Saturday, December 27, 2014

The ‘lonely’ expat?

Yesterday, my friend and fellow expat Dawn posted an interesting piece on the expat experience. We’ve had many similar expat experiences, but do I agree with her that, “the word I associate most with being an expat is 'lonely'"?

My experience began quite differently from that of Dawn and her husband: When I arrived in New Zealand in 1995, I arrived alone. I knew no one apart from Nigel, and I had no friends or family here—again, apart from Nigel, of course; I didn’t yet really know his family. Worse, the Internet was just taking off, which meant that many of my friends and family had no email, and things like Facebook and Skype were years away from being invented: Facebook didn’t begin until 2004, and wasn’t opened to the public until 2006; Skype began in 2003, but it was a couple years before it started to be widely used.

Until Internet technology grew enough, expats like me had only three options for staying in touch with friends and family in our birth countries: Trips back (expensive and time consuming), phone calls (expensive), and letters/cards (inexpensive, but very slow to reach the USA or vice versa). The Internet changed everything—around a decade after I first arrived!

So, while I agree with Dawn that Internet solutions are no substitute for the real thing (getting together in person), from my perspective, they’re pretty damn close. For me, the development of Internet technology made a huge difference in my life, and definitely for the better: It meant going from having practically zero contact with people who had been important to me to being in contact again.

However, this all happened roughly a decade after I arrived. Arriving alone meant I had to forge a life here, and, after ten years, that’s exactly what I had—a life. So, for me, the Internet technology was more about re-connecting because by then my old life was lit in the soft glow of memory and wrapped in a fluffy blanket of nostalgia. Which means, while it was (and is) important, it no longer carries the day-to-day significance it once could have—we’ve all moved on in our lives.

Also unlike Dawn, I haven’t made a lot of friends in New Zealand, but for me that’s mainly due to me being older and fairly shy. Most non-family friends are our friends, which isn't that unusual for couples. I’ve made some friends through work or politics, some of them quite good friends, but Nigel and I spend the vast majority of our social time with family; I don’t have a problem with that, though I wish that some of my blood family could be in the mix, but unless they suddenly invent teleportation, I can’t see that happening in my lifetime.

Over time, things get better and easier in the new land. I’ve been in New Zealand so long now that I have shared memories and history with the people in my life here, and I’m as connected to them as I was to many (though certainly not all) of the folks I left behind. The longer one lives in a new country, the more that becomes true.

So, do I agree with Dawn that “the word I associate most with being an expat is "lonely"? For a new expat, I absolutely do. In fact, it's something I warn every would-be expat about before they take the leap. However, for me personally, no—I long ago built an entirely new and different life in my new homeland, and due to the circumstances I faced, that new life was largely without regular contact with the friends and family I left behind.

There’s no such thing as a single way of being an expat: Our experiences are as unique as we are. So, some people will be crushingly lonely, while others won’t be at all; probably most of us are somewhere between those two points. Dawn and I are at different points on that continuum, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The important point, I think, is to be aware that loneliness is a real possibility for any expat, and to try to minimise it. Dawn is exactly right about the importance of making friends in the new land, and I think it’s important to make maximum use of technology to help stay in touch. I also think new expats should plan frequent trips back at first—like every 2 or 3 years—then less frequently (definitely don’t depend on others coming to visit).

Having said all that, and having compared and contrasted my experience with Dawn’s, I’d add one further thing: Anyone who can’t abide the thought of being separated for months or years from close friends or family members ought to think hard about whether moving permanently to a country far away is a good idea for them. Not everyone’s cut out to be an expat; loneliness isn’t only reason why that’s true, but for some people it may be the biggest one.

For most expats, those who stay in their new homeland long-term, the benefits clearly outweigh the bad times or moments or whatever. We humans are good at adapting, even to things like some loneliness.

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