The Transient Community of a Life Overseas

When I moved to Southeast Asia, she was one of the first people I met. We were staying in a teammate’s house that shared a wall with Calah’s backyard.

I was outside at the same time she was one day, and we introduced ourselves. The discussion quickly led to the things I needed to acquire in order to set up our new home, and Calah told me all about the stores I should hold out for across the border in Thailand.

Sometimes you just need something happy, you know? Something that’s pretty and makes you feel normal, she said.

It was immediately evident that we would be great friends.

Before long, we were grabbing cups of coffee together and going out for massages. She showed me around town and helped me avoid some major cultural faux pas early into my transition abroad.

Our husbands connected, our children fell in love with each other, and our families spent increasingly more time together.

Dinners at each other’s homes, late night card games, and meaningful conversations all brought us even closer in community.

When I was having a major meltdown the day of my daughter’s first birthday, I called Calah. She talked me off a cliff, picked up the pieces of party paraphernalia, and pulled everything together before guests began to arrive for the celebration.

When our husbands took a weeklong service trip to a rural village, Calah and I moved in together. We put our girls down each night, and I cranked up the Friends episodes while she gathered the secret stash of imported specialty M&Ms. We did, you know, all the spiritual things.

In all reality, though, we shared those things, too. Nights of prayer, brunch Bible studies, long theological discussions…we met each other in a place where souls connect. 

But as is common with a life overseas, Calah’s family was walking through a job transition, and it wasn’t clear where the future would lead them. I selfishly prayed that the Father would open up the perfect opportunity for them elsewhere in our city…perhaps even next door to our home.

How could He not? I thought as I considered all the work to be done in this country. We need workers HERE, God. And they know this language and are already established in this city!

I swallowed hard when she told me the news. In a swoop of perfect timing and impeccable provision, Calah and her husband were both offered ideal jobs in a city several country borders away.

I would be losing my first true friend in this new place I call home.

::

An international move is nothing new to the expat crew.

There is always the threat of another round of goodbyes.

The packing crates are always ready to gear up for another transition.

Roots are often wider than they are deep.

I’d been warned of this when I moved abroad. I had heard that many people would move in and out of my life. I’d read about the fluidity of relationships in the international community.

But for the first time, I experienced the sting of a farewell that I hadn’t initiated myself.

It’s always been me that’s moved, you see.

For college.

For marriage.

For training.

For work.

I’ve packed my belongings. I’ve been in control of when I would say goodbye.

But now I understand what it’s like to be the one staying behind.

This has not only opened my eyes to the pain of those from whom I’ve so eagerly departed; I’ve now been oriented into the transient community of a life overseas.

As expatriates, we share our hearts quickly. We walk with each other through significant process items.

We love deeply and connect intimately and attach easily. And once we’ve cozied up inside comfortable relationships, we’re forced to release our friends back into the hands of the world at large.

Like sponges, we soak up every particle of community offered by our fleeting social circles. Then, when the time is right, we are emptied of one season of relationships and prepare to soak up another.

Don’t be deceived that this community is fake, shallow, or insignificant.

No, this community is truly extraordinary.

::

How have you learned to welcome new people into your heart and life as you serve abroad? Have you ever tired of the constant changing of your social circles?

If you are searching for a community to dig into yourself, good news! Our Connection Group registration opens SOON (Tuesday, February 24, 6pm EST). We are excited to offer a variety of group formats this Spring, so click here to read all about it!  

We have groups for both women on the field and for those that are adjusting to life off the field (on home assignment or returned).  Come connect with other women who understand the life you’re living.            

Photo Credit : Gratisography

 

31 Comments

  1. Malia February 22, 2015

    Yes! You’ve said this so well. I’ve been the one staying for six years now, and each June brings tight hugs with words whispered to myself as much as them, “Go. Go make new friends.” While we stay in touch, it’s so important to keep putting down roots, as you said, even though they are spread wide. And while it’s difficult to let go and open up yet again to another person who may leave, we need it. We need this community when we’re living abroad.

    1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Malia. I feel so new to this I’m not sure how I’ll be able to bravely step into the sadness I’m feeling this week again and again. I’m glad to know there are women who are still trying…

  2. Elizabeth February 23, 2015

    To be honest, THIS is the hardest part about living overseas for me. Not the lack of sanitation, not the power-cuts-in-hot-season, not the rats and mice and cockroaches. I wrote about it last year, when a dear friend moved away. It still hurts, actually. I wish we had had longer together. You know when you find a bosom friend, someone your soul just knows and is known by? Well, last year I had one of those, and she moved away, and this year I have one too. It’s like a death. I don’t connect like that with just anybody, so it’s extra painful to bid farewell to those people.

