Missing Our Tribe

It’s been exactly three months since our arrival in Taiwan, and about two months since school started for my husband and son. Things are calmer and more familiar, and we’re settling into a routine. My husband has a supportive department and group of colleagues that he enjoys working with and getting to know. My son is settled into school–he’s comfortable, he enjoys his teachers, he’s getting more academic challenges, he has a few friends. He participates in a couple of after-school activities and takes violin lessons from a local instructor.

Yet, something is missing. We haven’t found our tribe. We all keep in touch with our friends back home via email, Skype, chatting apps, and social media. But it’s not the same. Tonight, as he was responding to a couple of emails from friends back home, my son remarked that he misses having a large group of close friends. He misses his posse of nerdy, funny, and mischievous boys with whom he could joke around, exchange books, solve riddles and puzzles. They were all new to their school, each one of them part of the group of 50-odd kids in a gifted program in a school of 800 students, and had many (mostly non-sports related–rare for boys their age) interests in common, so it was natural they all stuck to each other and bonded.

He describes how they would travel in a pack, how they had inside jokes and how they would tease and rough-house with each other like brothers, how they would share their favorite comic strips at lunch (my son turned many of his buddies on to “Calvin & Hobbes”), and how they all shared the same sense of humor. His friends were all colors of the rainbow, and a majority of them were bilingual and came from immigrant families. He fit in, in every way important to him. He misses that.

Here, he has a couple of friends in class, but they don’t share many interests or a similar sense of humor. In fact, many, if not most, local kids are very serious and rarely joke around. For a kid like my son, who loves jokes, silliness, and puns, it feels strange and abnormal. Most of the kids are local, so there is very little diversity among the student population. Most of the kids speak Chinese to each other, which excludes my son from many conversations. The boys share mostly two interests, basketball and video games, neither of which interest him. He currently has one close friend–a girl his age whose father works with my husband. He enjoys her company very much; they spend many hours playing together at least three or four times a week. But he misses his buddies.

As for me, it’s been a struggle finding a kindred spirit, someone I feel a connection with. Sure, I’ve met several friendly women through our school community and enjoy their company when we do meet up. But there’s always something missing. With my close friends back home, I can be myself and say anything that’s on my mind. Here, I don’t feel the same security and trust.

As for the locals, I don’t have a lot in common with those I’ve met so far. The parents at the school are affluent and care only about social engagements and being seen. The locals outside the school are from a very different culture and background, and we have almost nothing in common except our ethnicity.

It took me many, many years to find “my people”, but once I knew what it felt like to have that, I couldn’t let it go and now can’t live without it. I miss having people I can open up to, people who know me, people who listen to me, people who relate to me. In Thailand, I was fortunate enough to meet a few women with whom I truly connected. They became like family. I was especially lucky that these people, initially strangers, reached out to me and were patient enough to hang around until I was ready to let them in–something that usually takes me a while and not easy for me to do.

I know it’s only been a few months, so I’m not concerned. It usually takes me at least six to nine months to warm up to someone. Expat life can really accelerate the process of forming friendships, though, since expats have no one to rely on but each other. But it still takes me a while to get there, and I don’t intend on doing anything I’m not comfortable doing.

As for my son, he is adaptable. He is easy-going, gets along with just about everyone, and makes friends wherever he goes. But even though he’s doing okay, I know how much it means to have that deep connection, that bond, with someone else. I know how much it hurts to have had it only to lose it, and to miss it.

There are several expat children–teachers’ kids–for whom living here has been a miserable experience. They have no deep friendships, and are isolated and lonely. They don’t fit in. Some teachers in the past have left soon after arriving because of their children’s extreme unhappiness being here. My husband has one student–a high-school freshman–who has been here since she was in fifth grade (same age as my son), and she continues to resent being brought here by her parents (who are very happy living and working here) and being “forced” to live here.

These types of situations can be difficult to sort out. Every family member has his or her own needs, but the circumstances that can fulfill each person’s needs are intertwined and may conflict with each other. Many times, what works for one family member doesn’t work for another, and many times it’s the parents’ happiness and interests that are pitted against their children’s. These situations can be fraught with emotions, including guilt on the parents’ part and resentment on the children’s part. And there is constant, on-going evaluation of whether the current arrangements and conditions are working and appropriate for everyone. It’s tiring and depletes much-needed mental energy.

In that regard, my son has been lucky and has only had positive experiences so far–he has friends, he enjoys school, and he enjoys life here. My husband enjoys his work. I’m not quite where everyone else is yet, but I know it always takes me longer to warm up to a new situation. But we’re open to changing our current situation if things don’t work out in any way for any of us. If this current arrangement doesn’t work for one of us, then it doesn’t work for us as a family. We shall see what the future holds for us.

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