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Why Friendships Define Your Time Abroad

A moment of contemplation with friends after a gruelling afternoon of trekking in Nepal. Lex Cowan


The people you meet overseas will be integral to the kinds of experiences you have, and here's why.

Making friends can be a daunting prospect even when you’re in the comfort of your home country, so the idea of finding like-minded people abroad can seem like an insurmountable task. The truth is, though, that friendships are forged more easily when you're out exploring the world. People you meet while living and teaching overseas will so often define your time in a new country.

I'll carry the friendships that I have built during my time in Thailand with me throughout my life. Hopefully, my experiences here can help put your worries over making friends while teaching abroad behind you.

Travelling spark

We all have unique stories about what drives us to pack up our lives and head out to explore, but making that decision in the first place is something we all have in common. We all chose to use teaching as our way to travel and contribute, and we all chose the adventure of the country we’re in over what other countries have to offer. Before you’ve met any of the people who you’ll be living close to and teaching with in your new home, you’re already likely to be on the same page with what you want to achieve from your year (or more) abroad.

We all chose teaching and we all chose the adventure of the country we’re in over other countries. You’re already likely to be on the same page with what you want to achieve from your year (or more) abroad.When I first arrived in Thailand I worked with a guy from England who was seven years older than me, a lady from Ireland who was five years younger, and another South African who was also my junior by a number of years. In Cape Town, I infrequently had a chance to get to know people from other countries, and 90 per cent of the people I hung out with were of a very similar age to myself. But these were my fellow teachers and we were all without the friends we’d grown up with and in a foreign country. Within a couple of days we’d all had dinner together, within a week we’d helped each other find our way to a local house party, and within a month we’d taken a group trip to Koh Phangnan and Koh Samui.

Our relationships sped through colleagues, to friends we saw after to school, to friends we made plans with every weekend. Our differences in ages and accents became talking points from which our friendships grew, and before we had a chance to realize it, so much of our early time in Thailand had been spent together.

Deep roots

Of course, as the excitement of your early days begins to die down you also settle down into the group of friends you feel most comfortable with. Through the many braais (barbecues), weekend adventures and events that keep the expat community bonded together, you begin to gravitate towards people who have the same goals as you when it comes to travelling. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who wants to see something new every weekend, or maybe you’re the luxury traveller who’s happiest in the fanciest resorts, whatever your speed you eventually find yourself surrounded by like-minded friends.

I’ve been lucky enough to have friends join me in my southern Thai city over the years and my core group of people quickly filled up with familiar faces from home, along with the new personalities I connected with over time. By the time my second term rolled around, we had begun exploring the hidden gems of southern Thailand as a group almost every weekend. We found new waterfalls off unmarked roads through the mountains, we found unspoiled islands where we could pitch our tents and we gave each other courage to explore more of the jungle filled provinces that surrounded us.

These weekends and holidays have given us unique shared experiences that have built some of the strongest friendships I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have seen the places I have or have stayed in Thailand for as long as I have without such a strong group of people supporting and enhancing all that I’ve been through in my time teaching and travelling.

All good things

One of the sadder things about living abroad is the frequency with which you have to say goodbye to people you care about. Perhaps people are going back home to study, or have family commitments they need to return to. It could also just be that the world is big and beautiful and people feel restless giving more than a little time to any one country. Whatever the reasons, people breeze in and out of your life more often than you might like. I’ve been to too many goodbyes parties, given too many goodbye hugs and watched enough faces walk out my life to create a pretty lengthy montage. It isn’t easy, but it’s an inescapable part of being a teacher in a foreign country.

But these partings of ways are something more when you’re teaching in Thailand. Every goodbye is another person to visit in a different country; they’re another couch to sleep on or drink to have while you explore the world. Each “see you later” makes the world a little smaller for you because now the people who you have shared so much with are out there and that means a little part of you is too. The amount of people that I’ve seen again either in their country or back travelling through Asia makes it truly feel like you’re only taking a little break before you begin your adventures together again.

Forever kind of friends

Your friendships define the kinds of experiences you’re going to have during your time abroad. When you look back over your years here you won’t just see the islands and the beaches, you’ll remember the friend who was sharing a beer next to you while you watched the sunset, or the person egging you on to jump off boulders into a river in Chiang Mai.

You certainly shouldn’t be worried about making friends because when you arrive you’ll be surrounded by people searching for the exact same things as you. Choose wisely though, because you never know who the friends are that will be with you for the rest of your life.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Lex Cowan

Lex Cowan is a 31-year-old South African living and working as a teacher in the south of Thailand. He loves travelling and spends his free time exploring Southeast Asia.

Website: www.twoshoestravels.com

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