On Expat Friendships: Lessons from Zen Buddhism

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The recipe of turning strangers into friends and lovers has surprisingly few ingredients. They are mostly seasonal (right time and place), local (common ground) and are widely available (humans), except for one exotic spice (attraction), which transforms the birth of relations from mundane to alchemic. But even with the finest recipe, tending to the spark of human connection is a delicate affair. Especially on the expat trail, where the change is constant, the acquaintances speak in new tongues, and the foreign air looms with impermanence. How then does one make friends far away from the familiar ingredients of home? One evening in Zurich, after hauling a sled full of kids through snow-covered forest paths, the answer came to me.

My phone rang from the cockpit of a Lego spaceship. It was Wendy, one of the fellow English-speaking moms from my daughter’s Swiss German playgroup.

“I’m holding in my hands two tickets to go see Ben Howard,” she said breathlessly. “Drop everything you are doing and meet me at the train station.”

I had discovered Ben Howard around the same time Wendy and I had discovered that we laughed more around each other than with anyone else we had met in recent years.

“Now?” I asked, as the kids, with red cheeks and piercing shrieks, chased each other around me.

“Now!” Wendy shouted through her own background mayhem.

I perched between a green dragon and a naked Barbie with a pile of wet ski hats in my lap.

“I can’t,” I muttered, biting my wind-chapped lips. “It’s Laundry-und-Fondue night.”

Laundry day wasn’t until that weekend. And we were already over our yearly quota of cheese ingestion.

Outside, the snow was falling in heavy billows. Soon, the old lady from downstairs would be knocking on our door to remind me of the thin walls of our apartment, Wendy would be on her way to the concert with another friend, and I would be tasting my salty fear of goodbye.

Even though we weren’t due to leave Switzerland until summer, I had decided to get a head start on the goodbyes. There was no shortage of magic to be missed from Zurich. But what tightened my throat on most inopportune moments, were the people we had met during our four years there - my son’s first grade teacher; my daughter’s dance instructor; Dr-Stricker-the-pediatrician; Frau-Locher-the-neighborhood-baker; Wendy. It was always the people. I had been moving across cultures since childhood, the way beach-goers moved their towels to stay on the sun’s path. The first few goodbyes were devastating. They left a permanent scar of longing - for people, for tastes, for smells - in short, for the fabric that once made up home. Then, as the sun sunk predictably into one horizon after another, I learned a trick. To cheat on the vehemence of goodbyes, I stopped nourishing my encounters with the attachment necessary for them to blossom into real friendships.

Making friends on the expat trail comes with idiosyncratic challenges. We seek a semblance of familiarity in our new acquaintances; a coherence of where the last goodbye left off with where the next hello can pick up. While this pursuit of narrative continuity can spare us from certain risks, it can also rob us of rewards. Rewards of extraordinary friendships, for instance. Human attraction, after all, does not like to follow scripts. It is willful and capricious, and it loves surprising us at our doorstep, holding the hand of someone wonderful. Someone we wouldn't have thought of befriending under ordinary circumstances. Then there is the other challenge: the aftermath milled from constant, unremitting change - transience. The chagrin of transience, the inconvenience of temporariness is exposed on the road much more than at home. It interferes with a lot of virtues, including Ben Howard concerts. Many endeavors turn bittersweet at the thought of having to forsake them with the arrival of wildflowers on the fields. Who wants to grow a beautiful garden, with trees and greens and blooms, just to give it away before the branches begin to bow with ripe fruit?

Years before I met Wendy, I was sitting cross-legged at a tea ceremony class in Tokyo, where my eyes kept stumbling on four kanji brushed in brisk strokes on a scroll: Ichi go ichi e. These words, one opportunity, one encounter, had traveled from 16 century Zen Buddhism through teachings of the Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyo, who wrote about treasuring each tea ceremony guest as a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. I didn't grasp the wisdom of those words then. Nor their embodiment in the dedication my sensei put into her tea ceremony week after week, paying attention to every detail like it was the first and last time she was doing it - from the creases of her purple kimono, to the angle of her spine as she knelt on the tatami, to the way she held her utensils, to the ikebana flowers matching the seasonal palette outside her windows. It is now, scores of goodbyes later, I realize that maybe by cherishing our connections the way sensei had treated her tea ceremony guests - with mindfulness, heed, and wonder - we find the antidote for impermanence. Maybe by treasuring each encounter as a once in a lifetime gift - without the chase of the common thread or the fear of the inevitable goodbye - was the secret to getting the most fulfillment out of them. Maybe the most important ingredients we needed for our friendships were here and now.

Children specialize in mindful friendships. They leap hungrily into their relations, vulnerable and open, trusting of their instincts and immediate in their needs. They give in to the magic of attraction with abandon, without premeditated calculations about where the trajectory of their parents’ careers will be taking them tomorrow. It’s as if they know that in the end, all our encounters become the beads on the string of our narratives. Even if they don't look like our last goodbyes. Even if they won’t be lasting forever.

I thought I was sparing myself of heartache by not adding to the catalogue of Zurich memories with more of Wendy. With more of our laughter. With more of our shameless attempts at Swiss German. With more of our dreadful renditions of Ben Howard filling the snowed-in, cobbled streets of our adopted city. It turns out, the memory of a garden tended and nurtured with thorn-scratched knees and mud-caked fingers stings less than the memory of a garden admired from afar, untouched and un-surrendered to the spark of human connection.

Marianna Pogosyan is the author of Psychology Today's Between Cultures blog.