It was November 1995. We were relaxing after dinner, probably watching television, when the door-bell rang. In waltzed a close friend, beaming. He’d just left his wife safely tucked up in bed in the maternity wing of a private hospital, a fifteen-minute drive down the road. Their first child, a sweet cherub of a baby girl, had been born.
This special moment had additional meaning for me, for dropping by on his way home after this momentous event to share his joy and tell the tale and finally announce her name – “It’s Claire, with an ‘i’” – and dream the dreams that the birth of a first child can bring, this man touched us by that visit. One does not forget friendship reaching out like that.
As years went by there were the marriages and additional births in those friendship groups; other proud mums and dads chancing by with emotionally charged gifts and troubles, helping hands offered when young parental life got a little too hard, meals delivered, babies sat, and other meals partaken together. The honour of godmother roles, standing by to catch those little ones in case they fell from play-ground equipment, putting on sun-
screen, guiding and encouraging, packing picnic lunches, going for walks, turning up early and leaving late for birthday parties – we knew a lot and felt a lot for each other’s children. We were prepared to stand in when asked and imposed ourselves and lent a shoulder when we knew our friends hadn’t the strength to seek help.
So it goes: we trust that friendships of old and family connections shall continue once we pack up and leave our home-towns and move to far-flung places like Macau. As an expatriate, I’ve travelled back and forth between the old and the new. In the first few years, we’d select and stock up on presents of exotic ‘only in Macau’ gifts delivered to the little ones in the round or two of hectic holiday visits – “When can you visit again this trip?” As time wore on, even as the adult friendships remained, it became harder to figure out what the kids would appreciate. As those little ones grew, the emotional connection waned. We became less visible and less relevant.
Expatriate life has these downsides. Relationships, with children especially, require time, frequency and face-to-face contact. Although it helps, social media cannot hope to fill in the void. We go from always being there, to rarely being there and no longer having a big role to play, no longer relied upon. Missing friends over distance is hard enough, but realising that we are, although wanted, no longer the go-to person is a tough realisation for expatriates and repatriates.
Being internationally mobile means we miss out on being involved in parts of people’s history. I would argue that short assignments at one end of the spectrum and semi-permanent moves and immigration at the other have less impact on relationships. With short assignments we can step out and then back into our own community without missing too many beats. Meaningful long-term relationships in the new home are possible in long-term moves. It’s those that come back and forth, never spending long enough in any one place, that risk these connections most.
Claire’s 21st birthday bash is this weekend. In Australia, the twenty-first is the big birthday event; it’s a celebration of young life lived so far and a sending off as an adult into the big wide world. Blissfully, I’ll be there, just as I was invited into her world 21 years ago, but an expatriate life lived between two homes changed the trajectory of our history together. Rather than being a part of her stories, I’ll be hearing some of them for the very first time.