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How to make friends in your 40s without looking desperate… (ok, maybe aim for not too desperate?) :)

So what about us?

It felt like freshman year of college all over again.

Remember that feeling when you first got to campus? You started looking around for a familiar face and realize that for maybe the first time, you aren’t going to find any. Almost everyone freshman year feels this but you have the added benefit that everyone is going through the same experience. Suddenly, everyone is willing to strike up a conversation (sorta), even if you may not recall putting yourself out there before. It’s a matter of survival. How will you make it through the year without a community of folks that can share a laugh, stumble around campus together, figure out which party is worth the time or commiserate with when you are missing home?

After 2 years of being in lockdown, driven crazy by your bubble yet unable to jump into something new, this was scary but also exciting. Just like that first day of college, you know even the people who looked like they had it all together probably didn’t. And as your parents drove away, you no longer cared if you were barely holding it together.

We are social beings. You get reminded of this over and over again, when your previous communities are far away and you are the “new kids” on the block.

So our family started going to the shared pool & playground each day to meet our neighbors. We only had a couple of people that we had been introduced to prior to arriving, which helped us get a better understanding of what we could expect, but to everyone else we were strangers.

I was geniunely curious about others who have made this same move with their family and those who’ve lived here their whole lives. It was all new to us and the discovery was the most interesting part of this whole journey so far. It became less scary the more you spoke with people and realized lots of people just want to make an authentic connection. But that first step. Oy! It felt like I was inviting myself into someone’s set dinner party right before everyone sits down to dinner. “Mind if I join?” “Err, I guess not…” Or this may have just been the voice in my head.

So let’s break it down to who we met in the first few months. We’ve encoutered so many facinating people in a very short amount of time, but to make it easier to capture, let’s look at the 3 main groups:

First timers

These are the people who have never done an expat assignment before. We would be listed under this first group. Sure we’ve traveled around for vacations, but picked up your entire life and moved to a new country? This would be a first for us and we would find many wide-eyed expats in this same ship.

This group is very willing to chat and while they are equally excited to get to know the country, I would say there is a big split between those who are seeing this as hopefully a long term move vs. those who are definitely planning their repatriation as soon as the assignment is up. I’ve also found that first timers still very much like they have a home base and then there is this “special experience”. Ones who are quite new are still in comparison mode. What can they find here that compares to what they can find back home. Very few first timers call this “home”, even though it starts to feel more like home the longer you’re here.

The serial expat

During “normal times” there would be a lot more people in and out, but with the restrictions, most newbies came around July- September 2021 or way before the pademic.

Now there are many people that we met that are what I lovingly call “serial expats”. They are in roles or companies that have moved them around the world, some with families in tow and some without spouses or children coming along. The amount of different family situations we’ve encountered certainly show how many different ways there are to live and make it all work. Some are on their 5th or 6th country. Some have been traveling around for so long, they no longer have a concept of “going home”.

I often look to the spouses and children in those families to see how that works for them. Expat life is experienced in a very different way for the spouses that are supporting the move and children following. For the most part, they are very well adjusted and just accept this as a normal part of their lives. You get to the end of the assignment and then you just look to see where you want to go next, based on the opportunities that lie ahead. No need to return to the mothership when you’re able to keep moving to the next exciting city.

I’ve also found serial expats to be very open to relationship building. This is part of the social contract when you are essentially living life as a visitor. In particular, women quickly form a community and rely on each other in a way that is nurturing, reassuring, practical and can be downright necessary when their spouse is traveling.

Local Singaporeans

Becoming friends with local Singaporeans has proven to be hard in these restricted times (when we arrived you could only have 2 people meet a one time). There is a decided seperation in schools between expats and local Singaporeans. Since our kids are attending one of the international schools, which Singaporeans are restricted from attending, they rarely find the chance to make friends with local kids. (Singaporean local schools are beyond excellent, so we knew we’d be in good hands either way, but wish there were locals attending the same schools as our children.)

Since most of my normal ways of meeting people as an adult has been through work, this is more of a forced process for me. I was really lucky to be introduced to a few people through my NY friends and hoping now that restrictions are relaxing and gatherings are being allowed again to finally make more true connections with those who are proudly Singaporean in all the fantastic cultures that make up this country.

Breaking through cliques

There are a few cliques, as in high school, that aren’t looking for any new members. Lord knows how long it took them to find each other! A unintended outcome from the restrictions that were put in place, was the amount of cliques that formed.

Once we went from the 2 person restriction to 5 person restrictions, you had to choose your group of 5 carefully. You didn’t want to be chairless when the music stopped, but as an adult I refuse to abide by these mean girl rules of being in or out. I’d rather go have a solo cappuccino than force my way into a group that would rather not have me. Instead I just waited to find people I genuinely connected with, making myself vulnerable to rejection and hoped a spark of a friendship would appear. This also meant joining in lots of activities that I may not have before, as that might not have been my "thing". In this respect, it broadened my world in the bests of ways.

But it does make you miss your friends back home that much more. (Que Carry Bradshaw longing looking at the group of girls at a cafe in Paris, while she ate her pain au chocolat alone)

Secret Handshakes?

Well, not yet. But we are making our way. Some relationships are just starting, others are deepening and becoming vital to our experience here while some are fun aquaintances for now that we hope will grow. I think the fun part is learning this skill of social relationship building all over again. Finding the common ground. Understanding each others “why”. Learning what makes each family work or not work. Accepting differences as a difference in experience and therefore perspective, not necessarily a difference in values. Letting go of some of the tribalism that’s become so rampant and just meeting people where they are. It’s just the start. Here’s to many friendship bracelets in my future.

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