Transient expat life can be hard on kids
Eli and Jacob first met Hugo Ohlsson while his family and our family were visiting Thailand from Beijing. Playing on the beach, Hugo asked my boys if they could be friends forever.
“Sorry, no,” Jacob replied, acting as the spokesman.
“We actually live in New Jersey and we’re just in China for three years.”
“Oh,” Hugo replied. “Can we be friends for three years then?”
Hugo smiled; three years is forever to a 5-year-old.
But as every expat knows, there’s no such thing as forever in Beijing. As soon as the last school bell rings each summer, families are on the move. Within days of school letting out last June, friends began departing for Shanghai, Singapore, San Francisco, Sydney, Cleveland and Helsinki. Last year, our eldest son Jacob lost his first two best friends in Beijing. This summer, it was Eli who suffered the big loss – 18 months after their friendship began on the beach in Thailand, Hugo and his family packed up and moved to Singapore.
When Jacob’s friends left last year, he was initially thrown for a major loop, but then adjusted pretty quickly and has stayed in touch with both buddies. We visited Javier Wong in San Francisco over Christmas break and saw Andrew Moy in Washington DC in August. Both times, the boys reconnected like they’d seen each other the day before. I was worried that things wouldn’t be this easy for Eli, though – out of the whole family, he’s had the roughest time dealing with being apart from friends and family in the US. I feared the worst when I learned about Hugo’s impending move.
Overall, Eli actually took the news surprisingly well (partly because it was tenderly delivered by Hugo’s father, rather than me), but it still served to reinforce his generally pessimistic assessment of expat living, which is that life in Beijing is basically an endless series of heartbreaks. I often try to explain to him how his life is enriched by the expat experience, difficult as it is: “Everyone in America is still there and we still love them and they still love us,” I tell him. “And now you also have all these great new friends. After we go back to America, we’ll have friends in Australia, Hong Kong, China, England …”
Of course, I’m basically telling him a kids’ version of “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” and he doesn’t buy it any more than anyone else who hears this bromide while nursing a broken heart. When I tried this approach yet again in the wake of Hugo’s departure, Eli’s response was sad and simple:
“Now we’re stuck,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“We know we’re not going to always live in the same place as the Ohlssons or the Camerons [his best friend Race’s family]. That means we will always miss them and be sad.”
“But we’ll have new friends all over the world, and we’ll still be able to see a lot of them at special times,” I replied.
Eli was having none of it. “We were fine before,” he insisted. “Now we’re stuck.”
These conversations make me pause. And they make me worry a bit about my sensitive son. But they haven’t shaken my belief that the experience of living in Beijing will be positive for the kids in the long-term. Hopefully, as Jacob and Eli lose soul mates year after year, they’ll come to appreciate their ability to maintain those relationships, even while forming new ones.
After the June-July exodus, August and September can be hard months for our transient expat community. But this is also a time for optimism. After all, these days, the moving trucks filling our compound lanes are bringing people in, not out.