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Saying Goodbye to Old Friends and Welcoming New Ones is a Normal Part of Expat Life

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I guess I now fit the criteria for being classed as a Long-Stayer Expat. I’ve lived in Malaysia since June 1998. The first three years in Seremban as the spouse of a hotelier, and then in Bangsar ever since, without the spouse. Dear Husband is happily working and living off the coast of Singapore on an Indonesian resort island. Hey, like I always say, the couples who live in separate countries are the couples who have the longest marriages. No nit-picking, no drama, and for me, the ability to let the dirty dishes sit for five straight days in the sink, and eat only whenever hunger pangs call. Love it. And he also loves it because he now has a spotless kitchen sink and a dozen hotel restaurants to eat at. Perfect.

From the first week, I met and made friends with not just expats, but locals. In Seremban at that time, there were almost no expats at Nilai University College where I was on faculty. I was one of the very few among the thousands of students, administrators, and faculty. If you wanted to find me on the sprawling campus, you would just have to scan the tops of heads for my sole blond one.

For almost eight wonderful years between 2002 and 2009, my dearest friend was an Englishwoman, Diana van der Elst, who was married to a South African named Mike, who retired in 2009 back to his native South Africa, taking half my heart with him. Not one day goes by that I don’t miss Diana. It is especially difficult on Saturdays because that was the day Mike shared her with me. He got her on Sundays. She would pick me up and off we’d go, already cackling and babbling like brooks before we hit the main road.

We also would act like the naughty teenage girls we still felt we really were in spite of our exterior appearance, and buy forbidden smokes while our ambidextrous mouths managed a constant flow of non-stop words while wildly puffing away, slurping down coffees, and delicately munching on yummy foods provided by a Bangsar landmark bistro. Then we’d go hunting down an especially tangy and refreshing bottle or three of white wine and bring it back to my condo where we’d sit on my spacious balcony in all our mid-middle aged glory and gleefully clink our wine glasses in celebration of our happiness.

Every person we encountered was Diana’s friend or quickly became one, such was the force of her personality, and she kept her friends too with people always dropping by for a few days visit from dozens of countries. She introduced me to all kinds of expats mostly because I worked so many hours throughout the weekdays; I had no time for socializing. She also listened with rapt attention to my daily nitty-gritty, supplanting the role of the faraway spouse and I listened with fascination about her days spent exploring greater KL. She went almost everywhere there is to go to soak up her host country’s culture and to experience life on different Malaysian levels.

I always deeply respected that about her as she usually set out on her treks alone. She made me keenly aware of different social and political trends here at the grassroots levels that I would otherwise not have known about. This would sometimes result in fodder for my monthly columns or even scintillating articles.

Best of all, she laughed at my jokes with genuine hilarity – which was always at great odds with all my other English friends, coworkers, and, why, even my boss, Andy, none of whom seemed to understand my sense of the funny, silly, and absurd. We did “naughty” things, too, which I felt were all justified because, unlike 95% of my other friends, Diana is several years older than me. So if Di felt that smoking, drinking wine at mid-day, being extremely loud in public with our laughing and antics, then for me it was ok as she was my big sister. Strange, but neither of us smoked much except for those Saturdays. I know. I know.

We talked about sex, being post-menopausal, and our adult daughters. We’d email dirty – I mean, heh, off-colour – jokes and taught each other the latest on manoeuvring the Internet, including how to watch the earliest genesis of YouTube.

I’d always be so amazed that all the people we’d encounter would remember her while she would ask them about prior illnesses, family, and the arcane details of their lives. My own arcane details are Skyped weekly or emailed daily now, so we can both pretend she is really just around the corner in her house in Mont Kiara, not a six-hour time difference away.

Friends leaving Malaysia is one of the toughest things for long-stayer expats to handle. Not only do we lose our dearest confidantes and pals, but most of us lose our children who turn into adults and go off to live their own lives far away. The positive, though, is that there are always new expats coming in, and getting to meet them and make new friends is the reality of the endless cycle of long-stayer expats everywhere.

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Source: The Expat April 2013

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