A Salute to the Sisterfriends Who Sustain Us

I looked down at my phone to see a whatsapp message from a woman I had not seen in person for more than six months.

Do you remember that gorgeous man we saw at the Ghana Embassy in Kigali?

Although we had been keeping in touch since we had both left Rwanda – she moving back to London as I headed for Shanghai – we hadn’t had a lengthy text conversation since The New Edition Story aired and we debated whether Fake Ralph was cuter than Real Ralph at Fake Ralph’s age.

Uhm…yeah…I remember that statue of a man who looked like he had been chiseled from stone before being casually placed among all those regular-looking dudes?

I excitedly wondered what inspired this as her first message to me weeks after our in-depth analysis of Fake New Edition’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of Real New Edition.

Wait…did that painfully gorgeous man end up in London? Are you about to tell me you just happened to cross paths and are now whatsapping me from his bed?

I got the slightly disappointing response of: No…I just thought about what a superb specimen of man he was. And had to share it with someone who would understand.

And then I didn’t hear from this friend again for another month.

In The Crunked Feminists’ Collection, Brittney C. Cooper dedicates a portion of one of her essays to what is often overlooked when the trite conversation about black women’s singleness comes up – normally brought up by a person of any race or gender who has more issues with the singleness of black women than these single black women have themselves. She writes about the blessing of having time. Time for herself, of course. But, most of all, time for the female friendships she has cultivated over decades worth of shared triumphs and failures. Cooper vocalizes something I have always felt when this social media need to write and discuss “think” pieces about everything finds itself regurgitating the same statistic about the unmarried every few years or so.

I spend no time bemoaning my lack of a husband. I am only mildly bothered when I do not have a Bae in my life. (And truth be told, the thing that mostly bothers me when there is no steady Bae is the long stretches of celibacy I am forced to endure since repeated indulgences in casual sex have never truly appealed to me.) While I am aware that being partnered presents multiple advantages as a person grows older, I do not tremble at the thought of common dangers impacting me greater because I will encounter them without a husband.

However, the thought of waking up one day when I am 70 years old and not having at least one of my good girlfriends still in my life terrifies the shit out of me.

I had just finished reading Cooper’s insight into female friendships when my homegirl sent me the random message about that Ghanaian Adonis for no other reason than she thought of me. I giggled and for weeks after, smiled when I remembered her random tribute to a beautiful man she knew I would appreciate.

Since moving to Shanghai, I have gotten several texts from a male friend who could have been Bae (or at the very least, a good enough placeholder for Bae) the entire two years I was in Kigali. I do not remember what those messages contained and while I was glad to hear from him, I was mostly indifferent when he hit me up to “see how Shanghai is treating you so far.” Another man with whom I shared dinner a few times has also sent me one or two texts since I left Kigali. I do not remember what they were about or if I responded to them. Though this dinner companion was as random as my homegirl, my response to him was not as immediate. His messages were sporadic like several of my girlfriends’ communication have been since I left. I have always responded to my girlfriends’ messages as soon as I have seen them. The guy I went out to dinner with a few times…well, I cannot say (with certainty) he always received a prompt response. Or a response at all. For those two months when I was in the United States after leaving Rwanda, I kept my whatsapp connected to my Kigali number so my girlfriends could communicate with me as easily as they had for the past two years. Wanting to keep lines open for potential suitors or past suitors never occurred to me. I still have the Kigali whatsapp number for that same reason.

I have written before about the persistence of loneliness and how it exhibits itself abroad (See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…). Although I am still fairly new to this Ex Pat life, I can say with absolute assurance it is my formation of female friendships that has made this life livable the last three years and not the time I have devoted to dating men. My dedication to doing the work of connecting with other black women has helped assuage my loneliness more so than doing the work of sifting through online dating profiles to find a man who I am attracted to and who is my intellectual and financial equal. To be clear: I devote the appropriate amount of time to both my life as a friend to other women and my life as a lover to men. But when I think about how I prioritize the two, I am reminded of Cooper’s argument. We continue to flatten the emotional fullness of women’s humanity by making the story of the modern-day single lady all about her quest to cure herself of the illness of singlehood. We write story after story of women’s honest depiction of what it’s like to date and never marry, how dating has changed for the worse since the explosion of Tinder, how women manage to find ways to pass the time as they wait for their husbands to find them.

