Making new friends (or not)
The process of moving to a new location and making new friends is always interesting. When moving here to Chiang Mai, we had multiple contacts; a few of whom helped us extensively via email prior to us coming. But friends who chose to be our friends because they really knew us and not just because they knew someone else we knew? We had none.
I have moved multiple times as an adult and know about that initial period after each move that can feel a bit lonely. I realize that period can last for just a few months or sometimes a much longer time. And even if you happen to know a few people in your new location, there could very well be no one who knows your “back-story;” no one who knows the brokenness that story includes but who still chooses to love you. I knew all this coming to Thailand, but had no idea what it would be like starting over with local friendships in a culture that was not my own.
Before arriving in Chiang Mai, I was aware that there is a fairly large expatriate community here. Many humanitarian organizations that work in the SE Asia region base their headquarters, or at least a regional office, here. Because of this, seeing other westerners is not all that uncommon of an experience, especially if you live in certain areas of the city. However, I am coming to find out that living in an area with this many western expats also brings with it some interesting dynamics I didn’t anticipate. The one that most relates to this post is the fact that many westerners here, for one reason or another, are not necessarily looking for more friends. Whatever the reasons for this, whether they seem “good,” or “bad,” it’s just a reality.
I remember the first day we were here … one of our contacts had picked us up and took us to a local mall to withdraw money in the Thai currency. I remember seeing a white woman and smiling broadly at her, thinking, “She’s western, I’m western, we can at least connect with a smile!” (Hey, I’m from the midwest – that’s how we do things!) Nope. I don’t even think she acknowledged me because, as I would soon find out, seeing another white person is not uncommon here. I also remember those first weeks where I would meet other women at a playgroup or at church and feel this almost desperate, “We’re both western and speak the same language – shouldn’t we be friends?!” kind of attitude, to which interest would often not be reciprocated or other circumstances would prevent further meetings. Just to clarify – it’s not that I don’t want to develop relationships with the Thai people I come into more regular contact with. I do, but the language barrier currently (until I learn more Thai) is a large deterrent to these relationships developing. As a result, as well as for other reasons, meeting others who speak the same language I do is something I’m really thankful for.
I also remember that period of time when I came to accept the reality that many others here were not looking for more friends or community. It was then that I stopped internally striving for friends (I doubt anyone I met would have sensed this striving, but I did). It was then I decided that I was going to reach out to encourage or make that first contact with the other women I met, no matter what I got back in return. It was then I decided to trust the Lord with the friends He has for me here, as well as the timing of them. And because of this decision, I have hung out with different women in the last months while holding loosely to whether or not those times will lead to deep friendships. I have tried to be a good friend, but try not to strive to make friendships happen that God does not have for me here. I feel a deep peace about it all, which is definitely a result of God’s grace, because the desire to have close friends in the same hemisphere (well, I do have a dear friend several countries away, but having close friends in-country could be nice) has not diminished.
I still don’t know how the whole friends “thing” will turn out here. But I have met several women (who I really enjoy) who have already gone out of their way to encourage, help, and show kindness to me, for which I’m really grateful. Yesterday my son became pretty sick, something that was unnerving for me in this unfamiliar place. While experiencing some fear that he may have dengue fever, I texted 2 friends here to ask them to pray, to which they both responded in encouraging ways. Throughout the day, other women here offered information regarding the doctors they take their kids to and several offered to help in any way they could. I believe their offers to be sincere and am acutely aware that it can be rare to know a few others who are willing to care for me and my family so early into living in a new location.
I know this is just the beginning of the process of having friends and being a friend here in Chiang Mai. I don’t know what that whole scene will look like 3 or 6 months down the road. But God is at work. And I am at rest.