Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fade to Black

My vanity insists that I address the quality of the photo. Were it anyone else blinking and grimacing in the photo, I would not have posted it. But the story is worth sharing, and the friends are worth remembering. So overlook the shiny face on the left, and read for content.
I met them in January. We lived in the same neighborhood, with children the same ages. We enrolled our girls in the same music class. One day after class, we went to the playground. The next week, we shared a picnic on the grass. The picnics became more regular.
We are friends.
I often compare expat life to summer camp. You arrive at camp knowing that you will only be there for 1 week. You need to make friends quickly, and they may as well be close friends. By the end of the week, you're crying as you hug your friends good-bye. How can you go back to life without them?
A more apt comparison might be college. We arrived our freshmen year, and no one in my building knew anyone else. We all felt lost and far from home. We needed friends, and we needed them quickly. We needed them to replace our close friends from home. We needed them to replace our families. We needed them to help us deal with these new and strange surroundings. And we knew that we would only live with them for 4 years before moving on.
Becca, Claire, Anna and I arrived in Shanghai very near the same time. We needed each other, and quickly became a support group. What began as mothers building a safe place for our children turned into three of my closest friends. We carried Claire through her second pregnancy and have enjoyed her little boy. We talked Anna through getting pregnant and just bought presents for her upcoming delivery. We dealt with family crises at home - a grandfather passed away; a marriage broke up; all far, far away. We helped each other through prolonged guests. We barbequed together, celebrated birthdays together, observed holidays together. Most recently, we traveled together. These women are some of my closest friends.
Since I have moved from the neighborhood, we get together every few weeks for a Mums' Night Out, sharing low-quality Mexican food and free margaritas at a sleazy expat bar. This evening was no different. We swapped stories on our husbands' job searches, our plans for Thanksgiving, upcoming birthday parties, our adoption and pregnancy updates. We ate off of each others' plates and shared one large desert. And at the end of the night, we said quick good-byes as I dashed off to grab a passing taxi.
On Sunday, Anna leaves for California. She will deliver her second child in February and they hope to return to Shanghai in late March.
Two weeks later, Claire leaves for Australia. She will be home for Christmas, and will return to Shanghai in January.
One week later, Becca leaves for New Zealand. Her husband's contract ends the day they leave China. He is still seeking the next contract, and so the odds are that they will not return from their holiday.
I fly to Chicago that same day. We will return to Shanghai in early February.
The odds are that this group of women will never be together again - although Becca invited us to her parents' bed and breakfast on a farm in New Zealand for her 40th birthday. The reunion has been set for 3 years from last week.
This is the nature of expatriate life. My closest friends will leave, and so will I. A good-bye is not heartbreaking. We didn't spend the evening reminiscing. We spent it planning S--'s birthday party in December.
I may have cried at the end of summer camp, but I graduated college so full of the future that I have no memory of sadness. And I will miss my friends very much, especially the foursome we have enjoyed this past year. But such is life. At least, such is life in Shanghai.

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