Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Farewell to Friends

Numerous farewell gatherings for friends continue this week in Penang. They started in May as the school year drew to a close. As with any expat community, so many people are here for just a few years, and a high turnover rate is the norm. Our school even sells T-shirts at the end of the year with either "Jumpa Lagi" for returning students and "Selamat Tinggal" for those who are leaving. They'll fly away home or onward to unknown adventures in other lands.

I'm sad to see you go. Farewell, my friends.

A few expats left before the school year ended. The goodbyes are sometimes brief as in when my friend told me on the playground one Thursday that she was starting a new job on Monday... in Swaziland. But most expats leave over the long school break, and the process of saying goodbye goes on for a few months.

One of my biggest fears about moving somewhere new, especially overseas, is that I would lead a solitary, friendless existence. Boy, was I wrong.

Luckily, the expat and local community here is so welcoming that finding a sense of belonging was not a problem. All expats seem to remember that deer-in-the-headlights feeling they had when they first arrived here. So, they go out of their way to help newcomers, just as other people did for them. When I was still a faceless stranger posting school selection questions on the Penang Mommas Discussion Forum, one kind momma specifically got testimonies for me from older students at the school where her own children attended preschool.

All the newly arrived expats bond hard and fast like it's orientation week at university and we're small town kids in the big city for the first time. We cling to each other, taking comfort that the other person looks just as slightly freaked out as oneself. As we figure out how to satisfy basic needs like food, healthcare, and banking, the information flies back and forth in hopes that pooling our collective brains will ease the transition process. For instance, I had no idea that the only place on Penang island with cobra anti-venom is General Hospital, not one of the private hospitals frequented by the expat crowd. Good info to have!

I imagined that I'd learn about Malay life by living here. I definitely have, but an unexpected bonus is the world view that the international crowd has brought into my life. For instance, I'm in a book club that has had members hailing from Norway, Germany, Australia, England, Malaysia, and the United States. It's fascinating hearing what everyday life is like in each friend's home country. I'll admit that I was somewhat lost when some of them started reminiscing about the Eurovision Song Contest and Top of the Pops since I grew up in Texas watching Solid Gold and Hee Haw. These friends enable the group to examine literature under a global lens whether we're reading about transsexuals in small town America in John Irving's In One Person or about Palestinian refugees in Mornings in Jenin by Susan Albuhawa.

We friends lead by example to encourage each other to try new experiences. I bought unrefrigerated chicken at the wet market only after another American friend assured me that she'd done it numerous times with no ill effects on her family. Traveling to Laos and Myanmar seems less daunting when you know people who brought their preschoolers there. I would have never tried Bikram Yoga except that one of my friends started leading a class here.

As I give each departing friend one last goodbye hug, I know that they'll be missed. Inheriting the contents of their liquor cabinets or leftover small appliances is small solace. I think the sadness will really hit when the school year starts up again and people who were intrinsic parts of my weekly routine are missing.

I know that I'll definitely reunite with some of them since they're from my hometown of Austin, Texas. I keep promoting Spring Break Austin 2015 to my friend recently returned to New Hampshire since so many of us Penang expats will be back by then. Others are spread out all around the world in Africa, Europe, and Australia. Visiting them gives me a good excuse to continue my international travels. I wish them all the best as they either repatriate back into their home countries or experience another new culture as a serial expat. My time in Penang has been all the richer for having known them.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It reminds me of growing up as a military brat in Panama and the bonds that we formed with other military families. It's truly a special bond and I hope that you will all stay in touch! Feel free to share this or future posts every Wednesday as part of Wanderlust Wednesdays, a new link up I'm hosting on my blog! Link here: http://www.timetravelplans.net/selime-monastery/


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