The Perils of Parting

International students manage the transitions of leaving and being left behind.

Rachel+Anton

Rachel Anton

Yujeong Ok

As international students, we have to say goodbye on a typical basis. This makes it necessary for us to adapt to unusual neighborhoods, schools, and friendships, each with its unique psychological and developmental challenges. However, whether one is staying or leaving, actively ensuring a sense of closure beforehand is important to mitigate the burden of goodbyes.

A SENSE OF NON-BELONGING

After living overseas for prolonged durations, many of us feel alienated from our home or passport country. This dissociation prompts us to our surroundings, especially if we have lived in a particular country since childhood. Sophomore Emily Teo states, “I was born in Australia, and I hold an Australian passport. But since I have not lived in Australia for a while, I do not ever reference it as my home or even identify myself as Australian.”

This vague, paradoxical sense of being included and excluded from different cultures impacts numerous JIS students when pondering their sense of belonging and personal identity. Ultimately, not having full ownership in any culture can enable one to become a “cultural chameleon,” someone who can willingly blend in with cultures far different from their own. For them, belonging to solely one culture is impossible. Instead, they live in what can be described as a perpetual liminal state.

When describing her experience in the UAE, sophomore Vedika Jain states that she “can’t remember much of it.” She also explains that there are “a plethora of reasons [she culturally identifies with] Indonesia, the first undeniably being JIS.” During the four years she has spent in Jakarta, Vedika experienced an amalgamation of cultures while making deep-rooted connections with her peers and teachers at JIS. However, she also recognizes that specific cultural barriers sets her aside from other native Indonesians. For example, some local customs and national celebrations are still unfamiliar to her since they are not directly associated with her family. Although she can interpret basic phrases and words in Bahasa Indonesia, speaking fluently can also be a challenge from time to time.

Within Indonesia, Vedika still lives in a sizeable Indian community where people are always “willing to share gossip and piping-hot food, much like the fraternity of Mumbai.” Such social aspects allow Vedika to keep her cultural ties to India alive. Due to this, identifying a specific home becomes difficult, especially when confronted with the question: “Where are you from?” Many students, including Vedika, feel that they cannot respond in a simple manner.

Over the past decade, experts have emphasized the importance of social relationships at different stages of personality development. As proposed by German-American psychologist Erik Erikson, children and adolescents need a sense of security in their relationships to develop well into adulthood. This unique psychological peril experienced by many cultural chameleons is how there is “no definite sense of place, which frequently correlates with their ability to form social connections and relationships.”

BEING LEFT BEHIND

International students who recognize themselves as cultural chameleons are often more prone to mobility-related social losses. Whether this is due to themselves or their friends moving geographically, having a constant and stable group of friends can be difficult. Sophomore Anya Choo explains that “as international students, we have a lot of friends who have to leave, so the aspect of farewells is that we know that we have no choice but to get used to it.” Like Anya, multiple students expressed challenges when adapting to the regular loss of friends. As one student concurs, “some people don’t realize how hard it is to end a relationship.”

Upon facing the reality that they or their friends might move at any moment, many expressed feeling overwhelming “sadness and frustration.” Despite recurring emotions of loneliness, a senior explains that he “tries not to dwell on it too much.” Instead, he finds himself spending a considerable amount of time contacting his friends to bridge the gap across their growing distance.

In spite of efforts to maintain contact, a few students also highlighted the emotional strains of holding onto relationships, especially when it feels “subconsciously hopeless or one-sided.” After being separated from her friends, Emily conveys that “most of the time [she] will end up drifting from them, never being as close as before. This idea of expecting relationships to come to a gradual end is commonly shared and belived among long-time JIS students. “In many ways, I expect the relationship to just end,” a student vouched. “I would be surprised if it starts again. I honestly don’t expect any part of a [distant] relationship to stay unless I actively try to keep it intact. But if one of my relationships is over, I find it hard ever to bring it back.”

In such situations, cultural chameleons often feel that they have been “left behind” while the other person has “moved on with their lives.” Due to these repeated goodbyes, gradually becoming more cautious about forming relationships is only natural, mainly because there is no guarantee that friendships will endure. As stated by one student, “[When the other person doesn’t respond], it makes me paranoid…I’m worried that I did something that I do not realize is offensive, which could ruin one of my friendships.”

