Yesterday a message popped out on my cellphone screen reminding me to renew my Vpn (Virtual private network) service. Believe it or not six months have already past since when on a very hot day of August we landed in Shanghai and Internet stopped working !
Six months on I am happy here and it all happened much quicker and smoother than I expected. Though my heart is still cringing every time I close my eyes and think about New York and I Know I will never get over it, here in Shanghai, where I still don't understand much of what's happening around me, I keep ordering the wrong food, I'm panicking when the translator app on my cellphone gets stuck and as first thing in the morning I check the pollution level, I am having a good time. How can it be ?
One thing that really helped me to navigate through the adjustement process is to have quickly found new friends. And this is particularly easy in Shanghai for obvious reasons - you are an outsider who belongs to a minority. At least at the beginning, sticking to other people like you is inevitable and also a way to feel less stranded. Though with time you might find more things in common with a Chinese than a Swedish.
The international school is typically the place where to fish for new friends. Most families are a mess exactly like you with cross cultural parents and kids who are confused and multilingual. Everybody is a guest here in Shanghai and doesn't know for how long. Everybody is struggling with misunderstandings and chopsticks exactly like you. The connection is immediate.
This time I got hooked up on a group of very funny and entertaining Italian women and of course, in less than a week, it felt like I have known them for years. They are now kind of my family here in Shanghai. With them I'm once again experiencing what I call a “fast-paced friendship", a way of growing very close to people who just a couple of hours earlier were total strangers. Suddenly they become irreplaceable presences in your life with whom you end up sharing everything from trivial matters to deep thoughts. It is a phenomenon that happened to me a lot since living abroad. And this is why I'm never too tired to tell people, who are about to pack up and go and sad to leave lifelong friends behind and fearing loneliness, not to worry because they will meet strangers they will be even sadder to say goodbye to. They will find in them the best support to fully enjoy the expat adventure with all the ups and downs that come with it.
In Shanghai my new friends are mostly Western peers. The language barrier doesn't facilitate the exchange with locals. However I do try my best to break the invisible wall that, also at school, seems to separate Western from Asian families (Chinese kids can get into the international school provided they have a double nationality) and in the end I managed to spend some time with a couple of Shanghainese moms which was enjoyable and enriching.
In Taipei it was much easier to hang out with locals. Taiwanese are very friendly and their English is generally almost academic compared to here. Kindhearted and welcoming, those I hanged out with really helped me to adjust and get by when I was still an unexperienced expat. Plus, they gave me a precious insight into a different culture as well as a new perspective to look at things and base my judgements. Among other things it is in Taipei where I picked up the habit of constantly drinking warm water that my family back in Italy still finds kind of weird.
In New York City where once again I was an outsider surrounded by locals or by people who lived long enough in the Big Apple to be considered as such, I also haven’t met many expats. However New Yorkers, with some exceptions of course, are tough cookies. You must be first acknowledged, then trusted and finally accepted. Nothing personal but they’re in a constant rush from somewhere or to somewhere and it takes time before they even notice you. What could you expect from people who drink their coffee while walking ? How can they have time for you ? However, when you miraculously manage to grab a quick lunch together, make them relax and take a breath, they’re actually very likeable and quickly conquer your heart.
Montréal was just the perfect place. We lived in a wonderful neighbourhood where expats and locals are living side by side. Montrealers are also more laid back and relaxed than their cousins beyond the border. They actually sit to drink their coffee. There I met some wonderful people who have become dearest and precious friends.
Every time I left one place the hardest thing was to say goodbye to good friends I did not know when and where I could see again. Every time I came to a new place broken-hearted, I tried my best not to get attached to anyone anymore. Yet I did it over and over again. Why ? As hurtful as it can be, this is the reason why I have been enjoying my erratic life so much and believe it's still worth all the fun and the bitterness. We deeply love our friends and, while waiting for new ones, we virtually take the old ones with us like New Yorkers do with their coffee to go.