By Chelsea Levine
It’s 11:45pm in Manila Airport Terminal 3. Our flight back home to Seoul is supposed to leave in 15 minutes, but so far there’s no sign of any activity at the gate. A late flight is no problem, but I start work in 9 hours. That’s a 4 hour flight, Customs, Immigration and a 2 hour bus ride home. At this rate, I MIGHT be able to get home and take a shower before work. Or I’ll miss work completely. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m in a terrible mood because I have no idea when or if I’ll be getting to work in the morning. But as I look around, I see my friends that I arrived with having a great time without me. They’re drinking beers, playing cards, chatting about life. They’re not hanging out with each other, they’ve each found a new group of friends to be with. We never had a falling out and we weren’t sick of spending time with each other, but we had all fallen quite naturally into the expat tradition of the five hour friendship.
I have just had my 6 month anniversary in Korea. Along the way, I’ve met some truly amazing people. Some will be around forever, some have made an impression that will last for years, and others with whom I had a great time, will disappear into a distant memory. Moving to a new country can mean setting down new, but deep roots. Moving abroad to teach English, especially in Asia, can mean that, too. However, more often than not it means 1-2 year stints in various cities or countries around the globe. This means a very high turnover rate of expats in any one place. One very quickly gets used to the idea that someone you’ve depended on since you stepped off the plane will be gone in 2 weeks, a month, 3 months. While it’s sad that friends are packing up and leaving so quickly, it places you in a position to do one of two things. You can never deal with saying goodbye by staying in, torrenting movies and ordering take out every night. Or, you can embrace the five-hour friendship.
I’ve never been a very outgoing person. In fact, trying silkworm for the first time made me less nervous than showing up, alone, to a group gathering of expats in my town. At home, this isn’t a problem. I had all the time in the world to slowly get to know people and become friends at my own pace. I will admit, for the first few months my only friends in Korea were the 4 guys I worked with, 3 of whom moved to Korea on the same day as I did. We’re all still close and we hang out all the time, but we’ve also been able to expand our circle quite a bit. Now, I’ve got foreigner friends, Korean friends, Koreans-who-grew-up-in-the-West friends and even Westerners-who-grew-up-in-Asia friends. My group of friends has never been more diverse, and it’s never happened more quickly. The only problem with this group of friends I’ve found for myself? Everytime we hang out, I’m keenly aware of who’s leaving next and when they’re heading out. Each week brings a new going away party. But that’s okay on this side of the world. This is the first kind of five hour friendship. They’re very real, just short.
There is another type of this strange five hour friendship. It’s the kind you get as an expat when you pick up and travel even more. It’s the kind you get when you give in to the bug we all have to pick up and move again if only for a long weekend. It’s the kind you get when you meet your roommates for the night in a $3 hostel on some island in the Philippines you haven’t even heard of until you were on the ferry. These friendships are the shortest of all, sometimes even clocking in at exactly 5 hours. They’re the ones you develop when you’re travelling alone, or with friends, in some new and foreign place and you’re surrounded by experts. By experts, I mean the people who arrived the day before you did. These are the people you meet in the common area of the hostel, sipping on drinks like they own the place. After striking up a conversation, you quickly realize that everyone has the same plans for the day, so why not go together? These day-trip companions and night-time drinking buddies become your whole world when you’re in a place so foreign that the mere idea that they are also just visiting brings you together. For some reason, these friendships tend to be very close. The kind where you stay up all night talking about this and that, anything and everything. The kind of stuff you usually only talk about with a significant other. Sure, it sometimes leads to that, but usually it ends when the sun rises again, or when one person just can’t keep their eyes open any more. Then, it’s finished. I have a flight to catch, you have a pre-dawn SCUBA trip, we will never see each other again. And again, that’s okay. It’s been fun, it’s been real, but there’s a whole world of friends to make in the next place. While I may not remember the names of all the people I have met on my travels, I do know that we shared an experience, if only for a few hours, that will last much longer than our friendship did.
Recently, I overheard an argument where someone said that everything we had built here (in our lives abroad) was fake. All the relationships and friendships were just smoke and mirrors that would disappear as soon as we stepped onto the gangway for our flights home. Maybe he was right in a way. I certainly don’t feel like I’m living in the real world. It feels more like I’m back in college. But then again, some of the most important people in my life today are those I met in my all too short time in college. So in the end, no, I don’t think that the relationships we build as expats are fake. The five hour friendship is very real.
Chelsea Levine is a 25 year old American expat living in the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea. She is teaching English at an after-school academy which leaves more than enough free time to explore her new world. Originally from Orlando, FL she has been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively around the world, but this is her first “extended stay” anywhere. Coming from a background and a BA in religious studies, she loves exploring cultural sites around the world, especially ones of a religious nature.