30 January 2015

How Friends Become Family Overseas

If you're living an ocean away from your parents, it's usually when there's a hospital involved that friends are suddenly promoted to family status. Or, some might call it a demotion because of what it entails.

I gave birth twice in Korea, which is probably Hilton-status compared to many of the stories of expats in other countries. STILL, my mom wasn't there. I had to rely on friends to watch my older kids while I recovered in the hospital.

My kids have "aunties," like Menya here, who come to help and count it a joy.

My husband had surgery, and I was ordered to be there by the doctor to help with recovery. I left my toddlers with friends--who rotated them over 30 hours between 6 different women!

And the stories go on:
A midnight phone call to watch two kids while we rush the third to the ER
Tag-team babysitting between moms so we can all take turns visiting our sick friend in the hospital
Bringing hot meals to relieve exhausted parents
Praying over the phone, over sick children, or while standing cold at the street corner

This would be easier if I had my parents nearby. It's easier to ask family to do the hard favors.

It's difficult to ask for help.

Why is that? Well, I have a couple theories. I struggle with admitting weakness. (Maybe we all do?) Families already know we are weak. Maybe that's why it's easier to tell them we need help. Also, families are stuck with you, so no matter what you ask of them, they are still related and can't escape ever.

Of course I'm exaggerating. The truth is that most families want to help because the connection is already there--and deep. Sharing experiences cements relationships, and family members are monumented together for life.

So how can we replicate this in communities when we need family-like help but are far far away from relatives?

#1 Admit weakness. 
We need to stop pretending that we're unstoppable and unscathed. Instead of boasting our awesomeness, we should start admitting our brokenness. The great walls of capability block out the help. They scream, "Go away. I got this!" Let's tear down those walls and say, "Come on over. Let's do this together."

#2 Set down roots.
Recently, I met a family who had just moved to Seoul. "Is this a long-term move?" someone asked the mom. "Every move is long-term," she said wisely, winking at her young kids. "We need to think this way. We arrive, and we settle down."

Thinking "temporary" only damages us expats. Our friendships stay shallow. Our homes stay undecorated. Our mentality stays distant. If we set down roots, then we can live fully wherever we are--no matter the time frame--and cultivate the kind of community that feeds our souls.

Steph and I have shared so many experiences (like two simultaneous pregnancies) that we've become sisters.

#3 Help, like family.
How does help start in an expat community? It starts with one person. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Someone has to step out of the "friend" mode and offer to do something hard. If we want to receive help like family, we'd better be willing to do the same.

What can you do? Well, start thinking of others like family members.
If she were my sister, I'd make her dinner. (Go make her dinner.)
If he were my brother, I'd offer to babysit for free so he can take his wife out on a date. (Go babysit.)
If she were my aunt, I'd pack up her kitchen for the move. (Go pack it.)
If he were my dad, I'd pay for that car repair he needs but can't afford. (Go pay for it.)

When we're living far from family, our friends become like family. But if we're not intentional about admitting weakness, setting down roots, and helping out others, it will take longer to deepen our friendships. And that might mean we hit a point when we need help and feel starved of resources.

I often have to do a semantic exercise to help me refocus. Want to try? Stop thinking of expat friends with a "friends" definition. Start thinking of them as "family." Even family you just met are thought of differently than newly introduced friends. Here's an example. A month ago, the five of us traveled to be a part of my sister-in-law's wedding. At the event were hundreds of people. I met way more people than I remember. However, whenever I met someone to whom I was related (either through my husband or now through my sister-in-law's new husband), I made more of an effort to get to know them, remember them, and hang out with them.

We should have the same mentality when we meet someone new in our overseas community.
"Hello! You and I are in this together. Just think of me as family."

Abide in Him,

Do you have stories to share of how friends rescued you while you were far from family?

This post is part of a conversation on 'help' at Velvet Ashes' The Grove.

Related articles you may also appreciate:
Deep Friendships Are Worth Hard Goodbyes
Missionaries Must Come Like Family Not Tourists
Distance and What We Miss
To the Expat Mom Who Wants to Go Home


  1. Malia I love this! and the ways we can be family to each other. I also cheer at the "every move is a long term move." Yes, wherever we are, we are and we need to invest in such a way that our hearts may get ripped out :). It's hard, all the hellos and goodbyes, but we are made for community and not to go it alone. And for me, my overseas family is as read a family as my bio family is. Thanks for linking up with Velvet Ashes!

    1. Yup, it's painful to invest--especially quickly. But you're right. We're made for community. It's worth the hard goodbyes. Thankfully, it's easier in this tech savvy century to keep in touch!

  2. Thanks for this post, Malia! I live in my home country, but far, far away from family, and still need this message! Because I am living somewhere I never imagined... it has been hard for me to "settle". BUT I, too, love the thought that "every move is a long term move"... and I really appreciated your practical examples for how to start thinking of those around me like family. Family means that we are THERE for others to do the hard favors.. not just to have them do it for us. I need to be willing, as well!

    1. Exactly! We have to be willing to act like family if we want to be treated the same. And thanks for pointing out that this is completely applicable within our home countries if we're far from family there too. I hope the "settling" comes quickly and more smoothly than you anticipate--with your belongings but more so with your heart.

  3. Anonymous2/05/2015

    Hi, Malia, I'm stopping by from Wholehearted Wednesdays. :) As a grown missionary kid, I can really relate to this post! I especially liked #2 on your list - it's something we have to be intentional about doing. Thanks for sharing!
    Jen @ Being Confident of This

    1. Thanks for this comment, Jen. Yes, setting down roots doesn't come naturally when everything around us is "unnatural," but it's so important! I'm glad you stopped by. :)


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