The Expat Cycle

moving yes

At the beginning of every great expat friendship is the knowledge that it will evolve into something different. What begins as a mutual adventure will eventually end with a farewell party. It doesn’t necessarily have to be forever, but no matter what, one day the moving truck will arrive in either yours or their driveway. Those who are leaving and those who are left behind. The leaver versus the leavee. Both of you saying goodbye but only one of you heading off on an adventure.

With seven quick and successive moves in our passports G and I were always leaving, never left behind. The first time it happened I left a very good friend in Jakarta. As the car drove away from her house and down her very familiar street for the last time, I tried hopelessly to stifle my sobs. It all seemed too much, the process of packing up a house and moving country with a toddler in tow. Knowing I was going to have to start all over again, find a new home, a new school, new friends. I was jealous that she got to stay behind and keep living the life I was more than happy with at the time.

When we got together a few months later I’d began to change my mind. My new location in Kuala Lumpur had worked out quite well, I’d found a fabulous playgroup, we were living around the corner from friends and there were freedoms that Malaysia had to offer. I missed her but as she began to recite who else from our old life was on the move I realized that the end was inevitable, we all had to move on sometime. And moving was an adventure, it’s a boost of expat adrenaline and some of us are most certainly junkies.

It happens in cycles. People sign contracts, sometimes officially sometimes just between themselves. Agreeing on two or three years at a time. You arrive, make new friends, fumble through your newness together and two years seems like forever away. But somehow between finding arabic lessons and a decent hairdresser it’s time to renew your contract again. How could that be? You only just got here? You begin to notice staff changes, the receptionist at school goes to live in Japan. You’re on your second music teacher. The woman who paints your fingers and toes has built her parents a house in the Philippines. You decide on three more years, the receptionist at school returns from Japan, you’re now helping the woman who paints your fingers and toes to invest in pigs, she shows you pictures, with every tip she fattens them up and resells them at a profit. You congratulate yourself  on the life you’ve set up, the friends you’ve made, you finally work out where to park for the Friendship Festival and how to sign up for baseball. A boozy farewell brunch will have you witnessing an international love in “I love you man, you guys have been the best” a friend will say as he thanks you for your farewell gift. Your tears are genuine and for just a moment you’ll ask yourself if you should be going as well.

G and I are about to be hit hard. There are moves afoot everywhere we look. Friends that we’ve come to rely on. The ease of the drop in call, the last minute plans.  This is our time to be the leavees, for it’s just not the right time to go. And as sad as I am to say goodbyes I can’t help but love this genuine feeling of stability. As I sit choosing subjects for Middle School with our second little traveller I can look her in the eye without any hint of a “what if we move.” The eldest traveller is on a firm plan, she knows how the next few years will look. It’s been something we haven’t been able to offer in the past.

At the end of a particularly good farewell brunch on the weekend I sat talking to our host, they’re leaving after 13 years in Doha. She talked about this special life, how your friends become your expat family. “It’s the one family you actually get to choose. That’s what makes it so good”.

We’ve been so lucky, so many giggles, so many great friends. As we watch the excitement gather of new locations, housing, and schools, we make a conscious effort to be happy for them while appreciating what we have. New flowers in an existing garden, artwork to hang, and a house that will have a new paint job.

It’s not our time for the adrenaline shot, we need to coast, sit back and enjoy the farewells – relish in someone else’s adventure. That’s what’s made it so good. We chose it.

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  • skwirrell

    Yes I am about to be the leaver. After 4 years in an amazing place. THE longest we have ever lived anywhere, so we have put down many roots (usually it has been 6-9 months then moving on), so this is very much our home. Yes we DID choose the life style, but it doesn’t make the sayonaras any less bittersweet. Some people we will see again, but others we won’t. That doesn’t make them any less of our journey. There is a beautiful song by Train “Sing Together”. It’s about parting. “without you I would never be me” even if we only met in passing at the mall. We all change change other in our travels. Celebrate every single person and experience you come across. It will change you every single time.

    • Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      Oh good lord, that song just had me in tears. Perfect for a farewell vid for a friend. Thank you xx

      • NaomiHattaway

        You’re right … perfect for the farewell slide show! We also have used My Wish by Rascall Flatts .. tear jerker.

  • Nikki

    So true. For our first expat landing we parachuted into Hong Kong. There the expat communities there are strong and supportive and varied. Everyone we met was very welcoming and friendly, giving advice and assistance generously. There was though the few that said – ‘Welcome, hope you love it but we are closed for new friends. It’s just too hard to see them go all the time’. To those 10 of us who joined a ‘Get to Know HK’ group at the Y – this was kind of a strange response. 10 years later, only 2 of the original 10 remain in HK, the rest of us are scattered far and wide, some in other countries and some returned ‘home’. I recently saw on FB a comment by one of them ‘I am closed for new friends, the saying goodbye thing is too hard’. It reminded me of that time, so long ago when we thought that was a slightly odd response. Since then I have been to many many farewell parties, some my own. I’m still not sure which is harder, staying behind or leaving. We have friends in nearly every corner and nook and cranny of the globe. It’s tough but it’s worth it I think.

    • Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      I’m with you Nikki, I’m not sure what’s harder but I know I couldn’t imagine a life without some of the friends we’ve picked up along the way. Watching our eldest traveller say goodbye to a friend (again) on the weekend was incredibly hard. I asked myself more than once if I was doing her any favours with this life until today when she said “we’ll always be friends Mum” and I realized she was going to be okay – they will always be friends, they won’t see each other all the time but they will always be friends. I have friends who I grew up with who I only see once a year and I think our friendships are a little bit golden because of it – maybe expat friendships are the same in a way?

      • NaomiHattaway

        We have had that happen as well … .”closed for new friends” — that’s a post all by itself Nikki!

        • Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

          Was it Seinfield? I seem to recall an episode about “not recruiting for friends, we’re not recruiting, closed”.

          • Jane

            I know someone here in HK who has tried to pick friends based on those who are staying vs those who are on limited contracts. I think it’s to protect herself from change, but who really knows the future? The person who adamantly said they were there to stay suddenly gets called home by family crisis or employment change…and the short-term person is still there 10 or 20 years down the track! I’m such a believer in friends for life, friends for a season, and friends for a reason. Not everyone is meant to be a friend forever but doesn’t make them any less important in that moment.

        • Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

          Found it! Not quite the same thing, but it’s that whole ‘applications are closed’

          • NaomiHattaway

            Love it! I would LOVE for someone to make a skit about the expat friendship cycle .. couldn’t that be hysterical?!

  • NaomiHattaway

    We’re about to be the leavers (again, again!) but this time it’s so so hard because no one here is used to the leavers/leavee syndrome. The rhythm of the process isn’t normal here and even the kiddos have noticed how it’s not the same. The littlest little said “Mama, last time we moved, it was like a party. People were happy for us. Here, they are just sad.” I think that’s the difference between serial moving being part of your daily existence … it is celebrated and cherished.

    • Kirsty Rice 4kids20suitcases

      Where are you off to this time Naomi? I think I know what you mean, we’ve done one location where we had maybe 2 other expat friends and everyone else was local. I think people actually felt a bit sorry for us.

      • NaomiHattaway

        The Washington DC area, Kirsty. It will be a great move for us, I’m just hoping this is it for at least the next 10 years. I’m ready to have some roots spread a bit deeper instead of just along the surface …

        • Nikki

          Totally get this – we have wonderful neighbours who have just been here for 12 months and are moving on again due to work related stuff (domestically, but it’s a big wide country here in the USA). I am heavily into planning farewell party, gifts, speeches etc. Everyone else just seems sad, and it feels a little bit like I am too happy about them moving. I’m not , but I know how good a fun farewell party can be, and how it can help with a move – putting everyone in a good frame of mind and highlighting the good stuff. Or you know, I need a job 😉

          • NaomiHattaway

            GOOD for you for doing that for them! They will remember your effort for years to come.

  • Katerina Jirmanova

    We are moving for the first time in few months en already feeling all kind of emotions around us! Making the choice without anyone knowing was exiting, it is much harder now, that everybody knows. I try to enjoy every day left hier, but sometimes I wish it would be over, dreading the moment we effectively have to leave. It is the adventure waiting that makes it all a bit easier. End all the new friens I am sure are waiting for us!!!

  • Expat with Kids

    There is a quote I like to share with my parting friends by Anais Nin:
    “Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

    Again, your words hit very close to home and make me smile and empathize.

    I tell my kids it’s like Cinderella’s spell: when the fun is at its best and you feel most comfortable and happy, you need to abandon the party. But the memories will always remain the best!

  • Rachel

    It is such a relief that this time it isn’t me, but instead my 17 year old. He’s heading off to college, and I get to wave him goodbye, relish the uninterrupted Wifi bandwidth, and shed a tear (or two). The good news is that due to his familiarity with goodbyes and the knowledge that strong bonds do both last and stretch across distance, he is completely unfazed. Happy days.

  • Amanda Isberg

    Thank you for sharing this. I am an international teacher currently working in Venezuela and I always think that the upcoming staff changes must be horrifying to the local staff. I’m happy to hear that there is a different way of thinking about it.

    -Amanda at

  • Travel Tarts

    This piece brought up so many feelings and memories as we stare into the void towards another move too, probably at the end of the year. Eight countries in 15 years, and an adopted daughter along the way, every move got harder and we seem to have kept ‘to ourselves’ more on this posting than before in the knowledge that moving on / ‘breaking up’ is so hard to do. Then we remember the excitement and joy that new adventures bring. Oh the dilemma! Thanks for putting your positive spin on it.

  • Lina

    This bought back so many memories after moving 6 times in 13 years. I made some lovely friends and I am still in contact with many of them via FB and email. I would never change the time I had as an expat and the adventures and friends I made.

  • Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

    We’ve just moved to K.L and are having a very tough time adjusting to our new life. My husband and daughter is doing quite well here. My highly sensitive son and I myself (sensitive) finds it difficult. Having been used to our life back in Amsterdam, daily bike rides to school and the good friends, it’s not as easy as I had thought adjusting to a new culture and life in Asia. Haven’t made friends yet as I am working from home most days. Reading all this helps. Thank you.

  • Frederiek

    Leaving is always hard; but I think it’s often harder to be left behind. As for the person leaving they will be super busy moving, getting to know their new place and new people. For the person left behind there is just a gap of where the friend used to be… However it is also super nice to stay somewhere and really know a city – and in your case give stability to the kids. Always two sides to a story 🙂

  • Expat Explorers

    After four countries in five years I can certainly relate. The depth of an expat relationship is also an issue. You easily become firm, fast friends as you share the same settling-in problems, but then when you leave you realise who your true friends are. Sometimes you realise it’s just a friendship of convenience.

  • Sarah Watson

    there is no doubt that the expat community has become our family whilst we have been living overseas. however, their has been a shift since our children have gone to live and continue thieir education at home.

  • Katie M

    This was a really timely article. I’m hoping we are staying put in Singapore for a long time, but I’ve already had to farewell friends, and it looks like more are on their way out. It’s so hard saying goodbye. I still find it incredible that people you’ve known for a year or two, can be so important and so hard to say goodbye to.

  • Expat with Kids

    Here we go for another round of farewells in Paris. Always a pleasure to read your posts. Just as relevant as when I first read it three years ago!