As exciting as it is to study, work, or simply spend time living abroad, it is a decision that rarely plays out in a vacuum. We all have relationships that will be affected, and especially as we get older, moving abroad–even temporarily—becomes increasingly complicated. In this first article in a series considering the role of relations in our lives during and after time spent abroad, I share some general thoughts and tips about maintaining and re-invigorating connections with family and friends while living abroad and upon returning home. In subsequent articles, I’ll focus my attention, in turn, to the nuclear family, pets, and relationships formed while abroad.
The Logistics of Staying Connected
In the past, staying connected while living abroad necessitated a great deal more effort than today, but even still, potentially led to isolation for folks on either side of the adventure. As recently as 10 years ago, we expats were largely dependent on communal phones in shared housing, public pay phones, and internet cafes, especially if we didn’t have plans to set-up a full house in our new habitat. Today, however, technology has rendered these particular challenges largely obsolete in much of the world (though they certainly persist in some places); social networking technologies allow us to follow one another’s everyday activities, smartphones and online calling facilitate voice-to-voice and even “face-to-face” conversation, and messaging apps enable quick and frequent communication between those who prefer the casual format of text messages or an online alternative.
While these technological advances alleviate the struggle to keep in touch, it doesn’t mean correspondence is effortless. Differences between time zones can prove problematic, distractions can dominate one’s day, and the disparities between experiences “here” and “there” can make it difficult to truly stay connected while living abroad. From a practical standpoint, this means that one of the most important means of staying in touch is to actively schedule times for communication—for example, if you talked to your folks on Sunday evenings when you were in the US, try to do so while you’re abroad, even if this means it’s Monday morning for you. Setting a schedule not only guarantees you’ll be able to connect on a regular basis, but encourages everyone to set the time aside, to minimize distractions, and actively focus on the conversation at hand.
Involving and Reassuring Family from Afar
Though technology has greatly eased the logistical burden of staying connected, the disconnection in time and experiences can still make it difficult to feel close to loved ones while abroad. For example, finding conversation content that is equally interesting and meaningful to both members of the relationship may complicate things. It is easy for conversations to become more of a “show and tell” than an actual conversation when there aren’t as many common experiences. It’s also easy to avoid sharing any negative aspects of your life elsewhere, for fear of worrying friends or family from afar. Furthermore, sharing your exhilaration at foreign sights and tastes and smells can only occupy so much phone time, particularly if you’re spending time in places that friends or family have never visited themselves, or perhaps never even want to visit. That being said, how can you keep them involved in your life from afar?
In an ideal world, the answer to this is simple: HAVE PEOPLE COME VISIT! It can make a huge difference to your relationships and your adjustment to the time abroad if parents or close friends are willing and able to share in your experience, at least for a little while. Not only will you have a chance to share your experiences of life abroad, but also visitors offer an excellent opportunity to fit in some sightseeing or local excursions you might deem too “touristy” on your own. Plus, you’ll be able to reminisce together when you reunite later on, which will ease your culture shock and give you at least one person who is “in the know”.
Unfortunately, the reality often is, people can’t always visit, be it for reasons of scheduling, costs, etc. So how can you stay emotionally connected when you’re living in such a different world from the folks back home? Social networking technologies have really helped with this. Sharing everyday experiences through posting or checking updates and photographs can actually go a long way toward making far-away relations feel closer. Sharing local news from your location can help people understand a bit more about your context of living. Likewise, it can also be reassuring if you’re currently in a part of the world that only seems to generate US headlines with things to terrify parents.
Lastly, take the time to go back to basics. Write one-on-one letters, emails or send postcards. As easy as social networking, blogs and group emails are for keeping people up to date, they lack the personal touch that helps maintain close relationships. Keep yourself apprised of goings on “back home.” Checking the weather and the local news streams may seem like a trivial gesture, but allows you to relate to family members who are there and ensures that at least some of the content you introduce to those scheduled conversations can relate to their life happenings, and not solely yours.
Re-Kindling Relationships Once You’re Back
When you return from your time abroad, you may hope to just slip back into relationships that once were comfortable, but, like with the initial experiences of culture shock, returning to the once familiar after living a world apart can be elusive and unsettling. You may find that you (inadvertently) annoy close friends with constant references to how things are done “over there”, that you alienate acquaintances when you correct their pronunciation of city names, or that you irk your family with your immediate and incessant need to go abroad again.
So is there a trick to re-integrating, not just to your home culture, but also to your family and other established relationships? No tricks, perhaps, but there are certainly some key things to keep in mind.
First, remember that you aren’t the only person who has been living these last few months, years, etc. Because of the transformative nature of living abroad, it is easy to feel as though forever has passed, you have become an entirely new person, and everybody else just stood still. Don’t let yourself forget that all those people you left behind have been living lives of their own. Ask them about their updates. Be excited for them, or sad with them. While you absolutely should share your own experiences, try not to bring everything back to it. Accept the fact that life went on without you, and now that you’re back, people may be actually more interested in catching you up on what you missed than on trying to understand the completely separate life you created for yourself.
Stemming from this, it’s helpful to let people know that you missed them, that you’re glad to see them. It’s easy to get caught up in planning another trip or reminiscing about all the good times you left behind but if you aren’t careful, it can impress upon the people who were in your life “before”, that they aren’t important to you anymore, or weren’t even important to you while you were abroad. Bringing back little souvenirs and telling the people why these gifts made you think of them, share things that you wish you could have directly experienced with them. Talk about planning new adventures together. Make sure that, as exciting as it is to nurture the friendships you made abroad (many of which will last a lifetime), it’s also worth prioritizing the ones that are in front of you.
Stacey McKenna is a writer, anthropologist, equine advocate, rock-climber, tattoo collector, and aspiring yogi. A long-time vagabond, Stacey has lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada. When not adventuring overseas, helping retiring racehorses find second careers, or tramping about with her husband and dog in the Western United States’ beautiful mountains and deserts, she writes about an array of issues related to travel, health, culture, human-animal relations, and social inequality. Though she has been living in Fort Collins, Colorado for over 7 years now,Stacey still considers herself a wanderer at heart. Follow her explorations via her blog or on Twitter @mckenna_stacey.