The Tight Bonds Among Expats

“You need your friends abroad. You really need them; you don’t have family.”

An illustration of three women standing on top of a globe, with the Forbidden City in the background
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with three friends who met in Mandarin class when they were expats living in Beijing. They discuss the importance of having friends when you live abroad, their hunger for adventure, and why sometimes they’re actually lonelier in their home countries.

The Friends:

Nandita Baxi Sheth, 56, a teacher and Ph.D. student who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio
Charlotte Bovin, 49, a salesperson who lives in Stockholm, Sweden
Joanna Engelman, 66, a retired teacher who lives in Essen, the Netherlands

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Julie Beck: What brought you each to China in the first place, and how did you meet?

Joanna Engelman: My husband worked for Nestlé, and he was transferred to China. We lived there for six years. We were based in Beijing, but he had an apartment in the north of China for work and only came back to Beijing for meetings. So I was an expat wife.

Charlotte Bovin: I also came to China when my now ex-husband got a job for a software company. We were in Beijing for three years. During that time we adopted our first child from Taiwan.

Three dressed-up women smile for the camera, one stands in front of the others.
Left to right: Charlotte, Nandita, and Joanna in Beijing (Courtesy of Joanna Engelman)

Nandita Baxi Sheth: We also went to Beijing for my husband’s job. He traveled a lot, and I was a stay-at-home mom. We were there for five years. I decided I needed to learn Mandarin, and I met Joanna and Charlotte in the class.

Beck: What was your experience meeting people while you were living in China? Did you find it hard to talk to people; was it ever lonely?

Joanna: I never felt lonely. Otherwise I should’ve gone home. As long as you have a child in school, it’s very easy to meet people. You meet parents; you meet teachers. We lived for 36 years abroad—in Tanzania, Kenya, Poland, Switzerland, China, Pakistan.

Nandita: I’m, in a way, more lonely back in the suburbs. In China, Joanna and I lived in these expatriate compounds, so we had an international community.

Charlotte: I came to China without kids and was hanging out with a younger crowd, living downtown in the city center. But it was fun for me to be part of the life that you had with your schools and your kids. I really love that about our friendship—I got access to other worlds that I didn’t have with my kind of lifestyle. And then when I had my child, he was so young, so he never went to school in China.

Beck: You all met in Mandarin class, but how did you become friends and get close?

Joanna: There were five women in the class, and we were all drawn to each other. We started to hang out. We had lovely foot massages; we had dinners together. We were all in the same situation. We understood each other.

Charlotte: Also, when you’re in language class, you practice things and you tell stories about your personal life, with simple sentences: What did you do yesterday? And what are you planning to do today? We had classes three times per week, and we really got to know each other. We all opened up, and we had so much fun. We were laughing so hard.

It got quite intense, since we were meeting so often. We started meeting earlier and earlier, to have coffee before class so we had time to talk. We really couldn’t get enough of each other.

Nandita: In one class, we had to talk about our weddings in Mandarin. So we learned each other’s histories very quickly.

Sometimes the best friendships are ones that are unexpected. I don’t think I went to the class thinking I’ll make friends. We had a community through my husband’s job. I think Charlotte, Joanna, and I were drawn to each other because we wanted to learn the language, which not every expat wanted to do. We wanted to practice it, and we were willing to have adventures in Beijing. Joanna and Charlotte taught me a lot about being open and being kind and generous.

Charlotte: It’s true what you said, Nandita, that not all expats are that open to really get to know the local food, the local culture, local language, and the local people, but our group was really interested in that.

Beck: How long were you three all in Beijing together?

Charlotte: Three years.

Beck: Are there milestones or memorable moments that you went through together?

Joanna: My 50th birthday.

I invited 50 people, and Charlotte had just had Sebastian. So he came out for the first time.

Beck: Oh, his first party! Tell me about adopting your son while you were in Beijing—was it interesting to have other parents as friends while you were going through that process?

Charlotte: Yeah, it was really, really important. I was so far away from home. When you’re in that process, you don’t really know what the timeline is. So it’s not like you can plan for your family to come over. And I couldn’t bring him home to Sweden either before all the papers were in order. The one picking us up at the airport and bringing lots of gifts from all the friends, that was Joanna.

I think it’s fantastic being a mom abroad. It can be quite narrow-minded if you’re in a mom group with everyone of the same cultural background, same upbringing. If you get advice from moms of five different nationalities, it’s really nice.

Beck: How did your friendship evolve when you didn’t live in the same place anymore?

Nandita: We kept up with phone calls and FaceTime and such.

Charlotte: We send texts sometimes, and it can be really serious topics—I went through divorce, for example. And sometimes we plan for no reason, just to have a chat and catch up.

Nandita: If it was just texting, then it would be a certain kind of friendship. But it’s so varied; we have the day-to-day sharing of fun things, we have calls, and we’ve had meetings in person, which cement that this friendship is important.

Three women smile for the camera on a bright sunny day, their hair appears mussed by the wind.
The friends on their trip to Copenhagen (Courtesy of Nandita Baxi Sheth)

I met Joanna in New York once when she was there, and Joanna came to Cincinnati. We both went to Copenhagen and met Charlotte.

Charlotte: We rented an Airbnb. We spent the day doing touristy stuff and then in the evenings, we were just chatting away—the conversation was never-ending.

Beck: What was it like to be together in person again, after being long-distance for a while?

Nandita: It just felt perfect. Like no time had passed. We all have different roles in life—we are mothers, we’re daughters—and when we’re together, we’re just friends, and we can be our authentic selves.

Beck: Do you feel like making friends as an expat was different from when you made friends in your daily life, in your home countries?

Joanna: You need your friends abroad. You really need them; you don’t have family.

Charlotte: It’s much harder to make friends back home. Everyone has their own childhood friends or neighbors. Coming back to Sweden was really tough. The friendships that you create abroad are really strong because, like you say, Joanna, you really need each other. And everyone is really open-minded, because you’re like, I’m in for this adventure. Back home, everyone is just doing their own thing, and they don’t really reflect on How could I change this pattern and make new friends?


If you or someone you know should be featured on “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.