I lost my first friend within six months of my arrival to Shanghai.
Huddled in the school stairwell, she told me she would be returning to Spain for high school, to which we vowed through teary eyes to send a steady flow of emails, post photos and visit each other abroad. The hopes of maintaining our friendship seemed bright at first.
But after a flurry of increasingly hollow Facebook messages, we began to understand that ultimately, holding onto our friendship was cumbersome in the face of adapting to our ever-changing, international surroundings. The community seemed to forget about her, enthusiastically greeting a new wave of freshly expatriated families. We, too, moved on with startling ease.
When I was first warned of “international introversion,” I responded with skepticism. A syndrome of the global nomad lifestyle, “international introversion” is a gradual, chilling indifference to your peers. Put more simply, you lose the depth in your connection to friends because of the never-ending transitions.
I never thought that this ailment would strike me.
I lost my next friend about a year and a half later. This time, the promises to maintain friendship were less profound, and within half a year, we ceased contact. A year later, when my third friend announced that she would be moving to Hong Kong, I found myself feigning the socially appropriate facial expression of shock and surprise. Realistically, I had long expected those words. In regards to our maintaining of our friendship, I had expected nothing.
Repatriating lab partners, teammates, ex-prom dates and distant classmates, they all seemed to slip out of our minds and memories within weeks. Socially anorexic from repeatedly losing those we held dear, we had become disgustingly apt at recycling and replacing our most prioritized relationships. The scars we bore were subtle – not entirely evident to those who surrounded us or even to ourselves, yet pertinent in the way they steadily radiated throughout us with doubt and insecurities.
At 9 p.m. on June 19, 2009, the night before my annual summer return to America, I was informed that I would not be returning to Shanghai after the holiday for senior year. It’s funny how when life as you know it threatens to snap at the spine, otherwise unacknowledged remorse rises to the forefront of your mind. My tear-moistened forehead buried in the pocket of my best friend’s hoodie, I admitted to her and to myself how I had allowed my relationships to grow thin over the years. I admitted how I had unknowingly succumbed to the very symptoms of being a TCK that I had rejected the possibility of.
We stayed awake ’til dawn that night.
Listing everything we should have experienced in Shanghai, we made a pact to the supreme power, whether it be fate or God, to treat our friendship with the appreciation that we had lost over the years, should the move be postponed. We littered the coffee table with Post-It bucket lists, stacked mugs along the sink stained with deflated hot chocolate foam, retold our inside jokes with desperate laughter that was poisoned with panic. Standing at the edge of losing it all – a best friend, a loyal entourage of lunch table buddies, classmates who had patiently edited late night essays or attended my birthday parties – it all reminded me of what exactly I had to lose.
At 8:30 a.m., we received a notification from General Motors that our family was no longer scheduled to move. I felt a part of me surrender itself that morning – the part that would choose apathy over emotion, the part that appeared omnipotent over sadness in hopes that if it appeared so, it would be so. But more importantly, there was the surrendering of a part that had been manipulated into believing solid friendship was this kind of illusion I didn’t really need to survive.
Dancing for joy around my living room, I waved a white flag to the reality of a human’s basic need for social stability, security and love. It’s too often overlooked, but in the end, a TCK is still human.
Jessie – great piece. I remember thinking a while back about the links between TCKs and narcissism; and this is a really interesting argument that the grief and loss can actually cause a lot of TCKs to equate emotional attachment with pain. But, like you said, it’s that ability to emotionally connect which makes us human. Really enjoyed reading this.
Adele- Thanks for the feedback! I think it’s like the instinct that teaches us to steer clear of what has caused pain in the past. This indeed can be interpreted by others as a TCK being aloof or feeling superior, when perhaps it’s only a sort of survival mechanism.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your experiences growing up. I too realized I was a TCK in late high school and my whole perception and understanding of life has taken on much different direction since. I am actually in the process of creating the world’s first private social network catering specifically to the third cultured population. I believe this platform will help unite the TCK’s around the world and draw an end to the pain felt amongst this global population. Great Article!
Leaving old friends and making new ones at the drop of a hat. Closing off. Retreating. Scared to be vulnerable. Terrified of fully investing. Its tiring.
I totally understand.
Here’s a link to my dance segment of Chameleon that discovers this phenomenon of finally making good friends only for them to leave and replace you with others when you or they move away:
What is it about us, that makes us depend on our parents for that love and stability? And when we are adults fight in ways that are negative and unhelpful. How can we learn to fight for ourselves, and be seen as adults in our parents eyes. How can we build meaningful relationships when we know we are leaving?