I’ve been saying goodbye to people since I left my parents’ home when I was 18. I thought it would eventually get easier, but it never has. During university I studied culture shock and have a working understanding of the different phases people go through, both from a personal perspective and from observing others. In all of my studies and “group” sessions involving culture shock, saying goodbye was seen as part of the process, but not seen as a big issue to deal with. I beg to differ.
I spent my University years volunteering for an international student group that involved meeting people from all over the country and the world. So people were always coming into my life and we would often share very intense and often short lived friendships. Some have turned into lifelong friendships, some are friends on Facebook, and others have disappeared altogether. Some of these friends I do see occasionally and when we come together it is like no time has passed! With good friends the process of saying goodbye has become understood, you hug, you walk away – try not to overthink it.
During my career I’ve changed companies and cities every few years, so I was saying goodbye to another bunch of colleagues and “real-world” friends on a regular basis. I got quite good at it. But I was young enough at the time to believe I would always find more great people to hang out with. Plus I was still in my home country where I had a couple of good friends in every major city, so the prospect of spending time making new friends wasn’t really on the cards. When friendships randomly happened that was a bonus! I lived in a world where, although I was transient, I was still home and good friends and family were only an hour or so flight away. Goodbyes were rarely all that meaningful.
Home is no longer a short trip away, that flight is now 14+ hours long and requires more than a few days planning. When catching up with good friends back home you realise their lives have moved on since you were a part of it. That comfortable friendship bubble I once lived in may not have burst but it has certainly taken on another shape. I really miss the old bubble at times. Sometimes I fool myself by thinking that the bubble hasn’t changed because of online interactions with friends back home, but we all know that is just not the same.
When I do on occasion visit home I tend to stick to the formula of hug and walk, mainly because I know that if I let it, the familial may have a stronger pull then my expatriate home. I actually once said goodbye to a friend through an open window, simply saying “see you next time” and walked off, actively avoiding any physical or mental emotion. My mother of course is not aware of this “formula” and prescribes to the school of thought that if there isn’t at least 3 hugs and some tears I am not allowed to board the plane.
In expatriate life many talk about the process of saying goodbye as I have above, you are the one leaving home, or at the end of the assignment saying goodbye to all the people you’ve met and returning home or moving onto the next location. No one really talks about that during this time you will say good bye to many people, but you stay on assignment. You may have only known people a short while, but often expatriates through a shared experience develop friendships thick and fast. Also this changes the group dynamic, at home friends will come and go but there is often a core group of friends. On assignment this core group is often in flux and it isn’t always easy to tell who is a part of that core until said someone leaves.
So to me there are a couple of different goodbyes whilst on assignment, the home visit – “see you again soon”, the leaving your expatriate friends – “enjoy it here” and the saying goodbye as expatriate friends leave – “enjoy the next adventure”. It’s this final one that has started taking more of a toll on me.
Andrew Caesar grew up on a small farm in Australia. After a number of years of moving between Melbourne and Sydney, he had very brief stints in Indonesia and Turkey before being transferred to Johannesburg. Joburg is now one of Andrew’s favourite cities and he loves exploring its history and seeing how it is reinventing itself.
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