FROM SOCIAL LIFE TO SOCIAL MEDIA

Students described social media as one of their primary forms of distance communication, from sharing a meme on Instagram to sending a message on WhatsApp. With millions using social media daily, connecting with overseas family members and friends is often seen as effortless and straightforward.

As Vedika states, “the best part about our day and age is how easy it is to keep up with communications.” A few students also claimed that they had “absolutely no concerns maintaining relationships” due to social media apps. Sophomore Zoey Kim attests that “because of social media, [she] can easily connect with friends moving to other countries.”

However, despite online communication being quick and convenient, there are fundamental disadvantages compared to human-to-human interactions, especially due to the possibility of a false sense of connectedness from interacting solely online. As Vedika asserts, “there’s an aspect of friendships that can’t be duplicated online: the hugs and the comfort that being close to each other brings.”

From reducing depression to boosting mood levels and enhancing a sharper mind, the benefits of human-to-human social interactions vary on a broad spectrum. According to The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, bonds created through human interaction foster both emotional and physical health, an essential component of developing adolescents. Hence, after losing some of these connections, many students longed for the easy and relaxed feeling of close proximity brought by human-to-human companionships.

WELL-ROUNDED ENDINGS

Although goodbyes are bittersweet and sorrowful, achieving well-rounded endings helps to alleviate some of the pain. By finding acceptance in our farewells, we gradually advance onto a subsequent phase of life, taking on new tasks accordingly. Transitioning soon becomes less demanding, allowing for complete closure. For these reasons, foreseeable endings require thorough preparation, which often leads people to chase after a particular set of goals during their remaining time.

When time is perceived as finite, we strive for present-oriented and emotionally meaningful goals. The American Psychological Association reports that such patterns in goal selection reflect the endeavors of a well-rounded ending towards a near resolution. This means that when we successfully finds closure before a foreseeable finish, we associate the event with positivity.

Over the course of our lives, we tend to regret inactions even more so than actions with negative results. This is because actions are perceived as closed, whereas inactions are psychologically incomplete and open-ended experiences that were never attempted. As a result, low levels of closure prolong feelings of regret, naturally causing us to yearn for well-rounded endings. ​​

All relationships eventually end. While some endings can be chosen, others are inevitable, and finding ways to accept this is essential for closure. Most farewells end with promises of keeping in touch, whether this is through exchanging emails, text messages, or calling across time zones. Due to the ubiquity of constant communication, we feel compelled to stay in touch through social media. Yet some might even argue that social media can exacerbate emotional strain since the depth of interactions suffers when transitioning from in-person to online. And if one person in a relationship drifts away, it is only a matter of time before communication ceases from both sides.

Although most promises of maintaining contact originate from good intentions, these cannot always be kept. Some relationships fade with time, while others are abruptly cut off for unknown reasons. This makes saying goodbye in life inescapable, so bidding someone a truly well-rounded farewell depends on the will of an individual alone.

One way to value the present moment is to create good lasting impressions through proper closure. Instead of only considering future intents, focusing on the present allows us to be more mindful of our current actions. In terms of relationships, this means fully taking the time to appreciate the people surrounding us. Vedika says that even though she loves and cares about her overseas friends, she “rarely showed it [because she] thought the time [she] had with them was permanent.” From this realization, Vedika “learned to stop waiting for special occasions to remind [her] friends how much [she] loves them, how much they matter to [her].” In doing so, she now recognizes that there are fewer long-term regrets, even in the absence of future reunions.

Being grateful for the past and acknowledging the end of a relationship comprises a well-deserved farewell. In this way, relationships can end, but the fondness will not. Moving forward as international students, attaining such farewells is a fundamental solution to achieving well-rounded endings.

ADVICE COLUMN

Farewells are inevitable but good farewells are not. Don’t hesitate to tell your friend how much they mean to you. Wish them good luck in their upcoming journey, and that you’ll always be fond of them.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou