Last night I went to a little farewell dinner for a gal to whom I’ve become quite attached. When I met her and we clicked, I felt this ray of hope that I’d found a friend in Bogotá. But then I found out she’d be moving in less than a year, which was just enough time for me to really get to know and like her! For some reason I thought saying goodbye to our family and friends as we left San Diego would be it…but I’m getting the feeling that the expat life is one of continual goodbyes.
To expats, summer seems to have a strange changing of the guard quality—everyone seems to come and go at this time, which now that I think about it is probably because of the school year. The international schools in Bogotá (and I think in most of the world) follow a similar pattern to the schools in the U.S., so it makes sense to let kids finish and have the entire summer to move and settle in again. But even for those not moving, there is a mass exodus of moms and kids returning to native countries for weeks over the summer, to visit family and friends and probably fit in a shopping trip (sounds frivolous, but it’s funny how quickly that list starts to form once a plane ticket is booked). All the normal clubs and actives slow down and our church service the past couple of weeks has looked like a ghost town.
Now that I think about it, there are a lot more ‘goodbyes’ in my life that I suppose I just didn’t quite notice before. Most of them are easy ones, for instance at the end of every planned Skype conversation. For some reason, calling from a different continent carries a kind of weight because there is now so much effort and planning involved in communicating. A bit harder are the ones at the end of every visit, which are made better (or worse, depending on how you look at it!) by the knowledge of when you’ll next see each other. But I think the hardest are the goodbyes to the other expats who come and go. I think that expat friends form bonds more quickly because we are all in the same boat, trying to get our bearings and throw together some sort of normalcy. If you find a friend from your same culture, then you really understand where the other person is coming from. These relationships quickly become an important source of support and community and losing them is hard.
Now that I have some experience on both sides of goodbye, I have to say that I seriously prefer leaving to being left. When people are leaving you, you have a vacuum of space that needs to be filled again. When you’re doing the leaving, your focus is somewhere else and you have the privilege of rebuilding your life and arranging those spaces as you see fit. Sometimes the emotional life of an expat is a precarious balance and everything is as strong as a house of cards, where one gentle draft can make the whole thing tumble down. Last August when Cody and I visited San Diego for the first time, everyone was fine and I was a wreck…I realized that I was finally experiencing the wave of emotions they had already dealt with when we moved in May.
So what is one to do when the people in your life start to pass in and out like a revolving door? I am emotionally stunted and feel like I have a particular ineptitude at goodbyes so my first response is just to ignore my feelings and focus on something else. When we moved to Colombia I was too busy getting excited about setting up house, exploring the city and learning Spanish to think about missing loved ones. Sometimes I’ll just avoid you. Another favorite coping mechanism is to think of reasons why I don’t like you and I’m glad I’m moving just to get away from our “horrible” (i.e. loving and fully reciprocated) relationship.
Change is scary and makes us feel vulnerable, so it makes sense that the countering emotions are anger and distance. Every time we say a goodbye or feel the rumbles of change, Cody and I huddle a little closer and I hold a little tighter to God’s truths in my life. I know I am a broken record about attributing all my strength to my marriage and my internal identity, but I can’t help it–with each shift in my life, I see it holding fast.