    I was talking to a gal who worked with TCKs in Beijing for 10 years or something close to that, and she told me that when TCKs graduate and move away, what they’re homesick for is not a place, but a time. And that time is not recoverable. Transitory nature of expatriate living dictates it.

    You are right. This community is deep. It is real and life-giving. It is also temporary. It’s in the now. The love we feel and the people we’re close to, it’s all in the now. It’s not in the future or in the past. I will take what I can get from it, but I’m not sure I will ever stop mourning the temporary nature of expat friendships.

    1. Paula February 23, 2015

      I can really resonate for being homesick for a time not a place. As we’ve moved so much in the last 8 years, what I get homesick the most for is one time in my life where our friendships were deep and meaningful. Everyone at that particular time seemed “all in.” We have all moved on from that place, and it is not regrettable, but I miss it. As we prepare to move again, knowing that home is not long-term, I pray that my heart can again be open enough to make friendships and connect with people and that I can find those types of friendships in our new home.  It has seemed harder for me to do this since becoming a mom.

      1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

        Elizabeth and Paula – Yes, thank you. My husband and I were processing this topic together this week, and he just kept bringing up the word, ‘pilgrims.’ I think I’m starting to get used to the idea that stability is never going to be a word that characterizes my life. But I still mourn the loss of it. I suppose I was eighteen the last time I felt my days were predictable and the world was so small I could control it.

        I wouldn’t change anything for our nomadic lifestyle, but I can totally relate to mourning a ‘time’ over a place. Thank you so much for talking about this.

      2. Elizabeth February 24, 2015

        Yes, I miss the “times” so much too. I remember certain seasons working with youth groups in the States where there was more bonding and thriving than other times. Teenagers staying at our house after Bible study, late in to the night, eating too many carbs and talking about all manner of things. The way Wednesday nights just felt like a big group of friends hanging out together, easy and natural. Those times are irretrievable, but that doesn’t stop my heart from longing for them. And it doesn’t seem to matter that I’m happy where I’m at now, either. I still miss those times.

        Praying with you that as you move, you will be able to say goodbye well, and open your heart to all the hellos you’ll be making in your new home.

  3. T February 23, 2015

    Malia–I love the benediction you wrote there…”Go, make new friends!” would be much better than my usual (inside my head) “How can you be leaving me!?!?”

    Lauren–You say that we love and connect quickly…I’m afraid that I don’t anymore (15yrs on)…in fact, it has been a problem that people have thought I was too distant and uninterested in forming tight relationships.  I’m attempting to allow callouses to be scraped off of my heart that were formed (like callouses on our hands)–by repeated actions.  Make new best friend…allow kids to make new best friends…best friend moves away…kids’ best friends and favorite aunt and uncle move away…hurt…watch kids hurt…repeat.  This is still a struggle for me.  Oh, and another confession:  when I see another family that has stayed a long time (in the country, not necessarily even our city), but we aren’t good friends, I think–“Ah, they could have been a good gamble/good investment.  You just never know who is going to stick around.”  As in, “That would have been worth it!”  How terrible, but I’m sure there are some old-timers who understand the rawness of that.

    1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      15 years…wow. You are always so open and honest here…and even in your confession you make me smile and laugh. T, if you are anything as fun in person as you are in the comments section here, the people in your city are really missing out!

      Your feelings and guardedness are completely valid, though. I think protecting yourself and those you love from being hurt time and again are natural responses to the experiences you’ve had. And as I’m watching my dear friend pack everything this week, I’m having to do some major pep talks to try and call the lady across town I’d like to know next. Thankful for your experience and wisdom here!

      1. T March 5, 2015

        Thanks!  You are sweet!  And, don’t worry, I’m not holding back from the ladies in our city.  We (all of us) are a small, tight and supportive group!

    2. Elizabeth February 24, 2015

      Aw, T, you made me cry! I.am.so.sorry. So many years of goodbyes — they pile on top of each other, and the grief intensifies with each successive farewell. And for your kids, too. Makes me hurt, because I know this is true. It is the tragic, heart-rending nature of our lives.

      I totally got what you said at the end. I’m only 3 years in, but my most painful goodbyes were/are to people who HAD stayed a long time, it’s just that I came to the country towards the end of their more-than-a-decade-long terms. I have sometimes asked God, WHY? Why did our times have to overlap for so short a time? Why couldn’t we have come at the same time?? There’s no good answer for those questions. I like to console myself with the fact that I’ll get to spend all of eternity catching up with them. But it doesn’t make it not hurt in the now.