Why aren’t we giving as much time to painting the picture of single women that many of us can identify with most  – regardless of where we stand on marriage and the desire to end our single status? The time we have to connect with and cherish each other. To support and encourage each other. Hell, just the time we have to SEE each other. When I was in Kigali, one of the women in my circle of girlfriends was married with three kids. We tried to include her as much as we could in our impromptu trips to Giseyni and last minute dinners in Kimihurura. But, like many wives and mothers, she just couldn’t make it out to many of our get togethers. Her husband and children could only fill so much of her emotional needs. Before she took on domestic life, she had fully reveled in her ability to SEE her girlfriends whenever she needed them or they needed her. I sensed in her repeated requests to factor her circumstances into our planning that she had underestimated the value of the time her unmarried self had devoted to bonding with her female friends.

Three years ago, I left my beloved New York City and a country I was not sure I liked. I ended a serious relationship with a man I loved because he was not called to Ex Pat life as I was. I also left behind three women who I had spent most of my adult life with. The first year of my new life, the ex-boyfriend and I were still in communication. Every few months, I would find him in my DM on Facebook talking about nothing in particular, which led to us both chatting about how our lives were going. Somewhere around the 12th month, the DMs stopped coming. I felt a momentary pang of sadness. He had moved on and the likelihood of our ever being in each other’s online or offline lives again was slim. The pang dissipated, though, and when I do have thoughts of him now, they are fleeting moments of hoping that he has met someone who will take care of him. That he is working toward his goals. I don’t miss his DMs. I assumed they would end.

There is a much longer thread in my DM on Facebook that I started with three girlfriends shortly after leaving my beloved New York. In it, we talk about nothing in particular and everything that matters. For three years, the thread has been active, getting bumped after weeks of silence with a period rant or a hearty throwing of shade toward a celebrity, co worker, or commuter.

If that thread ended. If I bumped it with an observation that no matter how much money I spend on bras, they never seem to fully satisfy my boobs’ needs and these women never responded. Not just didn’t say anything in regards to this particular message, but really…just removed themselves from the thread, never to add to it again…

You would find me in the fetal position on my living room floor. I would be in tears questioning my life choices.

Just When I Think These People Have Done the Damn Most…They Add a Dash of Extra.

I am rounding out my 12th year of teaching. That’s approximately 24 parent teacher conferences and roughly 12 sleep away trips with other people’s children. I have seen some things. I have found myself involuntarily caught in the swirling winds created by parents helicoptering over their offspring. Special snowflakes whose brilliance or fragility these parents are convinced have gone undetected by all the other adults who are responsible for their children when they are not around.

Years ago, when an 8th grader’s auntie showed up to the hotel where we were staying in Washington, D.C. with a home cooked vegan meal to give to her niece because the niece’s mother had insisted we would not truly feed her child the most appetizing non-meat food for the three days she was away from New York City, my fellow chaperones and I laughed throughout the night. Who does that? The kid is 13 years old.  She’ll be fine eating regular vegetarian food for 72 hours…geez.

I wish 5th Year Teacher Keturah could have caught a glimpse of 12th Year Teacher Keturah.  If only New York City Teacher Keturah could see some of this shit that Shanghai Teacher Keturah witnesses on the regular.

Because as per usual, our Chinese brethren have even eclipsed us mediocre Americans in the precision of helicopter parenting.

My first field trip here in China was to a province a two-hour plane ride away from Shanghai. There were 30 students who would be visiting a Kung Fu school and exploring the town where the art form began. Although myself and two teachers from the school were chaperoning, an educational tour company had provided their own teachers and guides to lead the trip.

I noticed one of these “teachers” wasn’t doing anything. To be precise: all she was doing was taking copious amounts of photos. I watched the two younger guides as they explained the history of the places where we were and led the students through ice breaker games when there were lulls in the schedule. But, this lady just kept photographing everything. As the activities got more involved and the kids’ interest increased, she would record videos as well. I also noticed she seemed to be uploading the photos and videos instantly to wechat.

“Who is that lady,” I asked my co-worker who had done most of the coordinating of the trip with the tour company.

“Oh, she’s the photographer,” he answered nonchalantly. “The parents requested someone take as many pictures as possible and upload them in real time in this wechat group they started. So, the tour company had her come along.”

