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Technology and finding home…elsewhere?

Imagine yourself moving country twenty years ago. How do you prepare for your encounter with a new place, a new culture, new people? If you have the luxury of time, you do some homework before moving. You go to your local library, take out books on the country or city you are moving to, study them. They give you a rough idea of what to expect. If you are moving to a place where you don’t speak the language, you take lessons or get hold of language tapes and books, perhaps a pocket phrasebook that you will carry with you during the first few months. Since you probably don’t know anyone yet in the new place, you ask around in your circle of friends for friends or acquaintances you can contact –usually through letter or phone call. When you move, you spend the first week or two looking for a place to live – reading the classifieds, talking to real estate agents, visiting. Then, there’s a whole range of logistics to take care of, from setting up bank accounts, credit cards and
transferring money, to making sure that your new place has a phone connection and that
your bills are paid.
Moving today is a whole different reality. To educate yourself about the place you are moving to, you hardly resort to books any more. There are so many websites, from Wikipedia to information and news sites, resource portals, discussion forums, blogs and magazines dealing with every possible aspect of life in the country you pick. You can get the real picture from real people in real time; you can compare sources and views; you can ask questions. If you want to learn a new language, you can still take a course; but in the meantime, Google Translate is quite effective, at least to get stuff done in the first few weeks. You do a lot of the paperwork and logistics of the move online. You look for housing online. You start building your new social network online: you join the local expat club or tap into the multitude of networking sites, online communities and local Meetup groups to connect with people who live in your new home – before you even get there.
Technology, in particular the Internet, has changed the way we move and find home. Anyone who started their foreigner journey in pre-Internet or early Internet times will agree that the tools and resources available to today’s expats have simplified the logistics of moving, massively reducing the hassle of preparing and executing a move.
So it’s all good at the practical level. But what happens with the emotional aspects of moving?Technology has made moving easier than ever but has it also made it easier to find home wherever we move – or harder?
In the past, we had no choice. When we moved somewhere, we had to live in the here and now. Whether we liked it or not, that was our reality. Now, there are so many realities to choose from. It is so easy to live elsewhere, virtually, on a permanent basis, if we want. We can shop online, communicate and connect online, get our information online. I can sit in a café in the middle of Zurich and Skype with my family in Athens or Berlin, read the New York Times and listen to the news on the BBC. I don’t have to know what’s happening in Switzerland if I don’t want to. A friend of mine, who never looks
at the local news where she lives, told me that she often risks embarrassment when something major happens in her country, because she is completely unaware!
As distances are minimized, physically and virtually, does our ability to put down roots, build and sustain relationships, feel like we belong – where we are, physically – diminish as well? Do we become more scattered – and is that a bad thing or does it just mean that our concept of home has changed? What does home look like when we choose to live
elsewhere?

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.