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For Single Girls (When Having a Boyfriend Isn’t Enough)

I learned early on into my life as a single woman living overseas that I’d have to put in the work to rebuild the social network I’d left behind in New York City. This was not difficult for me since I have always been a gregarious person who relished the company of cool ass women. In Kigali, small town life had its advantages because meeting friends who shared my interests happened almost instantly and maintaining those friendships involved a simple, five-minute moto ride to someone’s house or a local pub. Shanghai proved itself a greater challenge as it is one of the largest cities in the world and I live and work a significant distance from the city’s center. My first year here, I used wechat groups to forage for female friends. I spent a lot of my free time going to a plethora of “black folk events” with various types of black folks. At this, my third year, I have developed authentic friendships with a core group of women who now serve as my sister circle.

“I don’t know how you do it,” a co-worker said to me after I turned down an invitation to go to an after-work event because I had other plans. “You are always off campus and downtown doing stuff.” I had come to expect this reaction from the other Ex Pats at the international school where I work and live.

“Are you coming to the Thanksgiving potluck,” they’d ask.

“No,” I’d smile politely. “Got a homegirl in Pudong who hosts our Thanksgiving dinner each year.”

“We’re doing brunch and a spa day at the end of this month,” they’d offer.

“Sorry, going to Chengdu with my friend to see the pandas,” I’d reply.

You know other people here?, their wide eyes would ask.

I have answered these awestruck eyes more than once with: You know, you, too, can have a life outside of the school gates. It does take work, but it is not impossible. Usually, I get some version of the same response. “I am too lazy to find friends outside of the ones I see for 40 hours each week.” However, one response from a female co-worker has stayed with me long after our conversation.

“I just hang under my boyfriend.” She giggled as she waved off my suggestion that she didn’t have to force friendships with the other teachers she didn’t really like. She could find women here in the ‘hai who could become her crew. “I probably should make more effort to have friends, but me and my man keep each other busy enough, I guess.” This woman was well over 40. I was dumbfounded by her statement.

To be clear: I greatly appreciate the company of a male companion. Particularly when that company involves nudity and good conversation. I have dated often enough since living overseas and have found myself in love a couple of times. However, it never occurred to me that once in a relationship this should be it for me. That the extent of my community should stop with him. This one male human. I don’t know what to make of women for whom a boyfriend is enough.

I have witnessed some crazy shit here in the ‘hai alone. I’ve had no desire to share some of these shenanigans with a boyfriend because he wouldn’t get it. He would listen. Maybe ask the right questions. But he just wouldn’t get it. And more importantly, I didn’t need him to get it. My homegirls would. Immediately. They would skip over the questions and get right to the judgments. “Well, that’s some bullshit right there,” they’d say. “Nothing but fuckery and foolishness. I can’t even…” We’d carry on together until the timid little Chinese barista would ask us to quiet down just a little, please.

When your community begins and ends with your man, who do you go to when you need to find a gynecologist whose staff speaks decent enough English and who does not shame women who are over 30 without a husband or child? Who do you ask to buy you a quality bra on their trip back home and entrust with this crucial assignment after only handing them your size and cash? Who will listen with authentic delight as you describe each bite of the succulent molden chocolate cake that you experienced at an unassuming café? When your entire time is spent keeping busy with Bae, who do you go to when you start to question why you are even with Bae? Who do you confide in when you realize you are only with Bae because this relationship is just a lil bit better than loneliness and long stretches of celibacy?

A loving man who respects you can only give you so much. It seems impractical to put so much on the shoulders of a romantic relationship.

A few weeks after my co-worker explained she was relying solely on her boyfriend to be her village, she shared that she was not extending her contract and would return to the States for a while. The boyfriend had no desire to leave Shanghai and even less desire to live in the United States. “You mean, you gon’ leave Bae?!” I joked with her. She offered up a half smile and just nodded her head. “Well, I need to go back home and if he doesn’t want to come, I don’t have much choice.”

In that moment I felt bad for her. Here she was with a relationship at the beginning of the end and a life transition repatriating back to a country that was on fire. She had no village with whom she could share her story. No healing hands of women to engulf her in a hug and say, “I know you are scared and unsure of your next move. But, look, here is a cake I baked. And some wine.”

I wished her well on this next transition and wondered what would become of her when she returned to a country she had not lived in for most of her adult life. Would she try to boyfriend her way back in or would she employ the more sensible strategy: reconnecting with old friends and making effort to meet new ones?

I know what I will be doing when I return to the dumpster fire that is America. My circle of healing hands knows, too.

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.

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