I moved to the tiny half-island of Timor-Leste about a year ago, with a standing weekly Skype date that spans three countries and four time zones. It’s a product of one interstate and two international relocations from my closest friends –and our situation of far-flung friendship is becoming increasingly normal.
New research shows that friendships become more important than family relationships as we age, and approximately one million Aussies (and counting) live overseas. Over 180,000 Australians departed our shores in 2016 alone.
I’m barely an hour’s flight away from Darwin, but it often feels like I’m living in a different world. But with nomadic lifestyles the new norm and mobile friends flitting around the world, making long-distance friendships work has never been more important.
Several months ago, when the glamour of living abroad had well and truly worn off, I found myself lonely, struggling and sweaty. Instead of confiding in one of the several close friends I have in Timor-Leste, I chose instead to approach a friend living 3,000 kilometres away in my hometown, Perth. She replied immediately, with a string of thoughtful, incisive messages of the kind that only could have come from her.
“It isn’t like you to be depressed,” she said, with the frankness and perspective I needed to see that something was actually quite wrong. Was I depressed?
You crave familiarity when you live overseas.
If I’d had the same comment from a friend here in Timor-Leste, I would have dismissed it: we’ve been friends for barely a year; they don’t really know me. But hearing it from a friend I’ve known for years, who has expert insight built up through hundreds of despairing coffee-break chats, forced me to pay attention.
She determined that the cause of my malaise was my underwhelming job – an unrewarding capacity-building role requiring a lot patience and few chances to get my hands dirty. Instead of encouraging me to just leave it, like my untethered expat friends may have, she generously counselled me in tactics she uses to manage her own depression, and encouraged me to develop better routines, exercise more, and drink less.
You crave familiarity when you live overseas. Sure, in-person friends are there for you, but it can be tiring needing to recount a decade of your life story in order to explain why you’re reacting to something – particularly if you’ve got a cultural or language barrier to leap.
“My in-person friendships are for the most part actually quite shallow and one-dimensional,” says Kat Hornsey, an Australian apprentice chef who’s been living and working in France for four years. “I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking about something emotionally distressing to my in-person friends, because they’re more recent friendships and we all have different mother tongues, so all our conversations require a lot more mental effort from me.”
There’s a clear need to turn to our oldest friends, but how do we actually do it?
A unanimous chorus: if you’ve deactivated your Facebook account, bring it back now.
It’s not about sharing headline news – it’s about linking your life abroad to people back home. Those everyday details that make all the difference.
Every woman I spoke to cites Facebook and Messenger as key tools for staying in touch with friends overseas, with emails, Skype and private Instagram accounts coming in behind. But it’s not about sharing headline news – it’s about linking your life abroad to people back home. Those everyday details that make all the difference.
“Send pictures of things from your place that your friend is into,” suggests Melody Ross, a Texan-native who lives in Canberra. “Whether it’s birds, cheeses or dry shampoo – I have actually sent all of these before.”
I scroll back through my Messenger group chat with my three closest high school friends to see what we’ve shared recently. There’s a screenshot of a message where I ask my doctor housemate for embarrassing medical advice; a Facebook screenshot of a friend’s pretty eye makeup; and a blurry photo of my friend’s fat grey cat. Hardly news-worthy events, but they’re illustrations of our real lives.
We may leave the country, but we’ll never leave each other’s lives.