      Thinking of you today and praying you’ll be able to open your heart to someone new, hopefully someone who will, Lord willing, totally “get” you and also be around for a good long time. Hugs.

      1. T March 5, 2015

        Oh!  I didn’t want to make you cry!  And, I should have added that with certain people, we have made a solid decision to meet when we can…even if it is a financial investment so that our children can see that there are lasting relationships that they can keep throughout their lives…we just went to another country to visit friends that moved from here 4 years ago.  We got to see them (and their 2 kids who are best buds to our kids–you know the friends that you have baby pics of your kids visiting their babies at the hospital and vice versa) in their new country and meet some of their friends.  It was good!

  4. Kiera February 23, 2015

    Last year at our expat conference, we had a couple of sessions done by Jerry Jones on Staying Well. (see his post with a few of his tips about Staying Well – http://www.thecultureblend.com/?p=1482) We always focus on the newcomers and the departing staff, but rarely on those of us who stay year after year. I like Jerry’s tip #9 – “Never stop engaging…. It’s hurts because it’s good.” It both hurts and at the same time, it is the richness of a life spent overseas – engaging in relationships with other people. Every year, when new people come and I feel tired of trying again, I try to remind myself of this and keep persevering.

      1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

        Uhhmmm…typo with your name AND I have no idea how to delete a comment! I tried to cancel it before the typo posted. Sorry! 🙂

  5. Kelly February 23, 2015

    I am just beginning our second term- and all of this is so true. So hard. So beautiful. When people find out we’re staying for 4 years, either they get really excited or impressed.  I have already said hard goodbyes- and I know they won’t end. My prayer is for a brave and tender heart to keep loving, to keep saying yes to relationship, to keep pressing in to Jesus when “that one friend” isn’t around anymore. And I just created this tangible reminder of how all my friends past and present have made my life more beautiful- see photo!

    1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      That’s great, Kelly! I’m all about a rag garland…and you just went and made it all personal and significant. So pretty. I hope this next term is successful and encouraging for you!

  6. Amy February 23, 2015

    Thanks for posting the link, Kiera.  We are getting ready to head on Home Assignment (could use links for that transition) and upon return more than likely landing in a different location.  I am not good at transition and I frankly don’t like it.  This next move will make 7 locations in the last 9 years.  I suppose I am being stretched to look beyond my own transitions and think of those “others” that it effects as well.  Good stuff, ladies.  Thanks for posting.  Much to be gained from the wisdom shared.

    1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      Wow, Amy…so much moving. It takes some grit to make that many transitions in such a short amount of time. I’m only sitting on four myself in the last nine years, but this experience of staying behind has been such a slap in the face. I suppose I needed that so that I would quit rolling my eyes when people begged me not to move on. :/ Good luck on Home Assignment! I hope you stay linked up with us here.

  7. Brenda February 23, 2015

    I arrived in Cambodia nearly 20 years ago. I was young, single, one of two Christians in the aid organisation I worked in and so ready to make friends. I got involved in an International church (where I met my future husband!) and made many new expatriate friends. Most of these friends had plans to stay much longer than my two year contract. However, by the end of two years, all of my close friends had left.  After we got married, my husband and I returned to Cambodia and once again made friends with overseas workers from all over the world who came and went. I enjoyed their friendship and remain in contact with some of them. But the transient life of overseas workers and the international community, who one week were here and the next had left, started to get to me and my husband and I started to invest in friendships with Cambodians.

    Twelve years ago, my husband and I moved to rural Cambodia to live in an orphanage with only Cambodians and that was the beginning of a different type of life. Most of my expatriate friends that I knew from those early years have now left and for the past 12 years, my friends have been mainly Cambodians. In all the ups and downs of our rather strange life here, through health scares, miscarriages, family sickness, and other problems, it has been my Cambodian friends who have stood beside us as a family, prayed for us and supported us.

    In three months time, my family and will leave Cambodia to return to my home country to look after my elderly parents. There have been many tears and our hearts are heavy as we already are grieving for the friendships we have made here. But I also feel thankful, privileged and blessed to have made friends with some wonderful Cambodian people whose friendships has blessed me so richly over these past 20 years.

