Monday, 10 March 2014

Expat Life: The Dark Side of Making Friends

The scars run deep
Photo Credit: Martin Boose
Many moons ago, when I was a much younger and naiver expat, I met a group of people that chilled me to the bone. The experience scarred me for life, and made me wary of expat groups.

I read a blog post yesterday which made me laugh. Just for a minute or two. Before the post reawakened sleeping memory cells I thought I had buried deep, and my harrowing experience blasted back into my mind. I felt for an instant whisked back to that bar, whisked back to an expat life I used to know.

When you're an expat, meeting new people is a priority. It can be the difference between sinking and swimming in a new land. Expats often gravitate towards other expats, and there's nothing wrong with that, but just because you have the commonality of living outside your home country it does not by any means mean you have anything else in common, or that you are destined to be life long buddies. Trust me, I know that the hard way.

It wasn't long after I moved to the Netherlands, and by long I mean it was a year or so after arrival, when I actually stopped being incredibly overwhelmed and wanted to meet other people who I thought would know how I felt and who would help me adjust to life overseas.

For a while I struggled with the feeling that whilst I am an expat I'm not the same as some other expats. At the time I worked with a lot of expats but they were expats who had no intention of putting down roots in the Netherlands, making friends with the locals or even learning to speak Dutch. After a few years in the Netherlands, they would be off again to another far flung destination. They were a different breed of expat, so certainly not in the same boat as me.

Making friends with the locals proved hard. Without a good command of Dutch I wasn't really destined for any Dutch speaking groups and so I felt a little in limbo, stuck between the expat world and the world where the locals circulated.

It should have been so much fun
Then I came across a group that seemed perfect. On paper. Like minded expats who were with local partners, who were carving out a new life for themselves here in the Netherlands. And after some deliberation I went to a get-together in a bar.

Oh, what an evening it was. The worst evening I have ever had in the Netherlands. Quite possibly the worst social occasion of my life.

I was sandwiched between Mrs Depressed and her Angry Daughter and Mrs I Don't Want to Be Here.  Mrs Depressed loved her partner but hated her life, hated Dutch food, hated that people wouldn't talk English to her everywhere she went, hated Dutch supermarkets, hated that she couldn't buy the things she could buy in her local Tesco in England, hated that Dutch people were blunt, hated that she had no friends, hated Dutch stairs, hated all the Dutch administration she had been subjected to. You get the picture.

Angry Daughter thought her mother's partner was nice but hated her life in the Netherlands and resented her mum for dragging her away from her home country. She longed too for the aisles of a Tesco supermarket.

Mrs I Don't Want to Be Here had a baby but was considering running away from both her baby and her husband because she hated everything and everyone that even remotely seemed Dutch.

I listened (and barely spoke) for a few hours to nothing but how terrible life was in the Netherlands. I seem to have caught an entire group of expats in a bad place on their culture shock curve, and they did nothing but egg each other on to see who could make the most negative comment about expat life in the Netherlands or anything Dutch.

By the time I escaped I felt violated, battered and bewildered. Why wasn't I experiencing life in the Netherlands as something so terrible and soul destroying? Was there something wrong with me that I actually liked life in the Netherlands? I had arrived at the meet feeling quite optimistic and perky. By the time I left I wanted to throw myself under a tram to ensure I NEVER experienced another evening like I had just had.

Needless to say it took me a long time to get the courage up to attend any gathering that comprised wholly of expats. I get that expat life can be tough, and it can help to talk about it over a good pint of Guinness, but there is a limit.

So now, I'm very careful about the groups I get involved it, and surround myself with positive, happy people, people who get that living in the Netherlands is a privilege and not a disaster.

How have your attempt to make friends as an expat gone? I would love to hear your success stories, and about those not so positive occasions.....


  1. I can understand when you don't want to be with people who are negative about their lives in the Netherlands- I have met my share of them, too. But didn't it occur to you that they may need help? Or that they were so homesick that they needed to vent a little- remember it was a bar, but if you met them somewhere else, maybe it wouldn't have been so awful? Of course it is annoying to hear people saying bad things about living in a certain culture, but why do we need to love everything about it? Why do we need to only see the positives? Maybe for these people, venting really helped. Maybe they went home and felt much better because of that evening.I think we need both: the positive side to remind us why we're here. And the negative, to remind us where we came from.

