Friday, August 08, 2008

The tyranny of distance

This was supposed to be an upbeat, or maybe even offbeat, post about 08-08-08, one of those weird annual convergences that happen four more years this century. I like those kinds of convergences. I guess I’m just funny like that.

But my plans, and mood, were changed when I read an email from my brother telling me that last night my sister and brother-in-law were in a car accident. They were turning on a green arrow when someone ran a red light and hit them broadside. My sister had some broken ribs and internal bleeding, for which they’re keeping her in the hospital for a few days. My brother-in-law was badly shaken, as you’d expect, but otherwise pretty much okay.

Fortunately for them, a cop from another town happened to be at the intersection and witnessed it, and that it wasn’t their fault. But it also meant there was someone there who knew what to do and how to summon the emergency services. Who says there’s never a cop around when you need one?

I rang my sister and spoke with her for a little. She was groggy from the painkillers, of course, but in good spirits. But I felt worse after speaking with her.

I was keenly aware at that moment that I’m more than 13,000 kilometres away (around 8200 US miles). I can’t get there without spending several days and several thousand dollars. I know that there’s no real reason why I have to be there, but if I lived there, of course I’d go see her. By any practical measure, doing so from this far away is impossible.

Anyone who ends up living far away from their original home is inevitably faced with situations like this, as my buddy Dawn recently was. These situations tend to become an exercise in evaluation—trying to determine if the situation is “bad enough” (whatever that means) to justify the expense and difficulty of a trip. The greater the distance, the more that money comes into that evaluation; it’d be dishonest to say it doesn’t.

I suppose for me, and probably other expats, the fact that we have to go through such evaluations is the hardest part. It creates frustration on top of whatever other emotions are going on. I hate it.

Obviously expats know—or ought to—that this kind of situation will happen and it pays to have at least a vague idea of how they’ll handle it (I keep current passports and an available balance on my credit card). But having a plan doesn’t make it any easier when situations arise.

Without a doubt, this tyranny of distance is the worst part about being an expat, even though it’s often an integral part of the experience. It’s the one thing that modern technology can’t yet completely overcome.

Oh and someone tell me why, exactly, Chinese think “8” is such a lucky number…

Update 12 August: My sister's on the mend, and is due home soon. They've had a lot of offers of help, especially from their church. This makes me feel better about not being able to be there myself to help out. Special thanks to everyone who left kind words here, privately or through Twitter. I appreciate your support and kindness.


Michael in Stuttgart said...

Oh dear, I hope your family is better now.

The new media lure us into believing that we live in a global village, everything being just a click away...
My family and friends are all lving more or less far away and even my sweet bf is 2,5 hours driving away and when I put down the phone having just talked to him I feel aloner than before...

I can't wait til apple brings out the iphone that can beam you like a text message...

Although only virtually expressed, I would like to send you my truely felt love and affection. You are the sweetest guy!

xo M

Jason in DC said...

Hope they are all on the mend.

They were lucky that there was someone close by who could call for help. It can make all the difference in the world.

Also wouldn't it be nice if people would actually obey the traffic signals. Stop signs and stop lights should not be treated as stopping suggestions.

Once again glad to hear everyone is doing better and on the mend.

d said...

Yep, I think this is one of the most important things potential expats should understand - you'll be very far away from people you love. With the current technology and inexpensive calling rates, that usually isn't an issue.

It only comes into play when really good (weddings) things happen, or really bad (accidents, death) things happen.

Sorry to hear about the accident, but glad your family is ok and (hopefully) on the mend. Perhaps someone has a laptop with a camera they could bring to your sister's room for Skype?

Ann and Michael said...

Same- just got off phone with my sister in the US. She spent an awful day with my father, who had major surgery. The prognosis isn't good- but it was as hard not to be there for her as it is to face what he's going through.

Hugs for you too, Arthur.

Ann in NZ, looking at ticket possibilities AWS

Roger Owen Green said...

Damn - I had one broken rib this summer and it hurt like hell.
I do understand the "should I stay or should I go" piece. My father died 8 years ago today, actually (yesterday for you) and he lived in NC, me in NY. He was in the hospital, but it wasn't until he had a stroke when I knew I had to go.
My best to your family for rapid recovery, and to you for a Star Trek transporter beam.

Arthur Schenck said...

Thank you everyone for your kind words. As I said in my update, my sister's on the mend, though slowly, of course. Roger, I think she's already experiencing some of what you described on your blog (and I soooooo want a transporter!).

Jason and D are both right—that it would be nice if people obeyed traffic laws, and expats do need to be prepared for things like this.

Ann, best of luck to you—I hope things work out well. Michael, I admire your strength—I don't think I could cope with separation like that!

Thanks again for the support, everyone—I truly do appreciate it!

Roger Owen Green said...

Since you asked. From CNN: "Eight is a lucky number in China. The word for it -- ba -- sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity."

And here I thought it had to do with fact that it looked like the infinity symbol standing up.