Friday, April 5: A couple of months ago I was having dinner with a young woman who teaches French in the Foreign Languages Department at the university. We were talking about things we do with our free time. She told me a friend of hers coined a phrase to describe our attempts, as expats, to fill our long lonely hours. This friend called these attempts: “furnishing our loneliness.”
Living as an expat can be a lonely existence. No matter how much you try, you can never belong to the culture where you are living. You are always an outsider. Sure, sometimes foreigners befriend you and invite you to do things, and sometimes you do make some good friends. I had some very close friends in Korea, both women and men; in Oman, it’s been a different story. Oman is a very traditional and closed society. In Oman, I have found nothing even close to the female friendships I had with Kim Dong Hee and Julie Moon in Daegu, or the male friendship I had with Young Dae from Seoul.
Sometimes you become close to other expats who are living in the same circumstances as you. But too often your world of possible friends is very small. You either get along with the few expats you work with, or you find it takes too much of an effort to enjoy their company. When I first arrived here, I connected with a few women, but as they are the kind of women who love to have many acquaintances, I knew we wouldn’t have the closest of connections. It was only when I met Mario that I found a true friend. Slowly, slowly, we have built a trusting and close friendship that I value more than any relationship I’ve had in a long time.
I have never been a person to be friends with everybody. I’m not a very trusting person. Usually someone must make an effort with me first and then I can eventually let down my guard. I have always had just one or two close friends at a time, and that has always felt perfectly right to me. I’ve never been a person who enjoys being in large groups of people, nor to I feel the need to jump on every bandwagon that comes my way. I’m maybe a little too discerning; because of that I often find myself alone.
When I was still living with my husband, I always looked to him to fill my loneliness. For him, I’m sure it was a frustrating and difficult job to try to fill that gaping black hole in me. What a no-win situation! Even after we first separated, I found myself frantically searching for friends, particularly a man friend, because I felt I couldn’t be complete without someone in my life.
“How we need another soul to cling to,” said Sylvia Plath, who eventually committed suicide by putting her head in an oven and turning on the gas.
That deep hole within me, I have learned over many years, couldn’t be filled by my husband, or by anybody. I needed to fill it myself.
In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard reports that “fifteen percent of Americans report experiencing an intense feeling of loneliness once a week. Anyone who cuts himself off from others and the universe, trapped in the bubble of his own ego, feels alone in the middle of a crowd. But those who understand the interdependence of all phenomena are not lonely; the hermit, for example, feels in harmony with the entire universe.”
In one of my favorite books, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert tells herself: “When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
When I first got to Korea, I had to learn to deal with true loneliness. I thought I felt lonely in my marriage, but that was nothing compared to the loneliness I felt in that country. I had no one to fall back on. I became friends with Myrna, but she was often busy with her younger friends. Seth and Anna became good friends to me, and for that I will always be grateful.
At first I used to wallow in my loneliness, afraid to venture out by myself into the strange world of Korea. With great effort, I learned how to use the buses and trains in Korea, and to get out to explore the country. Even if I had to travel alone, which I did most of the time, I made myself do it. All of that helped me learn how to be comfortable in my loneliness. Slowly, very slowly, I started to actually enjoy my company, my solitude. I still was hoping to find that perfect man who could be my soul mate in life, but too often the men I met I found disappointing. I began to realize I enjoyed my company more than theirs.
Even when I returned to Virginia for six months after Korea, and during my first months in Oman, I was hoping to meet that amazing man who could be the antidote to my loneliness. But soon it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen. So I started going out and exploring Oman on my own. I had a nice camera that I took with me on my excursions, but I didn’t think much about trying to take really good pictures. It was only when I met Mario that I learned to see things in a different way. He is an amazing photographer, and he loves and knows so much about nature that he taught me a new appreciation for it. From him, I learned to see in a new way. I think since meeting Mario, my photography has improved , as my love for exploring the outdoors has grown.
In the last couple of years, I think my mindset has changed. Now, instead of dwelling on and feeling sad about my loneliness, I cherish my solitude. There is a difference. I see loneliness as being a lack, something missing, whereas I see solitude as a conscious choice to be, and enjoy being, alone.
Janet Fitch says, in White Oleander, “ Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
I no longer feel a desperation to fill my solitude with a man, or with another person. If I find another person with whom I connect, a person with whom I have chemistry, a person with whom I have a great rapport, a person who makes me laugh, then I will cultivate that friendship. Otherwise I will continue to fill my hours as I have finally learned to do, by reading, taking pictures, writing my blog and my novel, going on excursions, planning my travels, taking walks outside, watching films, trying to eat healthy food, meditating and working on my spiritual growth. A glass of red wine on top of that doesn’t hurt. 🙂
I have met many expats in both Korea and Oman who immerse themselves in whatever they have found to furnish their loneliness. Some immerse themselves in religion, either seeking out Christian churches or going on Buddhist retreats, or converting to Islam. I know a man who spends all his time reading and as far as I know, rarely goes out. Whenever I ask him what his plans are for the weekend, he says he will “catch up on his reading.” I know people who spend their nights going out to bars, drinking heavily and looking for a companion to fill their evenings. I know people who go to Muscat every weekend to see a film or go shopping or go to the beach. I know people who are workaholics and expect the same from other teachers, not understanding that most of us want a life outside of work.
I know people who have lived here for months, even years, and have never even taken a walk outside. Many people have never ventured out to explore Oman. I know people who have made it a mission to save as many stray cats in Oman as possible. I know quite talented artists who paint and draw. I know people who are into feng shui and crystals and reincarnation. I know people who are always thinking of business schemes, ways to make money outside of work. I know people who volunteer for overtime work to make extra money; they are probably stashing away thousands of dollars. I know people who go scuba diving regularly. I know people who are in the thick of all the gossip and know everything about everybody. I know people who are working on Master’s degrees or doctorates and people who have been in Oman for years and spend their time socializing with long-time expat friends. There are all kinds of people in the expat world, and we all struggle in our own way to make a meaningful experience out of our time here.
As for each individual, I don’t know. I can’t say whether people are merely furnishing their loneliness, or embellishing, even star-spangling, their solitude. I think there is a difference, and for the most part, except with interludes here and there, I like to think I am star-spangling my solitude. For me, that is a great leap in my personal growth.