The Revolving Door: Dealing with Expat Friends Coming and Going

The Revolving Door: Dealing with Expat Friends Coming and Going
Jan 22, 2013 By Owain Lloyd-Williams ,

Life is all about change. If none of us has learnt that yet, then surely China is the place to realize it. It's not unheard of to be walking down a street in the area where you once lived not long ago, only to discover that your favorite snack stand alley has become yet another empty shopping mall. With all these constant changes happening around us, it's no wonder that expats tend to stick together and befriend each other quicker than we would perhaps in our own countries. Due to the similarity of our situations and shared experiences, friendships between fellow expats are easily forged and develop rather quickly, often leading to a sort of "second family" bond after a short while. But are these folks truly your "go to" people in China or are they jiu rou pengyou (fair-weathered friends)? Does it really make a difference when they leave?

The fun, yet unaccountable, "jiu rou pengyou"

As we all shared similar work schedules, my former colleagues and I often found ourselves hanging out together in our free time, quickly becoming a fun, fairly tight-knit social group. We had a good time together… and of course I considered them my friends, though I did find myself wondering whether these friends were the real deal or simply jiu rou pengyou from time to time, as I'm sure we all do. This brings me to my point—what happens when these friends or jiu rou pengyou, (depending on what you believe), who you've come to rely on in such a short space of time, suddenly pack up and leave? This is a dilemma that I've dealt with countless times during my time as an expat. Granted, the very nature of expat life is that it's ripe with turnover; new and old faces both coming and departing is a constant occurrence. While I can speak with no certainty, I feel that this turnover is perhaps higher in China, where, despite the number of foreigners coming here for work steadily increasing, many often stay for periods of two or three years before packing up and heading home.  

Now I'd rather not believe that the expat friends I've made in China are my friends solely due to circumstance or because we share a common language. I've certainly met some wonderful, interesting people during my time here that I hope to keep in touch with in the future. But how do long-term expats like myself deal with the constant coming-and-going nature of life abroad? It feels really terrible when a good friend that you've bonded with packs up and moves home. Whereas back home there are always social niches that cater to even the most abstract-minded individuals, the language and cultural issues in China and the limited pool of like-minded expats can make it much more difficult to find people to click with immediately. Even the most cosmopolitan cities in China can still be difficult to fit into. And the sheer size and population of many Chinese cities can make them very lonely places for people who aren't familiar with the language and/or are lacking in local Chinese friends. Of course, many of us who have been here long-term are likely have a healthy number of such local friends to hang around with (which is great), though we all need interaction with like-minded friends from similar backgrounds who speak on our wavelength from time to time. After all, why do so many of us visit websites like eChinacities? I guess what I am saying is: Fair-weather friends or not, they are certainly an asset in a foreign country.

Club China

It can get pretty lonely out there... but hey, look on the bright side

An extreme version of this very situation happened to me last summer, when the bulk of my nearest and dearest expat friends all left China near-simultaneously, leaving me, a frequent country-hopper myself, to experience for the first time what it felt like to be "left behind". Returning to the group of friends I mentioned earlier, we had all become very close during our time as colleagues, and would often hit the bar after a stressful weekend of teaching or meet up during the week to hang out together or grab dinner. As the rest of the world worked during the week (when we were largely free) these people became the focal point of my social life in China, making it all the more difficult to handle their group-like departure last summer. Although it was hard, I knew deep down that people have to move on and that it was up to me to deal with the change. So what do you do to cope with these friends who you were boozing with one weekend and then leave at the drop of a hat the next? Cliché though it sounds, you move on too. It certainly takes a lot of flexibility and willpower to constantly get yourself out there to meet new people, and as someone who comes from a small town where social circles stay the same forever and no one dares to escape the bubble, I think it's certainly a useful skill to have.

But things don't have to be so fatalistic. In this globalized world, technology such as email, Skype and Facebook certainly help, allowing us to instantly find out what our friends across the globe are up to, and chatting with old friends online can certainly help to soften the blow (and make you feel "international" if you're into that sort of thing). Personally speaking, if I find myself feeling down the next time a close friend decides to head back home, I'll just pull out my trusty world map and look at all the countries where the friends I've met here are from, and remind myself of all the good times we had together. Better still, I know now that I have an even bigger excuse to take time off and travel the world to visit all my friends of varying nationalities. It's certainly more rewarding to travel to a country where you know someone—they can take you to all of those off-the-beaten-path areas where the locals hang out or just provide decent company for our travels whilst we reminisce over old times.

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Keywords: dealing with expat friends moving away transient expat life China expats coming and going


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It feels very nice when we meet our old friends, along with the friend the old memories are also been remembered.

Jan 24, 2013 13:07 Report Abuse



true, i've got a lot of close friends when they are at where i am/was or when i was at where they were, but when there's a geographic change, even with high tech ways to contact each other, the feeling would be gone. it's hard to catch up on things. i consider the only to deal with it is to up to yourself how you want to deal with it like the author said. however i reckoned that shutting yourself to get close to friends who will leave one day is such a negative way of dealing this problem while it's understandable why people would do it thought.

Jan 23, 2013 15:50 Report Abuse



SNAP!! Right on the money. I was discussing this with Chinese friends too and the opinion of many of the locals was interesting. They don't like to get TOO friendly with the expats because they know they will not be here in 6 or 12 months' time! That kind of explained to me why it is sometimes difficult to make close friendships with Chinese people I have met.

Jan 22, 2013 10:45 Report Abuse