Let’s face it. Making friends as adults is hard. There are so many factors to consider, “Is she too young for me?” “Will she make me look younger?” “Do her kids have unsupervised screen time?” “Will my husband like her husband?” “Does she IG well?” Making friends as an expat is even more challenging. We have to consider things like “How long is their contract?” “Are they staying for a few years or a few months?” “Should I invest my time in getting to know her?” “How many followers does she have?” Every expat knows that friendships are transient. We live in a society where people are always on the move and it’s normal to become fast friends one year and then say good-bye the next. Case in point: we celebrate more farewell parties than birthday parties. We no longer cry for one another. We just see their departures as a chance to visit them in whatever part of the world they’re moving to. We also use the opportunity to get dibs on the furniture they leave behind. That’s how easy it is to say good-bye to an expat friend.
The friends that I have made over the last decade are what I refer to as “keepers.” We stay in touch even when we travel. We buy gifts for each other (and they’re actually thoughtful!) and then we forbid them from regifting them. When we owe each other money, we don’t excuse that extra one riyal (“Pay up”). We even make luggage space for their items when traveling back (yes, that’s a big deal!). These are the friends who understand me the most, who cheer for me and pat me on the back and say “Good for you! Now buy us lunch!” Over the past decade, there have been other friendships in my life that can only be described as toxic. A toxic friendship “emotionally harms you, rather than helping you,” says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends and the “Baggage Check” column. Their mere presence in your day-to-day life can stress you out and cloud your judgment. Here’s my breakdown of three categories of toxic friends – the expat edition. 1. The Every Child Left Behind Friend
Moving to a new country with young children can be a harrowing experience. You might end up taking multiple flights or sleeping in hotels for a few nights before shifting to an apartment. It can take weeks or months to get your paperwork sorted and get settled in a new home. Going through jet lag is no picnic, worse so for moms of young children. It’s only natural that the sudden change of environment draws us closer to our family and makes us even more protective as mothers.
Enter the friend who has already been settled for some time and has a nanny to watch her children. She might be someone you met through a mutual friend or a friendly neighbor who offers to help you get around… minus your children. She urges you to leave your child(ren) behind if you’re going on an errand with her. “Is he going with you? You don’t have a nanny to watch him yet?” Or “How will your kids become independent if you’re always around them?” When a friend makes you feel guilty for having children and makes your children feel unwelcome, that’s not a person you want around.
2. The Grabby Gabby
One interesting friendship that many expats can relate to is what I call, “Grabby Gabby.” She is the friend who seems to truly enjoy introducing you to all her friends. You’re new in town and so you become her new accessory. For better or worse, she wants to show you off, until she sees you spread your own wings into a social butterfly of your own. When meeting new people, it’s perfectly normal to have more things in common with some friends and not others. This calls for a follow-up date, in which case maybe you’ll invite a few new friends. Or maybe you will get invited somewhere, on your own. Without her, i.e. the friend who made the introduction in the first place. This might seem perfectly normal to you; After all, everyone can’t be invited everywhere, can they? (Yes, yes they can.)
Jealousy is very common among expat communities because people don’t like sharing their friends with one another. You belong to them. It becomes a toxic relationship when you find yourself either awkwardly inviting your friend to other people’s events, or declining invites because you don’t feel like explaining why you were at a certain party, with a certain group, without her. It makes for a very messy and complicated situation, one that’s best to avoid if your friend is not cool with you playing the friendship field in search of your own comfort level.
3. The Housekeeper’s Worst Nightmare
She’s like a dictator in stilettos. Her entire family, kids, and husband, are raised by the housekeeper. Where she is? Does it matter? When she’s home, she makes the housekeeper’s life a living hell. She complains about them in gatherings, while they’re listening. She makes videos of them without their permission. She makes fun of their accent. She encourages her children to disrespect them. She could give tips to the actresses from the movie “The Help.” Whenever you visit her, you have the urge to pantomime “run away” to the housekeeper. The reason this relationship is toxic is because her constant complaining of the housekeeper rubs off on you, and then you become critical of the help in your house.
I feel that friendships can really make or break your experience in moving abroad or longtime traveling. Is it hard to meet people and make new friends in a foreign land? Definitely! But sometimes, that experience of weeding through people to make new friends, and separating the toxic ones, teaches us about what values we hold on, even as we move from one geographical boundary to the next.
Adeeba Jafri is a mother of four kids (three teens and a tween), currently living the expat life in a tiny country in the Middle East that she doesn’t want to mention for fear of getting deported. She graduated from Columbia University with a double major in Political Science and History, and is the author of The Baby Garden, Alia and the Story of the Rose, and The Path that Allah Made. Her sarcastic blog posts on expat living have been published on BluntMoms. You can find her on Dessertinthedesert.org, where she posts interdisciplinary Islamic Studies lesson plans and activities for after-school programs. She enjoys food, fitness, writing, teaching, organizing youth group events, reading fantasy novels (to escape all the aforementioned activities) and more food.