Living abroad: Lifetime friends reconnect, reminisce in Beijing

Growing up together — classes, soccer, and prom — lifetime friends Joanna and Emily reconnect while living abroad in Beijing, a place they have both come to call home.

Courtesy of Debra Bruno
Lifelong friends Emily and Joanna, the author's daughter, swim in a pool wearing matching one-piece bathing suits in 1994. The two friends recently connected in Beijing where they are both living and working.

My daughter Joanna and her pal Emily have been friends since they first met, the day their older siblings were assigned to the same kindergarten class at Janney Elementary School in Washington, DC. The two 3-year-olds looked bashfully at each other, and Emily’s mother and I knew these two would connect.

And they did. Soon enough, they were in their own elementary classes together, playing soccer, going to birthday parties, swimming in Emily’s pool, playing dress up, jumping rope on the sidewalk in front of the house. They were paired to march in together for sixth-grade graduation, and they were part of a larger group of girlfriends who seemed to do everything together in high school.

Prom, for instance, brought all the girls to Emily’s house for elaborate hair and makeup preparations and a meal. We still have photos of the girls in rainbow-colored dresses, long and short, all of them fresh-faced and gorgeous.

For one of Joanna’s birthdays, Emily put together a collage of photos from the lifetime of their friendship, including one in her pool where they wore matching one-piece bathing suits and smiled from atop floats. There’s another one with Emily in a cowgirl dress, Joanna in a tutu, posing shyly for the camera. The collage was taped to her wall for years, until we were forced to take down all her pictures, to paint the room and ready it for tenants.

We needed tenants because we were moving to China. And one of the many twists in our move, part of a midlife adventure that swept us away from the grind of daily life to the excitement of moving to a new city in a booming country, was that Joanna decided that she too wanted to experience the Far East.

She quit her job in Wisconsin, backpacked around Thailand and Cambodia with a friend for several months, and then landed in Beijing two weeks before we arrived.

While she waited for us (visa problems delayed our arrival), she stayed with Emily, the same childhood friend who now lives and works in Beijing, speaks Mandarin, and navigates the city with the aplomb of a native.

We invited Emily for an old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner in Beijing this year, complete with a whole turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The girls sat around and reminisced, and we laughed over both old and days-old escapades.

It wasn’t that long ago when two little girls played at tea parties and dress up. Now, two young women drink endless cups of jasmine tea and hot water (the Chinese think it’s unhealthy to drink cold beverages) and direct cab drivers around the city as if they’ve lived here forever.

As for me, I still instinctively reach for Joanna’s hand as we get ready to cross the street, which isn’t a bad habit for a place like this. But knowing that she has a lifetime friend here is a comfort all its own.

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