When you live abroad, many of the friendships you form are relationships of convenience.
Which is something I understand - this idea that relationships that may appear to be meaningful on the surface only exist to serve the immediate needs of one or both of the parties involved. I grew up in a family wherein many of the women engaged in long-term, emotionally destructive and physically abusive relationships just because they needed to experience and do several things like (just off the top of my head) living in a home with what they considered necessary material amenities or raising children in a nuclear family.
Now, take that need to cling to people for arbitrary reasons multiply that by the complexities that come with living in a foreign country with completely different social mores than you're accustomed to. Multiply that by the factor of living in a country wherein the official language is not your own and you have a hotbed of fleeting acquaintances with people coming and going in and out of the country or in and out of your immediate circle. I guess you could attribute that phenomenon to the fact that we tend to act differently while living abroad in an attempt to make our ex-pat lives more justifiable. If I were going to live exactly that way I normally do, then why not just stay in my own country where I'd have the comfort of being around people I have much more in common with? For example, where I wasn't before, I have become more open to the possibility of sustaining contact with strangers I meet in nightclubs and bars and while I've met some interesting people in this way, I'm still a little cynical about the depth of any ensuing relationships formed by way of such meetings.
The thing, I've come to realise is simply this: being sort of an introvert, I've always been cautious about getting close to people. This is still the case now, to an extent, but less so because I guess the fear of being all alone here pushed me to cast a wider net, sometimes resulting in the occasional scroll through my phone book wondering, "Huh?" or "Why did I ever exchange numbers with...?" or (even sadder) "Oh, right. She/He's not in Japan anymore."
That said, I must hastily add that not all of my friendships here have been so ephemeral and I still enjoy meeting new and interesting people regularly. I've just noticed that several of the (what I thought were) meaningful friendships I've formed here have startlingly shorter lifespans than what I'm used to and I find that fact a bit unsettling. That's one of the things I'm still getting used to here, having been here for over two years and all and I know I'm not alone in that respect. I asked a some friends to weight in on the topic and here's what some of them had to say:
Caroline :I think my situation was a lot different than most people coming to Japan. I worked for a company that staffs university English programs, so, though I only worked with a couple of foreigners, 22 foreign teachers lived in the same apartment complex. It was quite a similar atmosphere to a college dormitory, except we were the teachers. So it was easy in that scenario to meet people and make some relationships--some of which I still have, though most of the people I worked with at that time moved to other countries. That was a 3 month contract, and, thereafter, I moved into [a hostel] for 2 months, where I met [several folks I'm currently friends with] a year after I had moved to Japan.
The truth is, I have maintained no friendships (with the exception of my Japanese returnee head teacher) from the year and a half I worked at [an English conversation school]. I do, however, keep in touch and often go out with my students from that school. Now that I've been here for 3 years, I can say that I have made no new friends at all (if you exclude my boyfriend) that don't have something to do with my current group of friends.Colin:My feeling is that living overseas is a pretty unnatural situation that creates friendships that would not otherwise exist. Often that’s a good thing, and often it’s not. You end up talking to a much higher percentage of the people that speak your language, especially if you come here with no ability in the language of your new country, as I did. A lot of these are people who would not attract a second glance from you if you were home. Again, this is both good and bad. You have the luxury of being instantly judgmental when your options for friendships are limitless, and in a way that acts as sort of an inverse limitation, at least for me. But overseas, you tend to give people a longer interview process.
On the bad side, you may end up bound up with people that you soon wish you weren't. You may form relationships with people before learning that in truth, they’re dicks, or insane in some way. This is disappointing. Even more disappointing though, is that probably 90% of friendships that you form while overseas have a shelf life of about 1-2 years. Just when you start to rely on a friendship and get used to that person being around, they're gone. I now ask people how long they're going to be around soon after meeting them, and if their answer is shorter than my cell phone contract, adios potential muchacho.
I can say that I’m lucky enough to be good friends with a few Japanese people, people who call me and want to hang out with me sometimes. They’re sort of a mix of the three types of Japanese friends you can have: the ones that you already had when you came, the ones that you meet at random while you’re here, and people you meet at work/ former students. That’s no mean feat I’m told and it makes it a lot easier to live here. If you stick with the foreigner crowd, you’re going to get fed up and bail before long.Yasmeen :I must say that it seemed a lot easier to form friendships while abroad just because of the commonality of language. Whenever I saw a foreigner it was easier to just break into conversation about where they were from, what they were doing in Japan, how long they had been there or were planning to stay, etc, whereas in your home country, there's no real blanket excuse to step up to a random person and start yakking.
Also, because of the odd nature of being abroad and needing to feel a bond or closeness with someone reminding you in the least of your humble beginnings, I feel like I may have gotten attached and felt more of a bond a lot more quickly. There we all were, sharing a unique experience that not everyone can relate to, so when you reconnect with friends that have been through it with you, you just feel all the more close.
All in all, I feel like the friendships I had- even if they were just for a "season" are pretty unforgettable, therefore making them extra special in my friendship book.
That last bit from Yasmeen is enough to abate my cynicism somewhat. Lasting friendships or not, though, living abroad is a really good people-watching exercise:
While jogging, Colin snapped this shot of a guy who unicycles while juggling and wearing a cowboy hat.