    1. Grace L February 23, 2015

      Brenda, I can relate. We live in a rural area and are the only expats in our small city. We have been here for 8 years and our best friends are the local people. I have a Bible study every day with two younger local women and they (other than my husband) are my closest friends. There is another family in town that we are truly “family” with.

      We are leaving in April for a 3 month home visit and I know it will be hard on my 2 local friends, but at least they will have each other. The comments today have helped me to look at the situation from their eyes as we are the ones who are leaving them. We miss having other expats in our city, but really do treasure our local relationships.

      1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

        Grace, I loved hearing about the two gals who have become your dearest friends! I second everything I said to Brenda, and also hope your home assignment is a blessing for you and rich time of reflection for your local sisters!

        1. Grace L February 23, 2015

          As I am reading these posts and discussing friendships with nationals, I have been thinking about how we are all “global” people. When we choose to serve overseas, we become global people. We choose this. However the nationals that we come to serve did not choose to become global people in the same way we did. But once they develop deep relationships with expats, they too become global people and they too can go through stages of cultural transition. My husband and I have seen this with the people  that God brings into our paths and have learned to become sensitive to where they are at. Lauren and Brenda, thank you for the topics you have brought up this week regarding the transient community of a life overseas.

          I am also learning to be grateful for the many wonderful people that God has brought into our  lives, both expats and nationals; both those we interact with in our life overseas and those we interact with back in our passport countries.

    2. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      This is so beautiful, Brenda. So incredibly beautiful. And hard. And faithful.

      In my language lesson today with our tutor, one of the sentences I made said, “Before, I missed my family so much in America. But now, I am starting to feel like [nationals] are my relatives.”

      I can’t even believe I made that sentence compared to the life you’ve lived. What a testimony of truly growing to love a culture, of incarnational ministry. Blessings on your return, and may you find a community that is just as rich in your passport country. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Brenda February 23, 2015

        Thank you Lauren for your kind and encouraging reply. I pray that you will continue to develop deep relationships with the nationals and that these friendships will  help you in those very painful times when your expatriate friends move on and when family and home seem so far away.  And Grace, thank you for the reminder of what it must be like for our local friends who are being left behind; that has given me something to think and pray about, as my family and I prepare to leave Cambodia.

  8. Jenny February 23, 2015

    “What it’s like to be the one staying behind.” My heart ached when I read that. I just wanted to bring up a different point of view of being the one who stays. I work for our agency’s home office. I’m a sender who’d prefer to be a “go-er,” but God has called me to stay in the U.S supporting those who “get” to go.  I have my own home, live in the same city I grew up in, and am within driving distance of my niece and nephew. I have central heating and air… Need I say more about the ease of life?!  But staying in the U.S. can still feel difficult when everyone around you seems to be leaving for cross-cultural work.

    1. Lauren Pinkston February 23, 2015

      Jenny, thanks for this viewpoint! All of us “over here” are SO THANKFUL for you…there really aren’t enough words for our gratitude in the training and supporting and sending. I suppose the ease of life isn’t always about air conditioners. From a community of women who have tasted loss and grief and discomfort, we can totally meet you there and send you a virtual nod of genuine understanding.

  9. Monica February 23, 2015

    This is beautiful.  Thank you for this wonderful reminder of how blessed we are to be the ones arriving, the ones ‘staying’, and eventually the ones leaving.  I’m so thankful for the people who have arrived before me, and for the ones I’ve been able to welcome.  In my fifteen years overseas I have learned the difficulty in saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’- but it’s rawness is so apparent every. single. time.  We are now at a time in our life where we are the ones ‘moving on’, and the heartbreak so difficult to swallow. My children are excited about what is head, but they are really grieving our departure from the home they have known since the days of their birth.  So in my heartache, I am praying for them more than anything.

  10. Jenny February 24, 2015

    Thank you Laura and all of those who left comments. We’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and are about to say goodbye to some dear friends, our children’s dear friends. In my experience I would say most expats are lonely, are afraid to open their hearts and if you are an overseas worker there seems to be a list of things you are not allowed to struggle with. Porn, eating disorders and alcohol being at the top of the list. Living this life can seem suffocating. Praying for us all as I sit on a bench in my crowded apartment complex. Would we initiate with other women! Share our hearts and create space for our Lord to love us through one another.

  11. Lori Carlblom April 8, 2015

    Lauren- I’m so glad Calah was able to have you as a friend. You were such a great support to her emotionally and spiritually. Even though you’re several countries a part, I know the friendship will last for eternity. Now you can pass on the help and encouragement she was to  you to newbies in Vientiane. Blessing!

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