One of the most exciting parts of living the expat life is also one of the hardest. It is the trip home to catch up with family and friends. When you first leave you may be surrounded by an enormous social network. Then one by one over the days, months and years, your life goes in one direction and theirs goes in another.
There are any number of threads in expat forums that talk about the pain of this transition. You can hear the grief as you read stories of loss. In fact just yesterday I was speaking to a newbie friend, fresh from her first visit home. She felt so sad that despite her desperate efforts to ‘fit in’, one of her closest friends made every excuse not to see her, then sent a cutting comment on social media saying how heartbroken her and her kids were that they didn’t get to see my friend. It is moments like that which take your breath away as you feel your heart shatter.
So, in light of my friend’s experience, and what I have been reading in forums, I thought I would collate my own experiences and those of others to shed some light on this really difficult part of expat life.
Why don’t more of my friends make the effort to see me?
With time and distance, changes are naturally going to occur in your social life. Focus on the here and now, not back in the past when you lived in their world. People change, circumstances change.
Before judging your friend for not making any effort, and blaming ‘jealousy’ (which is very real but not the focus here), remember that you do not know what they have going on that is influencing their decision making. We all have our ‘stuff’ and you may not be aware of what is going on in your friends lives.
With this world of Facebook, often we feel we are connected to our friends no matter how far away they are. Daily updates make us privy to way too much personal information, now more than ever before. This also means that often we lose the sense of urgency around physically seeing someone.
Some people may feel redundant. They may feel that your life is way more exciting than their’s and what could they possibly have to offer. They don’t realise that it is that need to connect and it is the normality of our previous life that we often crave.
Organising evening functions such as a dinner out can be difficult to manage. Some people do not feel comfortable at a table with a group of strangers waiting for one minute of your time. The cost of eating out is high and often a luxury for people, and some have family commitments at night.
Tips for managing your time back home
The following is what works for me, and I know it works for friends of mine too.
Going home for a holiday means you have limited time. You won’t make everyone happy. Manage the expectations of friends and family by setting clear boundaries about what you can manage. Don’t buy into manipulation or bitchy comments, and look at ways to alleviate as much stress as possible by prioritising who you want to catch up with.
Preparation is key
When you give your friends parameters and then let them fit into that, they are more likely to be able to manage their time and commitments to suit. So, give them the dates you are available, ask them if they are around and what they can manage. Send personal messages to those you particularly want to spend time with.
Create a Schedule
For our last trip home I created a Facebook Event. I put in the dates we were returning, where we would be staying, and any plans we had already set up. Then I invited everyone to come along and hang out with us whenever we were available. It was updated as needed and I left the decision making up to friends and family, giving them control over their time. I communicated this schedule in other ways to those who do not use Facebook. There was still a bitchy comment thrown in which was unexpected but I am happy that I did the very best that I could for the time we had.
Have an ‘Open Day’
For one day you invite everyone to drop in to where you are staying, for however long they want, at anytime within that day. Put on some easy food and drinks, provide some activities for kids and you are set. This gives people the flexibility to catch up within their existing daily plans. It also allows for good one-on-one interaction and there is no pressure to have a ‘speed dating’ encounter with you to chat.
Hang out at friends homes or have them hang out at yours
These are my favourite times when I go home. We hang out drinking coffee, just talking about normal stuff while the kids run around and play. We don’t need to go out, we don’t need fancy food, we just need to be present. Just like when I lived back home.
Give people an out
I always say ‘if you cannot make it please don’t stress about it. We will catch up one day and in the meantime we will stay connected through Facebook/email/messaging etc.’ And I truly mean it. Time is fleeting, and I know that my true friends will stay around – even in the peripheral, for as long as it is meant to be that way. It is like the ebb and flow of the ocean and we need to learn to ride the current. If someone floats away, be thankful for the time you had with them and move on. No one is at fault, it is just the way life goes. Be open to the possibility of reconnecting sometime in the future.
Finally, do not take it personally
Sure it can be hard, but sometimes life gets in the way. Besides, there may always be an opportunity next time. You do learn who your true friends are when you make a big change like moving overseas, and often they are the ones who are always there for you, regardless of where you call home.