The Expat Art of Friendships

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” ~Adrienne Rich

If you are living abroad, how many true friends do you have?  Finding true human relationships is an art that I have yet to master, especially as an expat. I have oodles of acquaintances, expat and local, yet very few that I consider true friends, those that we can count on to go that hard way with us. I guess that is normal, right?

Truth be told, it has been a learning process for me. I have had a difficult time cutting ties with negative, dishonorable people, whether they be expats or locals. Why is that? Because we all want to belong, to be a part of something…kind of like our tribe?

Perspective is necessary for me to understand the depth and breath of true friendship. The illusion of friendship is a frame, a shallow arrangement of shapes on a flat surface..two dimensional. True friendship is the lava deep beneath the crust of daily life…and it takes a lot of digging and peeling the layers back to find it.

I read The 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

Here is the bottom line from the article; “You cannot expect that just because you meet other expats in your new country that you’re going to like them or that you’re going to have anything in common with them.”

How do we choose our friends and admit them into our inner circle? What are our expectations for true friendship? And on what values are they based? It is fun and exciting to connect with other expats. Every expat has a story, and some stories are unbelievably creative, intriguing, and entertaining.

Yet, I realize that I am not going to click with every expat for a variety of reasons…language, different values and different backgrounds, and the difficulty of connecting on a regular basis because they are business owners and very busy, or they live on the other side on my island or in another city in Nicaragua.

Those I embrace with my open heart are those whom I would embrace in my home country, although the pool is much smaller here. Digging deeper into the lava, I believe we are driven by our values. Our values are learned in a national culture, and many times we are not conscious of our values until we are plopped in a different culture and confronted with someone very different from ourselves. We have a tendency to judge other’s behavior based on our own cultural norms, the “lens” we see through.

As a result, we can easily have personal conflicts in developing true friendships because of misunderstandings and miscommunication. Miscommunication is a big problem, especially for those who do not understand the language. Different values lead to different behavior, behavior you may not understand. It is important that we try to learn and appreciate these differences in order to work effectively with people from other cultures, expats included.

I read in BrainPickings today, “Mitchell resolves to have more balanced relationships and reflects on how unwise it is to turn a single person into the center of gravity in one’s emotional universe. Instead, one’s attachments should be distributed among many people, each fulfilling a different need — one providing intellectual stimulation, another rendering us “more elastic and buoyant, more happy and radiating more happiness, because we know him,” another inspiring in us such “warmth of affection” that “our hearts grow as if in a summer feeling.” (Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters)

I like that concept of true friendship…spread the love around by embracing people who meet one specific need.  

The majority of my local friends are true friends, those with whom we can reciprocate going the hard way with each other. Although our lives and values are very different, and I realize I will never be Nicaraguan ( nor do I want to be), we can meet each other’s needs and share a common humanity…a sharing, giving, and loving emotional economy.

True friendship is an art. An art that defies nationality, language, race, and gender, yet always exposes our values like a sparkling mirror reflecting who we really are. I will probably always be digging deeper into the layers of true friendship, but I am beginning to understand that we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us. Yet, that is what makes true friendship so special, right?

What does true friendship mean to you? 



19 thoughts on “The Expat Art of Friendships

  1. Hola Amiga
    This is a lovely and honest post, and is one that touches anyone who weans into new cultures, sometimes almost with little to use as a guide except instinct. There is also the concept of ‘staying put’ – something you and Ron and I did not embrace – that suits many people… They have their support group of friends and family and oftentimes the church as welll. But then there are those with Gipsy attitudes, and we find our way, using instincts as a compass and allowing Life to guide us. I recently mentioned to a group that I could not imagine staying in one place – never leaving the USA – at the expense of never meeting people I feel are/were in my destiny to meet. YOU, dear one, are one of those people, as are Hank and Marie in Costa Rica as well as Barbara in Panama. Here in Ecuador, with each move from area to area, there are usually one or two very special people that I feel blessed to know – or perhaps I sense it was in my destiny to be a part of their life/lives – for a month or a year or even for a day – there was a reason, sometimes an obvious one…
    Long ago a ‘friend’ scowled about my friendship with another guy, one who drank too much and often was a bit sour with his words. I replied that I knew that my friendship was important to him, and if an earthquake covered me in rubble, he would not stop digging me out until he knew if I were dead or alive — or if I were caught in a rip, he’d not stand on shore and shrug to say, ‘too bad.’ The ‘other’ friend said, ‘I hope you know I’d do that for you…’ — but honestly I suspected that he would not…..
    We know at our core the ones that would be there for us – if physically possible … and if not, they are with us in spirit….. So with each move, if we collect just one ‘true friend’ – we are rich!!!!

