Dana Filek-Gibson learns that if you love them, you must let them go – but first, ask for their stuff.
Nobody loves a goodbye. As soon as it’s announced, every encounter with the departing expat becomes a painful mix of other people, anxiety and family-style dining. Feelings begin to crowd one another. People talk too much or sweat, sometimes from the eyes. Never mind the close-body contact, which raises some serious questions on farewell etiquette: How long do you embrace? With what level of enthusiasm? When is it okay to pull away? Can hugs be insincere? Medically speaking, it wouldn’t surprise me if emotional stress caused our organs to turn themselves inside-out, because that’s what it feels like. Start to finish, the process is downright uncomfortable.
I’ve done many things in my day that you might call ‘strange’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘against aviation security’, but my most outlandish behaviour usually stems from these goodbyes. In the end, I will cry and eat my feelings, just like any other run-of-the-mill non-sociopath. But first, to stave off this common human reaction, I always like to spend a little time colouring outside the lines. For friends leaving from the international terminal, I will enter Tan Son Nhat in full motorbike garb – face mask on, helmet secured, reams of floral fabric billowing from my body – and attempt to operate a luggage cart as a xe om. If our last meeting is at a restaurant, supermarket, shopping mall or pet store, spontaneity might inspire me to give you everything in my wallet, or perhaps my whole purse. Should we part ways for the last time at a bar, I will consume equal amounts of alcohol and salted peanuts, ballooning my body to 10 times its size. Because the world as I know it is ending, there’s no telling what my brain will come up with. On most occasions, the results are regrettable and expensive.
Which is why it’s been a weird month. For me, September included no less than three serious goodbyes. Not with gap-year expats or recent acquaintances, but with people I’ve known for as long as I’ve lived in Vietnam. Each took the liberty of inviting me to a large gathering in a public place and at each send-off I came, I overate and I pretended it wasn’t happening.
Until, of course, the evening ended. Well-wishers began to trickle out, reaching for keys and helmets. A long, odourous hug-parade began. To the departing expat, I said things like, “Have a good trip!” and “Take care!” and a variety of other canned phrases, which seem to be the only words I know at a time like this. A few rounds of skiddish eye contact later, I was home, standing alone in my darkened living room, still unable to grasp that a friend had just walked out of my life – perhaps for months, perhaps for years, perhaps forever.
This tugs at the heartstrings. If any of the above has made you feel feelings, I sincerely apologise. But rest assured that while I, weird and slightly insensitive, will reflect on these awkward farewells for weeks to come, my greatest distraction will be that I have acquired all their stuff.
That’s right. If being an expat has taught me anything, it’s this: our lives may be transient, but belongings stay behind. People will come and go, friendships will form in real life and then slowly disintegrate over the internet, but that end table – or toaster oven or iPhone or sundress – that you’ve been quietly admiring for months, maybe even years, will last at least a little longer which, in expat terms, is forever. And when your expat family casts off for distant shores, you will be there to swoop in, share a tearful and potentially inappropriate goodbye, celebrate your friendship and, finally, redecorate.