Every early summer, the same scene. The Plum Rains come to the Yangtze Delta, and at the time of the incessant rain, it is not just the sky who is weeping. We expats have to say good-bye. To some friends, it is just good-bye for the summer, and the most common, mostly dry-eyed farewell is “See you in September”.
Harder are the farewells that are more permanent. They are the good wishes we extend to friends who are relocating, either to their home countries, or to yet another exciting expat posting. These partings are the sadder ones, the ones accompanied by tearful hugs, and by promises like “we’ll meet again, somewhere in the world.” A promise that often cannot be kept, as seasoned expats already know.
I have been living in China for more than a decade now. We came for three years, and here is what happened to us: we loved living in China, we loved the traveling, the exotic flair of our host country, the wonderful food, the progress we had made in communicating in Chinese and the logically ensuing contact with locals. There were so many places yet to explore, so many things still to learn (Mahjong! Chinese knot- making!! Tai Qi!!!), and every time the end of my husband’s work contract came up, we’d look at each other and say, “But we’re not leaving yet, are we?”
And on we went, to another contract, maybe in a different city, but still in China, our host country we had come to love.
My friends were often not in a position to stay. Their husband’s company might require them to move, their children left China and went off to college in their passport country, their ageing parents might need care. Some of them were quite happy to leave. A familiar language, reunions with family and friends, familiar foods, all might work together to create a pull, and to make them want to leave China, and go home.
So, after about 3 years, I saw my first exodus of expat friends. “I’ll never get over it,” I said to my husband. “I’ll never find friends like them again!”
“Of course you will,” he replied. “There are whole plane loads of potential new friends arriving after the summer!” I frowned at him. He just didn’t get it. In an expat situation, you make friends quicker than at home. The friendships go deeper very soon but they can never go as deep as a high school friendship in the country you grew up in. But when you find a soulmate abroad, you connect fast. You already sense you won’t have much time together. Common interests are quickly found. And instantly, you have your yoga buddies, your artist friends, you co- volunteers at an orphanage, and these become your new friends. But once you have gone through the cycle of losing these friends to relocation, you start to be more guarded.
At my first coffee get- together in China, one lady I had just been introduced to said, ” I have been an expat for 25 years. I don’t make new friends any more. It is too painful when they leave!” As a freshly minted expat, I found that statement incredibly callous. To hear her say that when I was just trying to find friends? Sad, and shocking.
She became a very good friend to me eventually, and three years later, we cried bitter tears when she left. We had not hardened our hearts enough, it seemed.
So what about meeting again, later in life? What about staying in touch via email, Skype and the likes, as promised?
The friends who leave have to establish a whole new existence. The must find a new home, find a job, find daycare or schools for their children. Explore, make new friends. Or settle back in, renovate, renew old friendships, give their family the attention they could not possibly give them during their years abroad. They join clubs, establish their own network in their new / old place. And yes, we exchange emails for a while. Then the gaps between emails get wider. Skype is not really an option, as the time difference is often big. They get up when I go to sleep. To coordinate phone calls, Skype calls, FaceTime calls is a big job. And so the communication dwindles, understandably.
But there are the other instances that have filled my heart with pure joy. Like this year, when I took a vacation “Down Under” and took two weeks off in Melbourne, simply to reconnect with all my Aussie friends. They proudly showed me around their areas and I got a lot of insider guidance throughout my stay. Jini and Neville hosted me for three days in their beautiful area on Mornington Peninsula, and I dined on cangaroo steak in their little seaside town. Tulen took me on a two day trip down the Great Ocean Road where we marveled at the steep cliffs slowly being eroded by the crashing, foaming surf. Lelio and Natasha took me to Yarra Valley, and we sampled the wines of the region. These were happy reunions, and it turned out to be a perk to have friends all over the world.
Shortly before, in New Zealand, we had met Jenny from Berlin in Auckland, Joanne from Beijing in Napier and Ally from Shanghai in Masterton. These were short get-togethers, as we were just passing through. A lunch here, a dinner there. And it was almost like it had been only days, or weeks, since we has last seen each other.
Many of my friends are retiring now, and here is our plan: with friends in the most beautiful places on the globe, once we are retired, we can visit, or house swap. We have invitations to California, Cape Cod, South Africa, Thailand, Scandinavia. We have friends in Hongkong, London, Singapore. We have invitations to go golfing in Florida, fishing in Canada, skiing in Switzerland. In return, we could open our home in Berlin.
We might be reaping the fruit of expat friendships yet. And we might meet again, somewhere in the world.