Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships From China: Some Practical Tips

Published on theBeijinger.com, August 19th, 2019

Maintaining a healthy friendship at the best of times requires some work and commitment, and when one of you moves far away, things can get more than a little tricky. I should know, having first left my homeland of Australia in 2011, and my second home of France one year ago. I am now lucky enough to have a rich crop of friendships in multiple different time zones, all of which I'm doing my red-hot best to nurture.

I definitely didn't always get it right – when I first moved overseas I was young, hungry for adventure, and had terrible WI-FI. I went AWOL for months at a time and missed many important dates and moments in my friend's lives. I'm still not the kind of person who enjoys non-stop messaging and long phone calls but over the years I have picked up a few tips about how to maintain friendships abroad, and specifically, from China.

I hope that some of them may be of use to you.

Manage Expectations

As soon as you can, warn your friends that you may not be able to maintain the same frequency or style of contact as you did before, especially if you think that you're likely to go "off the radar" for a while. Saying things like "I care a lot about you and value your friendship, even if you don't hear from me as much as you used to" can go a long way to easing the transition and preventing friends from feeling abandoned.

If you have friends who have never lived abroad or even in another town, it may literally not have occurred to them that staying in touch can be hard. Talking to them through challenges like time differences and technological barriers could make a world of difference.

If despite all your efforts, a friend is feeling hurt by your lack of contact, remind them that you're not pulling away from the relationship, but towards your new life (i.e. "It's not all about you"). Afterward, they are more likely to understand – friends should want the best for one another, after all.

Don't force a square peg into a round hole

When you move overseas or far away, you're basically forced to conduct your entire friendship in the digital realm. Plenty of advice articles will tell you to download a Skype account, get everybody's email address, and schedule regular calls, but while this might work fine for friendships that already included long conversations or text messages, it won't work for them all.

Your old teammates, hiking buddies, or knitting circle partners may find it hard to adjust to a new verbose style. Don't take it too hard if they don't pick up when you call nor respond to your long emails in a timely fashion. It's not your friendship that's awkward, it's your medium.

Expect the unexpected

Speaking of technology... even with VPNs, making stable long-distance calls from China can be an absolute pain. Lucky iPhone users are able to FaceTime one another for free, but the rest of us need to accept that long chats may not always be possible (especially if there are big government events coming up). Unsurprisingly, WeChat is the most stable and reliable app for making calls, so consider asking friends to make an account so that you've always got a good backup.

If, however, you're calling someone who's unlikely to be WeChat equipped, there are some quick ways to make cheap international calls from your Chinese network provider (if the phone number starts with a :

  • China Unicom: 10193 + 00 + country code + phone number*

  • China Mobile: 17951 + 00 + country code + phone number*

*When calling a foreign landline, if there is 0 before the area code, do not dial 0; if there is no area code, dial "00 + country code + phone number"

Avoid the dreaded "so how's life?" 

Remember when you talked to your friends one month after moving to Beijing, and they asked you "so how's China?". Um... big? Questions so-open-ended-they're-basically-a-tunnel are easy to ask but hard to answer. Don't inflict them on your friends back home. If it's been a while since you were last in contact, pause before you reach out and try to think of a few specific, pointed questions you can ask. "What are you reading right now?", "Have you found a good lunch spot in your new neighborhood?", "Is the baby eating gravel yet?". They're far more likely to respond, and build the momentum to fill you in on the rest of the 'life' stuff. Get meme-ing

My oldest friend and I can go months without a proper conversation. We've lived in separate countries for almost a decade, and while I have pretty regular office hours, she is an outdoor adventure guide, and away for weeks at a time. We stay connected and in each other's hearts by sending ridiculous memes and images back and forth. Fart jokes are the fuel to our friendship fire. Whether it's sending memes on Instagram, sharing articles from Popular Psychology or movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, there is a myriad of ways to easily 'nudge' your friends and remind them of your shared interests and history, no matter how busy you both are.

Bait the lurkers

If you are struggling to get news from that quiet friend in a group chat who reads messages but never responds, snap a selfie, post it in the group, and tell everybody to reply with a selfie right now! Or take a picture of their lunch, or their view, or their shoes, or whatever. This strategy is also very useful for connecting with somebody who is going through a hard time, but not ready to talk about it, as it's non-judgemental and doesn't require any soul-searching. 

Send Voice Messages

Yeah, yeah, we know, VM's are the worst. But there is something really lovely about hearing the voice of a good friend instead of the usual block of text. You can fit much more feeling, warmth, and, well, information into a 10-second voice message than you may realize, and it literally takes 10 seconds.

Accept that friendships change

Friendships come in all shapes and sizes, and they change over time too. If despite all your efforts, you find yourself drifting away from a friend, don't sweat it too much. It's natural for long-term friendships to go through seasons and you may come very close together again in the future. 

And finally... buy a friendship necklace. 

It can't hurt!

Go on, keep reading, I’ve got heaps of stuff to distract you. Click here to read more of my travel and adventure experiences.