Many people cite the social opportunities as one of the advantages of the expat lifestyle; moving abroad offers an opportunity to meet lots of new people. You might find yourself gravitating towards people who are from similar backgrounds as a welcome taste of home while you adjust to the unfamiliar aspects of living abroad. Although many of your new friends may be locals or long-term expats, for most people, saying goodbye to friends as they move back to their home countries or elsewhere chasing new job opportunities becomes an inevitable part of expat living, and one that can be a challenge to cope with.
The friendships you form as an expat in Hong Kong will be your lifeline, especially in the first few months while you adjust to living in a new environment. As you learn to live in a new culture and climate, your friends will be an invaluable source of support. They will help you with everything, from advising you on how to navigate through mountains of banking paperwork to finding the best places to eat and explore.
Expat friendships are formed in a unique set of circumstances. You end up supporting each other through the ups and downs of living far from family and old friends, and as a result, your friends become your family. Without regular family commitments taking up time, expats end up spending even more time with friends. As a result, friendships will flourish quickly, and people you have known for a couple of months can feel like old friends. As a result, when friends leave, it can feel like a huge loss.
How can I cope with friends leaving?
Inevitably, the longer you spend living as an expat, the more you will have to cope with this, given that many people who move to Hong Kong for work are on a fixed term contract lasting one or two years. One long-term expat said “I’ve stopped making friends with people who are here for any less than a year – it just gets too painful when they leave”. Everyone has their own way of approaching friendships; for some people, forming a friendship group made up mostly of locals and other long-term expats may help them to solve this problem. However, you could be losing out on the opportunity to meet new friends!
It is important to remember that if you formed a good quality friendship, your friend’s departure from Hong Kong does not need to mark the end for your friendship. A good friendship is not necessarily defined by frequent contact or time spent together. Social media has made it easier than ever to stay in contact with friends across the world, and in years to come you may get reacquainted with them if you move closer to them on your return. That said, it can be difficult to stay in touch with people living in different timezones, and unfortunately you may find yourself drifting apart from them over time. If this does happen, try to appreciate the friendship for what it was; a really valuable and enjoyable relationship while you lived in Hong Kong together.
The unique experiences you share with friends in the expat community will mean that you have friends for life from all over the world. This is something many people will never experience, and something you would not have had if you had not chosen to live as an expat. One way of looking at it is that you now have an excuse to travel round the world to visit friends who are spread across the globe! When friends do leave, this constitutes a psychological loss, and this should not be dismissed. Give yourself time to grieve. You will feel the absence of someone who was important to you, and you must allow yourself to feel the sadness of this, looking after yourself as you would usually with exercise, good sleep and any other self-care strategies you find helpful. With time, it will become easier to live without your close friend. Although you may not be looking to replace a close friendship, it is important to remember that new people are arriving in Hong Kong all the time, and the more you get out there and meet people, the more interesting and valuable friendships you can form.
Dr. Hannah Sugarman is a UK-trained clinical psychologist. She offers psychological treatment for adults and older adolescents across two clinics in Central district, Hong Kong. Please see www.reflect-well.com for more information.