I arrived in Beijing on a cold and gloomy November morning, late to the party as the latest horde of expats had arrived that summer. During my first year in Beijing, I thought a great deal about family and friends back home. I had left behind a successful career, my wonderful friends and family, everything I knew – and I was finding it hard to adjust. When I look back on that first year, I missed out on opportunities to forge relationships with people because my mind was somewhere else.
Then, it all just fell into place. My son was settled in school, I’d just had my daughter, my husband’s job was going well, we’d found a great ayi, and I was amongst a wonderful group of friends. I still missed the UK and very much looked forward to the twice yearly trips back, but Beijing was now our home. We were happy. Then, something started to happen that I hadn’t prepared for at all: people started to leave.
As an expat, you are immersed in a pool of friends and acquaintances. You meet someone at a baby group and make a note to get to know them better, only to find that they’ve announced their departure before you’ve had a chance to text them.
So when you do meet the right people, the risk is that you cling to them. Expat friendships can be intense, which makes it even harder when one of you leaves – and it never gets any easier. No matter how many “expat living” books you read, nothing really prepares you for how many times you will have to say goodbye.
It’s not just parents who feel the absence. Expat children also suffer from the fall-out of a nomadic lifestyle. Last year, one of my best friends left Beijing, and I was worried how my then 4-year-old son would cope with losing his best friend too.
In the end, he dealt with it really well, although I think it was because of his age. It also helps if you know you will meet up with them again. We know we will go see our friends in Singapore, and a girl’s weekend is planned for later this year.
Whilst Skype and Face Time are great for staying in touch, and actually being able to see each other, it can also make it harder if your kids are really missing those friends.
Then June comes around and signals the start of too many a huansong hui (goodbye parties). On the positive side, when you have friends living in so many places, the world seems a lot smaller. It will surely give our kids a sense of wanting to experience more of the world; my son knows so much about different countries and cultures, and has visited so many amazing places already.
So whilst expats are experts in saying goodbye, they are also pretty darn good at saying hello. Because every time somebody leaves, somebody else arrives, and that person could be the one you end up spending a lot of fun times with.
So never close your door and always remember what it felt like when you first arrived. Expat life is full of uncertainty. Don’t dwell on when the next goodbye will be or when it’ll be your turn to go; just live fully in the moment. I am so grateful for all the incredible people I’ve met here and how they’ve shaped – and continue to shape – my life in Beijing.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos courtesy of Ben Eng, Karen Cropper, sophisticatedbiba (Flickr)