Back in 2008, when I learned we were moving from Shenzhen to Beijing, I was apprehensive at first. We had lived in Shenzhen for three years, but it had taken me nearly two years to really find a circle of like-minded souls that I could comfortably hang out with (mostly slacker artist types). Considering how long it took to find this crowd in Shenzhen, I was concerned that it would take a similar amount of time to network with the artist community in Beijing. Turns out my concerns were unfounded – it took about two weeks.
Twenty-three years ago, when I first relocated overseas, I began to experience what I’ll call the cycle of friendship for lack of a better phrase. At the age of 19, living in Haifa, Israel while volunteering at the Baha’i World Centre, the ebb and flow of friends coming and going was heart wrenching. Sometimes the loss of a good friend or a companion was nearly unbearable. But as I’ve grown older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I’ve come to recognize this cycle of friendship as an organic part of living abroad. An expatriate arrives somewhere, makes friends, both foreign and domestic, and due to circumstances, human nature or need, they become quite close. Then the day comes when one of these friends must return home or transfer to another city or country and they part ways. In my youth, remaining in touch with these friends took a near monumental effort compared to the ease of staying in touch today with online tools like e-mail and Facebook. Still, it is not unusual for those close friendships, now separated by distance, to be replaced by new friends.
By the time we got to Beijing, Reina was 1 year old. For her, leaving her tiny troupe of tots was not traumatic at all. Honestly, at that age, as long as the parents are nearby, life is good. Still, it was a welcome relief, in the first week of apartment hunting and trying to figure out the streets of Wangjing (still working on that one), when we walked into Peter’s Tex Mex restaurant and discovered two things: Reina’s addiction to macaroni and cheese and our first friends in Beijing – Helen, Terje and Mimi from Norway and Jilu, Ashwin and Josh from India. Mimi and Josh were Reina’s age – to the month – and our bonds of friendship to these two families were as strong as any we’ve shared in China. But time brings change, and this past summer, both those families moved away. Reina, older now, still points out Mimi’s home whenever we drive by it. I know she experiences the loss, yet somehow she is coping with it in her own way.
Though people I’ve known have been worn down by the cycle of friendships coming and going, my wife Savvy and I are not ones to sit idly by pining for the past. In October, we met a new family, this one a blend of Cambodian, Sri Lankan and American cultures, and even though Bo and Ushan have older children, already their family has become part of the bedrock of our Beijing experience. When Thanksgiving rolled around in November, it was only natural that we gathered together over a blend of traditional turkey-day eats and Asian cuisine to introduce some of their friends to our friends. It’s moments like these that encourage me whenever a good friend from Beijing does depart on another chapter in their life. Sure, I’ll miss them, but I know there will be new friends to meet to fill the void they’ve left behind.
Christopher Lay comes from the small town of Ashland, Oregon, US. He is the father of 3-year-old Reina and husband to Savvy Him. He is afreelance photographer and writer in Beijing. Visit his photo blog at www.alivenotdead.com/chrislay.