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Expat Life: Lack of Friends Causes Mental Health Issues

I’ve started writing this blog post 10 times, 15 maybe. I’ve even finished it. But that was when I didn’t feel much positivity and those posts were DEPRESSING AS FUCK. But that’s changed now so I’m going to try again.

The reason I never launched the blog posts I wrote up until now is because of my neighbours. I have lovely, kind, gracious neighbours who I appreciate and am grateful for how they’ve welcomed me. So I’ve never wanted to post something that they might misunderstand or somehow feel slighted by. 

Until today really, every time I’ve tried to write the truth about my new expat life it just turned into an everything-is-wrong pity-fest yet that’s not the heart of this story. Now, however, I’m back to feeling happy! I’ve even woken up before 6am the past 2 days (something I haven’t done since October 2019), I’m playing music all day as I work (and singing badly but joyfully), and I feel … myself.

And trust me … “myself” is not something I’ve felt since one month after moving from Malaysia to Indonesia. 

Here’s What Happened

Leaving one homebase for another means saying goodbye to friends. In Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t have a lot of friends but I had friends I adored. The kind who would be there if something went really pear-shaped in life. It was fun to party and let loose with them, which I could do in my style because it was their style, too. And on top of that Kuala Lumpur is a modern, vibrant city that has it all, including everything anyone could wish to get up to in arts, cultural, and culinary delights.

Fast forward to my new home on Indonesia’s island of Batam and none of that is true. 

Batam is a beautiful island and I’m thrilled to live here but there is (almost) nothing to do but eat and drink on the island. I was at the point at the beginning of March where going to a posh new movie theatre was the most fun thing I did some weeks. Which is sad, especially when compared to other lives I’ve lived in Spain, India, and around Southeast Asia.

On Batam, there is a lovely group of expat ladies who meet up weekly but they generally meet up during the day when I’m working. I also have kind neighbours who are always keen on dinners, which generally turn into drink-fests, cuz — ya know — there’s little else to do on the island.

The Problem

Since arriving, I don’t remember seeing a fun ‘girl’s night’ activity in the expat ladies group — which would be MOST up my alley. They are fabulous women but sadly our lifestyles are close to opposite given that I’m free at night and they’re free during the day.

With my neighbours, I’m the only single female expat around so I’m a bit of an odd duck out. Nights with them are FUN and I truly appreciate them. But the core of what makes me tick (how I’ve lived my life up ’til now) is a bit opposite to the life that my neighbours have lived. Yes, we’ve all lived in diverse countries around the globe but the WAY we lived has been very different so … there isn’t a natural tribe to fall into here.

Strangely Alone On Batam

As happenstance would have it, someone also pointed out that I seem to be — no shit! — the only unmarried single white female entrepreneur on the entire island! At first I thought, “There is no way that’s true, that’s not possible.” But after asking around I think it may actually be true. 

Can you imagine what it would feel like to be the only single, female expat in a city or on an entire island? haha  I still feel like this stat must be wrong but so far there isn’t anyone who can think of another ‘me’ on Batam.  It’s coo coo.

So it wasn’t long after my arrival that I started to realise just how hard it was going to be to make friends. Well, not friends but more-so I guess to find a ‘tribe’. I have a client on the island who I had been getting close to before my move but conflicting work styles has made that a challenge following my arrival. 

And all of those things combined had left me feeling alone.

Alone alone.

Remember how I said I used to get up at sunrise but it stopped last October? That was after some work revelations that left me gutted. And that effected other parts of my life. But I would say that not being able to find a tribe to join has been the roughest part of my new life on Batam.

Expats Need Friends More Than Usual

Generally speaking, when you live “back home” you have friends both old and new, family that you can count on, and a lifestyle that is familiar. However, when you move abroad to a new country — especially as a single person — you have none of that from the moment you touch down in your new life. 

Parts of that are thrilling and exciting because it means life is there for the making. But what happens when there isn’t much there to work with? I honestly thought I was falling into an expat paradise here but the truth is Batam is the single most challenging place I’ve ever lived >>

  1. 99.9% of expats are couples, so being the only single female expat (I think!) on the island is strange. Normally there are 100s / 1000s of single female and male expats/immigrants/digital nomads living in a destination, and those are people who can relate to one another instantly. That’s missing here. 
  2. Even when I was a single immigrant or expat mom living in the US, Spain, or India I was never a traditional expat mom. I was single, worked every day (often long days), and flew off on business trips monthly. So for me, it’s hard to understand why the lovely women in the expat group have to keep to daytime activities. I do not mean that in a ridiculing way and I promise I am not being negative or judgemental, I just don’t understand because I suppose I never felt those limitations.

Finally Finding A Tribe

I realised something had changed when I stopped drinking so much this month. Then yesterday when I was singing all day as I worked and bouncing around the apartment, it hit me. I was happy again!

Given that I’m 100% uninterested in a romantic relationship, I wrongly thought that work stuff was the key to my own particular brand of happiness but holy cow was I wrong. It was friendship, and not feeling alone. 

The first relief came with a new friend on Batam who is a power girl, a bit younger than me, married and with kids roughly my daughter’s age, and who feels like a kindred spirit. It’s too early to say if we’ll be life-long friends but I hope our connection will last beyond Batam. We’ve lived in a couple of the same places around the world, she understands what I’m going through here, and it’s ‘just what the doctor ordered’ to have a fun partner-in-crime for some cheeky girl’s nights out. 

Then came my friends in Singapore. Singapore is only a 45-minute ferry ride away and I was completely (stupidly) oblivious to just how therapeutic a girls night out there could be. My friend Zuzi and I first met each other back in 2005 when we were both expats in a small village called Sitges in Spain. She’s a businesswoman in Singapore now and introduced me to one of her closest friends last year, Sunita. That duo is a belly-full-of-laughs any night of the week. Last Wednesday, we dined and sipped wine for hours, having much-needed deep and meaningful conversations. I’m heading back again next week and we’ll be going for a wine-fuelled night of karaoke!

Plainly put … the above Batam + Singapore combo has positively changed my life. 

I know that might sound dramatic or silly but it’s true. 

Final Thoughts

In my personal life, I had been properly miserable for months. There was a short reprieve around the time my daughter flew up from Tanzania for the holidays but — like I said — it was just a reprieve. Yet this week, I honestly feel myself again. Properly and fully. Not broken or halfway there … I’m there!

And I’m grateful to the strong and amazing women who unwittingly helped in this recovery. (thank you, girls!)

Most importantly, I’m grateful for being reminded that — like in any society — finding a tribe is essential for a sustainable and healthy life.

Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 37 countries on 4 continents, residing in 8 of them (currently Indonesia's Riau Islands is my home). I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!