The Universality of Transition

In the early days of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight #370, I had no intention of writing about it. The tale of how 239 people boarded an airplane in Kuala Lumpur but never made it to Beijing is a sad, troubling one. The last thing I want to do is add to the grief, frustration and heartache of the families and friends of those on board.

Yet something has kept it in the forefront of my mind — something beyond its mystifying disappearance and presumed loss in the expanse of the Indian Ocean, more than the unremitting 24/7 press coverage.

I will confess that the very first thing I thought when I heard the news was whether my dear friend, writing mentor and publisher Jo was alright. I was fairly certain she had flown out of KL the day before, headed back to England to spend some time before eventually making her way to the conference we would attend near Washington, DC.

Beijing was an unlikely stop en route. Surely her stopover would be elsewhere?

Besides, our social media connections hadn’t lit up the internet as would have been the case had this well known, immensely popular and dearly loved woman gone missing.

But you see, that’s really the point. Every single person on #370 was beloved: by family members, relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors.

A couple days later I saw Jo pop up on Facebook, and the wave of relief that washed over me was immediate and visceral.

Except that those holding vigil for their loved ones on the missing plane weren’t experiencing it… In fact, they were going through their worst nightmare, one being played out in public with much of the world along for the ride — watching, waiting, wondering.

A list of the various nationalities represented on the flight manifest speaks to the deepening globalization inherent in present day life. I knew it likely there were some on board who are ex patria, living outside of their home/birth/or passport country. Perhaps Jo or others I know who have lived in Kuala Lumpur knew someone who was on the flight, or knew someone who knew someone, and so on.

Six degrees of separation isn’t all that far.

A day or so later I caught a short televised interview with a woman whose partner was on the flight. As she spoke, it became clear she was a Westerner, well versed in the propaganda the government in Beijing is capable of, wholly uninterested in being held up by the Chinese — or any other media, for that matter — for the fascination of onlookers and morbid curiosity seekers.

When she spoke of seeking refuge in the international school where she taught, how they had gathered around and were so protective of her privacy, it struck another chord. Because that’s often what happens when you’re living in another culture and tragedy strikes: friends, neighbors, coworkers close ranks and pitch in to help, forming the closest thing to sanctuary possible under the circumstances.

I once wrote about a family living in the Netherlands while we were there. When the father died suddenly during treatment for cancer, it was a few hardy souls from the children’s school, still in town during the annual summer exodus, who helped pack up the family’s belongings, sold unwanted items at a yard sale and dealt with the movers while the widow and children attended the man’s funeral in their home country.

Three years later people rallied around and did something similar when a friend’s planned repatriation was unexpectedly accelerated after her husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

It is difficult to be away from family and close friends during crises. Yet in the darkest of times we are reminded that ‘unexpected angels’ do indeed exist: they are the ones who help others in desperate need, providing comfort during turmoil, going above and beyond in an emergency, doing whatever is needed for however long it’s required.

I returned home late Sunday after spending three days at the annual Families in Global Transitions conference outside Washington, DC where I was able to hug Jo and give thanks for her safe arrival. Having attended last year as well, I knew the 2+ days spent there would be its own haven of sorts.

No need for complicated answers to supposedly simple questions like ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where is home?’, or having to balance the many wonderful positives of living across cultures with some of the troubling negatives such as ambiguity, continual change and identity development issues, conflicted loyalties and being pulled several ways by well meaning family/friends, nagging questions of where we truly belong, the constant comings and goings in our lives, mourning the loss of people and places which matter to us.

Instead, we could get right to the heart of complex issues: discussing writings and research findings and latest trends in challenges faced and ways to mitigate suffering associated with such difficulties, while also celebrating the many gifts and cultural richness of international life.

No one in this world — regardless of background or station and in spite of talents or treasure — is exempt from experiencing both the good and bad in life. Those in attendance at FIGT are no different; they’ve simply experienced these extremes with the complicating overlay of cross-cultural interactions, language differences and increased mobility. With such shared experience comes understanding, insight, and kinship.

So when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times yesterday morning and read about the woman I’d previously seen interviewed on the television, it came full circle. Her partner is — or perhaps, more poignantly, was? — an American IBM executive who’d been commuting between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur as they prepared to relocate from China to Malaysia.

According to the article, she indicated they’d exchanged a dozen or so text messages before the flight about the movers, scheduled to arrive the next morning. “We discussed the state of packing, what still needed to be done,” she said. Back and forth on the mundane matters of packing up and preparing to leave one place for another, and all that entailed. His last message to her came just before he left for the airport.

In that instant, I felt fully connected to her. Not because they were American (as I am) or he was from Texas (where my sister’s family, a close expat friend’s grown daughter and several other expats I know now live). It wasn’t because he worked for IBM (as several of my friends, dotted across the US and other countries, do) or because I know people living in both China and Malaysia.

Those last texts may have focused on the myriad details of an international move, but behind them were the unspoken emotions of taking leave, saying goodbye to those who had become part of their life in China, mixed with the likely sense of excitement, wonder and perhaps even a hint of apprehension inherent in the start of any new adventure.

The bond connecting so many of us was the universality of the experience this couple was in the midst of — intercultural transition — until fate cruelly intervened.




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