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expat, home

Less homesick, more lonely?

It’s Sunday evening and my kids and I have just finished a Skype call with my mom. She is in Athens and we are in Zurich. We try to have these calls at least once a week. My children take turns parading on my mom’s tablet screen, the timing and duration of their appearance depending on the importance of the distraction – suddenly “remembered” homework for tomorrow, texting with friends or finishing up that “last” video game. Besides the weekend Skype sessions, my mother and I talk on the phone every morning. I call her from my car, when I’m on my way back from the last school drop-off. She waits for my call so that she can get on with her day. We chat about the day that passed, about what’s ahead, about how we feel, about the weather. Nothing of extreme significance, just normal everyday stuff, stuff you talk about over morning coffee – only our respective coffee cups are a few thousand kilometers apart. It’s winter, so these days she concludes our call by telling me to makes sure I dress warm – the same way she would if I was in Athens, going out of the house and she was at the door saying goodbye.
I have been away from home for almost 20 years but have always had regular contact. The actual rituals have evolved, of course. Talking daily, as we do now, was not always possible. Phone calls were expensive, especially when my family and I were on different
continents. There was no Skype nor smartphones that would allow us to talk for free or see each other even when we are not at home. Still, whether it was through letters, faxes or weekly calls, I remember us being as much part of each other’s lives as we are now.
I often wonder if I was more homesick then; if I felt more disconnected from my family and friends when I did not have the privilege of instant access. Does being able to virtually see and hear my mother every day, sometimes multiple times per day, lighten the pain of separation? Or is the illusion of closeness created by technology just that – an illusion?
I was discussing this with a friend and she told me that, although she loves being so connected to the people in her life, she finds that the effortlessness of communication that has become standard nowadays – at least in the developed world – makes us feel that we are part of each other’s lives, when we are not. And how can we, she added, if we are not there physically?
At the same time, all that virtual connection can distract us from engaging with real life,
especially relationships. The time we invest in being up to date virtually often means less time available for being present in the real world. This is true whether we are expats or not; but for expats engaging is crucial, relationships are crucial. No wonder some of us end up isolated and lonely. And, as I read recently in an article, loneliness is not only unpleasant; it is unhealthy, even deadly sometimes.
I have kept some of the letters I exchanged with my parents back in the “old days” – the first few
years after I left home. We used to fax them back and forth, since fax was the most immediate means of communication at the time. I was surprised at the depth of some of the conversations I had with my dad – about life, about where we come from and where we want to go; at the advice and love pouring out of those faxes, both always in large doses. I found recipes my mom faxed to me when I needed ideas for a dinner party I was hosting. I found more letters from my parents congratulating me on a success, consoling me when I was heartbroken. So many details about our respective lives that I had almost forgotten; immortalized, just because they are on paper.
So yes, I am slightly less homesick now that we talk every day. It means a lot, knowing that I can always pick up the phone and connect. But there are also times when being a phone call away – and not there – makes me even lonelier than I was in the “old days.”

My two expat lives

The first time I moved as an adult was almost 20
years ago – from my home in Athens to Boston, to pursue a graduate degree. The choice to immerse myself in a new, completely foreign universe was entirely mine. It was a journey I always knew was ahead of me. I chose the journey – and the life – of a foreigner fully conscious that I would have to learn to cope with leaving behind family and friends. Still, the big, heavy wave of homesickness hit me hard during my first days and weeks in the US, as the extent to which I was cut off from “my people” began to sink in.

The only way I could be in touch during those first days was either through very expensive phone calls or letters that I would fax from the copy shop near my school – assuming that the recipient had a fax machine. There was no Skype, no VOIP calling, no Viber, no FaceTime. I remember buying prepaid AT&T cards to call home or using my credit card to call a special number that offered cheap international rates. My short-lived long-distance relationship with my boyfriend back home was barely sustained by weekly phone calls – in the best case, if our timing worked. He, as well as my parents would leave me messages on my answering machine at home – but I was never there, at least not at times that they would be awake. Without a mobile phone, there was no other way to reach me. I had no access to Internet, no email, no social media accounts, no smartphone. I got my first (student) email account at the university and was lucky enough to be able to communicate with my friends who were studying abroad and also had received emails. But that was about it. No one in my family had email.

How could I not feel homesick?

I would have had a hard time imagining how much my life would change in the
course of the following 20 years. Comparing what it’s like to be a foreigner today with what it was like 20 or even ten years ago is like comparing two different worlds.

There are many aspects of our lives as expats that we take for granted: our ability to reach and be reached; to connect with “our people,” wherever they are, and keep up with their lives; to stay updated on developments in our different “homes,” whether it’s politics, culture or everyday life – all that, almost instantly, at minimal or no cost. Developments in technology, especially those related to the Internet, have had a profound impact on what it means to be a foreigner and how we experience that life. Communication is just one dimension of how technology has transformed the expat experience, but a powerful one. So much has happened so fast and yet, these fairly recent additions have shaped our lives into what they are today.

I still feel homesick today, but it’s a different kind of homesickness. As a result of the technology in my foreigner life, I can never feel isolated or out of touch – at least not because of lack of possibilities. I don’t feel helpless. I can stay connected with my family
and make sure that my children develop and maintain relationships with their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins. I can keep up with major events in the lives my loved ones. I can stay in touch with my friends, most of them scattered around the world.

There are drawbacks, of course. One could argue that the technology that brings me closer to those that I have left behind, also allows me to avoid living in the here and now, if I wish to do so. But the technology can only reinforce an existing tendency, not create it; it doesn’t make me choose to live, virtually, somewhere else, it just empowers me to do that. Also, I may sometimes feel homesick because of too much connection, not too little.

Feeling so close but knowing that I’m not, makes the homesickness more concrete. I know exactly what I’m missing by not being there – because nothing can ever replace
physical, face-to-face connection. Still, I am grateful for this life. Even if, for some, the instant gratification of email or FaceTime does not match the excitement of receiving a letter or unpacking a package sent by someone you love, I’ll take that instant gratification any day over the loneliness of being in-between.