“Flyaway friends” are a phenomenon that I’ve noticed regarding living an expatriate life: You find that you fly away from your friends. At the same time, you find that friends often fly away from you.
Jill and I were sitting and watching a gorgeous sunset on a beach in Costa Rica. A frenzied looking guy sat down beside us. He asked what we thought about the sunset. I absentmindedly replied, “It’s nice”. However, I also felt that a kindred traveling spirit was asking for connection so I looked his way and asked how his day had gone. He told me that he was down here, working for his multi-millionaire boss, and was bored out of his mind.
We found out that he takes photographs of different sunsets, at a different beach, every night just to relieve some of his boredom. He has been down to Costa Rica over 80 times in the last 10 years and seems ambivalent as it is just a job. Strangely, he lives very close to my hometown in northern California and we have a lot of 2nd degree of separation friends.
We flew 5,000 miles to meet a person close to home.
We ended up talking until the sun set and he told us he’ll email us the picture from that night. We exchanged emails and as Jill and I walked home we discussed how different our lives are than so many we know back home.
We have lifelong friends, who we never talk to anymore, because we have flown away from a traditional life. Not just by distance, but through thoughts, beliefs and what we find to be the meaning of life. This is something that ties expatriates together.
I believe it is the drive to find something more, to not even be settled by the road less taken.
When Jill and I see a fork in the road, we ponder why people are following them instead of playing in the grass that surrounds them.
We don’t make these choices lightly, we make them because anything else just wouldn’t feel right. We’d be living a life that isn’t ours.
Jill and I have been doing flyaway friendships for most of our lives since we’ve always loved to travel.
Hell, our first date could have been a flyaway friendship since I was moving to China just eight days later. I asked her for a date, the day we met, and it might have just fizzled out into nothing. Luckily, with lots of perseverance by both of us, it didn’t.
Envelopes, My Grandmother and Social Media
One problem we’ve noticed is that we’ve made so many friends, it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of them. Social media makes these connections less fragile but they are still difficult to maintain.
I think back to my late grandmother, Grandma Evie, who would write letters as she traveled all over the world. They’d come in the special “airmail” envelopes that were made for international mail and she’d write on every inch of them, front and back. There were so many stories to tell she had to use up each possible space.
Her world was huge, the envelope so very small. She’d cram it in and help us experience her life and story. Being that she loved traveling, she’d expect us to write stories of our journeys, and we would lovingly oblige.
She’d keep the envelopes until we arrived back home, give them to us wrapped in a string to keep them bound and tell us, “You’ll want to read these again, someday. They are your stories and your experiences.”
I think social media has now become a way to tell our story but it is not like having actual written letters. It is transient. There is always another post, another photograph, and another story coming down your wall.
Social media doesn’t allow for the same meaning as when one has written down their adventure, mailed it, and then had it returned to them by a loving grandmother.
The Devil’s Bargain
This is a reason for flyaway friends. As expatriates, we can connect so easily, that we often disconnect in the same way. Instead of being fully invested in someone, over the long term, we become deeply invested in the short term.
Albeit, it may be more invested than would be normal since we know they will be leaving our lives and we should drink up every bit of their essence while we can. This makes the flyaway friend powerful and present.
We never know if we will see them again or if they will even be our friend after we leave them.
An experienced expatriate knows that flyaway friends are a double edged sword: You get to become friends with someone incredibly interesting while knowing, soon, you won’t be their friend anymore.
When I worked as a psychotherapist with expatriates in China, one of the major causes of depression and anxiety was actually the goodbye parties. When you have built your community, you don’t want to see people leave it. These same clients also became hesitant to making new friends. They knew these friends would leave and they’d be alone again, trying to build a new normal, instead of being grounded and having a constant community.
Another cause of depression and anxiety was when expatriates arrived since they were apprehensive whether they wouldn’t fit in. At the same time, if they were experienced expatriates, they knew they’d now be making friends they’d also lose in the future.
It is a devil’s bargain.
We all have friends and family at home, at our jobs, and elsewhere. However, the life of an expatriates is based on saying goodbye to everyone you know, over and over again, and making the choice to find new friends, with new outlooks, and traveling to new places and leaving everything they have behind.
As magical as this experience is, it can be hard on almost everyone we know and have met. I don’t think most people realize this about expatriates.
Honestly, I don’t think most expatriates even want to admit this since the loss can be profound and long term. It is better to ignore it and keep it hidden away. It can become too painful to deal with day to day.
I’ve rarely heard expatriate talk about this openly but I often hear them say things such as, “I’m just so tired”, “ I’m exhausted “, and “I just need a bit of peace.”
In reality, they are usually living in some far off location and it is hitting them that they are missing their actual home, but even more, they are missing their flyaway friends.
Questions to ponder:
Do you have any experience with flyaway friends?
How often do you keep in contact with them?
Is your experience with them positive? Negative? Or in between?
What does the term flyaway friend mean to you?
Have you ever been the flyaway friend?
Understanding the Difference Between Needs and Wants
The Costs and Benefits of Choices
The New Normal