Saturday, July 6, 2013

Too Many Goodbyes: Expat Summers

Expats:  heading off in all possible directions

For those of you who've been wondering, MsCaroline has not been preoccupied with putting her new apartment in order, nor packing for Home Leave, although both of those would be entirely legitimate excuses for her recent silence in the blogosphere.

True, MsCaroline has been desultorily doing a bit of both of those (a houseplant here, a note on the 'to buy at home' list there) but for the most part, all she has been doing is wrapping up her school year (which, in her school, just ended last Friday,) and saying goodbye to people, which has left her a little tired, a little sad, and working on regaining a sense of equilibrium - not exactly in a bloggy sort of mood.

She has also been slightly preoccupied with preparing Son#2 for a summer arts program in Seattle, which involves sending him off to the US to live in a dorm on a college campus for a month while taking in-depth courses designed for high school students who think they may be interested in pursuing the arts when they get to University.  While MsC and MrL would probably rather see #2 major in something that will earn him a steady income a more traditional field, they are all about experiential learning and think he will have a fabulous time whether he decides to study art in the long term or not. Because - Seattle, people.  (Long-term readers may remember that it was just over a year ago that MsC put #2 on a plane to London and was totally not jealous.  She is not jealous that he gets to spend a month in Seattle in exactly the same way, but is a tiny bit tired of #2 having cooler vacations than she does.)

And -most pleasantly - having had #1 and #2 together in the house for just under a month, she is not exactly crazy about sending one of them off to another continent and breaking up a really excellent family dynamic all over again.  Has MsCaroline ever mentioned that the best thing about older kids is that they are so enjoyable to be around? No tantrums, reasonably good hygiene, excellent senses of humor, no need to check movie ratings, and they eat everything.  A culmination of years of work and nagging, a reward for all those sleepless nights, being labeled 'mean' and driving carpools - it's a beautiful time in parenting.  And then they leave.
Son#2 doing some (voluntary!) balcony cleanup and rubbing in the fact that he's leaving for a month.

Anyway, the point is, between shopping for extra-long Twin sheets (the standard in every college dorm in the US and boy, are they tricky to come by over here) and saying goodbye to what feels like every single person she knows in Seoul many of her friends, pupils, and colleagues (not to mention Son#2), MsCaroline has not been feeling exactly chirpy.

To be honest, the sheer number of goodbyes have just worn her out this time around.

MsCaroline, as a TCK* - and frequent lifelong mover in general - is familiar with these summer goodbye sessions, having frequently been on both ends of the continuum in the course of her 40something years.  It is probably safe to say that she has built up a certain toughness over time, learning how to get over (or through) these partings with carbohydrates and denial a variety of strategies.  She also holds onto her friends with a dogged tenacity, no matter where she goes (H, are you reading this? It''ll be 37 years this September since we met!) She derives great comfort from knowing that it is not completely unheard of for paths to cross and re-cross, and  that knowledge makes these frequent partings a little more bearable.  She tends to say a lot of things like, See you soon and Until we meet again and We'll get together in the US when I'm back on Home Leave.  Whether or not these statements are true, they make her feel better.

She also avoids final goodbyes when possible: but a lifetime of saying them has conditioned her to avoid them when she can, preferring instead to say  Listen, if I don't see you before you leave, have a safe journey and I'll be in touch on FaceBook, OK? She is not exactly proud of this, but she finds it less painful than a formal farewell followed by a huge, empty space.

Granted, summertime goodbyes are not a phenomenon unique to the expat experience.  At home, people move, children leave for university, people get new jobs.  But here's the difference: at home, most of the people tend to come back.  

That's not often the case when one lives overseas, especially for teachers.

In the case of international schools, the 'goodbyes' are much more extensive. When MsCaroline said 'goodbye' on the 28th, she waved her pupils off to all corners of the globe, and then turned around and did the same with 33% of her colleagues.  (Since most of the teachers at her school arrive with 2-year contracts (although some stay longer,) a changing faculty is a fact of life.)

 And, so, it's been a time of change, of loss, of goodbyes, and of uncertainty.  Of new beginnings, yes, but also a change of people, a change of dynamics.  Exciting, yes, but exhausting, as friends and colleagues pack up and head every which way.

This is not limited to work, of course.  Conversations in the last month at all expat gatherings include the regulars:   'Where are you moving?" "When do you leave?" "Have you found a school/apartment yet?"  "Have you finished packing your container*?" and - if the person in question is not moving - "When do you get back?"  Juggling schedules, squeezing in a last shopping trip, cup of coffee, lunch date, dinner - you get the picture.  Some goodbyes are temporary;  others, permanent.  Some never even happen:  the person in question just disappears.  When this is remarked upon, the response will be, "Oh, yes, her husband got a transfer.  They left for Shanghai/Singapore/London last week."


What all this leavetaking adds up to is that MsCaroline is a little tired, and a little emotionally bankrupt, which means that she has started (and petulantly discarded) about a gazillion posts in the last few weeks.

Not long from now, she will begin packing for Home Leave, making lists, getting excited, putting that spring back in her step.  She will see loving, familiar faces, revel in wide roads and easy conversation (with shopkeepers! and bank tellers! and strangers!) store up memories, hug, laugh uproariously, and return ready, once again, to embrace the ups and downs of expat life in Asia.

But right now? Despite being a self-confessed Tough Old Broad, even MsCaroline admits that, sometimes, there can be too many goodbyes.

This goodbye was particularly hard to say.

*TCK:  Third Culture Kid