Steve & I have been living abroad as expatriates for the past 3 years now. We have experienced and learned how to spend our new day-to-day life far far away from our families and friends. From the excitement of a new adventure to the continuous nostalgia of our relatives and close friends, we have gone through different periods of our lives – exhilarating or less happy – where we learned how to grow up and keep going despite the distance.
When I studied at the university, I took probably the most interesting class: intercultural communications. This is when I discovered about the culture shock and its different stages:
- Stage 1: Excitement & eagerness about the new adventure. This is the departure and arrival to a new life aka the honeymoon phase when everything is awesome.
- Stage 2: The first culture shock arises and you start facing issues understanding the apparent differences in culture and missing your home and habits. This is the negotiation phase as you are trying to adapt and cope with the change and differences.
- Stage 3: You come back to the surface once you admit that things can be different from your usual daily life and you get used to the differences in culture and life making your host country your new home. This is when you make friends, find things interesting and adapt to the new culture aka this is the adjustment phase.
- Stage 4: Full adaptation, acceptance and assimilation of the new culture that you now call “home”. You feel confident and show full participation in the daily local life. This is the bicultural phase as you become aware of the differences, accept them and live with them in harmony.
Now I won’t go through my move abroad and life as an expat far away from my relatives following the culture shock stages, but just talking about several key moments of this change in life on both sides.
I will be using brackets when using the word “home” since it is difficult to call one place home when you travel and change places. You have your “home home” which is where you were born and raised, and you have your “new home” where you are moving to and setting up a new life there.
1. Excitement of a new adventure
At first, when you are getting ready to take off for a new adventure and land onto your new “home” country, everything is great and exciting. From the change of your daily routine to the happiness of new discoveries, your life is turned upside down and the various changes make it more interesting every day.
You experience something new on a daily basis: new landscape, new food, new people, new culture, new challenges. Everything seems excitingly new and different in a good way from what you were used to back home. During this period of the expat life, I used to be willing to go everywhere, experience new activities, attend every single event in Adelaide in order to get to know my new home.
2. Promises to your relatives
Before leaving and even once you have settled down into your “new home”, you promise your family and friends that you will Skype them, send them emails, news once a week or once every two weeks. You usually keep them at the beginning to make the separation less difficult on both sides. However, after a little while once you feel comfortable in your “new home”, once you have an accommodation, a job and friends, you don’t feel the need to chat every single time.
It is in some way the common evolution of an expat life, of living abroad away from your loved ones. It changes slower or faster according to your personality and your capability of living on your own. Speaking and giving less news to your family or less often does not mean that you do not think about them anymore. It is more of a way to show that you have now managed to create your own new life environment in which you are happy. You still think about them once in a while, but the need of seeing them or talking to them is less intense.
3. Homesickness: how to cope with it?
Even though you are less communicative with your family & friends, some moments can make you remind of them and your time back home. You can feel nostalgic which is normal feeling when you have been spending time far away from those who know you the best.
I am personally not the kind of person who needs to be close to my family to feel good and live my own life. I do get nostalgic moments when I miss them, however unlike my sister I do not need to live in a close city to visit them often. I often feel down and sad knowing that my relatives are far away from me. Sometimes I even feel guilty for being so far away especially when one of my family members or friends needs psychological, emotional, physical or financial help. I wish I was there physically to help them go through a difficult moment of their life.
This is when I find comfort in something that reminds me of France: I usually buy some cheese, bread and wine. Then I feel much better. Other times I would simply hang out with my French friends in Australia to speak French in order to feel a bit like home. Another solution would be to watch a French movie, listen to French music or attend a French-like event. Finally, I would either send them a message or call them.
When Steve is feeling homesick, we would order or cook something that reminds him of “home”: a Philly cheesteak or a pizza. Any time he asks me to get one of these food items, I know that there might be some nostalgia behind this order.
4. Missing out on big life moments
As I explained earlier, when moving overseas to become an expat you will experience some down moments. Life keeps going on on both sides and you might be missing out on key life-changing moments in one of your family members or friends.
This is quite a tough feeling as you feel guilty for not being physically there to support or celebrate with them as much as you are happy for them and try sharing this moment with them the best way possible by messaging them, calling them or sending them a special gift. We recently welcomed Steve’s newborn niece and skyped many times with his family in the U.S. to meet her. Obviously this is not as special as it would be to hold her and kiss her, so you merely use the means of communication available.
When this type of life changing moment happens, we start planning a trip “back home” to catch up on what we have been missing on.
5. How to keep good relationships when living far far away?
When you live so far away that a flight “back home” can take 24 hours and cost you an arm, you usually visit your relatives on special occasions. In the meantime, you need to live your new life while trying to keep good relationships with them despite the distance. Not easy task every day, but you can learn how often it is good to get in touch with them to not see your relationship fade away.
As I mentioned, you will miss on some important life changing moments. However, this is when you can be sure that they are your loved family as they will make sure to keep you in the loop when something big changes in their life. Also even if you do not talk every single day, once you chat on Skype it feels like nothing changed and you just left them yesterday.
Contacting your family and close friends every once in a while is the key to a good relationship. Avoiding to miss on key dates such as birthdays or travel dates is also important. Showing them that despite the distance you still think and care about them always help build up your relationship and make it stronger. Obviously everybody is different and some people might disagree. This is my personal experience as a French expat living in Australia.
6. On the other side…
It might be tough for you sometimes, however on the other side, your family members and friends are also suffering from the distance. Once in a while I would receive a cute little “tu me manques” – I miss you in French – from my sister, mother or best friends. Men are too proud to say it or write it although I am sure they truly think it.
Sometimes I can tell if it becomes difficult for one of my relatives when they contact me more often or clearly say it in a message. There is not much you can do unfortunately, but to tell them how much you love them, and let them know of your next trip “back home”.
We wouldn’t survive without Skype. We try to call our families on video at least once every 2 weeks or every month. Even though time flies, every time we chat it feels like we never left and we have so much to tell each other. Moreover, our personal trick is to send them a small package every time we travel somewhere new. As we like change and to experience new countries, we make sure to get our family members a little something from there. When they receive it, it always give us a good reason to chat on live video and get in touch with each other. This is also our way of showing them that despite the distance we think about them when we travel and have fun ; we want to share these experiences with them.
7. When you’re going back “home”
Then comes the moment when you can stop the count down of your “return home”. Going “back home” is always exciting because you know that you are going to have a good time: you will eat the best food homemade by your parents, they are going to treat like a king or a queen, you will catch up with your bothers, sisters and friends.
Every time I go back to France or Steve back to the U.S. we experience the same phenomenon: everyone asks us how life is different in Australia, and they can’t stop taking pictures with you so that they make sure to keep this memory until the next time you come visit. It is actually kind of weird to say that you are “going on holidays” in the country you were born.
There are two weird feelings I experienced when I went back to France in 2014:
- I could not stop taking pictures of what should be taken as granted, of what I should be used to without noticing it. However, I felt delighted every time I would enter a bakery and smell the fresh bread and pastries. I loved seeing stalls of different cheeses at the outdoor farmer’s market. I became proud of my origins and my culture.
- I get annoyed with some cultural aspects of French people. I was having trouble coping with French people complaining, their rudeness and their sad/depressed faces. This is when you learn and discover what could be the reasons why you moved abroad.
IN CONCLUSION, this is my own personal experience of the long-distance relationship with your family and friends “back home” when you set up your “new home” in another country. Some people might live it in a stronger way or others would not have trouble with the distance.
And you, how do live your daily expat life away from your loved relatives and close friends? How do you cope with the nostalgia and homesickness?