It’s another very warm August afternoon; I am in the RER A train heading to Paris when I receive a Wechat message from my friend O. He helped my daughter find an internship in Shanghai and is hosting her for the summer. As I look down to my phone, I smile at a picture of “the whole family”: his wife, Anne, his three children, and my daughter. We met in 1999, back when we were expatriates in Hamburg. Our children were about the same age… ranging from 0 to 5 at the time. Since, and despite the fact that we don’t share the same blood, we are more than just good friends. Last year, while I was talking to Anne about my son’s health issues, he grunted in his eighteen-year-old gruff, “Come on, Mom…” horrified that I shared my concerns so openly. My friend answered with her natural gentleness, “Don’t worry, we’re family.” My son could not argue against the obvious. Our five children grew up together, sometimes far away from one another, but always in contact. Just like cousins, glad to see each other again come the holidays.
And now with O, we chat on Wechat. He’s in Shanghai, on his way to the airport, and sends me pictures. I, more prosaically am in the Parisian train under this sweltering heat. I’m welcome in Shanghai, quand tu veux. I know, but I’m busy here, in Paris. My job, my activities, my children, who, despite behind young adults, still need me around (or so I like to believe!) But I’ll do my best, I do want to come visit you in Shanghai! And in any case, Ich bin sehr gespannt, Anne Im August zu treffen! Mei wenti, he answers, and before I can have a quick look at Google translate to figure that one out, my daughter sends me another Wechat… this time of the famous Shanghai Bund. “70 years ago, just French and British aristocrats strolling under their parasol!”
I chuckle at the unintended parallel: wealthy foreigners soaking up all the advantages of a cosmopolitan life, impervious to the local hardships. Living their very own life: not quite like the one of those at home, not quite like the one of the natives around them. But perhaps more than waiguoren, as Chinese tourists like to exclaim as they see my daughter and ask to take a picture with her, these aristocrats, like expatriates today, wished a more nuanced term would be used to refer to them: internationals.