  2. Each school we move to makes a big point of walking you through the phases of expat-adjustment, even breaking it down to a month-by-month time scale so you understand why you're feeling what you're feeling at that time. It makes the transitions smoother, though unfortunately, there are still some who feel like they hate everything about their new home. For me, meeting other expats is all part of the package- we're almost all international teachers so... but I can relate to the part where you said that just because you're an expat doesn't mean you'll be life-long friends. A lot of times, we're friends because we have to be, not because it's someone we would really choose in 'real life.'

  3. There is nothing wrong with a little negativity when you are adjusting to expat life - absolutely normal and a healthy part of the process. However, in a group of around 15 people of varying stages of expat status to hear NOTHING positive at all - even if it was about something else other than life in the Netherlands - seemed extremely unhealthy and counterproductive. Imagine going to an AA meeting where the only topic was how wonderful alcohol is..... this was supposed to be a social occasion (not a support or venting group) to meet others making a life in the Netherlands.

    If I meet someone these days who is struggling with life here I step in and offer a shoulder - I know how it feels and I also know that for most it ends but this meeting all those years ago was a completely different ball game.

    If others are experiencing homesickness and the culture shock curve is unknown and a complete surprise I do not see how wallowing for 3 hours in a cloud of negative advice can possibly help. There are MANY brilliant expat groups out there that have a more welcoming manner about them and whose aim to help and support expats - this group was not one of them.

    I wrote this post in response to the one I read (mentioned in the post) which resonated that not all social groups you get involved in are a good fit - sometimes you have to shop around to find a group which matches better!

    Thanks for your comments and a great discussion!!

  4. I've been all of those women I think at some stage or another. I do notice that when a bunch of women get together for a few drinks, we always complain about our circumstances and our husbands. It's healthy to complain a bit, because if you're sitting at home (or at work) all day, you may not have an outlet for the anger and frustrations that build up over time.

    I do try to stay away from the chronic whingers now, and have also re-evaluated my friendships and have stepped back from the toxic relationships that being an expat often forces upon you. Now I can say that I honestly have a wonderful, tight knit circle of friends whom I love dearly and would be friends with no matter where on this planet I lived.

  5. I think it's hard making friends with the locals. You have to get to know how they go about making friends and the British sense of humour and way of doing things is very different to the American way. It took me a long time to get used to it. I still have the scars from a toddler group experience I had when my first child was a baby. It was horrific! I persisted though and made some good friends from that same group who rejected me initially. It took several years though. Great post!

  6. Wow, this was such a wonderful post, thank you for sharing. I know exactly how you feel, as a long-term expat in Florence, Italy - I have often met the same kind of people you describe in your post. Either it feels as if I am constantly saying 'goodbye' or I meet people who have no want/need to integrate in Italian life and just complain, luckily I try and really filter people because I let them into my life. I wish you luck in finding a great group of like-minded people, I know how hard that is, I have a found a wonderful network from writing a blog and that might be the same case for you, via other long-term expat bloggers in the Netherlands that actually WANT to be there :)

    ciao from Florence!

  7. Hi, I discovered your blog today! And I love it!
    I am also an expat in the NL, and I agree that moving to a new location can be overwhelming so it's best to surround yourself with positive people right from the start. I have also been quite fortunate to meet some really great expats in my first few months in the NL.

  8. Unfortunately I've had a few similar experiences, but at the same time I've been extremely lucky to meet some lovely Dutch girls, some of whom I now consider to be among my best friends in the world :) When I first moved to Leiden to do my MA though, I didn't have many friends and I was so excited to meet other international students. I made a real effort to get to know the group of about ten people in my class, but after the first semester I had to throw in the towel. These people either had no plans of staying in the Netherlands or of in any way intergrating into life here, OR they were SO negative about the country!! I'll be the first to admit that I've done my fair share of moaning about the weather and the IND but this was really a non-stop thing. If we went out for food, it was inevitably sub-par compared to what these people could get at home. If it was warm out, it was TOO warm. If it was cold out, this country was the most miserable place and why couldn't we ever have a good day here? It drove me up the wall.
    I KNOW not all expats are this way - I see the proof in the blogs that I read daily! - but that experience really turned me off actively seeking expat friends.

