Friday, March 11, 2016

Beijing Friends in London

There are a lot of different types of people in the Foreign Service.  Well, duh.  There are loads of types out in the world in general.  But there aren't many other places you could choose to work where you get tossed together so closely with these other types.  You don't get to choose who goes to post with you (if only!), and once you arrive, you have to find your tribe of friends from among the "types" that are already there. There are a few types who show up at every post, and your job is to sort out which of them you want to avoid. Your job is to find your tribe amongst the teeming herd of strangers.

Avoid the Complainer.  Sure, everyone complains sometimes.  But the person who never stops complaining is going to bring you down, hard.  Smile broadly when you see her coming, and refuse to engage, on any topic. The Complainer is related to the Last-Poster, the person who constantly tells you how much better life was at their last post. (Confession:  I've got quite a bit of Last-Poster in me.  What can I say? I'm working on it.) Then there's the Food Critic. She takes great pride in the fact that she only eats local food, to include scorpions, sea urchins, rooster feet or whatever revolting thing may be on the menu in your country, and she looks at you in disdain if you decline to partake. And then have you met the spouse who wants to know where your spouse works before she can decide whether you're worthy of her attention?  Best to avoid her, too.

The worst is when you meet someone you really like, but it turns out she's a Short-Timer.  If she's leaving soon, you'll never break into her orbit because she's already focused on the next place and she doesn't have any desire or need to make new friends.

No, you want to find people who arrived around the same time you did, who have kids around the same ages as yours, whose spouses work with - but probably not for - your spouse, and who are genuinely excited to be at post, hardships notwithstanding.  As for the rest of it - religious affiliation? political party? hobbies?  - you'll have to work with what you've got. Some of my oldest and best FS friends are what I would describe as "conservative Christian" - pretty much the opposite of me in terms of world view.  And yet we had so much fun together at post, arguing politics as we explored our new city together. They were smart about their views, as I am about mine, so we could discuss big topics in a way I can't with most people. They ended up becoming the godparents to our second child, and we've stayed in touch ever since.

The staying in touch thing?  That's really really hard.  There are always seasonal friends - the ones you bond with at post but then drift away from afterwards, until you can't even quite remember their names.  But if you're lucky, and you work at it, you'll end up making a few lifelong friends every time you move to a new post.

For me, Beijing was the place where I acquired the biggest pile of lifelong friends.  The stars just lined up there: a solid group of people arrived at the same time as I did.  Our spouses all knew each other, our kids all played together, we started Chinese language classes together, we lived just a few doors down from one another.

Then there was the fact that Beijing was a hard place to live. The language, the pollution, the size of the city, the fact of never being able to blend in, of being constantly watched, and photographed, and criticized.  You try learning to drive in a city of almost 12 million people, with multi-lane highways and road signs you can't read. Chances are you'll bond pretty hard with the person who is brave enough to navigate from the passenger seat. That time J and I made a wrong turn and ended up trapped in a closed-off bike lane, driving the minivan about 2 miles an hour behind an old guy on a three-wheeled bike? Well, it was the first time I'd ever tried to drive in downtown Beijing, and the two of us are still laughing about it all these years later.  I made a lifelong friend that day, along with starting a string of traffic tickets.  J's the person who went with me to pay those tickets when the time came, too.


M was new to post - she and I were still getting to know each other that day when she burst into my house, frantic and barefoot, carrying a critically sick baby in her arms. She brought him in and I talked her down as we tried to summon emergency help, together. We don't really talk much about that day, but it's there, between us.

When I brought my baby home from the hospital, S was the one who showed up to rock her so I could get some rest.  She was the one who lined up her kids as babysitters when I needed a break.  And, because she's forgotten more about fashion than I'll ever know, she was the one who helped me navigate the tailors and the fabric stores and the jewelry makers.

When J lost the baby, sweet baby Lily, the rest of us sat with her and held her hand, looking at the tiny newborn pictures and crying with her. When I lost my hearing - a small thing compared to losing a baby - these women brought casseroles for the family while I was on medevac. Later on, when the deaf thing became a part of who I was rather than a medical emergency, these women helped me find ways to make it funny.

So many things about Beijing made it the hardest place I've ever lived.  But having people to share the hardship with? That made it one of the best places I've ever lived.  People always ask me: would you go back there?  I'd go visit, sure.  But to live? Absolutely not.  I feel fortunate to have escaped with most of my health still intact. Also, there's the fact that it wouldn't be the same without my tribe, and I have no interest in starting over without those ladies by my side.

Last week I flew to London, where I met up with M, J and S - three of my closest Beijing friends.  One lives in London now.  Another is elsewhere in Europe. And the third recently moved back to the States from South America.

It's been a long while since we've seen each other.  The last time I saw J was when we hugged goodbye in her driveway in Shunyi, back in 2010. Yet we picked up right where we left off, with laughter and "remember whens?".

We wandered around London, hitting a few major sites like Kensington Palace, Big Ben and Covent Gardens. But mostly what we did was find a cozy table in a pub somewhere, eating (and eating! and eating!), drinking and reminiscing.  We weren't speaking Chinese, but what we were saying surely sounded like a foreign language to everyone within earshot.  Jenny Lou's.  The Nut Hut.  The Dooz. Remember the restaurant with the tiny little plates?  The guy with the x-rated DVD shop? The dead watch batteries? The dead car battery.  Sunny Gold Uggs. The Elvira hairdo.  The bozo tie at the Marine Ball. The ball pit.  Hungry Horse.  The smell of Pinnacle Plaza on a smoggy morning. The seizure. The ambulance ride. That one weird neighbor. Topless Euros at the kiddie pool.

I haven't laughed so hard, or so inappropriately, in a long, long time.



They bring out the best in me, these friends of mine.  S is the same age as me, but she's more like a wise older sister: calm, steady, always there to listen when you need to talk. You will never hear a critical word about anyone come out of her mouth. Steadfast in her faith but never preachy.  She is someone whose path never would've crossed mine in the States. But I am a better person because of her example.  M is a tough woman: fierce, smart and sometimes raunchily inappropriate. It takes a long time to break through that exterior and get her to admit her weaknesses, but once you're in, you're in.  You'll feel as though you've earned that friendship, because she doesn't pass it out to just anyone. J can make anybody laugh. Even when she's wading through the toughest times possible, she's still smiling. She wears all of her emotions on her (always fashionable) sleeve, and she's not afraid to make a fool of herself. She taught me the art of being silly and not giving a damn whether the rest of the world likes it. And me? I am braver, goofier, smarter and kinder than I used to be because these women made me so.

Thank you, my friends.  I'm so lucky that the stars lined up and brought you all to my Chinese doorstep. Let's not wait so long for the next reunion.


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