“I’m Still Here”: Staying Friends From Afar

The worst part about living in globally mobile circles is the constant stream of ‘goodbyes’. What do you do when your friend leaves the country? They’re off to build a new life in a new place and with new people, so would it be best to just let them forget you and move on?

It’s true that they might have less time to talk to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to! I’m going to talk about this in terms of Third Culture Kids, but this is also true of ex-pats and global nomads.

TCKs often spend good chunks of their lives moving from place to place, in a cycle of new beginnings and fresh starts. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need stability. If your friend is going to go to a new place, don’t back off. Be understanding that there will be new pressures on their time, but if you can make the effort to let them know “We’re still friends, I’m still here,” you can help them make the transition. You can be a steadying factor in a world that keeps changing: a reminder that their past lives haven’t disappeared. “I’m still here,” can be the most meaningful and comforting words.

And if you’re like me, and you’re questioning whether you were close enough friends to merit staying in touch, or if that person really liked you enough to want to keep talking to you…message anyway! You can make that decision, because the chances of the other person appreciating it are pretty high. And what’s the worst that could happen?

Excuse the bad-quality picture, but one of my favourite ways of keeping in touch with English-speaking friends while I was in China was finding funny translations. For those who can’t make it out, this is a notebook with the following poem: “Rain. / Rain is falling / all around. / It falls on field.”

When I moved to China, I loved my new life: my friends, my routine, my lifestyle…it was such a positive move. I was living my dream. That said, every time I opened my laptop a little part of me was desperate to see a new Facebook message, or a new email from someone from the UK. Every little ‘hello’ from someone who knew me in my ‘old life’ suddenly meant the world to me – even though I was so happy in China. Moving will change you, but it doesn’t turn you into a new person. I didn’t want my UK community to forget me, because I absolutely never forgot them.

And all of this is not to say that long-distance friendships are not hard. They are! They take discipline and effort and creativity. Being an “I’m still here” friend can be as rewarding, as it is emotionally challenging.

What does a good long distance friendship look like in 2019? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Snail Mail. Post things to each other! Whether that’s postcards, Christmas newsletter, or little mementos from a place you’re both familiar with, being able to send something tangible can make the friendship seem much less abstract.
  • Voice Messages. Texting is great, but I love sending and receiving voice messages. It just seems a lot less clinical, and it makes the friend feel a lot closer. They are also less effort than having to type, so they can be much chattier!
  • Remember Birthdays. And other important days – let them know they’re on your mind, even if you can only send a little message.
  • Send them things that remind you of them. Memes, news articles, jokes, photographs…you don’t have to be in full-blown conversation all the time, but you can keep enjoying the things you have in common! If you have the chance to make your friend smile, just go for it.

It’s not realistic to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met. But it’s also not realistic to ask yourself or others to constantly be making new relationships, and forgetting old ones. We can actively decide who to maintain contact with, who to put in that extra bit of effort for. And we can treasure and foster relationship with those who do the same for us.

So if you can be an “I’m still here” friend for someone (even if the ‘here’ is metaphorical), all the better.

Love, Dani

  • How do you maintain long-distance friendships?
  • Are you, or do you have an “I’m still here” friend? How has that helped with your/their transition?

“Our Colonial Masters”: Being European in the Aftermath of Colonialism

“Hi, I’m Dani from the UK, where are you from?”

“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”

This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.

What is Colonialism?

The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.

Jean-Baptiste Say

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.

Frantz Fanon

Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.

So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.

This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.

There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.

Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies

The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.

Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.

Mary Robinson
All the pink countries have, at some point in time, been colonised by Great Britain.
If you want to see a full list of former British colonies, click through to the World Atlas site.

Facing Today in the Light of History

How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?

Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.

Nathan J. Robinson, ‘A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism was Bad’

I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.

That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:

“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”

“Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”

So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?

First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.

Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?

Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.

George Monbiot, ‘Imperialism didn’t end. These days it’s known as international law.’

So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!

Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.

  • I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
  • Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
  • We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.

Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.

Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?

I think so. I hope so.

Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)

Love, Dani

These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?

How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?

5 Ways to Make Friends in a New Place

Whether you’ve moved to a new city or a new country, being the ‘new kid’ can be so lonely. It can be hard to know how to relate to these people, and you might be left feeling very foreign, and out-of-sync with everyone else.

You do need friends, though. You need community. So I promise you, all of the awkwardness and miscommunications are worth it in the end.

For the first few weeks or months, your friendship-building might just look like forced friendliness and slightly stilted interactions. And you know what? That’s ok! Persevere through the awkwardness. Take the time to get to know the people around you: what their interests are, how they spend free time, what their lives are like. And give them a chance to get used to you, too!

Making friends looks a little different from culture to culture, but I wanted to share my tips for finding people to connect with when you’re new to a place. I moved to Scotland just last month, and forcing myself to do these things not only helped me meet more people, but feel settled much faster!

  1. Smile at your neighbours. Chat, be friendly, ask for and offer practical help. Don’t become known as the person in your building/on your street who doesn’t interact with anyone! In some communities, neighbours are practically family. Don’t forget that in some cultures it’s polite to give your neighbour a small gift when you first move in, or at least knock on their door and introduce yourself. Try and find out what might be expected of you in that culture. If in doubt, do what you would do in your culture (don’t forget to explain that to your neighbour!), and let that be a talking point to break the ice. Your neighbours will be invaluable sources of information, too – they know the area, the landlord, and the language, so they might be willing to help you out if you have any problems!
  2. Find a hobby. It doesn’t matter what it is – rock climbing, choir, calligraphy…do something that will both help you relax, and let you meet people with similar interests! It will not only make you a more interesting person to talk with, but having some ‘scheduled fun’ will do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel much more settled.
  3. Be a good colleague/coursemate. When I’m the new person, I get nervous and tend to withdraw from people. Because I know that that is my first reaction, I try to catch myself in that habit, and reject those negative actions. These people are often very willing for you to join in their community, they just need to figure out who you are and what you’re like! The sooner you can build good relationships with the people who are naturally around you on a day to day basis, the better an experience your work/school will be.
  4. ‘Take me to church’. Are you religious? Get stuck into a mosque/church/synagogue etc as soon as you possibly can! Visiting your place of worship in a new place might just be the key to discovering these people aren’t so different from you after all. These places can also be incredibly welcoming, so get stuck into that community and enjoy your family away from home.
  5. Volunteer. In my opinion, the best way to integrate into a community is to serve it. So, what’s going on in yours? Is there a soup kitchen for the homeless, or an after-school club for disadvantaged kids? Is there a litter-picking group, or English classes for refugees? Find something you can help with. You’ll not only feel the sense of community, but you’ll know you’ve used your time in a really worthwhile way!

Making friends cross-culturally is hard, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if things start off slowly. Persevere, be patient, and keep smiling! It will happen.

“If you want a friend, be a friend.”

Love, Dani

  • What has your experience of building cross-cultural friendships been?
  • What other tips would you give to people who feel lonely in their new home?