  9. I can relate to this post completely because I've met too many women like this in France. Funnily enough it's the worst place I've been for this kind of behaviour, far worse than in Vietnam, Bulgaria or Australia where I've lived as an adult. Perhaps it's because it's relatively close that the comparisons come faster and they can pop back "home" easily to stock up on supplies and get a fix of Englishness. When I first moved here I was astonished to go to kids' tea parties where the mums serve custard creams and bourbon biscuits rather than the French equivalent (which are way nicer IMO and certainly waaaay cheaper and none of the kids would have known or cared.) This was while slagging off everything about France and the French, never taking a single French lesson etc. I'm married to a French guy and every now and then one would go "woops, sorry, no offence" like that would make it all totally acceptable. 7 years later these women are still here, still complaining and still can't communicate at all in French. I met most of them through an English-speaking baby group and soon found that speaking English was not enough in common. I moved on and luckily found kindred souls both expat and local but felt completely alientated by these negative people.

  10. That type of experience would scare me off from expat groups for a while, too. I've been fortunate in Tilburg and most people are positive - that doesn't mean that they don't have things that bug them, but you can have a realistic view of the negative while still having a decent attitude.

  11. What an interesting debate. It just goes to show that there are some of us that come to new countries with not necessarily over-brimming positivity but at least willing to 'give it a go'. It took me 2 years to find friends I feel comfortable with, that do not drain me or use me as an excuse to complain about all the things wrong with their lives (that would often be wrong whatever country they lived in). But it is also true that we only see what is presented to us - maybe some people are totally here against their will, even if they don't say or even believe so. So many sacrifices are made in an expat life and if it's not shared equally between the people involved, negativity finds an easy hold.

  12. Wonderful comments - and it seems like I am certainly not the only one who has gone through a particularly negative social experience as an expat. I absolutely agree that there will ALWAYS be things that bug you when you live overseas, just as there would be in your birth country, but how you deal with it is the difference between enjoying expat life or leading a miserable existence.

    There are negative people everywhere but none of us have to choose to spend time with them!

  13. It's definitely easy for a group's culture to get negative. It's not that I expect people to be shiny and happy all the time - part of the reason for friendly groups is to hear about and support everyone through the rough stuff - but it's whether it's constructive or not.

    Some types of negativity breed solutions, other types breed more negativity. And then when you get stuck in the spiral it's hard to get everyone out again. Good choice not getting stuck in the first place I say.

  14. This is such an interesting post. I've found similar things with meeting other expats in Barcelona, as it can be really hit or miss. You often end up meeting people who you would absolutely never have been friends with back home!

    I actually stopped trying to find friends at expat group meetings for a lot of the reasons you talk about. You're right, it is a privilege to be able to experience another country's culture as an expat.

  15. Oh my god, I just read my whole experience as an expat, ecept I'm in Ireland! I used to work with a lot of French people, and about a year after we started work, we got together to talk about how we felt about our experience so far. All of them were saying they thought Irish people were not welcoming and they didn't make any Irish friends... Well the truth is they were working together, living together and going out together, so it would have been hard for an Irish person to feel part of a such a close group of French friends... Anyway, I told them I had Irish friends and didn't socialise with expats only. The answer was: Oh, but it's not the same for you! Maybe it's not the same because I made an effort ??

  16. I think it's so hard... I try to avoid the negative, but I do feel sorry for some of these women, some of whom feel stuck somewhere because of circumstance, and feel completely and utterly miserable and trapped, but then to moan to a relatively new expat (you at the time) was not however very fair... I remember when we moved to Denmark, I met an expat married to a Dane who proceeded to tell me how awful it was, how everything was wrong/terrible/tasted bad, and I just came away thinking "what am I doing here"... Luckily I did go on to meet nice positive friends, but I still feel sorry for that person...