    You are cherished, my dear friend, probably by more than you realize!

    • Oh Lisa, this touched my heart. ❤️ You are correct when you say we don’t have our usual guiding compass to help us make friends in a new culture. When we lived in the states, the process of nourishing friendships was much easier. We didn’t have to rely on our gut feelings because we all spoke the same language and shared common experiences. Here, I rely on my intuitive feelings and let them guide me. I often wonder how that works because sometimes I get little warning nudges when meeting someone new. I have ignored them in the past and discounted them as not real. It is kind of like how a dog senses that a person isn’t trustworthy. Is it the smell? I am going to have to do more research on intuition. My senses are stronger than ever before and I let them guide me now. Most of the time, they open the door to wonderful new experiences and friendships. For that I am very grateful. Love you mi amiga! ❤️

      • That little voice of intuition has saved me more than once.. the biggest was a strong sense of foreboding at Lake Atitlan, a place I love/loved, but there was one place that gave me an instant ‘bad’ feeling, one that nudged me to leave asap… about a month later, that area was buried in a mudslide/landslide…..
        yes, you are right about that vibes we get when meeting someone for the first time. i think that our experience with others plays a part in that – we learn, perhaps by subtle clues we’re not aware of sensing…. and then there is the higher-power option, and for sure i’ve been helped in the past by unseen forces/guardians…

        we have lots to swap when we’re having a visit in person again!

  2. Thanks Debbie for touching on this often neglected aspect of Expat life. You have brought very important awareness to a big reality when it comes to sharing friendships..especially here in Nicaragua. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Caroline. I’ve been quarantined in my house because of the pink eye epidemic in Nicaragua, so I have a lot of time to ponder many things. Lol
      As always, I have more questions than answers to life’s mysteries, but the fun is in exploring these issues that we all neglect to think about. ❤️

  3. Hey Debbie
    I must say I hardly ever get into these sorts of conversations without coming across a bit of advice that my mother shared with me as a young boy.. ” true friends are folks you know ALL about and like anyway”. I think as we progress in the weeding out process, the willingness to expose vulnerabilities ( perceived or real) will greatly enhance the possibility of having a friend that will go the hard way. We don’t see either of you often enough except in my dreams:>) but I wouldn’t hesitate to put you high on the list of true friends… There isn’t anything I can think of that I wouldn’t ( and possibly already have) be willing to share with you. Keep up the good work and know from where I sit you both are setting the finest of examples!
    Your friend on the fringe Tom

    • Oh Tom! Your comment made me a little tears eyed. You are one of a kind in our book and will always be a cherished friend although our paths seldom cross. We think of you often. We have so many endearing and sometimes crazy memories of our friendship, that the memories will last a lifetime. Sending love and hugs! ❤️

  4. I remember a few years back when you and Ron brought me back from the USA a charger for my
    E-brush something I really needed at the time and you hardly knew me. You two would be the type I would put on my list. See you in November!

    • Aww, Dean, thank you. Let me tell you a little story. I was pushing our kayak into the lake one day, and a guy on the beach came over to talk to me. In chatting, I told him I wished I had a waterproof camera to take in the kayak. He handed me his waterproof Olympus camera and told me to use it as long as I wanted. He started as a stranger, but is no longer a stranger, instead a friend. So, I am paying his kindness forward.

  5. True friends are those that understand and accept you, that you can trust and goof around with; most of my friends I’ve known a long time. It’s harder to make new friends at a certain mature age but every once in a while you meet somebody you instantly click with. Then it’s a matter of keeping that relationship alive and turn it into a friendship. At the end of the day we all have at best a handful of true friends.

