Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is the Expat Life a Lonely One?

Today was a great day. Although I have a cold, as do my wife and son, I felt great in other ways. I heard some great news with regards to work this week and am looking forward to a much happier year than last!

I was also happy because of a very touching blog post written by a dear friend who lives in Canada. My friend Lonnie wrote about a group of friends who were thicker than thieves back in the mid 1990’s.

There were a group of us who in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada who were as tight as any group of amigos could ever be. We based ourselves out of a local 24-hour coffee shop and shared more wonderful moments than one could count. Lonnie wrote about our group of wonderful friends and also of our team member who was so suddenly and tragically taken away from us at the young age of twenty-four years. I actually cried when I read his post.

Lonnie’s post got me thinking about friendship. Friendship is something we value so much and I think has been harder for me to find over my many years of life abroad. Correction! No, it hasn’t been hard to find. Good friends have been easy to find in my almost nine years of living outside of Canada. The difficult part is holding on to those friends in an expat world that sees people come and people go.

I lived in South Korea for more than five years and a now approaching three years here in Japan. I can’t speak for other countries, but I’ll at least share my experiences and feelings about living in these two places.

During my years in Korea, the expat community seemed to be fairly close. I first lived in a small suburb of Seoul and there weren’t many foreigners there at all. The few of us that spent time together really enjoyed our experiences in a new country. I think I was drawn closer to these people than friends I had back in Canada because of the fact that we were something familiar and comfortable in a foreign land. For two years that I lived in Ilsan (the city outside of Seoul), I had some amazing friends, but then I moved into Seoul.

With some amazing friends hanging out in Ilsan, Korea (2002)

While in Seoul, I met another amazing group of guys who were my coworkers at a large school called Pagoda. They were guys from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. We worked together, drank together, played together and sometimes got into fights together! These guys would have done anything for me and vice versa. I loaned them large amounts of money and they did for me as well. We had each other’s backs in bars fights when rowdy American soldiers wanted to tussle with English teachers and we simply enjoyed quiet nights of watching DVDs together. They were amazing friends. Then I left Seoul. Eventually they all moved away as well.

My amazing group of coworkers and friends I had while living in downtown Seoul in 2004.

I then made my way to Busan, the southern port city in South Korea. I loved Busan. It was far more laid back than Seoul and the people seemed a little more foreigner friendly.

While in Busan I met another great group of people. I lived in a neighborhood in Haeundae called Jangsan that was riddled with foreigners. I loved it there. I even met my wife there. I became involved in music again for the first time since I was spending time with Lonnie and my friends back in that Cape Breton coffee shop. I was playing in bands, open mikes and generally enjoying life. I had a few amazing friends who, again, I will never forget. Then, as normally happens, we all left Korea. We left at different times, but we all left and went our ways. Friends I will never forget but had to say good-bye to.

My great friend Tom just after we ran the Terry Fox Run in Busan, Korea in 2007.

Life abroad, or at least the life I have led abroad is very different than if I had stayed in Canada. If I had stayed in Canada and settled, I would see the same people and have the same neighbors for years and years. I would work with the same people, see the same folks at the same hangouts. I would probably have friends that I would always see on a regular basis.

That simply hasn’t been the case for me as an expat. Most people don’t move to Asia for the rest of their lives. Most people come here for one year. Some even stay for two or three, but long-term folks aren’t so common. I have met many more here in Japan than in Korea, but nonetheless, Asia is a very fluid place where people come and go. Friendships are like that as well in my experience. Friends come and friends go. Eventually you sort of get used to it and harden yourself to the reality, but every once in awhile, it can weigh upon you and make you feel a little sad.

I’ve made so many wonderful and life long friends during my time in Asia. Luckily, with social media, I can keep in contact with these folks, but chatting on Twitter of Facebook isn’t as satisfying as stopping by their house for a Saturday afternoon BBQ. It’s not as fun as meeting at the pub for a beer or coffee shop for a latte.

Now of course, this may not be the experience for everyone who decides to make their way to Asia, but it has been for me, and many others I know.

Don’t get me wrong; life in Japan is wonderful. I really do like it here. The culture, history, food and people are great. Sometimes though, I feel a little lonely. I have an amazing and compassionate wife, a beautiful and silly son and a loving family back in Canada. I have friends here in Japan as well, but I often feel like something is missing.

I suppose this all comes back to my friend Lonnie’s post. His post got me thinking about those wonderful friends I had back in Cape Breton (who have all moved on to other parts of Canada). It then got me thinking about all the wonderful friends I have met and then had to say goodbye to during my many years in Korea and Japan.

The expat life is one filled with adventure and often the mundane. It is colorful and interesting. It is always blog and vlog-worthy as well as challenging. It can also at times be a little lonely (At least in my opinion).

You can follow me on Twitter: @jlandkev

Also, check out my friend Lonnie’s blog.


Jim said...

Nice post, Kevin. I can especially relate to becoming hardened to people leaving. I tend to stay away from the foreign community because of everything you put here. I've met so many great people and it hurts so much to see them go. I just stay away from that happening. I have 2 foreign friends these days and both of them will probably be here as long as I will.

TheAndySan said...

Kevin, your post is eerily similar to the life I lead as an American Sailor. I made friends in boot camp and at my previous base as well as where I'm currently stationed at (sunny San Diego).

Wanderer said...

I think my age and experience have taught me that friendship is forever if it's real. I have friends whom I've known since before I started school, and I do my best to visit them whenever I'm in their 'hood.

No matter where any of you go, Jim, AndySan, and Kevin, you will always remember your wonderful friends and with the internet and its availability of e-mail, facebook and twitter makes staying in touch with our friends easier than ever. You won't always stay in touch with everyone you meet, but you will with the ones who matter!

Hiko said...

Hey man, good topic!

Interesting blog, and a lot of avenues are opened up that on their own would make interesting blogs. I guess a good one to begin with are the "categories" of expats. People become expats for a lot of different reasons and with a lot of different goals in mind and I believe that has a big influence on the kind of experience they have. Location is obviously another factor - a lot of people who are used to being expats in more "expat friendly" locations like Singapore and Hong Kong tend to bemoan how inconvenient Japan is by comparison. There again, a lot of people who have been expats in more culturally remote locations tend to be a bit put off by the neo-aristocracy of expat life in those kinds of places.

Although I have heard and done comparisons with friends in other countries, I know Japan best, and the rule seems to be that it is good to be a bit self reliant here before coming. It isn't an English colony like many other parts of Asia are and you will need to figure things out for yourself. At the same time, if you are here for a travelling vacation, and more interested in experiencing the place with other travellers rather than going for immersion, then there are lots of gaijin bubbles that are comfortable and fun, but require some hardening as you said to deal with the frequency of people coming and going.

Growing up an army brat moving more than once a year I think prepared me pretty well for the life you have as a foreigner here, but it clearly isn't for everyone. Still, if you can deal with the downsides, the upsides are pretty cool.

Thanks for the read

Jim said...

Of course I miss my friends and family, but I wouldn't change any of the decisions I made over the past 20 years. I'm a lifer in Japan.