Monday, April 9, 2012

Karen: The Hardest Goodbye

As an expat I have gotten so used to people flitting in and out of my Hanoi world, goodbyes barely affect me anymore. I know that real friendships and relationships will withstand the distance and separation and the rest were just fleeting and fun.

However, today, I am experiencing a new kind of heartbreak, one that I’ve never really felt before. My best friend, housemate, partner in crime (you name it) is leaving Hanoi and not coming back. It’s as if someone is cutting off a limb and taking away one of my lungs. I’ve had people leave before, close friends, boyfriends, but none of them left me feeling like this.

Try to imagine Hanoi with no motorbikes, and that’s a little bit how I feel about Karen leaving. Not that I am hugely attached to motorbikes, but more like they are an intricate part of what makes this city, if they suddenly disappeared, everything as we know it would change. We’d have to re-adjust, re-learn, rethink our entire approach and way of being here. Which is kind of where I am now. I had a life here before Karen (for 10 months actually) and though it was fun, there was always something missing, and for me it was having a best friend, someone to understand and share things with.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time listing what makes Karen special and why anyone who has spent any time with her is alongside me in mourning the loss of her constant presence in Hanoi. I also can’t put into words the magic of the relationship that we share. Anyone whose been around us has seen it, and more often than not, are baffled by the secret connection that we share that allows us to just burst into laughter or random dance moves at the same time, over the same thing but without uttering a word. It is not uncommon for those around us to say, “Am I missing something?, “I don’t get it,” “What’s happening?” or the ever, “You guys are really weird.” Yes, we are, but somehow it was ok if we were in it together. When Karen leaves, I will still have those around me who understand the quirkiness, but I lose my partner in crime, who not only gets it but is a part of it.

It’s incredible to me that I was fortunate enough to meet someone who matched my zaniness, understood my neurosis, challenged my ridiculousness, and taught me so much. Despite the amount of time we spent together, there was never a time where I was sick of her or felt like I wanted to get away…even at 4:30am at Track Bar debating whether or not to go to Phuc Tan. This is incredible, it’s very rare that I don’t feel the need to disengage and retreat from someone, but maybe it’s because I never really needed “Alice-time” from Karen because she is, in so many ways, an extension of myself.

I know that her leaving is incredibly emotional for her which is why I have done everything in my power to make it easier. I’ve fought my natural inclination to cry and be emotional (or completely de-attach myself) as that’s the last thing she needs. Instead, I’ve pretended like everything is normal and the same. I’ve tried to ensure that I was the rock that she has always been for me and that her final moments here were joyous.

Most people who have lived as an expatriate for an extended period of time have almost identical stories but somehow this does little to mollify me, understanding of the situation doesn’t make it any easier to withstand. It doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have a best friend here anymore. (Part of me also feels bad though, because my other friends are all incredible and I love them too, and I don’t want them to think otherwise) The logical side of me knows that this was to be expected; expats come and go on their own timetables, it’s rare for two people to have the exact same schedule or next destination (unless they came together), and the constant motion is partially what makes this world so dynamic and exciting, what draws me to it. However it is also these moments that I question why I have chosen this life for myself. Yes, the life is interesting, yes we do different things, we have opportunities that others just dream of, we're exposed to incredible things on a daily basis, and the people we hang out with are the best of the best: open minded, interesting, worldly, and full of perspective...but this lifestyle lacks stability. And that can be a difficult thing to give up, it can leave us feeling a little misplaced. It's something that I, well all expats, have accepted as part of our world, one of the bads in a long list of greats.

As for Karen and me, I know this isn't goodbye forever, we’ll always be a part of each others lives, that what we’ve shared and who we are will forever be intertwined. Connections like this don’t come about every day, and though I am beside myself and heartbroken, I see the beauty in the sadness, it makes me grateful that I am fortunate enough to have someone like Karen in my life. It’s the end of an era, but I look forward to the new ones. Like following her to Seville.


  1. I'm really sorry for your loss. Of course, we can all relate, but it doesn't make it any easier. Will keep you in my thoughts and send positive energy your way that you have the strength to get through this. Just remember: Time heals all wounds.

  2. Goodbyes are like hellos, they come and they go, but a few stay with us forever yo ;) Life is an evolving door in the expat world, and aspect of country hopping I'll never quite get used to but I believe it makes every encounter, every passing friendship, every lasting one appreciated so much more because you know at any moment - BOOM - it can change. Good stuff here my bottle of honey.