“You’re my best friend,” he says to me in a drunken slur on New Year’s Eve. “Really, you are.”

I stand there, with the red brick stupa glowing gold in the night. What do I say?

“Really? I don’t think so.”

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Never an easy thing to admit to someone whom you thought was one of your closest friends. And, certainly never the thing to admit to the person who is saying how they feel about you.

But, the truth is this — I’m no one’s best friend here. I don’t have a best friend here. I’m lucky to have a small core of people whom I love and adore, but if you took me out of the equation in their lives, it would be a minimal loss.

Why?

Because that is the way friendships as an expat in Chiang Mai go.

People come. People go. People swear up and down they will be friends with you forever. Then, they pack their bags and head to a far off land and you have fleeting conversations courtesy of Facebook Messenger. Moments of seeing their faces thanks to Skype or FaceTime or whatever-the-app-of-the-day is.

It used to really bother me. Like, devastate me, when people left. People I had grown so accustomed to having in my life. People I thought I could not  not have in my life.

But, you know what? I can. I do. Sure, it takes a few days to get over the initial sting of changing a routine, of knowing I can’t pick up the phone and call them because their SIM card is now a different country code, but I move on. And, so do they.

Friendships here are odd. There is a community I have found here. A community of people of all ages, with all different desires, doing all different things. I used to love it. I used to relish nights spent having cheap beer in the sticky night air. And then, I fell out of love with it.

Why?

It’s a rat race of a different sort. Expats in Chiang Mai (and yes, I am being quite sweeping and general) are clawing for something. They just don’t know what. Some come here to teach. Some come here to be digital nomads. Some come here because their lives were shit where they used to live and they need something — anything — to give their lives some sort of meaning. To fill some sort of void, even though they aren’t sure what that void is.

Up until now, I have rolled over. I have played the part of a submissive dog and let anyone come and scratch my belly because it felt better than curling up alone. I’ve sacrificed what I have wanted because others did not want it. In a city that is as charming as it is toxic, I have skipped moments, things I have desired, because others did not feel the same pulse, the same electricity, the same things calling to them that were calling to me.

I have been taken advantage of. I have been used. I was that shitty tattered doormat, that person in an abusive relationship that kept coming back for more. And, it is all my fault.

“D, I don’t like it when friends take advantage of you,” my friend says to me across the bar.

I stop sipping my Leo and look at him.

“What do you mean?” I ask, because I am blind.

“We are all friends, and to treat you like that, to blow you off … that isn’t the way you treat people.”

I freeze.

When he says I am being taken advantage of and I don’t deserve it, it hurts more than I imagine.

Friends don’t do that. Friends … real friends … no matter where in the world they are … don’t treat you like you don’t matter. That you are expendable. And yet, here I am, sitting in Chiang Mai, thinking I have so many close friends, and they aren’t really. We are all in this together, only it is every man/woman for his or herself.

So, today starts something new. Today starts boundaries. To not just rolling over and letting people treat me like I don’t matter. That what I want isn’t as important as what they want.

It isn’t easy, but it is about not being complacent. It’s about getting out of my comfort zone. And, that is totally ok with me.

Disclaimer: To my expat friends reading this, this is not an attack on you. If you are reading this, then you know me well enough to know I love you with all of my heart. 

32 comments

    1. I have always known that, but I have always found it so hard to actually live like that. Lately, it’s been my new thing. It’s been about setting boundaries, saying “no,” doing things that make me happy and not others. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it feels incredibly lonely, but at the end of the day, at least I know I am doing things for me.

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  1. I find this fascinating on a few levels. Love the honesty – yah you! My favorite posts of yours are the ones that delve into your reality as an ex-pat because I am so drawn to what I think might be that life. I always go back to what the flight attendants say when they are telling us what to do in the event of an emergency: Put the freaking oxygen mask on yourself first before your child. After all, you won’t do her much good dead. Funny how I find that relevant in so many instances.

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    1. Exactly! I love being an expat, but it is so important for me that my readers know that it isn’t perfect, that there are challenges no matter where in the world you live. Sure, some people here may have entirely different experiences than I do, and that is wonderful. I’m just sharing mine and these have been mine. 🙂

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  2. This is such a contrast to my experience of expat friends – and I suspect it’s because the places where I’ve lived as an expat had so few of us…or it was a huge major city and everyone didn’t know everyone else so the sense of small community was still there. I’m still in touch with most of my expat friends. But the way you describe Chiang Mai, I understand why this would happen…

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    1. I can imagine it is. Chiang Mai is an odd town in terms of expats. I’ve been in Madrid and the expat community there was VERY different. I think because the circles here are smaller and the city itself is small, it makes it a bit more difficult. I am starting to branch out and do other things and have big plans to do more this year.

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  3. YES! I hear you, Diana!
    I have lived in numerous cities and have not always found true friendship. In fact, most of my friendships have been flimsy and one-sided. Many times these people wouldn’t attain the status of ‘mate’ at home, yet the do when you’re abroad.

    So keep seeking out the real, the authentic people. They will pass by you, through where you are. Ditch the ones that aren’t. Being afforded the status of ‘mate’ should only go to those worthy enough in 2014.

    Onward and upward, D!

