Bonding in a foreign land
This past week, no fewer than four people burst into tears in front of me. Back in the States, that happened, oh, maybe twice a year? It’s not that my expat friends are more unstable than my friends back home (okay, maybe they are, but that’s a topic for another month). It’s that I know these friends so well. We’ve reached a comfort level with one another that allows us to drop our guard, to show flashes of sadness, disappointment, and yes, even instability, in front of each other.
This always surprises me. Not the fact of it – everyone I know here has experienced a burst-into-tears-moment, when they’ve been pushed just this close to the edge. What surprises me is the speed with which we’ve become so open about our emotional shortcomings.
Back home, I had lots of neighborhood acquaintances, people whom I knew enough to chat with but not enough to unload on. And I had a few friends, mostly other moms whom I could call in a pinch. But these friendships took time to build. It took months of reciprocal playdates and borrowing of sugar before we began to confide in each other.
Here in Beijing, mere moments after the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, we’re all looking for a kindred soul, someone to help us through those first hazy days. I’d only been in town for a day or two when I noticed a nearby neighbor had bikes and scooters in her garage, indicating she had kids around the same ages as mine. Back in America, I would’ve made a few surreptitious passes by the house, looking for clues as to whether this was a family I needed to know. Here? I marched right up and knocked on the door. As it turns out, the neighbor was in her kitchen baking cookies for me. Within a week, we were walking in and out of one another’s houses without knocking. Instant friendship.
A year and a half have flown by, and now I’m the neighbor baking cookies when I see a new family arrive. I can’t list the number of people I consider friends here. After so many “Isn’t this a crazy way to live?” conversations, we’ve bonded. Friends and family back home are interested in our adventures, but they can’t quite get what it is we’re doing here. They don’t laugh at our jokes about bad squattie potty experiences or our stories about the worst taxi driver ever.
This is my fourth overseas post, and each time it’s happened this way. We walk in unannounced; we know each other’s business; we bake each other casseroles when disaster strikes. While our assignments in Beijing will eventually end, these friendships won’t. We’ll find a way to put friendships on hold, to be rekindled when we meet again back home or in a third country.
Some of the people who are knocking on my door now, tentatively introducing themselves, will become lifelong friends. Back home, differences in religion, profession and political affiliation might have prevented us from even meeting one another – it took a move halfway around the world to build these friendships. My husband and I met one such couple ten years ago, when none of us had children. We used to debate politics and religion while strolling together along the banks of the Moscow River. We’re thousands of miles apart now, and don’t talk as much as I’d like – after all, we have six kids between us now. But we trade emails and cards, and when we do find ourselves in the same country, we get together and take up where we left off. They’ve seen me at my worst, my most fragile, and they’ve carried me through some tough times.
It’s these relationships I value most about this overseas life I’m living. Back home I was content to live life mostly behind closed doors, forming friendships slowly, if at all. I never would have knocked on a strange neighbor’s door in the hope of being invited in for tea. I didn’t automatically mix up a batch of cookies when I saw a moving truck. And I most certainly would have been alarmed if someone walked into my house, sat down on my couch and burst into tears.
Here, every new face is a potential friend. We’re all in it together, after all.
Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer and mother of four who has lived in Beijing for one year. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.