The idea: Pick up, move off to a beautiful, foreign land, where the cost of living is cheap, weather is mild, and people are friendly. A chance to explore parts of the world you’ve only read about. Give time and effort to causes close to our heart! Awesome, right? Well… not entirely.
Our posts have mostly focused on the amazingly positive experiences (and photos, let’s not forget those!) that the expatriate lifestyle affords. Sure, it makes sense. We want to be positive, to inspire others to try new things, see the world, raise our child to be a global citizen, etc., and we’ve certainly enjoyed our adventure thus far, living and traveling through Thailand and SE Asia.
But (very powerful word, that “but”), we also learned that we can’t run away from (all) our problems. For example, sometimes Aye and I don’t communicate well (that’s code for ‘fighting’), and moving to Thailand certainly didn’t change that. We still work on it, work on being better parents, and we realize those are constants despite our changing surroundings. Yes, a change of scenery can bring a breath of fresh air (well, depends on where you are, the air quality might be worse!), but our change came at a cost.
One of those costs is that we’ve left family, friends and colleagues behind in the states. That was our social “ecosystem” (sorry, I read about the smartphone industry a bit too much). It’s hard to replace that when we moved. As an expat, that’s a reality that’s difficult to disclose to anyone. It may sound like weakness, whining, or that we’re not trying hard enough. Changing our social ecosystem is many ways has been very positive – meeting new people in the travel writing world, NGO world, and other expat families and retirees – but it wasn’t easy. There’s a handful of folks that we feel that we can trust and rely upon like family, and that’s not so bad!
Even in the age of digital social networks, maintaining our ties back home isn’t sufficient to meet our social needs on a daily basis. We underestimated how much we would miss family and friends back in the States. We learned that we needed to connect to people locally. It’s easy to take for granted the years of friendship investment we’ve put in over the time.
Making new connections is especially challenging for us as parents. We don’t do happy hours anymore. Oh, wait, unless you count the one in Houston that the three of us go to in order to get 50% off the appetizer menu… but I digress. Our focus was about how Emma will adjust, given she will miss her old friends, and have to integrate into a new school. Based on what we’ve seen, Emma seems to be doing just fine. The school is an established social ecosystem to make new friends for her, and many of the “BFF” variety.
But what about the new ecosystem for us parents? It has taken quite some effort to establish new bonds with fellow parents at the same school, and it feels as if our social circle depends on Emma’s social connections in school. If one lived far from the school and depended on the school bus, then that’s even less personal interactions with other parents. Luckily, we take Emma to school on our own, which gives us more ‘face time’ with other parents and teachers. Even during play dates, or birthday parties, it takes time for us to develop deeper level friendships. Conversations tend to stay at that polite socializing level, and rarely beyond that. I think it takes an average of 5.45 brief encounters before names are exchanged. Plus, these gatherings are infrequent (there are only so many birthdays to go around…).
I must confess that my closest, unconditional friends are still the ones that I formed during middle school, then the college days back in the late ’80s – early ’90s. Same is true with Aye and her friends she’s known for over two decades! Sad, but true (about the friends part, not the ’80s), and this was meant as no disrespect to our new friends here. We have many new friends that we are ‘friendly’ with, but we know we can’t just call them up if we need a ride from the airport, or to borrow a truck, etc., or someone to watch Emma that we would trust.
How we try to combat “Expat Loneliness Syndrome” (“ELS”… catchy, yes? Just made that up):
Well, you might be surprised to hear this, but overcoming ELS does involve getting out of the house, for the most part. But taking a lesson from basic Social Psychological research, the most powerful factor in predicting whether one would become friends with another person, is…. proximity. Yes, you heard me. It’s proximity.
Studies in classrooms, dorms and other environments found that after a period of months, these strangers became friends with those who lived or sat closest to them in a classroom. It wasn’t about personality matching, or mere physical attraction.
Okay, so how can we apply the principle of proximity to combating ELS (yes, still giggling over ELS)? It’s partly about being out there, on a consistent basis (no stalking please). There’s more to it though. We need to be in the right type of place, so we can become friends with the right people, for us. If I need a drinking buddy, I’d go to a bar. But I don’t really want a drinking buddy. We are looking for genuine, giving, and generous people (the 3 Gs?), so we tend to spend time at local non profit organizations, or fair trade businesses. Sure, that’s an oversimplification, and I’m sure there are some evil NGO workers out there, but you get the overall idea. As parents, we try spending more time at Emma’s school. We do our best to attend most of the school fields trips, attending school functions like the school BBQs or sports day. We created more opportunities to interact with other parents and teachers (and we like that we can meet with Em’s teachers at any time). Out of the large pool of parents, we eventually met fellow parents whose company we enjoy and vice versa.
We don’t rely too much on social media to meet people, surprisingly. Yes, we did meet new expats, who emailed us, and showed genuine interest in meeting us. Some of our good friends in Chiang Mai were those who found our blog, or we found theirs, or they saw us on “House Hunters International,” and we’re grateful to have them in our lives. We certainly don’t knock its value. Heck, Aye has a gig now because she responded to a request in a FB group. What I mean is that we don’t want to solely rely on social media to meet new people. Yes, it’s a great tool to find communities, etc., but we learned we needed to spend less time on the computer as it was easy to kill too many hours on the digital screen. It’s about having balance.
So, no, we can’t replace our ‘ecosystem’ like it was back home, but we have worked hard to create a new one, that is still evolving every day. Most importantly, we love our own company as a family of three (selfies don’t lie!), which fills any void I might feel when I miss my family back in Texas and Taiwan.
This post was a reflection of our own experiences of being expats in Chiang Mai since 2010. Please comment and share your experiences of expat life!
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