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    1. Amen, Rebecca!! I am so lucky because I do have people here whom I love very, very much and could not imagine my life without them. But, for others, the ones I wrote about in this post, it isn’t like that. It is a friendship of convenience and loneliness versus actually being emotionally invested. I can count on my hands the people here who I would be friends with, no matter where in the world I am. It’s a mixed bag of good and bad — good because I am so fortunate to have them in my life forever; bad because most times they don’t stay, and it would be nice to have others like that in my life.

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  4. I understand what you said. It’s hard sometimes to have just a short relationship and see it goes by. That’s the reason why I really want to find a great home-ish base to live. I miss having a neighbor, and just having a constant influence. Hugs to you D. 🙂

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    1. I have that “home base” now … and it is nice to have a home, but I haven’t exactly pushed myself to go out and meet people who don’t exist just out my front door. Definitely think it is time for that, as I know there are truly quality and amazing people in this city … even if they aren’t here long term.

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    1. I think it really depends where you go. I have met expats in many countries and some have a tight knit group where it is hard to break in, others, like in CM, are quite welcoming. Even if it doesn’t materialize into long-lasting friendships, there are laughs had and stories shared. 🙂

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  5. I avidly read this article, drinking it up to make the words mine. It’s actually as if you were describing my situation, in better words that I could even think of. When people ask me about my experience as expat in London (6 years and counting…) I always come up with a confused slur, as sometimes it’s difficult to define friendship and it’s always hard to admit when it’s not what it used to be. I think that, regardless the different experiences one might have, this is a bit of a common thing amongst expat communities except, at least in my case, the “ssticky air and cheap beer” part 🙂
    Thanks for this nice article!

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    1. That makes me feel better. I thought it was just a Chiang Mai thing. Thank you for the kind words, Rick! It is hard to define, that is very true. There are some people in my life here that I regularly tell them that, no matter where in the world we met, they would still be my friends. And, I mean it. Not that I don’t discredit the others who are in my life and play a role, but when there aren’t many people around, friendships are often made with others simply to have the company and experience together versus for any intimate, long-term friendship.

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      1. Yes, without discrediting anyone it’s important to understand the difference between a real friendship and a “we’re friends if we happen to hang out in the same place” one. Which is perfectly fine and as long as you tune your expectations. Which also means, as you say somewhere in the article, also to adjust the priorities between what you want to do for your self and anything involving this group of friends.

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  6. What a great honest blog Diana. Good for you for putting up boundaries, and showing people how you deserve to be treated. The best thing you can do for yourself, is maintain your integrity, and do what is right and healthy for you. We support you all the way!

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    1. That’s my plan!! It isn’t easy, and at times, I know it will be lonely, but it saves me from disappointment in putting faith in people I know I shouldn’t put faith in.

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  7. This isn’t exclusively just for Expats. You see the true colors of friends any time you move. It takes a minute to get past but the other side is so freeing. Onward and upward!

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    1. You are absolutely right, Marc. In my non-expat life, I regularly removed the toxic people from it. It is just hard here because this isn’t my world, and there aren’t always new people to meet who are here for the long (or longer) haul.

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  8. Hey Diana,

    This article really hit home for me as I know exactly what you mean. People constantly come and go and it is still difficult for me to take at times. It is a different kind of “friendship” out here because we are much more mobile than most people. I still do see lasting value in a lot of the friendships that I have made here even though I may not see a certain person for months or even years at a time.

    In fact I think the friendships out here (while they are active) are actually much more vibrant and interesting than what we are used to back home. We often come from different places around the world and lead lives that are frankly often a lot more interesting than 2.5 kids and an office job. I would not have met someone like yourself had I not flown halfway around the world to chase something…whatever that is.

    Nathan

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    1. You are right — they are far more vibrant and certainly more eclectic of a group of people than I ever imagined would be in my life. I am so thankful you are in my life! ❤

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  9. What an interesting insight into the infamous Chiang Mai expat circle. I have read many posts written by the digital nomads and the expats living in CM and although they talk about how wonderful it is, I have always detected an undercurrent of something else: loneliness, isolation, lack of purpose, or something else, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because most of them go there just because it’s somewhere they can stay for a long time without spending much money, but over time they realise that it is a small place that can’t contain their wanderlust for long. They stay for too long because, as you say, they find a comfort zone there, but become frustrated.

    I have been an expat for 7 years now, and can honestly say that I have never felt the feelings that you describe, but I have always lived in cities with plenty to see and do: Tokyo, Saigon, Stockholm – and most importantly, an airport close by so that I can leave the city/country completely whenever I want. I also earn a good wage and have loads of holidays so I can travel and see my family without worrying about cost. It’s the best of both worlds.

    I recently considered a teaching job in Chiang Mai, but withdrew because I realised that I would become bored/frustrated too quickly. I’m going to Mumbai instead 🙂

    I’m looking forward to following your comfort zone project – life is way too short to stay in one place for so long 🙂

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    1. I think it really varies based on the part of town you live in and what you do. Since I wrote that post, I have changed my life a lot and have met different people — granted, they are not here indefinitely like I am — but a bit more focused. I think there definitely is an undercurrent here of loneliness though. I can see it and I hear people talk about it. It takes a special person to come from a world they know to one like Chiang Mai. Not everyone is cut out for it, but for people that are, I think there is definitely something they are looking for outside of their own country. It isn’t a bad thing at all, but I think it does set up expats here for loneliness, etc.

      Your expat experiences sound like they are vibrant! Best of luck in Mumbai!!

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