Last week, I said goodbye to a friend who is moving back to her home in the UK. We’d literally picked each other up outside of a mall over 2 years ago. Both of us had small babies in tow, eyed each other up, decided neither were serial killers, then tentatively approached and struck up a conversation. It turned out we were both waiting for the same baby class, we started chatting and became friends.
Such is life as an expat in Shanghai - you have no qualms about giving your number within an hour of randomly meeting a ‘stranger’ outside of a mall. Since then, we found out that aside from having babies of similar ages, we also went to the same university, but at different times (ahem, I’m older). But seriously, what are the odds in this mega city among 25 million people, of randomly meeting someone and having this in common? Life is strange sometimes – I think you meet people for a reason and connect in the most unusual of ways.
It’s now been over two years and our children are also friends; well, ‘friends’ as much as an 8 year old, two 2 year olds and a 1 year old can be. So, it felt like a loss for all of us when we learnt they were leaving. The 2 year old talks about her ‘friend’ and is confused when other people called the same name are introduced. That sort of makes it worse – when your children also feel the loss, and you can’t really explain it.
Yet, as sad as I am to see my friend go, I know she’s leaving for good reasons and it doesn’t feel like a ‘real goodbye.' Maybe that’s because our particular dynamic will continue regardless of distance, or it could be because she is moving to another global hub and I know we will meet again, or maybe I know that social media will keep us in contact.
Either way, when I came home from her farewell dinner I was stunned when my 8 year old asked, “Mummy, will you really miss her?” This threw me, not just because she was sensitive enough to ask, but I realized she might be pre-empting her own loss, and I needed to pay more attention to helping her with this. In a few weeks, she will say goodbye to a good friend who she has multiple playdates with each week. Preparing her for this is tough, given she will feel the loss on a daily basis, and the difference is, she doesn’t have the luxury of using social media as much as I do.
So, how should I help her? In some ways, there’s nothing much I can do. This is the life as an expat or Third Culture Kid (TCK), and it builds resilience. Unfortunately, the downside to this is developing a flippancy or desensitization. An expat friend who lived in Shanghai for 10 years said it worried her that her sons didn’t seem to care anymore if their friends left. An Adult TCK (ATCK) I spoke with attributes his ‘dysfunctional detached personality’ to moving every few years as a child. Being an ATCK myself, I realize the danger in this. As much as I want our daughters to be resilient and flexible, and have all the benefits of an expat life, I also want them to treasure the relationships and connections they make.
After interviewing a few parents on the challenges of raising TCK’s and managing this aspect of their lives, I decided that apart from physically visiting people (which could get expensive!), social media really is the solution.
Hence, our 8 year old now has her own Skype account. The other day, she spoke to a friend in Sweden, who left Shanghai last year. They showed each other their rooms and shared updates; it was sweet and it warmed my heart to hear them chatting. Limiting screen time doesn’t really apply in these circumstances, right? I know this means the older she gets, I also have to keep up and increase by 'social media parenting.' That’s just how it is if we want to emphasize that the connections our children make in their lives are meaningful and can become part of their ongoing fabric. How else do you do it in this day and age anyway? Plus, I think then for all of us, it will only be hard to say goodbye (sometimes).
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