Saying goodbye is nothing foreign to expats, Third Culture Kids or highly mobile people. Sadly, though, many of us are known for being quite poor with our farewells. We may avoid the these departures altogether, because they are too painful. Or we might run on to the next adventure, promising those around us we will return and life will be the same as before. We avoid goodbyes by saying “see you later” or we kid ourselves that we never have to leave thanks to social media, thanks to the convenience that is air transportation, because we have never known friendships as strong as we do right now. Surely they will remain unchanged in the next season of life.
One missed goodbye in particular haunts me. There was this chef-friend that gave Tall Mountain and I cooking lessons at the start of our relationship and ended up staging our engagement meal. Later, he replicated that meal for all of our wedding guests. Not of the emailing or texting type, he had always been hard to get in touch with. Contacting him involved dropping by to his humble apartment on Rue de l’École Maternelle, or writing a letter, or trying to catch him at a time he was at home to answer his landline. Life got busy and then we moved from Europe to Asia. I wanted to thank him, to say goodbye and to share what was next for us. We never saw him even once after our wedding. Upon our return to France, though, the nameplate on his door had vanished. I had no mobile phone, no email, no address to contact him with. Such missed goodbyes come with the transient lifestyle, but the void they leave are like a wound that keeps on getting infected, a cold sore that lingers, or pesky eczema that you can’t get rid of. We weren’t super close, per se, yet the incomplete, the unfinished business, the ‘not knowing’ of our mutual whereabouts stays with me. As do other missed opportunities for closure.
In contrast, I think our ‘best’ goodbyes followed our season in Shanghai. We organized a farewell party for many of our friends and were able to enjoy a meal and thank them for their impact on our lives. We had each guest write their favorite Chinese character, or one that reminded them of us on a little red square, which we later mounted on a frame for our new home. Since we were only returning with luggage we could take with us by plane, we hosted a quirky white elephant game with our remaining bulky items. Looking back, it seems a bit funny to have your friends look through your stuff and decide what they want to claim, but it really worked in that setting. Today, we (look much older – sigh – and) hold dear the flimsy frame of squares, and someone has a vase of ours in their living room to remember us by, another our trusty toaster-oven..all hand carried out of our apartment by taxi or scooter or on foot. As the last guest left our home that one night, I wept and the goodness of this life season and we sought closure by reading letters and cards from our friends.
Prior to this gathering, we had made a list of the last things we wanted to do in the city and we tried to do them. They weren’t the touristy things we’d missed, but rather things that were special to us. As strange as it sounds, I wanted to visit Daqi, our favorite print shop that could make an immaculate copy of any book for a buck or two. TM wanted to have a few last business shirts made at the fabric market. Together, we wanted to enjoy a last hazelnut latte at Paul’s of China, managed then by a creative French visionary. These things were important to bring closure. Soon thereafter, Paul’s left China, Daqi went out of business and well, we never made it back to the fabric market.
We also made a bucket list of last things we wanted to do in the country. In all honesty, I resented this and just hate planning as if I was never returning to this country. Reality is, though, if you do return, things change (ehem, small humans may join your peaceful couple!) and life as you once knew it will never be the same. We planned a trip to hike the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Jinsha River in southwestern China with some friends. We made sure to see those extraterrestrial karst peaks of Yangshuo and Guilin. We planned one last trip to Beijing on the overnight train, and so on. We will never get these moments back and the memories truly mark our time there.
This past month as we went back to Shanghai with our kids and we noticed Shanghai Community Fellowship, the expatriate church, was handing out little cards with more helpful tips for those repatriating. Much like an airport gate, they are sadly used to seeing people arrive and leave. Each church service starts with welcoming new arrivals and allowing those who have been there more than six months and are leaving, to say their farewells.
Here are some ideas from the “farewell card“:
– Before you leave Shanghai [replace with the city you are leaving], journal and write down your thoughts. Record the amazing things God has done, as well as the challenges. This journal will be a great reminder down the road of how you actually felt here.
– Find constructive ways to share your story. Some people won’t listen, but there will be others who do care. Blog, host an event, and/or invite people to hear about your Shanghai experience. Connect with a church that is globally focused. Pray that God will lead you to a supportive community.
– On days you feel alone, misunderstood, or bored, engage in positive coping strategies such as exercise, a fun hobby, or even pet therapy! Avoid negative coping strategies such as blame, indulgence, or denial. For more information, check out the Trauma Headquarters website.
– Ask your friends at home and here to support you during the time of transition. Let them know you will need a listening ear (especially at first).
I share the tips on the card in the hopes that regardless of where you stand in terms of God and faith, these tips might come in handy one day should you too have to bid your farewells.