  6. I love this post, Debbie and have been reflecting on the qualities that I value in my truest friends. Like you, the friends that I know I can count on to “go the hard way” are few but what a joy it is knowing that you have those few trusted people that you can count on. As I get older and have more time, one of my priorities has been nurturing friendships and I’m finding that the friendships we’ve made during this phase of traveler/expat are deeper and more honest than the friends from our past who have slowly faded away. Sadly, in my former life, I never put the time and effort into nurturing friendships but there’s no time like the present to begin. And hey, don’t forget the online, virtual friendships from the blogging world. When I talk about some of these with my husband he’s always going, “And where did meet them?” 🙂 And yet, the back and forth of comments and reading others’ blogs also make a rich community of friends. Anita

    • Oh Anita, you are so right! There is a whole new world of virtual friends in the blogosphere. To me, they are just as “real” as my “tangible” friends. Ron and I have enjoyed meeting my blogging friends when we travel and I feel as if I really know them through their writing.
      Besides family, I was so busy working and raising a family, that I too never nourished the friendships I had. Living abroad, I find in many cases I have to rely on my gut instincts about people. It could be because of a language barrier, or a completely different set of perceived values, however I am learning to follow that instinctive feeling and it is usually spot on! Developing a circle of trusted friends takes time. So little time, so many new friends to make. 😀

  7. Values have no borders, and are the truly distinguishing guideposts of our humanity. There are as many nicaraguans as northamericans who I would not want to waste another minute of my time with, while others I come across I would like nothing more than to open up to, be vulnerable and go the hard way with. We all have filters, and I am no different, but as I get older I strive to drop all judgement and be open to all. I find it hard to do, and sometimes disheartening, but I believe we all deserve as much. As far as expats, in my case, other nicaraguans in the US, I can’t say I have meaningful relationships with even a handful of them, mostly because of time constraints; career, raising children, aging parents, and not necessarily because of diverging values. I long to change that as I go into the “retirement” phase. I often think about how poorly nurtured are my relationships with those I know to be quality friends, but feel I cannot put in the time. I hope to change that and begin many new wonderful relationships.

    • Well said, Ernesto. I used to be more open and nonjudgmental, and probably naive, but I am not sure why it has changed. Now, I tend to be more skeptical, especially when it comes to living abroad, traveling, and meeting new people.
      When we were in New Zealand, we met a young guy that offered to let us sit at his table in a crowded restaurant. Immediately, we struck up a deeper conversation beyond the surface level of what do you do for a living and where do you live. I told myself, I really like this guy, yet in the back of my mind I kept telling myself , watch out Debbie. He offered to take us on a sight seeing trip in his car on our way to the airport. Once I let my guard down, relaxed and let my intuition and gut feelings take over, I realized that he was truly a kind person and only wanted to make us feel at home in his country.
      We attract what we give. That is my motto for living. And I am learning to live by it daily. ❤️

  8. This is a very honest assessment. After 29 years I don’t worry about this any more, as I do have some good local friendships that I truly benefit from. I do remember very well having issues with many other “expats,” whom I felt obliged to associate with for a while, only to discover that we have nothing in common and I would likely not be friends with them back “home.” Values are absolutely critical, aren’t they? It takes a while to sort it all out. Meanwhile, I know a few expats here who seem a bit lonely, especially those whose stay here is limited to 2 or 3 years.

    • Thanks so much, Petchary. It certainly does take a while to sort everything out, especially who can we trust in living abroad and making new friends. Recently we have been enveloped in expat drama. So much so that I want to be a hermit. I hate the drama. Living on a little island where everything spreads by rumor, words and stories are twisted into unbelievable tales. Yet, I guess that happens all over the world, right?

  9. Well said….and changes as we go through life…a bit….when younger attracted to maybe those more risque types but realize these come and go. I think how one was raised is the most important which translates to values our patents gave us…and you recognize those everywhere….the all day beer guzzling racist expat in nicaragua is the same person in his does not make someone better.

    • Oh Laura, don’t get me started on the beer guzzling racist expats. I rewrote my post several times after Ron told me, Debbie don’t say that, you sound so judgmental. Lol I tried to keep my judgment out of my post, but maybe you can read between my lines a little to see how I feel about the escapee mentality of some expats. They can run, but never hide for long. 😜

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