We’re lost without a community

The other day I was meant to be going to a welcome party thrown by our new High Commissioner who has recently arrived in the country. It was to be a braai, that most South Aftican of get-togethers, at his house. Everyone was invited and it all sounded very jolly.

Except unfortunately I didn’t get there. My husband was stuck in traffic after a road closure between Pretoria and the airport and didn’t get home in time to pick me up. Of course I absolutely could have gone on my own and I am sure I would have been welcomed. But I didn’t really want to. So I didn’t go.

I have been thinking about this because there was no reason why I felt I couldn’t go alone – I would have known a few people there and it’s always interesting to have a nose at a new head of mission and his wife. But when it came down to it, it felt odd going without my husband because it felt like I would have been going to his work do without him. And this made me feel a bit sad.

I have been part of embassies and high commissions on and off all my life. We spent four years in the Philippines as a child and I can still remember the Christmas partys, with one of the staff members dressing up as Santa in the crazy Filippino heat. Then later we were in Caracas and my social life revolved around the young staff at the embassy – nights out, weekends away…even though I didn’t work in the embassy, I was always welcomed and asked along to things.

More recently we were in Islamabad when the Marriott bomb of 2008 forced our evacuation. I believe strongly that things could have been a lot more chaotic had the High Commission not built up a sense of community among the families working there. As it was, the days and weeks following the bomb were pretty distressing but at least we felt the people-in-charge knew who we were and cared about our well-being. We might only have been the non-working spouses and children but we were made to feel like we were part of the High Commission and that our needs mattered.

Since moving to Pretoria I haven’t really felt this. The High Commission here is a distant place full of people I don’t know. We are not connected and there are many other spouses I have never met. For me personally this is not a huge issue – I have lived in many other, much harder, places and because I have school-age children have been able to meet many friends and built a community through other methods.

But for other people who have never lived abroad before or are not used to living in a developing world country (even though South Africa is a relatively easy place to live, the fear of crime does impact on many when they first arrive in particular), this lack of an inclusion into a ready-made community can be devastating.

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Of course not everyone wants to be part of their spouse’s office life and over time all of us will undoubtedly build our own connections elsewhere. But if you don’t have an office or a school or a mosque or church or some other instant “thing” where like-minded people will welcome you, help you, just talk to you in those early, lonely days, if you don’t have that then well life can be pretty tough. And although those of us who have been through this before know well that it does, over time, get easier, that isn’t much comfort for that person going through it right now. Or for that person who might give up before they get to that point.

So what do you do if you are in this situation? If no-one from the office calls you on your first day and asks you out for a coffee? If you don’t have children to meet people through or they go on a school bus so you never see any other parents anyway (and yes, there are plenty of things to get involved with at school like Parent Assocations, but they’re not for everyone)? Luckily for us we live in the age of the internet and because of this you can start to build your community before you even arrive. These days almost every location has am expat group where you can post questions and ask about things like housing and schools long in advance of your arrival. Many of these groups are also social and organise nights out, day trips, cinema evenings etc.

But even if you don’t find such a group or you don’t like the look of what’s on offer, the internet can be a god-send in this situation in another way. Nowadays, because I work from home, I spend a lot of time “talking” to people on line. Sometimes via Facebook posts, often through messaging. I would say quite a decent percentage of my friends are now people I have never met – and I know some of them so well that I actually forget I have never physically met them in person. This includes expats in other countries I have clicked with, writers in various writer groups I belong to, “mum” friends made from the days when my children were babies, and a various assortment of odds and sods I seem to have picked up along the way who I just enjoy being in contact with. And one of the lovely things about these relationships is that when you move – they will still be there. Whilst the relationships you have with people you see on a day-to-day basis will by necessity change when you move on, with some of them staying friends and others dropping off, the ones that you have with the people in your computer will remain.

And yes of course I know that real-life, warm, huggable people are so important to have around, sometimes that just isn’t happening. So in those circumstances, don’t feel you have no friends. Don’t get lonely or give up on ever meeting someone you get along with. You still have friends, you can still talk to them every day as much or as little as you want. And in the meantime you will slowly build up friendships in “real life” who won’t replace the ones in the computer but will complement them.

No-one should feel that they don’t belong. We all belong somewhere. Sometimes, though, it just takes a while to find your tribe.

