Goodbyes are hard.
Anyone who has talked to me for more than five minutes is probably rolling their eyes. One of my favourite verbal idiosyncrasies is to cheekily describe things as “hard”. If someone trips, walking is hard; someone splits a bill incorrectly, math; stumble over a sentence, talking. You get the idea… However, as my Peace Corps service concludes, I’m finding nothing is harder than a goodbye.
I had a language tutor, Lily, who would give me a hard time for saying 再见 (zai jian) instead of 拜拜 (bai bai). She very kindly called me dumb, and told me Chinese people don’t like to say zai jian—saying baibai is more colloquial, more common. I tried to explain that I couldn’t say “baibai”. It’s a loanword from English. In English I would never say “bye bye” to someone, so saying it with a Chinese accent just felt entirely foolish.
In hopes of changing my mind, Lily explained the denotation of zai jian is “see you again”. She explained that there was an implicit formality to it that I didn’t need in everyday conversation. In one of my most stubbornly “Murica” moments as a PCV, I flatly responded, “Nope. Still not saying ‘baibai’”. She sighed and moved on with our lesson.
Goodbyes are hard.
I’ve been thinking about this language lesson a lot lately. I’ve been using the knowledge I gained to help say goodbye. Saying goodbye to my friends, colleagues and students has been so difficult. When I said goodbye to family and friends three years ago, I thought it was tough. In hindsight, it was nothing. I’m returning to my family and friends.
Today, I had to say goodbye to my counterpart, Agnes. She’s been an integral part of my success at JiaoDa (that’s the nickname of my school). When we met, she was new to the school, after studying and working in Beijing. One of the first questions she asked me was what I thought of her English name, because she was thinking of changing it. I told her to change it would be a tragedy. She had heard it was considered old-fashioned. I couldn’t deny such a claim, but I insisted that uncommon names are becoming popular again, and I thought her name was the best.
We were originally planning on sharing a nice goodbye meal, but she’s recently learned that she’s pregnant. She told me her appetite is gone, and now that her mother has moved in with her and her husband, she’s under strict watch again. (She politely laughed when I asked if she felt like a child with-child.) Because of all this, the only chance I could see her was as she finished proctoring a final exam. I helped her haul an enormous stack of exams to an office, where she needed to run some scantrons.
As I thanked her profusely for everything, I found words escaping me. Is there an eloquent way of thanking someone for basically taking care of you professionally? Making sure your ‘I’s are dotted and your ’T’s are crossed (or, in the case of Chinese, your strokes are in the right order)? My words failed me.
I found myself wanting to joke about being her future child’s crazy American uncle. I wanted to say I’d be back for all of the exciting milestones. But I didn’t. The fact of the matter is I may never see her again… Instead, I made her swear to flood my email with baby pictures. I joked about picking out the perfect English name. Before I got too choked up, I said goodbye, baibai and zai jian. I said zai jian twice. I said it thrice, because I want it to be true. I will see Agnes again.
As I walked back to my flat, it dawned on me, because I’m not a picture person, I don’t think I even have a photo of her and I together…
Goodbyes are so hard.
* * *
I fret over the acknowledgement that I may never see these people again. However, I wouldn’t say it is impossible. The world continues to shrink yada, yada, yada…
In all of my goodbyes, another colleague taught me the phrase 桃李满天下 (tao li man tian xia). A loose translation is something like “The whole world is full of peaches and plums”. (天下 is more poetically translated as “all under heaven”, which I adore.) However, like so much of Chinese, this idiom is a metaphor (that dates back to 1048 CE, no less). It meant to express the idea when a teacher has students—the aforementioned peaches and plums—they go on to greater things, spreading out and spanning all under heaven.
One piece of advice I received from PCVs gone before me: When you say goodbye to the people who were a meaningful part of your service, remember their lives will go on without you. Tao li man tian xia helped me keep this in perspective. When I get on that train for the last time, Lanzhou won’t disappear as it disappears on the horizon. Life here will continue.
Every time I said goodbye to a group of students, I impressed them with tao li man tian xia (which doesn’t mean much—they’re still impressed when I say “beef noodles” properly). After the requisite “ooh” and “aaah” at my Chinese, I could see pride swelling in their eyes. Even students without any optimism for the future seemed to take solace in this idea.
Goodbyes are hard, but this made it easier.
I have students all over China, working and studying. I have a student working as translator in Sri Lanka, and another studying in Ireland. One student recently bombarded my email with photos of her first trip outside China. She got a job that sent her to New Orleans for some food convention, and she couldn’t believe it. She was overjoyed. Heck, even Lily is now living in Paris, working as an au pair (although, I don’t think I taught her anything except how mouthy Americans can be).