Confessions of an expat – making friends and being welcome

Some people are better at making friends than others. Some have jobs that make it easier. Whatever your particular circumstances, we all like to have some friends, and when we’re living many miles from home, if we want friends we have to go out and find them.

That is not to say that a family or a couple will be miserable if they have only each other, but humans are a sociable species and besides, if travel broadens the mind, so does meeting new people.

When we lived in Grand Turk, there was a sizeable expat population and we got to know lots of people simply by dint of the fact that we all went to the same bar. The island is seven miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with a population of less than 5,000, so bumping into people is easy.

bar 3
Grand Turk cruise center. There’s a beach one minute’s walk away, but many visitors don’t bother to leave the concrete

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to meet local people, just that by and large we didn’t mix in the same circles. Anyway, isn’t it in some way patronizing to want to get to know people just because they are local? On the other hand it takes guts to walk into a locals-only bar and impose yourself on them. There are friendly people all over the world, but there are also those who resent your presence in their country. As a middle-aged white man  in a community of black people, I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m assumed to be privileged, soft and rich, and if I say that none of those are true, well, I would, wouldn’t I?

I saw something on Facebook recently, one of those anti-racist posts by white people complaining about their own sort. It said “I’m sick of hearing white men talking to white men about other white men”. Well excuse me, but I can’t help my ethnicity or my gender, and if being brought up in a family where money was often very tight but getting a good education free of charge is a bad thing, then it doesn’t seem so to me. My education, which of course I didn’t appreciate at the time, came about because of a scholarship system that gave opportunities to those from relatively poor families. In many respects it made me, set me up for life. And now I am who I am and if you judge me on those criteria, you’re prejudiced yourself.

The group of mainly white, mainly middle-aged, mainly British characters we became part of in the Caribbean paradise of Grand Turk was just a bunch of people far from home and grateful for good company.

A little later, before moving to Suriname, we did some research on the country because, like many people, we didn’t know anything about it. We came across an international organization called Internations, which has a presence in many countries and organizes events where expats can meet. It’s nice to find different people to talk to, to share stories of where you’ve been and glean a bit of what they have learned about where you are now. You can swap experiences about where to shop, places to eat, builders, mechanics and doctors to seek out or avoid.

The meetings in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, take place in bars, restaurants and on one occasion a small café attached to a bakery run by two Chinese-Canadian-Surinamese sisters. As a journalist I thought these women were interesting, so I interviewed them for a Surinamese English-language online news site, and got to know them quite well. I also met several ambassadors and a consul, again through work, and they became friends.

Through Internations we got to know a few Brits, a German couple and plenty of Dutch people, since Suriname is a former Dutch colony and they still speak the language here. Most imports are from the Netherlands and as a form of exchange, Suriname provided many of the black footballers who have graced the Dutch team in recent decades, from Ruud Gullit to Clarence Seedorf.

Why do I stress that they are black? Because they are, and for the purpose of indentification, not to mention that would amount to withholding useful information. This population is primarily of African descent, with other significant numbers of Indians (known as Hindustanis) and more recently Chinese. The famous footballers were from the African contingent.

But of course at an expat gathering  you’re only meeting other expats, apart from the organisers and a few people who may be there for networking purposes (nothing wrong with that – I do it too; I’m always on the lookout for potential interviewees and people to teach English to).

bar 1
There’s this sort of thing…
bar 2
And there’s this. Which one makes assumptions about you?

Although the Internations events are pretty informal and the expenses run to no more than a few glasses of wine, there is another organization, which I won’t name, that operates in the same area, but seems dedicated to separating us from our money. Pretentious events at fancy hotels, with vastly overpriced drinks, as if that’s what we are there for: to spread our “wealth” around. That is, unfortunately, a not uncommon experience in the general population in many countries, and I don’t appreciate being fleeced in the same way by an organization, in the name of charity or not. Maybe it’s because to some people I look rich, although I’m not, and that’s why it bothers me.

But that’s how the world is nowadays, isn’t it? If you have loads of money, come in and make merry and spend it with us. But if you have very little, go away and get sick and die somewhere else.




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