You can choose your family but you can’t choose your friends
I was thinking recently about the old saying that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family and how this commonsense idea gets turned on its head when you’re an expat. Living abroad, I find I often haven’t chosen my friends in the same way I did before, sometimes to the point of having little choice in the matter.
This was particularly true when I lived in a smaller city, at a time when there just weren’t many foreigners around. Many of the folks I met would have become friends wherever we happened to meet, but there always seemed to be one or two others I almost certainly would not have become friends with had we met in our home countries.
These were not people who were lacking in good qualities; they were the friendships that required the greatest patience and tolerance to maintain, and were based on little more than the two of us being foreigners in a strange country. When you’re one of a handful of expats, there’s a palpable sense of being in the same boat, and it inclines you to extend a lifeline to those who would otherwise flounder. Looking back, the only foreigners I really avoided were the ones with the most profound defects: the congenital jerks, the violent drunks, and the certified wackjobs. Everyone else was a potential friend.
Now that I live in a much bigger city and can afford to be a bit pickier with my foreign friends, I still find the same impulse to stick together and learn to tolerate differences in much the same way you would with a member of your own family. You can see this dynamic in nearly every expat group – this tolerance that gives everyone second and third chances to join circles that might have closed to them in the home country.
This invisible bond is most apparent during actual emergencies. One bad move on a motorbike or a lengthy bout with a strange bug is all that stands between you and a real crisis, and that knowledge acts as a subconscious glue that binds expats together in remote places. Many times I’ve seen people rally around an acquaintance, a friend-of-a-friend – even complete strangers – to assist in a time of need, and it is always very beautiful – and very reassuring – to know that there is an instant and apparently instinctive support network there if it’s needed.
The idea that “you can’t choose your family” also seems to apply to people from a different time and place, in which people were obliged to live near their extended kin networks, and thus rightly found it wise to periodically remind themselves that it’s best to look beyond differences, find common ground, and to get along or else risk constant strife and misery. That too has changed overseas, though in truth, the notion that we don’t choose family already began to strike me as quaint long before I left America, where people migrate long distances for a job, chase their dreams from coast to coast, and retire to gentler climates. All modern economies now favor those most willing to go mobile, to adapt, to be ready, willing, and able to uproot and go where your skill set is needed, and this doesn’t appear to leave much room for “choosing family”.
Like the vast majority of expats, I didn’t move abroad to get away from my family, but I have found that it has given me the opportunity to be more choosy with the relatives who are more distant (in both senses of the word), and to redefine the most problematic relationships as family in name only. For me, that only applies to a couple of people in practice, but it was liberating to realize I could let them go (and very occasionally, to tell them exactly where to go).
We all maintain the bonds with those closest to us, despite our occasional disagreements, and the cultural gulf that yawns between us as the years pass. We get together when I’m in the States, we talk on the phone or on Skype, exchange e-mails, fart around on facebook. That doesn’t change.
There is however one other group: the relatives I like very much yet slip out of touch with due to nothing more than distance, the march of time, and his or her over reliance communication media that were popular in the 20th century (and in some cases, the 19th). I miss them and regret not having more significant contact with them, but so it goes. There’s always some family that you don’t get to choose.
Follow John on Facebook @johnnicholasbocskay