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The curse of connection: an expat’s story

Expat SOPHIE PATEL shares her experiences of frequently relocating; the impact on friendships, and learning to cope with change and loss.

Saying goodbye

My recent departures have not gone well. After five years in New Zealand, I left a network of wonderful women and the feeling I had connected with nature and found my spiritual home. The most agonising goodbye was to my friend whose husband was dying from oesophageal cancer. I felt like cruelty incarnate as I drove to the airport with my own husband. Were we choosing finances over friendship? Career over caring?

Eighteen months and one adjustment disorder later, my next goodbye was similarly fraught. I’d finally decided on a career and my parents had just begun to know the joy of my children racing down the hallway to greet them. There’d be no Friday night fish and chips, no impromptu visits to the bakery and no way to support my father after his heart surgery.

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Forging new connections

With every move, I find it harder to be a good friend, a good daughter, a reliable citizen. Keeping in touch while forging new connections is an impossibility. I’ve neglected messages, failed to acknowledge “likes” and curse the day I uploaded WhatsApp. I’ll never forget the story of a friend’s seven-year-old son, who, after a premature return to the UK, found out he was relocating yet again two months later. “Don’t worry,” he reassured his parents, “I’ve learnt not to get attached.” From someone so young, the insight was tragic.

So, I moved to Hong Kong with a plan. I would focus on my nuclear family, nod and smile at the locals and breeze in and out of my children’s school with superficial charm. It began well. Children are preoccupying, many parents send helpers to school in their place and many more are consumed with establishing their own insecure social identities. Nobody knew or needed me.

I practised mindfulness and sought joy from nature and observing the meaningful communication of others: elderly women meeting for Mahjong, puppies in prams, helpers congregating on Sundays. I became perpetually pleasant.

But I took the kids to the park one day and it was all over. My son was screaming at me about the swing – my pushing methods were lacking – and I noticed a couple of boys from his school in their sports uniform. In failure mode, I approached their mother. “Is my son wearing the wrong thing today?” I asked. “I’ve got no idea,” she said. “As long as they have something on, I consider it an achievement.”

A kindred spirit

Unfortunately, I’d found a kindred spirit. Suddenly there were daily playdates, a shared aversion to dumplings, psychoanalysis of prior relationships and a mutual love of mimicry and self deprecation. We felt no compulsion to smile and the humidity seemed to diminish. Hong Kong felt manageable.

Do we dread the other’s departure? Yes. Do I feel anxious about finding time to keep in touch? Already. However, my new plan is not to fight attachment but to train myself to cope with change and loss. (I’ll get back to you on that.) Because, whether we’re expats or long-established locals, we will all have to say goodbye to the ones we love. Life is too short to resist connection.

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See more in our Living in Hong Kong section:

12 Fun things to do with kids in Hong Kong
Best Sunday Brunches in Hong Kong
26 ways to enjoy Hong Kong’s waters

This article first appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.