How living the expat life affected my ability to maintain relationships.
On a family holiday in New York, sometime around 2004, my Dad broke the news to my Sister and I that he had accepted a job offer in Bahrain. Having never heard of it, I asked him where it was:
“It’s a small island next to Saudi Arabia”
For a white, essentially middle-class 14-year-old boy living in West London, this was nothing short of madness. I lived in one of the most liberal cities in the world – why were we moving there? Did anyone speak English? Were there even cars or did everyone ride camels? (This last ignorance would be turned on its head some years later, once I had been culturally acclimatised, when all my British friends would ask “OMG, do you like ride a camel to school?”) My knowledge of the Middle East stemmed mostly from the frenzied Western response to 9/11; the word ‘terrorism’ flashed through my mind, (erroneously) conjuring images of war and violent extremism.
Later that year, we packed up our belongings and flew east to begin our new lives as expats*. I left behind some of the best friends I ever had, a close-knit group with whom my identity was forged as a young man. I left behind first loves, and others that never had the chance to become something more. I left behind everything.
My new life was strange, defined mostly by unbearable heat and boredom – we arrived during the blistering heat of a 45-degree Summer, months before the new school year officially started. For those unfamiliar with Bahrain, it is arguably one of the more lenient states in the Arabian Gulf (at least from an expat’s perspective), with lax laws on alcohol and a large non-native population. Still, it was a definite culture shock moving from the largest metropolis in the UK to the sandy suburbs of Saar, the new and unfamiliar terrain overloading my senses.
I spoke to my friends daily via MSN and Skype, sharing missed adventures, the ever-changing school-ground gossip. Eventually I started school and began to make new friends, speaking less and less with my old ones until we barely spoke at all; I haven’t spoken to some of them since. I made new friends, some of which dissolved as we developed into adulthood, our perspectives veering in different directions, others with whom I still speak with today (albeit irregularly). I met my first real love, whose eventual devastating departure ended our burgeoning romance prematurely, leaving me to wallow in a new anguish. These flitting and fleeting relationships marked much of my teenage years, as other expat families uprooted their children to new and strange countries.
I never have been very good at keeping in touch. There is something about that constant upheaval which changes how you deal with the loss of a relationship. You focus on the future, on moving on, letting the past slip into memory to ease the pain. It becomes a coping mechanism. Digital technology may facilitate cross-continent communication, but it is no substitute for the tangibility of real-life interaction. Recent studies appear to support this, showing that people who move from place-to-place are more likely to have shallower social-relations. The present becomes the only known to avoid the pain of the past, so we keep ourselves sane by replacing the old with the new.
The one saving grace here is that I am not alone. My fellow expat friends understand these feelings all too well and we rarely judge each other for it. We may only see each other once every few years, but we slip into familiarity as if no time has passed at all. Realistically, keeping up with everyone scattered across the globe would be almost impossible, requiring 24-hour maintenance across six different time-zones. This acceptance is crucial to sustain our relationships, even if everyone else thinks that it is completely insane to be so close to someone who I haven’t seen in five years, let alone spoken to properly in three.
As I reach my thirties I have become increasingly lost in the nostalgia of my youth. Making friends was easy, a seamless, fluid transaction, but in hindsight it was often also glib, relationships formed through mutual uncertainty of ourselves (and particularly in my teens, alcohol). The difficult part was maintaining those relationships as we changed, grew and inevitably in the expat community, moved away.
When I moved back to study in Brighton at 19, I felt that familiar feeling of loss all over again. Thrown from the security and affluence of expat life in the Middle East into the fast-paced hustle of the Western world, just as the global economy was collapsing in on itself, was a kind of reverse culture shock. Bahrain ran on a very different time, ruled by the Arabic saying ‘Inshallah’ (God Willing). It was calmer and more forgiving.
Once again, I had to uproot my life and adapt to a new place, in a country that I no longer felt any affinity to. My early twenties were a whirlwind of booze & confusion, self-discovery & hedonism. It took me a long time to work things out, a process of which is very much still on-going. I was drawn to work in the kitchen of an English Language School, where students & teachers alike operated on the same transience as I did. We understood each other.
I now have friends in Bahrain, others in the US & Canada, my Sister who lives in Saudi Arabia and my best-friend who lives in Australia; I’m missing friends at different ends of the Earth. The truth is, as we get older friendships generally become more difficult to maintain for one reason: time. Our obsession with familial milestones, particularly getting married and having children, mean we spend less time working on our friendships. According to the Trades Union Congress, British people also spend more time working than any of their European counterparts. Jobs, partners and ever-increasing responsibilities create insurmountable obstacles when it comes to our friends.
All relationships naturally change over time, some lasting a lifetime whilst others fade away, but for some of us who grew up constantly moving there is an added layer of complexity. Growing up in another country may have made me a more rounded person, helping to shed my ignorance and understand a different culture, but it has also affected my ability to maintain lasting relationships. So to all my friends that haven’t heard from me in a while, from Brighton to Bahrain: I’m sorry, I miss you.
* I use the term expat for narrative accuracy (we genuinely identified as expats), but I find the term problematic – for what is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?