I am falling eve behind. here is two weeks’ ago column. New one already posted last week.


The Annual Expat Exodus
Never Gets Any Easier
June 20, 2008

It’s feeling mighty empty around here. The annual June exodus is under way, with moving trucks clogging the lanes of our neighborhood and our calendars filling up with goodbye parties. This is the cruelest month in the expat world. It’s a transient community with many people on fixed-time work assignments, and people with families try to time their moves for the end of the school year. Every June, at least one person in our family loses a beloved friend.

After going through this a few times, you know what to expect — but it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, this year the great expat migration is hitting my family particularly hard, cutting us all close to the bone. Several pillars of our community are packing their bags and heading off. And we are all losing people with whom we are very close.

Last spring, when we made the decision to extend our stay for another year, it lifted a burden from our shoulders. But just because we reset our own clock didn’t mean anyone else’s was altered. Had we stuck to our original plan, we’d be packing up to head home to the U.S. ourselves right now. That seems inconceivable — and we certainly haven’t regretted the decision, but all of the recent activity here is a reminder that wherever you live, just deciding to maintain the status quo doesn’t mean nothing else changes.

Because things are changing, and people are moving on.

Wyatt Cameron, a teacher at our kids’ school, developed Super Moverz, an innovative mix of physical activity and fantasy play that has been a huge hit with kids here. My own three children have participated in these classes virtually every Saturday since we arrived in Beijing, and it is impossible to imagine weekends without them. Wyatt is moving on — our loss will be San Diego’s gain.

Earlier this week, I stopped by my friend Nathan and Kristi’s old home to pick up a few things for them. It shook me up to walk into their emptied house and see all signs of their vibrant household gone. Someone from the management office was there finalizing paperwork, and I recoiled when they asked if I was the new tenant. The very idea of someone else moving in offended me.

My expat experience has largely liberated me from an attachment to specific places and things. I thought it would be difficult to leave our house in New Jersey, but I’ve rarely thought about it. I have no idea what’s in the container of belongings we have in storage, and probably wouldn’t miss much if it all vanished. Walking into Nathan and Kristi’s empty house was a reminder of why stuff doesn’t really matter: We make the inanimate objects come to life, and not vice versa. Similarly, it reminded me that the fond feelings I have for this place are all wrapped up in the people. There was certainly no charm to those bare walls, studded with hooks where pictures once hung.

As I’ve noted before, expat friendships tend to form quickly and develop intensely. I haven’t made this many close friends since college. All of us are in the same boat, thousands of miles away from home and generally without our extended families and old friends. Cutting loose from your past can be liberating but also a bit freaky, and the combination fuels the close friendships. We are one another’s families, marking holidays, birthdays, graduations and other milestones together. And that’s why it’s easy to lapse into melodrama when talking about the annual departures of friends; it feels like a family’s splitting up, albeit on amicable terms.

These last few weeks have been particularly difficult. After three years, we’re losing some of our most stalwart comrades, people who have been by our side throughout our stay in Beijing. The losses are particularly deep for Eli, 7, and Anna, who is about to turn five and is grappling with this kind of loss for the first time — she was too little to shed tears over the friends who left before.

Kristi and Nathan’s son Matias is Anna’s bosom buddy. About six weeks ago, she declared him her best friend, after spending most of two days playing at his house. Matias has been in her life as long as she can remember, and unlike her brothers, she doesn’t really have close friends back in America. We were talking about him moving away while Anna munched away on a bowl of cereal. In between bites she said, “Well, at least Lauren’s not leaving.”

When she said it, I swallowed hard. Lauren’s mom — Vicki Lowes, whom I wrote about in my last column — had told me the day before that there was a high probability they’d be moving on, too, but she asked me not to mention it to Anna until it was a done deal. That happened a few weeks later and when I broke the news, Anna’s lower lip quivered and her eyes welled.

“I’m losing my whole soccer team!” she wailed. She was silent for a few minutes, before finally asking about another friend — “Is Eddie leaving, too?” I assured her he wasn’t, not mentioning that Eddie’s family will be moving to New Delhi in December.

This week, on Lauren’s last day in Beijing, Anna said she wanted to say goodbye. I called, but Anna couldn’t bring herself to utter a word. Her eyes were wet and she held the phone mutely before handing it back to me. I served as a go-between, relaying a simple message both ways: “Thank you for being such a good friend.”

Eli is also losing his best friend, Wyatt Cameron’s son Race. Eli and Race have been inseparable since the week we arrived in August 2005. They were in Year 1 (kindergarten) together, and have been attached at the hip ever since. They’ve gotten into trouble together, learned to read together and become better at playing by school rules together. As they finish Year 3 (2nd grade), I feel almost as proud of Race for all he’s done as I do about Eli. They’ve provided one another with the kind of support system we all long for — our families are close, and we will all feel their loss, but not the way Eli will.

Early one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Eli heard Rebecca and me mention that it was June 1.

“It’s June?” he asked, with a horrified tone. “But Race is leaving in June!”

Every year I tell the kids that the moving trucks pulling out now will soon be returning with new people. It sounds a little hollow, even to me, but Jacob actually found a new best friend last August, when Kerk Liew arrived from Singapore and landed across the street.

Maybe the rest of us can get lucky, too. It’s important to remain open to the possibility.

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