“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” replies he, “you have so many friends in South Africa. Doesn’t it bother you?”
My answer was that of course I have friends here in Korea too. But his question is not brushed off that easily. While it is true that I do have friends here too, the depth of friendships are less than what I have in South Africa. A big part of it is the cultural and language gap, making it rather difficult to develop the type of depth in relationship that I refer to. Just making friends of the more superficial variety is easy, but I’ve never been one for mere superficiality. Since I was a child, I’ve always preferred quality of quantity as far as relationships go.
On Sunday I met up with two friends of whom I’ve grown quite fond, but who are both now leaving Korea. I cannot say that we were exceptionally close—not in the way I am with my friends back in South Africa—but these friends had served a very valuable role, filled an important gap, in my social life. We met around three years ago as part of a creative writing critique group. We were a group of writers (of the speculative fiction persuasion) who would share our stories with each other via email and then meet up to give critical feedback to each other as part of the editing process of the stories and to grow personally as writers. Even though I did not submit stories as frequently as most of the other members, I did benefit tremendously from the group. I learned much about our craft. I also found it wonderful to meet with other foreigners and spend time together doing something that is completely unrelated to our lives as expatriates in Korea. For those few hours that we met, often every other weekend, we would just be writers sharing our love for writing, not expatriates in a foreign country.
But this little community of speculative fiction writers huddling together in coffeeshops for each others benefit has come to an end. We had our last meeting this past weekend and by the end of this month I will be the only one remaining in Korea.
And that is pretty much the problem of an expatriate anywhere in the world. Foreigners seldom stay indefinitely. But then again, that happens even to friendships in the same country. Due to work or other reasons, people sometimes need to leave and so friendships are fractured due to distance. That’s not completely true, I know. I’m still in contact with my best friends in South Africa and around the world. We email, Skype, text. However, I cannot pretend that it is the same as one-on-one, face-to-face conversations.
Usually this time of year I visit South Africa and I try my best to visit with as many loved ones as possible. This year I could not go. I’m sad about it. And I do fear that if I stay “out of sight” long enough, that for some of them I will become “out of mind”, as the idiom goes. In some ways it is inevitable. The daily burdens of life but also unshared joys fill our minds with “new” things which occupy our mental space so that we do not always think of far off friends and loved ones. Unless you make a deliberate effort to stay in contact regularly, that is just the natural state of things—entropy. To prevent entropy from decaying a system it requires a constant input of energy.
I try to think of my loved ones and make an effort to keep them in the loop of my life, but sometimes when I feel the energy input being only one-sided I slack off also and rather divert my energy towards those friends that actually do make an effort stay in contact with, and on new friends here where I live.
So how do I survive in a foreign country? I guess the same way one survives anywhere else, by focusing your energies where they are likely to be most fruitful. This doesn't by default mean giving up on old friendships that live far away just because of the inconvenience. There is a benefit to old friends in that they share a history with you, they already know your quirks, there is a comfort of familiarity. All these things first need to be build in a new friendship. But new friendships are valuable too. They are like falling in love afresh, providing you with an opportunity to see yourself again through someone else's eyes, while expanding your own horizons through sharing in these new lives. I thoroughly enjoy both old friendships and making new ones.