Picture credit: Orangoing

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15 thoughts on “We’re lost without a community

  1. Love this post! We are here with the USAID which is basically US Embassy community, and I felt in the same way since coming to Pretoria. We were put on a compound and we were the first ones to move in, so for 2 weeks there were no neighbors, and up to now I don’t feel a sense of the US mission community, I hardly have friends among americans here, except my neighbors who are all with the Embassy and all of them have kids in AISJ. There are no monthly spouse coffee or any other events organized for the spouses. Luckily with 3 school age children and our Baha’i (religious) community we made many good friends, but I also feel sad that I am so disconnected from the embassy community and would definitely not attend a function without my husband. We also lived in Manila and our youngest was born there, it was a big mission but friendlier abd since I worked at the embassy I knew most everyone. In Honduras I didn’t work but it was such a close knit community, we had monthly get togethers, lots of coffee outings and many of the USAID staff had children in the same small American school so we all hung out together. And now, with the hiring freeze, our CLO in Pretoria will be always short staffed and I don’t expect there will be much done for spouses or children.

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    • Hi Sevda – how interesting, I do think Pretoria is particularly notorious for this. I wonder if it is because it is a relatively easy place to live and our mission is pretty big so that it gets treated a bit like somewhere like Washignton or Berlin – eg you are pretty much left to your own devices; but a) people aren’t necessarily prepared for that as they would in those large places; b) it is harder to get a job here; and c) whatever anyone says, living in South Africa is VERY different from living in Washington or Berlin. There is another explanation which is that because travel here is so good and so easy, people go away a lot so there is less socialising? I don’t know if that is true. Compound life and the fact that we all live so far apart doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, the missions themselves do seem to be failing a bit here – I will hasten to add not our CLO as I think she does what she can. But as you say, when resources are tight guess which section of the community is first to be neglected?

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    • Thank you! I have just left a message for you on your post – it’s so hard this one. I always say there is nothing wrong with mixing with other expats, after all, it is the most natural thing in the world to hang out with people you have something in common with and what we expats have most in common is being away from home and alone. But I am sure you will start to intergrate over time. Maybe a generation or two 🙂

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  2. Hello, Clara! In the past when I’ve moved I put so much pressure on myself to get out and make friends as soon as possible, expats or locals or whoever will meet me for a coffee. One thing you say here that really resonated with me, though, is that our online communities are just as important. I really take for granted the circle of people I lean on during transitions and you’re totally right that they’re always there. Thank you for sharing this.

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    • Thank you for your comment. Yes life is a lot easier now that we can communicate with people all over the world. Of course we need a balance and shouldnt replace real people with people online but having those familiar conversations with people you have known for years can be very comforting when you have just arrived somewhere new and know no-one!

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  3. Clara – You were an important part of my transition to South Africa, before we even got here. This experience is a lesson to never underestimate the positive impact you can have on someone when you take the time to answer a few (or a hundred!) questions online.

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  4. It took me about a full year to find my tribe. It was hard, really hard.

    We don’t have kids, so we didn’t have that entry – and some people didn’t want to get to know us because we don’t have kids. A lot women resented that I was working. Work itself was toxic – I was seen as a threatening expat. (Fun story: my first day, I asked people about lunch. Everyone sort of shrugged like, “yeah, you can go here or here for lunch.” No one wanted to come with me. Then when I returned to the office with my lunch, they all left to go eat lunch together without me. Classy bunch.) Then I quit that job and went independent, working from home for US clients. Much better work but very isolating.

    I’m finally now at a place where I feel as though I have friends and a community. It took time and a lot of work.

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    • That sounds so hard, I am sorry you had to go through that. I have experienced that with work colleagues too – I have never understood why people want to be so unwelcoming, it just goes against my nature. I am happy to hear you have finally found your place and that you have a community. It’s damn hard without one.

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  5. Very, very true. We have to socialise a lot, it comes with the job description that brought us to these shores. We have, however, always made a conscious decision to see that as ‘work’ and build our own community away from the ‘office’ (ie people who are not teachers, parents or stakeholders in the school). I am so sorry to hear the negative experience of a previous commentator without children. I am always so happy to find people without (or with grown up) children as it means they won’t ever ask me questions about Mr EE’s school! It takes time to build a tribe away from the ready made (and sometimes incestuous) one that comes with work but it is, we think, healthier in the long run.

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  6. Community is super important. I just started a new job in Ecuador by myself and I am the only person in the field here. I’ve been struggling so much because I have no coworkers as a starting point, either is a city with an expat community. I’ve been going around for a while, but I always had the support of coworkers or other expats, and now I don’t. I hope things will change soon…

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