To Exchange, Rearrange and Live Estranged.
Claire Remintilla's article "An Uncertain Delta" is a bittersweet reminder of a TCK friendship that I lost quite abruptly in Tokyo, a few years ago.
One day in Grade 2, sitting in Mrs. Deacon's classroom in Emirates International School, our attention was called to the white board. N was standing beside my favourite teacher with her backpack on, white socks and perfectly trimmed fringe at attention, as the rest of us blinked towards her with curiosity. N had just moved to Dubai from Japan and we were to make her feel welcome. She looked at us solemnly, warily wondering if we would accept the invitation.
I don't remember her first day with our class, but the next morning, after I rode the elevator 14 stories down to the lobby, making my way outside towards the school bus, I spotted N ahead. She lives in my building! I still remember the determined promise I made as I saw her — "I'm going to be her friend!" I marched towards her to say hello and we were best mates instantly.
It was a wonderful friendship in so many ways. As an experienced TCK (I was 7 years old and by then and Dubai was my third home-country) I easily adapted to the parts of her culture that were new to me; I ate squid for the first time out of her lunch box, tasted coffee in the form of Kopiko lollies and nodded with interest when she introduced me to weird-looking creatures she loved — equipped with a mixed bag of magical powers — the first Pokemon! I never blinked when she strode into the room wearing an enormous fabric belt around her middle during sleepovers either; it stopped her pj's from moving around while she was slumbering. She had my undivided attention and support as a newbie to Dubai's unique way of life.
I was quickly introduced to a wealth of Japanese culture and in turn my family exchanged our expatriate and Sri Lankan lives with her. I'd trade my fried chicken and butter-sugar sandwiches for her seaweed and rice at lunch (she wasn't allowed any junk food) and N was over at our place for as many home-cooked meals as we could get our parents to agree to and our mums soon became close companions as well.
As is the nature of living in Dubai, it soon became time for one of us to move away. My mum, sister, and I were leaving for two years to Tasmania to be awarded Australian citizenship — I was leaving N and our girl-flock behind. All of them surprised me on my last day in year 6, beside the school gym, with a fat book of photographs and illustrated messages, a hand painted good-bye banner, and a stack of snacks and sweets. Then, I was gone.
By the time I returned, N had moved away and was living in a Japanese boarding school in the UK. She was a faithful friend to me during those years apart, sending handwritten letters with stickers and glittery ink, never missing a birthday. She even posted a caroling Christmas card with real blinking lights one December.
In reply, I was lousy. I remember constantly feeling guilt because I barely wrote back at all. I'm sure when I did, it was with whatever paper I could find in my dad's office and some tacky ball-point pen. She was struggling with being thrown into a purely Japanese system after attending our school in Dubai where at least 18 different nationalities were always scribbling away beside you in one classroom at any one time. She was bullied, she started going out with her first boyfriend, and now I realize I could have done an infinitely better job of being a part of her life back then.
We must have lost touch during our last years of high school. Our mothers still wrote to each other, and I did find N on Facebook before I graduated university, but communication was scarce. Amicable and with no hard-feelings, but also non-existent.
When I was planning to move to Tokyo two years into my career in advertising, I called her right away. She met me at the airport, patiently showed me how to eat the onigiri I destroyed while trying to unwrap it (anyone who's eaten one of these from a konbini in Japan will absolutely know what I'm talking about here), then hand delivered me to my accommodation, making sure I settled in before checking on me a few days later. Although we were grown women and had been best friends at a time when we were too young to even know who we were ourselves (let alone choose friendships wisely) - somehow a few threads still existed between us that easily reawakened our friendship. I was sure things would go back to being golden.
As we continued to meet, I heard that she still wasn't fitting into Japanese society and that she desperately missed those international school days. Although I could understand her nostalgia, I found it difficult to empathise with her. Her native English tongue and the years she lived abroad in both the UK and Dubai made her a rare breed in Tokyo, but from a young age, she was dropped back into Japanese culture and had been there ever since. To me, she acted, sounded and spoke like the locals I knew and didn't act like any of my Japanese TCK friends who truly had that 'cross-cultural' approach in their thinking.
Brene Brown talks about blame as a way of dispelling pain. Although I wasn't familiar with Brown's monumental work then, I felt instinctively that N was shaping her hurt into anger at everyone around her — instead of processing her own faults and flaws. She was sensitive when she was a kid and I had been on the end of child-sized tantrums and quick hysterics on occasion while we were little. There is every possibility I could have misread it all as I have never had a 'native' culture to get thrown back into, but I intuitively felt there was a healthy connection to her current situation that she hadn't found her way to yet that had nothing to do with her expat experiences.
I was willing to take a supportive step back to let her figure things out until I heard about The Guy. The one-time-one-night-guy who ‘kind of worked with her,’ and ‘kind of didn't call her,’ and ‘kind of told her he cared about her’ but ‘not in those exact words’ and ‘kind of completely was an asshole of epic (but sadly not surprising) proportions.’ I was honest, but much kinder and gentler then (today's response would be, "HELL NO"). I told her this dude was not worth her time.
Things escalated between them in ways too personal for me to describe here and I started being firmer about her backing off. In her confusion she wanted to quit her job (once you left a role in her industry, it was culturally very difficult to get a foot back in anywhere). She started 'realising' she had 'always been interested' in crystal healing. Soon after, she was holding gem stones in my hands and transferring energy into my palms via heatwaves -- and I was sitting there with a cold stone balancing on my skin wondering how I could get through to my friend who was clearly in pain.
I still don't know how it happened. I can't remember what was said. At her mother’s home at the breakfast table the rubber band snapped during one of my cautionary intersections with her newest plan. She stood up and began screaming. I can see myself standing beside the sofa with calm replies and a level voice (wishing the tears streaming down my face weren't giving me away) to meet each accusation she flung at me (none of which I can recall). I assured both her and her mum that I was fine, left gracefully once it was acceptable, and cried as I walked along the pavement beside the local canal nearby. We texted back and forth maybe thrice in the weeks afterward but she had lost my trust and I was weary about diving back into our 18 year-long friendship.
My phone buzzed atop my bed one afternoon and I read her last text message to me. It was so polite I didn't even realise that it was a final farewell as I skimmed through it. She had asked me a question or two as a greeting (probably, 'how was your weekend?') so I even shot a quick reply back before the switch flicked and I read her message again. And just like that, we weren't friends anymore.
Back then, although I was stunned by her message, I was fatigued by her attitude and somehow had the wisdom to find peace in the fact that I wouldn't be of any help to her. Now, when I look back at where it all started, I see it as a shame; we really could have learned so much from each other. I stayed on in Japan and every time I made a new TCK friend, I thought about her and wished I could have introduced her to help fill that gap she had held onto since she left Dubai. I could have met her local friends and seen native Tokyo from her perspective. We could have continued to learn from each other as we did when we were children.
I do hope she's well. I really hope she is kicking ass if she did decide to go into crystal healing. I hope she's learned that when things aren't settled within yourself, no matter where you live, or who you live with, nothing is ever really going to feel quite okay.
*konbini: Japanese for ‘convenience store’