No end to goodbyes


Sad departures: The expat life is an emotional roller coaster as one frequently has to bid goodbye to fellow expats who have become fast friends.

Sad departures: The expat life is an emotional roller coaster as one frequently has to bid goodbye to fellow expats who have become fast friends.

Life as an expat means there will be many stops and starts.

ONE of the expat blogs I regularly follow is called Adventures in Expat Land, penned by author Linda A. Janssen.

She wrote the book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures.

However, what I really want to talk about now is one of her recent blog posts titled The Universality of Transition.

In it, she wrote about the disappearance of MH370 and zeroed in on the story The New York Times ran about the partner of an expatriate who was on that flight, and thereby resonating within the expatriate community on an international level.

Philip Wood, an American and IBM executive, was on one of his last flights between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, and was in the process of relocating to Kuala Lumpur for another expatriate posting.

The article indicated their last communication and text messages centred on the “back and forth on the mundane matters of packing up and preparing to leave one place for another, and all that entailed. His last message to her came just before he left for the airport”, Janssen wrote.

We certainly know of friends personally who take the same flight on a regular basis. It sent shivers up our spine. Most of our husbands are up in the air regularly, crisscrossing countries and continents by planes or going on helicopters for offshore or oilrig assignments.

Although it is a fact and people are quick to add that there are more deaths caused by car accidents than airplanes or choppers crashing, it does not negate the fact that the majority of expatriate assignments include a higher frequency of flight mileage in general.

It starkly reminds us how fleeting and how precious life is; and how we disregard it often, like we have forever to spare.

I have just got back from a wonderful Easter holiday in my home city, Cebu in the Philippines, and I know I’m not alone when I say this — leaving home doesn’t get any easier.

Behind all the happy moments lurk the bittersweet awareness that for every hello comes a goodbye, eventually.

As we grow older, more people, parents, aunts, our friends’ parents’ die. Each trip back home each year becomes more bittersweet as we leave.

Each visit highlights the many weddings, birthdays and special occasions missed. The farewells are more intense. Each hug becomes tighter, not knowing if we will ever see each other again.

Mortality stops being an abstract concept. There is just no way to avoid this topic, no matter how grim it is, when it is staring at us right in the eye.

And with each separation, we grapple once again with many questions about the choices we have made. There are no right or wrong answers.

Choosing to live in a foreign country for the most part is just a leap of blind faith. We have no idea if things are going to work out well.

We do not know if we are working for a fair employer, or if we are going to be tossed around like marbles in a jar collection; disposable when the chips start to show.

And with an entire family in tow, it’s no joke when an expat contract goes sour. The emotional, financial, physical and mental upheaval it brings is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Not to sound ungrateful, expatriate life definitely brings with it a whole wealth of experiences we might otherwise have missed had we chosen to stay in our comfort zones. The places we have visited, the friendships we have made, the experience of living in and among different cultures and international environments are priceless.

But as I write this, I also know in two months’ time, some expat friends we have made and forged strong connections with will be leaving. Some are going back to their home countries and others onward to other overseas posting.

And we are back to that emotional roller coaster ride once more.

How do we bear another round of goodbyes? How many more can we take? Each departure leaves a gaping hole in our hearts and there is no way around it.

And that’s just us.

Our children go through their own processes of emotional turbulence, too, and the worse part of it is that they are not yet fully developed and emotionally equipped to deal with the anxiety and various other feelings they are going through. Leaving friends behind, or being left behind affects them at a deep level.

The grief is palpable and goes through stages. There is the denial and with it comes hope that travel is so accessible these days that seeing each other again just takes one plane ride. But it is never that simple.

When I moved to The Netherlands 10 years ago, I was in such a state of depression and missing home, I was disinterested in meeting new friends in the first six months at least; thinking I already have friends whom I left back home in the Philippines.

It took me awhile to finally embrace the choices I have made, and thereby managed to live a fulfilling life for the rest of my stay, until we moved again to Kuala Lumpur two years ago and I was back to ground zero once more.

As Janssen wrote, “No one in this world — regardless of background or station and in spite of talents or treasure — is exempt from experiencing both the good and bad in life.”

This is a life that comes with a lot of stops and starts. It provides wonderful discoveries, new opportunities and interesting places; and a rich tapestry of intercultural friendships. But along with it also comes rootlessness, unresolved grief and of belonging everywhere and nowhere.

How do we say goodbye?

Born and raised in the Philippines, Melinda is a marketing executive, entrepreneur and writer who moved from the Netherlands to KL. She loves scuba diving, good food and wine, and is happy to be back in the tropics.