One of the biggest sacrifices of the expatriate’s life is the perishability of the friendships we make. Attempts to maintain contact with those we once lived and worked closely with often fall victim to geographical distance and changes in lifestyle.
One person who I had not met for six and a half years but left a deep impression on everyone who knew him was Wade Schroeder – a South African former water polo player known throughout our place of work as a gentle giant. After arriving in Huizhou, Guangdong Province in 2006 to work as a language tutor at Thames School of Languages, the following year he became the school’s sole full-time kindergarten teacher.
Wade had a laugh like Mozart in ‘Amadeus’, would do anything for anyone, and was the only long-term China expat I met who responded to every shout of “hello” from a stranger with a broad smile and a like-for-like response (in Huizhou at that time, friendly attention directed at foreigners was as oppressive as paparazzi).
While the 23 other expatriate teachers who taught primary and middle school-aged children had the linguistic safety net of a teaching assistant and the cultural safety net of each other’s company, Wade was getting an entirely grassroots-level experience of China. Despite being in a very different world from his native Port Elizabeth, there was no danger of Wade saying or doing anything insensitive or inappropriate as he would never wantonly hurt anyone.
He had slightly old-fashioned ideas about being a perfect gentleman, holding doors open and letting people get off the elevator first, regardless of how unlikely his courtesy was to be reciprocated.
Wade had a different schedule to the other expatriate teachers, but whether you wanted a wild night in a noisy bar or to sit on the balcony talking about life the universe and everything, Wade was among everybody’s favourite people to spend time with. His death, aged 31, inspired people across continents and time zones to pay their respects.
My favourite memory of Wade (among many) involved a prank that woke him up in the small hours of the morning. He had to be up at six for work the next day, but as he sat alone at breakfast, instead of being angry, as was his right, he could only sit laughing to himself in that inimitable way.
The children who were our students are now teenagers, and the teenagers are now adults, and our colleagues have scattered around the world. But the memories are still with us, and what memories, and what a man.