, you’ve been in their shoes. Making friends was instant, effortless. A bit like speed-dating. Yep, you’re fun; what’s your number? Come to the beach on Saturday! Come to brunch! Do you like rugby? No? So what, come along anyway!

So off I went. Throwing myself into the deep end. I went to parties, ringing a bell with butterflies in my stomach, not really knowing the person on the other side of the door. I agreed to have coffee, lunch, dinner with people I’d never even met, all because we had a mutual friend from home. Oh, you two will get on like a house on fire! Often we did, too. Thanks to a contact from the UK, I managed to get a free ticket to a gig and went alone, because it was something to do, and tentatively mingled until I had a gang to hang out with. I’d never have done anything like this in Liverpool or London. I’d only ever made friends the classic way; school, clubs, uni. The thought of walking into a pub alone to meet a pal used to fill me with dread; what if I was early? Yet here I was, in a brand new country and surrounded by a bunch of new friends…

…I didn’t see it though.

Moving on from my previous life was harder than I thought. I recall standing on a balcony, looking out at the fabulous skyline, chatting away to some nice people, but I just wished my friends were there. My friends from home. Those I shared history with. I didn’t understand that my future history had begun. One day I’d look back on that night and realise that some of the people I became acquainted with featured so much more in my life ahead.

When we started high school, college, university, it was daunting. But our peers were in the same boat. We danced to a similar rhythm. We learnt and grew together, which cemented a friendship. When we start a new job, often, we feel a bit like a square peg in a round hole for a while, but get to leave the office and go home to a world that’s more familiar. Then, that job eventually becomes our new normal. There’s a transition. When you become an expat, you’re starting out all over again with no security blanket to snuggle into. You’re in a different country, culture, climate and time zone. You’re constantly trying to navigate how to live, how to work, how to socialise, how to simply be. It’s a challenge on another level, with every inch of your life suddenly heightened and thousands of miles away from home. So making friends is a big deal. Still, I was blinded by the heat. I couldn’t see the potential before me because I craved what I missed so badly.

But - as cliches go - time heals everything.

After one year of expat living, I had a crew. It took me three or four crews to settle into one, and sometimes the crews merged, but I started to find my tribe. I got a tremendous boost of confidence when a new kid rocked up and I could identify with that rabbit-in-headlights look splashed across their face. They’d ask me for advice and I felt capable of dishing it out. I’d suggest places to go, things to avoid, and wow, I’d made memories. However, the joy a newcomer brings means the scales even out by another expat making their exit plan. Dubai is super transient. Nobody stays forever. And saying goodbye was something that - sadly - I learnt to get used to.

You grow an extra skin, becoming an expat. It allows you to become numb to the rollercoaster ride of making friends and losing friends so quickly. But gosh, it still aches when you feel you’d made a genuine connection and it’s time for that beautiful person to pack their bags and head to other side of the globe. Because friendship as an expat is intense. Neither of you have the luxury of your family dropping by for a cuppa or to bake a cake for your birthday. So you grow accustomed to relying on your expat friends for more than just regular mates to go out for a drink with. They’re your everything, otherwise the alternative can be isolating. So when one of these friends leaves, it can feel like losing a limb.

And, like all expats, my time to go eventually arrived.

I was ready. A new chapter awaited me. I was five months pregnant and all my focus was directed onto that. Within my close circle of Dubai friends, nobody else had babies, so I knew I’d have to put myself out there again with parent and baby groups, regardless of where I was living. I also had a wild card up my sleeve. My business was to continue in Dubai, with me running it remotely from the UK. I knew I’d be back often, so goodbye felt more like, see ya later. For a self-confessed emotional tearjerker, I wasn’t that upset. Maybe the transient atmosphere of the past seven years had gotten under my skin.

But how do I feel a few years on? Am I still in touch with my expat friends now? Are we still friends?

In a word; YES.

Okay, so finding the right time to Zoom can be impossible, but there is a bond that ties us together. Many of my Dubai friends always were - and still are - acquaintances, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a meaningful connection at some point. I also feel comfortable reaching out to them, for whatever reason, because of the level of shared understanding that comes from being an expat.

But, of course, I’ve lost touch with lots. It’s inevitable. The digital age has made everything so accessible, apart from human connection. We see our friends online constantly, but we don’t ever see them. It’s a trick. We believe we’re in touch, when really, we’re just looking at a photograph.

In a pre-Covid world, when less thought and anxiety went into travelling, the potential to see each other was stronger. Even if we never managed a reunion, the idea didn’t seem so extravagant. We went on with our daily lives, kept in touch via social media and luckily, I got to catch up with them whenever work took me back to the desert. But since the pandemic, missing them has become real. They feature heavily in my dreams. I fear we won’t see one another again. The talk is always there, to meet up, but life just feels that bit heavier since Covid hit. Everybody has a new struggle that didn’t exist before.

I’m eternally grateful to have met my absolute best friend in Dubai; my husband. I get to keep him! There is a thick layer spanning seven years that he totally gets. We both became expats around the same time, but didn’t meet until a little while into our individual journeys. It’s nice to share that in common; having lived there single and having to - quite literally - mingle. We talk about Dubai and the people we met daily, naturally and effortlessly. That definitely keeps a lot of our mutual friendships alive.

There are some friends who I only shared short spells with, but I loved with my whole heart. They now live on opposite sides of the world, have children of their own, and a reunion is a wish, a maybe. When I get the odd message or comment from them, I get truly excited. Our connection, somehow, still exists. They knew a deep side of me that lots of non-expat friends will ever know from experiencing something so unique together. We shared our lives with one another when it was the perfect time, going through similar stages.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting two of my best expat friends in London. I know these guys are friends for life because as soon as we saw them and hugged, it felt like no time had passed. In reality, it had been three years. Our chats flowed and the conversation was endless. We also have a genuine interest in each other’s families, too, from meeting them when they visited Dubai. My soul felt nourished after seeing them and it gave me confidence that our connection wasn’t just for brunching once upon a time.

If being an expat has taught me anything, it’s how to make friends easily and appreciate that friendship for the moment we share. I take this lesson into all new chapters of my life; my children starting school, working on new projects, even going on holiday and having a good time with people we meet then and there, even if we won’t ever see them again. We don’t have to be in each other’s pockets forever. We might just be serving one another a purpose for a specific era. And that’s okay. Isn’t a wonderful to have quality time with certain humans on this earth, than judge it purely on the quantity of time we spend with them? Good memories must be cherished; they make us who we are.