Connecting With Those Back Home When You Live Overseas


Recently I have been recruiting staff for employment in my current organization in China, and some of the conversations I have had with candidates had me thinking about how much things have changed for people living overseas from their home base just in the 12 years I have been away.

by Gian94g via wikimedia commons

When people first contemplate moving abroad they have lots of questions and go through a rollercoaster of emotions. “What will life be like in my new home?” “Will I be able to find the foods I like and/or need?” “How will I get around?” “How will I communicate?”

And above all, “How can I keep in touch with my friends, family, and everything important to me back home?”

When I was growing up my great uncle lived and worked in Belgium, and then later Panama, before coming back to the Atlanta area to “retire.” Before that he had worked in other locations around the globe, and he was one of the driving forces for me wanting to move overseas, after visiting him in Belgium the summer before I started 5th grade.

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Being from the Deep South, one of his true loves was college football, and specifically the University of Georgia Bulldogs. I remember my father recording games from the TV on VHS cassettes and then mailing them to my uncle so he could watch his favorite team. Connecting with those back home was much more difficult then.

At that time it could take weeks for a package to make it half way around the world, and it was many years before the Internet became a part of our lives. So by the time my uncle would receive the games and invite his friends and colleagues over to watch them, his beloved team could have won or lost several games without his knowledge.

Watching those games on VHS was as close to the “real thing” as he could get, and an important part of keeping a connection back home for him.

Similarly, care packages would also contain foods and other things unavailable or difficult to get in Cold War Europe. International phone calls were few and far between due to the cost and unreliable connectivity.

by Rhoda Baer via wikimedia commons

Fast-forward almost 20 years and it was my time to break out on my own global travels. The year was 2003 and quite a bit had changed since my great uncle’s expat adventures.

First of all, international phone calls were much more reliable and relatively inexpensive as long as you could find calling cards to use.

The Internet made keeping in touch with current events much easier, meaning I didn’t have to wait weeks to find out if my favorite college football team had won or lost. While I did send post cards from places I visited the first few years overseas, sending letters in the mail had become fairly obsolete due to email communication.

And even better, there was instant messaging applications, such as MSN IM, where you could talk in real time with someone using text typing. But there were still things I couldn’t have that I wanted to help keep me connected to home.

by Michiel 1972 via wikimedia commons

While most of the world had moved on to DVD’s (or in China at that time, VCD’s, which are much lower quality than DVD’s if you have never had the opportunity to watch one), I purchased the last remaining VCR in an appliance store in Beijing so I could watch the VHS cassettes my father would mail me containing the previous week’s football game.

Thankfully mail service had become much faster than in my great uncle’s time, which meant I was only one week behind the times in my viewing of games. Fortunately or unfortunately, I already knew the result of the game due to seeing the score online. But I still wanted to watch the game, which I was not able to do online or on my television at that time.

by Kelvin Kay via wikimedia commons

I also welcomed the care packages I would receive with various food items and other bits and bobs my parents would put together for me to remind me of home. Every time I got a package it was almost like Christmas unwrapping my presents to see what Santa Claus had brought me this time!

During this time I was able to experience one of the happiest moments of my life, up to that point. But it was also quite melancholy because of how it happened.

I had been a Boston Red Sox fan since I was fairly young, and I had become accustomed to them showing plenty of potential, but ultimately failing in the end. In my second year overseas, my beloved Red Sox had finally made it to the World Series, and I was able to “watch” the games as they took place via play by play text updates on the ESPN website.

by InSapphoWeTrust via wikimedia commons

Not quite the same as being able to see it live on the television, but when you are on the other side of the world you will take what you can get! Seeing as the time difference was at least 13 hours, this meant that all of the games being played in prime time in the US were taking place in the morning Beijing time. Unfortunately for me, this meant that I was at work.

I did not have a computer in my classroom, and had to rush back and forth from my students to the staff room across the hall to see what was going on each game. I’m sure some of my students from that time still remember their crazy American teacher jumping for joy one morning because some team they had never heard of had won a sporting event they did not really know anything about as well. Such is life when you want to keep that connection back home.

Technology kept improving, and I began listening to games live on my computer through local radio feeds that were broadcast online. This was better than watching a play by play text screen that you had to wait to be updated every few minutes, but it still wasn’t the same as watching a game live.

The next big thing for me was Slingbox, which allowed me to stream live video feed from my parents’ television. Finally, I could watch games live! Of course it depended on the Internet speed and connection to determine how much I could actually watch, but it was a step in the right direction.

Today I can get my football fix by streaming games live through various websites (Internet permitting), or even sometimes watching them on my television.

by Broken Sphere via wikimedia commons

Skype had also helped bridge the communication gap, as people started moving away from instant messaging and started speaking to each other using their actual voices, and wonder upon wonders, actual video of each other. This made keeping in touch with people even easier, and the fact that you could see each other in real time (as always, assuming the Internet speed and connection were working well) made the world a little bit smaller.

Other creations, such as MySpace and Facebook, allowed people to reconnect like never before, and I was able to speak with friends from high school that I had lost touch with years before. While I was unable to attend my 10-year high school reunion, I was able to hear about all of the drama that took place in almost real time.

by Karlis Dambrans via wikimedia commons

Mobile phones (cell phones for my American friends and family) took the place of landlines, and they too eventually had cameras and Internet connection, leading to even further connectivity across the globe. I can easily see what someone had for dinner through an online post, and my parents can see their granddaughter’s modeling shoots just minutes after both events take place.

It is an amazing time to be alive, as the world has become an extremely small place where something that takes place locally can become a worldwide phenomenon in a matter of hours.

But I often think back to the lifestyle my great uncle lived now over 30 years ago. I think about what it must have been like to receive the package from my father and watch a game several weeks old and have no idea what the result of it was until finishing watching it. I remember how excited I was to receive my own taped games, even though I knew the result, and often wishing I did not know the result so I would be surprised by what I saw.

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I think about how much he must have enjoyed receiving care packages of specialty foods he was not able to get, making every little thing that much more special to either eat by himself or share with others. I too loved to get things in the mail like that, but am now able to buy almost anything I want in a variety of shops just around the corner.

I remember how appreciative I was all those years ago to find a decent hamburger or pizza in Beijing, whereas now I take those things for granted.

So as I come to the end of my wandering narrative, I am brought back to my current reality.

Yes, I tell prospective employees, you can get almost anything you want in Suzhou.

Yes, the government does block certain websites, but if you purchase a VPN you can still access what you want.

Yes, you can speak with friends and family members easily either through the Internet (i.e. Skype or Facetime) or by calling them directly from your mobile phone. You can ship and receive packages that will be delivered within days, instead of weeks.

by P.B. via wikimedia commons

You can take the fast train from Suzhou and be in Shanghai in 20 minutes, where you can find anything that you can’t find in Suzhou.

Life is much easier than it was in the past for an expat living overseas. Of course this will vary, depending on where you live.

But my sepia colored memories of “the good old days” make me yearn for a simpler time every now and then. One that does not include constant connection with people far away, but instead allows for actual connection with the people around you.

by Tom Wsulcer via wikimedia commons

Instead of with the computer screens, both big and small, that dominate our daily lives today, I wish I could go to a restaurant or take the subway and see people actually speaking with each other, face to face.

It is funny that the more connected I have become, the more I want to disconnect and go back to what I imagine my great uncle’s life must have been like.

Of course I have no idea what life was really like for him back then, but the romanticized visions in my head keep pushing me to search further for that feeling of wonder I had when I first left home to come overseas, and even further back in time when I first experienced international travel visiting my great uncle so many years ago.

Next: My Life as a Global Nomad

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