Making Friends in Expat Land


One of the best things for me as a mother with young children is being an expat at the same time. I think that if I were to have my children back in Australia, I would have struggled to make other mummy friends. My best friends had their children a lot younger than than I did, so there would be no playdates with them. I also think its more difficult making friends as an adult outside of work or university. Most women already have their core group of friends from childhood and they are not in the market for new friends. Yes, as a new mother I would have been set up with a local community playgroup but the demographics of that group may not be compatible for me. Also, I think that mothers are simply too busy to make new friends in Australia. They are washing, cleaning, cooking, juggling school runs, and making a living to pay the bills.

As an expat however, its the complete opposite. Especially in Jakarta. The market is saturated with other expat woman who are looking for new friendships! I find it especially easier to make friends in Jakarta than the other cities that I’ve lived in because the expats here usually stay for longer postings. There are many Indonesians who have have studied abroad (for example, to Australia) and have returned home and feel like an expat themselves. And many foreigners have married Indonesians and now also call ‘The Big Durian’ their home. All of this makes Jakarta a great city to meet new and interesting people.

To me, making friends in ‘Expat Land’ is like dating. There are many fish in the sea. In fact, I made my first friend in Jakarta before I even arrived! A mutual expat friend in Singapore (who had already moved to KL) introduced me to a fellow expat that had moved to Jakarta. This is how most expat friendships bloom…the ‘expat blind date’. It doesn’t matter if you hit it off or not with this first date. Your blind date is always helpful. They download all of the information that you need to integrate into your new city and give you the confidence to enter back into the game. They often introduce you to other friends or acquaintances also, so you’re off to a good start.

After this, you’re most like going to enter into the next stage of finding friends…the official ‘putting yourself out there’ phase. Everywhere you go, you are on the prowl. The playground, school drop offs, the supermarket, the cafe! You are looking for those with kids of similar ages, someone with the same accent, or another mum that looks just as lonely as you do! This part can be difficult in Jakarta because many children are accompanied by their nannies and not their mothers. Often, its the new mothers (into the city) who haven’t found a nanny yet, that is with her kid in the playground. Go talk to her, she is fresh meat for the taking!

You’ll soon become confident in saying ‘hi’ to strangers and introducing yourself. This is the ‘speed dating’ part where you’re both trying to establish if you actually have anything in common and if there is a future together. Even if you are compatible, its difficult to arrange the next meet up because as an expat, everyone is on such different schedules! Children are enrolled in different schools, with different school holidays. Expats always seem to be traveling on vacation, or doing a ‘Visa run’. That mixed with Jakarta traffic and different nap times, its almost impossible to arrange the next get together! I’ve also had mothers arrange playdates with me for our nannies only, so in actual fact, they don’t really want to be my friend. They want our kids to be friends! (Sob, sob.)

But if you finally do get the chance to meet up and your friendship blossoms, you can’t go ‘steady’ just yet. You need to make sure that you can be yourself around this person and gain their trust. You don’t want to stuff up. Like the early stages of dating, you don’t want to fart in front of your partner straight away. You need to build a strong foundation before you’re comfortable letting it all out! So slowly you reveal yourself. You suggest an alcoholic drink at your 2pm play date; crack a few inappropriate jokes; confess that you really don’t know what you’re doing here and that your husband is driving you nuts! The wall breaks down a little and you have both bonded.

Just like dating however, not all relationships that start off hard and strong will survive the test of time. Expat friendships can be temperamental and very short lived. Any event in your life could strongly damage your relationship. Events like moving to a location that is bad for traffic; getting pregnant; your children being sick and unable to attend regular playdates; having a conflicting point of view about something; or mentioning that you may be leaving to your next posting soon. These are all ‘dead ends’ for expat friendships. You could be quickly swiped left, like ‘Tinder’, because unfortunately, as an expat, you are disposable and easily replaced by another expat.

This is the hardest part about making friends for me as an expat. In such a transient environment, friendships can be short lived, even if they are genuine. This is the part that hurts and can bring on loneliness. I am constantly questioning myself as a friend. Am I likable? Did I say or do something offensive? Am I reading too much into the situation or taking it too personally? But the reality it is, we are all trying to survive and I can only be my true self.

There are of course scenarios where you can reach marital bliss and build special long term relationships that survive the test of time, and distance.  After seven years as an expat, I have found my unique set of friends who are my mummy tribe(s). A WhatsApp group of women with some living in Jakarta and others who have moved on. An unexpected single friend who I never see enough of. Friends made from previous postings who have also moved onto to other countries. My condo friends. My playdate friends. My coffee friends. My workout friends. These women add a little sunshine into my rainy Jakarta days and help me to overcome the obstacles of being an expat mother. Good friends are hard to find and I hope that you too, will find your little ray of sunshine.

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