Yesterday marked the first of many goodbyes I will have to say when I finish my five months teaching in Zhangjiajie. Goodbye. Goodbye to friends. To me, a proper goodbye does not leave a person feeling sad, but rather, leaves him or her with an ineffable emptiness, a palpable absence, a previously unfathomable void, and a pervading feeling of “what now?” After major life changes beginning at age 6, through a move from comfortable NY suburbia to HK, the internal relocations, the return to a suddenly insipid reality by comparison, a divorce, the unforeseen deaths, college, studying abroad, I can say with complete certainty, at age 23, that it is a myth that you can prepare yourself to say goodbye. In an instant, the internal conglomerate that makes you who you are, is changed.
There is something very unique about friendships abroad – you labor to find connections that are justifiable reason to open yourself to strangers, in distinctly intimate ways, knowing that you will part ways again soon. You settle, at first, for superficial excuses for like-mindedness; you are grateful to discover that you both like Radiohead, and that at one time in your twenty three years alive, you both passed through Washington D.C.; you are grateful for the hellish conditions you endure together on a 18 hour train ride, for the hours you spent squatting over a hole at 3 AM after bad food, for the night you fell off a stage at a club and jumped right back on because being pushed to the brink by this country has made you fearless and accepting of the fact that ‘to err is human’; and you are grateful for the moment you realize that your friendship has transcended situational convenience and entered the realm of compatibility, and authenticity. I felt it when I was 7, growing up in Hong Kong, forming immediate bonds with friends, who I knew I might never see again in two, or at most, five years time – and again in 2009, with my fellow language-intensive programees while studying abroad in Beijing. And I feel it now, after only four months with a group of people who came together ten months ago, and shared a dinner table, basking in a mutual malaise with the surprisingly inhospitable journey they were about to embark upon in China.
It seems odd sometimes knowing that friendships abroad are inherently built upon the tacit understanding that they will end sooner than most, and that they are geared towards that often very anticlimactic finale to the symphony of a moment of intense friendship.
I have always admired the upbringing I had – I learned at an early age how the internet, a phone call, but more importantly, a simple sentiment, and the tiniest effort can bridge the gaps between long distances. I value that clairvoyance because, to be obnoxiously colloquial, it helps you avoid sweating the small stuff.
I am good with goodbyes because I have done them frequently; I have divorced myself from people, from lifestyles, from cities I considered home. I am good with goodbyes because I allow myself to fully appreciate how much they disrupt order. I am good at goodbyes because by anyone else’s estimation, I am actually quite terrible at goodbyes because I let them change me.
Anyone who knows me will attest to my partiality towards sentimentality, nostalgia, - tears, even. Sometimes I wonder whether I am far too sentimental, or whether I am, quite simply, more vocal about it. Other times, I imagine that everyone feels as much as I do, but the people I find myself most drawn to are those who live their lives remarkably detached, and free of any potentially limiting connections; that it is made up of those who look to the future, rather than allow themselves to be weighed down by the encumbrance that comes with appreciating, if not idealizing, the past; that I see my life as a weather contour map, made up of friends who continuously move from low to high pressure, and whose only directional know-how is outward. I think these are the elements that give my life color, that ultimately propel me forward.
As I get older, if I have gained any knowledge that could qualify as “growing up,” it is accepting the reality that everything has a time – that this too shall pass. People, events, experiences, friendships are all granted a stretch of time, and those prized moments, whether a day, or a number of years, will inevitably become less relevant, another card added to our mental rolodex under, “The Past.” In spite of ourselves, no matter how hard we might try to preserve a moment, the course of its life ends with burning embers. Friendships have a time – Yes, there are people who I still yearn for, whose absent companionship I still feel, years later, and is as apparent as a body imprint that shapes an old mattress. But they had their time. And while I am not there yet, I am learning, bit by bit, to swallow it without a bloated sense of but why not?
Friendships have a time, and we are beholden to time. We are defenseless to its inherent predictability, to its necessity to, quite literally, keep the world spinning madly on.
So with this, there is little else to do but to appreciate the time, to forget that we are on a perpetual trajectory towards next, and occasionally pause to feel the rain, to take out your ipod headphones to hear a street vendor scream, and to fill ourselves with every ounce of anything in preparation for the void that might one day come.