The modern expat: Less homesick, more lonely?
Today's expat can connect with family back home at any time – but does this increase isolation by being neither here nor there?
It’s the evening and my kids and I have just finished a Skype call with my mother. 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 mum’s tablet screen, with the length of their appearance depending on the distraction – homework due tomorrow, texting with friends or finishing one 'last' video game.
Besides the weekend Skype sessions, my mother and I talk on the phone every morning. I call her from my car after the last school drop-off, and she waits for my call before getting on with her day. We chat about nothing of extreme significance, just everyday stuff you'd talk about over morning coffee – only our respective coffee cups are a few thousand kilometres apart. When it's winter, she concludes our calls by telling me to dress warm – the same way she would if I was in Athens, 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 where we could talk for free, even when we are not at home, or see each other's faces. Still, whether it was through letters, faxes or weekly calls, I remember us being a part of each other’s lives.
I often wonder if I was more homesick then, or 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 the effortlessness of communication makes us feel a 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, and relationships are crucial, in our new environments. 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', from 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 – and at the advice and love pouring out from those faxes in large doses. I found recipes my mother faxed me when I needed ideas for a dinner party I was hosting. I found letters from my parents congratulating me on successes, and consoling me when I was heartbroken. So many details about our respective lives that I had almost forgotten, which have been immortalised just because they are on paper.
So yes, I am slightly less homesick now that we talk every day. It makes it easier knowing I can always pick up the phone and connect to family or friend abroad. 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.
Reprinted with permission of Diary of a Move.
Katia Vlachos researches and writes on cross-cultural adaptation and expatriate life. A Greek by birth and a perpetual foreigner by choice, she has lived in eight cities and seven countries in the last 20 years. The Diary of a Move is a story about crossing borders and cultures, and her blog explores the challenges of finding and sustaining home amid the chaos of nomadic life.