Wait…what? So, parents asked to have their kids’ middle school trip live streamed? And someone green lighted that request?

Seeing the look on my face, my co-worker explained that “Last year, they asked the teachers to do it and we tried to be nice, but by the second day they were asking us to send them personal shots of their kids in front of the sites and asking us why we hadn’t put their kid with his friend for a group activity. Obviously, we stopped doing it at all after that.”

So, pulling this woman, whose real job was in accounts, from her desk and throwing her into this 5-day long trip which involved her hiking for three hours up a mountain while orchestrating photo opps with smiling kids was the compromise?

I am about to ask my co-worker a question he has watched me grapple with for the entire 9 months we have sat in the same office, marking papers and trading stories about our adolescent students acting just like adolescents.

“Don’t stress yourself,” he cuts off my question before I can ask it. “The answer is the same as always: China.”

Hours after this co-worker had reminded me I needed to just accept China for what it was, I was still a bit surprised that this woman was live streaming our school trip.

As my parents and every man I have ever dated will confirm, I am rather hard headed. I don’t stop doing stuff just because people present me with sound reasoning to stop doing it. While sitting at dinner, I mention to the table of grownups how unique this is for me to see. “Wow, providing a photographer for the parents. What a very interesting idea. I’ve never known parents to ask for that.”

One of the younger guides who had been taking charge of the activities said she was relieved that her boss had turned a white-collar office worker into an outdoor adventure photographer. A British blonde who looked to be in her early 30s, this woman had come to China to work in outdoor education at the same time I had come to work in traditional classroom education. She said her first trip with this tour company was on some isolated island that involved the group catching a plane, a bus and a ferry to get to the site where they would spend a week hiking, camping and doing general low-level Survivor-type living.

“This place really was secluded,” she explained. “We had chosen it because it completely disconnected the teenagers from their normal lives and routines.” While the group was taking a break from one of its activities, the woman’s cell phone rang. It was the parent of one of the students; she was quite irate.

“One of the teachers has walked off and left the children. I think he may be drinking alcohol over on the beach while the children wait for him.”

The blonde was speechless. “Excuse me? How did you get my number? And more importantly, how do you know we are on a beach and where this teacher is?”

The woman’s question was answered by an army of parents with binoculars around their necks marching from around a collection of trees.  These people had found a hostel in close enough proximity to the campsite and had been getting up early in the morning to spy on their children to make sure that…it is still unclear to me and the British blonde what exactly they were monitoring every day. Even after sitting the parents down and talking to them about boundaries, she still is not sure what they wanted to protect their children from. What danger lurked in their minds that caused them to catch a plane, a bus and a ferry and crawl up into trees just to watch their children for hours as they tried to pitch a tent and light a fire without a match?

Several paragraphs ago, I openly admitted to being hard headed. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that my reaction to this woman’s story was to blurt out: “The devil is a damn lie and so are you.”

“Oh, how I wish I had the creative mind to make up that kind of story,” she laughed. “It all happened just like I said. No exaggeration at all.”

My co-worker is giving me the I-keep-telling-you-these-people-are-special look when he reminds me of the last time he gave me the look. “Keturah, do we need to review why the SAT is no longer offered anywhere in China? Remember when you were confused about why all the Year 11s had to miss classes and go to Hong Kong just to take the SAT?”

I do remember him casually detailing how when the SAT people did offer the college entrance exam in the People’s Republic of China, they developed elaborate, complicated ways to prevent cheating. From what he told me, even though the system involved something close to strip searching high school students and only allowing them to sit for the exam if they were butt naked, their parents STILL found ways to send them the answers to the test via carrier pigeons and sky writing cliff notes in the air.

When I wrote China: Where People Do The Most On The Regular, some of y’all shared your own stories of spending time in China and bearing witness to the extra ratchetness among its billion citizens. Some of y’all thought I had outdone myself. “Girl, you wrote the hell out of this post” you said. You inaccurately attributed the post to my skills as a writer instead of the craft my Chinese brethren diligently put in to their heightened extraness.

I have accepted that the entire time I am here, I will walk around racking my brain, contorting my mind into complicated answer-seeking positions, trying my hardest to understand before just shrugging my shoulders and deciding: Cuz…China. Do. The. Damn. Most. And then some.

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