01 October 2011

Goodbye. Goodbye?

"Have you heard anything yet? How did the interview go? What are your plans for next year? Skype does make an awkward interview, doesn't it? What will you remember about this coworker? It's for our goodbye party on Friday. Yes, ok, just look into the camera and start speaking... now."

One well-known expat in Nuku'alofa slipped away without telling anyone exactly when she was leaving.
She had been here for years, running a training consultancy organization, and we brought up over coffee the buzz we'd heard over the "coconut wireless" - the word-of-mouth stream of information that circulates sensational and largely unreliable tidbits of knowledge. As she had evidently told everyone else, she explained to us that she decided to slip out like a thief in the night to avoid the obligatory fortnight of good-bye parties, teas, and events held in one's honour when one was leaving. In Tonga, especially if you've been here for more than five years or so, you can't just slip out unnoticed- that is, unless you actively hide your flight information like she did.

As September hurriedly moves away for October to take its place, it seems like a lot of what we are doing is seeing off friends who are leaving. Among the friendships we've made with expats, it follows the predictable and sad pattern of getting to know a wonderful person or couple, only to have to say goodbye to them several months later when their tour of duty ends. It's especially pronounced with the Australian volunteers, who only stay here for a year. So while many of our friends live here for good, it easily starts to feel like half of the people we know here are constantly changing.

Last week, we and it seemed, half of Tonga, said goodbye to a couple as they returned to New Zealand after almost thirteen years in Tonga. He worked at Tonga Development Bank, and I don't think we got much work done in the office for about two weeks previous. Gifts the size of small chairs started piling up in back corners of each department, meals were planned and dishes assigned ("You have $160 pa'anga to make fourteen chafing dishes of sweet and sour chicken") and I spent the week interviewing my colleagues on camera and putting it together for a "goodbye video" we showed at the evening celebration. It was epic.
Admin and Business Advisory departments doing a Fijian dance at the goodbye party. The International Dateline Hotel didn't have dishes, glasses, or cutlery despite being an event venue, so several families had to bring their own supply for everyone at the last minute. It turned out a great success and everyone had a good time.
Most of our Peace Corps colleagues are ending their service between now and December, leaving us and a small handful of volunteers staying until the very end. We've already had our "Close of Service" conference, a week of seminars on everything from reverse culture shock to health insurance benefits post-Peace Corps, and it was like the metaphorical dam releasing the steady wave of volunteers leaving from now until December. Like we knew from the beginning, two years has already felt very short, excepted only when we see pictures of US friends' new babies suddenly grown into two year old toddlers.

As for us, we don't know whether to start saying our goodbyes or planning what we're bringing back to Tonga after December. We've been applying to jobs here in Tonga, knowing that it would be wonderful to continue our friendships and projects here for a while longer, but also pursuing jobs in social business and nonprofits all around the world. So I'll sign off with what we've been retorting to friends' frequent inquiries here: "We just don't know yet, but when we do, we'll tell you immediately."

For now, we'll keep saying goodbye to everyone leaving that we will sorely miss, whether it's from here or somewhere else in the world.

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