My heart was broken.
For a moment, it felt like I’d travelled back in time to those heady teenage years when breaking up with a boyfriend turned you into a dramatic, sobbing, pathetic mess, convinced you’d never get over him.
But I’m not a teenager and this wasn’t a boyfriend, rather two female friends, who for nearly three years had known my every thought: my every high, every low and pretty much my every waking (and napping) moments.
And now it was over. Here we were, our driver waiting patiently, watching on as we squeezed each other tight and called it a day. I went home and sobbed into my husband’s arms.
Repatriating to Australia, there’s a lot to love about the sunburnt country and I’m relishing in exploring everything again with fresh eyes. Everything old is new. Even my dear friends! (Although they may protest they’re feeling a little older as opposed to newer).
There are no shortage of stories about expat life…. some hate it, most love it. Either way, if you’re going to survive, you need to find your tribe. And once you find them, it’s hard to fathom life without them.
You’re all in the same boat no matter what got you on it, what seas you sailed or which boat you rode in before. The sheer fact that you’ve upped stumps to live in a country that’s not your own is grounds enough for a firm friendship.
My first taste of expat-hood was in Hong Kong and while there were thousands upon thousands of us, from all walks of life, drawn to the Emerald City, we had each others backs as we sailed the fragrant harbour. I found my Hong Kong family and we were there for each other through thick and thin. (And still are, I might add.)
Then I moved to the middle of China, a place where expats are few and far between and there the real difficulties of going about day to day life emerged. At first I was reluctant to “put myself out there, again!” Hadn’t I just done all that in Hong Kong? I’d found my tribe, I didn’t want to be the single girl desperate for a date.
But I quickly realised that attitude wasn’t going to cut it; Xi’an may be home to nine million people, but I could swear I was the only blonde in town.
So it began….I scoured Facebook pages (when I could get online) stalked school playgrounds, smiled sheepishly at other mums, “yes, hello, I’m new!” “Can we be friends?”
I even went on a blind date, in the hope of meeting someone to bond over coffee and hair colour woes with.
She instantly became one of my tribe.
And over those next few years, I needed them from the minute I woke up …to when the sun went down. Mostly to get through the sheer amount of “unusual moments” that occur in any ‘normal’ China day.
Whether it’s the fact that your driver drove through a boom gate on the way to school, spilling the entire contents of your bag on the floor and your scorching lemon water on your lap and you didn’t die, or he simply does a weird six point turn in the middle of a busy school street to pick you up, with the car doors swinging wildly open. Or maybe he’s just driven with his hand on the horn for the entire 45 minute ride and your head is going to explode.
And don’t even start about those recurring dreams that he speaks English.
Or perhaps you woke up to fireworks erupting outside your house and a dozen stray dogs barking furiously and chooks clucking! The power is completely off or maybe your kids are sent home without notice from school due to extreme pollution levels. Or a little American boy at one of the schools has been clocked with a golf club by another kid’s parent in an act of sheer brutality and you can’t fathom the horror of it.
Or your hotelier husband is having an equally tough day. So far he’s scolded someone for washing their car parts in the hotel’s water feature and another for spitting in the lobby pot plant and now someone is vacuuming in the middle of a wedding in the grand ball room and he is about to burst a blood vessel.
Perhaps you accidentally see a woman squatting over the toilet, door wide open. Enough to scar you for life. All of this, you need to share… or risk being locked in a padded room.
Maybe it’s so friggin’ polluted you masked up for the school run and literally sprinted to the classroom and then home again without taking a breath, only to spend another bleak winter’s day indoors, staring wistfully out at the dense, grey haze that has enveloped the city. You need to connect with the tribe to be sure there is still life out there.
Perhaps your small person has got yet another nasty bout of croup after a simple cold for the fifth time this winter and you’ve run out drugs. There are no English speaking doctors and if there were they don’t have medication you need. You send a desperate text out and find one of your tribe has extra supplies and gets her driver to bring them over pronto. Or maybe one of your friend’s kids has lice… and there’s no treatment in China, so you dig out your lice saver and meet her in the carpark on a 2 degree morning to hand over the goods. Or your dog just got her period! What now?
Maybe it’s visa run time and you need to psyche yourself up to be practically strip searched.
Nothing is off limits, when you’re in a city that beats to a different rhythm.
We are each others shot of valium in a crisis.
Thank you to my best Chinese friend who ordered our pizza, always worked out the bill with the waiter at the end of the night, took us to hospitals, doctors, acupuncturists, called back for our results, made our nail appointments, and translated every text message in their indecipherable characters. Not to mention your daily education about the realities of China and the reasons why… in return we educated you on the wicked ways of the West (maybe to your detriment).
To my American friend who wades through her medical drawer to dig out the last sleeping tablet for our long haul flight and has it sent over immediately, oh wait was it the other way around? Who introduced us to Halloween and ThanksGiving and pumpkin pie. In return we gave her Australia Day and Tim Tams. Who took it into her own hands to smuggle me a tamborine from KTV (Karaoke) because what girl doesn’t need her own! And is a Taobao junkie who orders double of everything because she knows you’ll want what she’s having, when a man drives up in a tuk tuk and flings a parcel at your doorstep.
When you let her sit on your couch for the entire day watching the hotel’s CNN channel, shouting abuse and crying as we watch Trump become President.
We could while away hours in a coffee shop, laughing until our sides split for our weekly sanity check (me often recording the saga – for research of course) until our drivers came and ferried us back to our bubble where we would hibernate from the madness, until next time… safe in the knowledge, we weren’t alone.
Or perhaps we’d indulge in $3 midday Margaritas at one of the only western restaurants in town, “Tex Mex” perched at the top of a busy shopping centre where you’d be sure to run into every other expat in town, desperate for a quesadilla!
Now, we’ve all spread out to our respective corners of the globe.
As Winnie the Pooh said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
But without them, a little piece of my heart will always be broken.
This is China.