Buckets of tears we shed, and believe me, it was a real family happening. Everyone joined in. Eyes watered and messed up mascara -not that we have mascara, but it visualizes the flow of tears so nicely- and soon enough large murky floods poured out from us that would dwarf the 3 Gorges Dam. Noses dripped like leaking taps. My son handed me a tissue -again. It was the same one I passed on to my wife just a minute ago. Tissues were shared. For the last time. The last time! “Whaaah!!!” And off we went again. Just can’t help it, let alone stop it. Who would have thought this would be so difficult? It’s one of those things of living in China -or rather: living abroad- that, predictable as it is, always comes as an overwhelming surprise…
The sound system is tested and soon the old market square, with shiny cobblestones that may have headed off some of Bombing Berend’s cannon balls some 400 years ago, is filled with beating drums and cracking guitars and raw screaming voices. People gather and are closing in: the young to participate and the old to observe. The young to enjoy and the old to complain. Here in Groningen, in this mediaeval city deep in the northern emptiness of The Netherlands, amidst blond-blue-eyed barbarians, my daughter will have her home and schooling for the coming 4 years. Alone. That is: without us. Four years and 7.951 kilometers away from home. Whaaah! I look at the square and watch people going their own ways, doing their own things. I feel detached and invisible when I start to go across. When we came to China 11 years ago, she was only a little girl and I often had to hold her hand. Sometimes I carried her up the stairs to the 6th floor of our Chengdu apartment. We often went back to Holland, enjoyed, and returned together to China. This time, she will stay behind. Will this little girl of mine ever be able to manage here?
My phone buzzed in my pocket. A message from my daughter: “We ate wraps and a lot of our group had multiple beers”. Was that good?
“Oh -not bad…Have you already eaten?”
No, I am walking across the old square. Counting the cobbles. How many fathers have gone before me? My mind is spinning. I feel sad and find myself rapidly spiraling down into an emotional pothole of self pity and confusion. Distractions aren’t distracting enough and I force myself to think of other things. Today’s news. Obama just canceled his meeting with Putin -but who cares? The Chinese economy is over its peak. So am I! Hundreds killed in Egypt. A local Chinese restaurant here is selling Qingdao beer for double the price of the Heineken. Chinese beer in Groningen? My little girl in Groningen? We agreed to meet here -half an hour ago. What’s the delay? A bicycle is rushing by. The beggar whom earlier on was asking for a light is now looking for a fight. A fog is setting in, but mostly in my mind. Numbing my senses to the outside world.
A new sms-message: “I think it will be a bit later”.
When she was only 4, she had my heart skip a beat or two when she started to run across a street, out of sight, with a truck heading right her way. She survived. I didn’t. How I will miss her. My path of reflection and contemplation lead me to an empty terrace. With the market square surrounded by pubs, this is unavoidable. Not that I mind. I find a seat in the corner and order a beer.
When she was not even 6 years old, she climbed a mountain in Switzerland. With her younger brother filling my well-used backpack-child-carrier, she walked every meter of it. That’s my girl! At times I tied her on a rope to prevent her from rolling down the edge. I can still hear bits of glacier breaking off with thunderous noise that echoed against the steep mountain slopes. We arrived at the mountaineers hut just before the clouds did and I still don’t want to think about what would have happened if this had been the other way around. She was tough; already back then. We challenged our kids; preparing them for the future. Preparing them for the day they would fly out and be on their own. So easily talked about but somehow, unconsciously, we must have thought that this moment would never come for us.
For over 10 minutes I received no new message. I’m not the worrying kind of father, really, but why didn’t she send a message yet? Young men are settling in all around me on the terrace. Busy Buddies. Blond. Beer. Biceps. All big. Girls are parading by. All B’s as well: Blue-eyed, Blond, Butts, Boobs. And yes, all big as well. Students too?
A message, finally: “Just met with a girl from Curacao and 2 from Germany. Have a good chat.” Well, at least she’s with civilized company. She is leaving us. I move inside and find a good spot near the window and order another one.
Why do I find it so hard? I taught countless young parents the benefits and ease of ‘letting go’ when they dropped of their crying toddlers at our kindergarten on the first day. Just let them cry. Its hard. I know. Trust the teacher. It will only last a minute and they have forgotten all about you. I knew too well that their concern was, more than about their child, about themselves. And I’m quite ashamed to admit: so is mine. I keep telling myself that it would have been different had we not lived in China. But would it? Really? Of course, the 8000 km that will be between us isn’t exactly making things easier. Can’t have her come over for the weekend, so to speak. But we can email. We can Facebook. We can Skype. And while I’m ordering yet another beer, I happily conclude that it’s OK. Just turn around and walk away. Let her be. Let her free. It’ll be fine.
She is still not back. Ninety minutes late. Ah-well, I haven’t finished my beer yet and Groningen is becoming more pleasant by the minute -especially this pub. In the darkness that has set in, the square is a beacon of light. The party goes on and five thousand students are jumping up and down and shaking the city while juggling with plastic beer glasses and cheap phones and trying hard to look cool and liberated. To my left, a man has joined my table. He keeps stirring in his coffee and staring at his smart phone. Clearly too old to be a student and surely too depressed to enjoy the party: sadness is literally dripping from his face. How familiar.
“Evening sir”, I shouted as cheerful as I can. He looks up from his phone and a slight movement of his head indicates his acknowledgement of my greeting. Lots of noise around us but no sound from him. He is watching his phone again. No sound from there either -something he is clearly waiting for. I feel a sudden urge -no, a responsibility!- to cheer him up.
“Son or daughter?”
And before I could say a word, the spirit is out of the bottle: for 10 minutes I am listening to their family history and how difficult it is for him to see his daughter go and leave home – 43 km from home! I wouldn’t understand.
“Maybe.” I reply. “But believe me, all you can do is to just let her go. It’s hard. I know. It only last a week and she will have forgotten all about you.” (I probably shouldn’t have said that but I can’t take it back now, can I?) “Anyway, you can email and Facebook and Skype… It’s OK. Just turn around and walk away. Let her be. Let her free. It’ll be fine.” It didn’t work: he gives me an angry look, pockets his phone, picks up his coffee and walks off to another table. It’s the coffee, I realize; he should have taken a beer, and preferably a lot of it.
Two hours after our planned meeting time, when most of the feasting young men can’t distinguish the street’s lampposts from the mobile toilets any longer, my daughter appears. Cheerful and happy she takes my arm.
“Hi dad, did you have a good time?”
What can I say? We may have prepared our kids, but somehow we forgot about ourselves.