Ten Things to Expect with an Expat in the Family

Deciding to pack up and head overseas doesn’t just change your own life: it affects your family and friends, too. How does life change for those who stay at home? From planning weekends around time-zone-friendly Skype calls to struggling with jet lag, we get a family member’s perspective on what to expect from having expat relatives.

Five years ago, my sister went on an international internship to gain some professional experience abroad. “It’s just for six months,” she said. She is still travelling the world today.

We might have grown up in the same place, at the same time, in the same family even, but my sister and I are very different. While I like the feeling of putting down roots and being part of a stable community, my sister constantly wants to be on a plane on the way to something new.

Here’s what to expect when someone you love decides to hit the road.

1) You only have a mental image of their new home … which may or may not bear any resemblance to reality. Pictures online and travel guides give a tourist’s perspective, but everyday life abroad looks very different from glossy photos of famous attractions.

2) Some people’s mental images might be hazier than others. One family member will remain slightly confused as to where exactly the expat is currently living. Grandad might have been sharing the weather forecast for Taipei with good intentions, but it’s not got much to do with Chengdu, a mere 1,800 kilometers away.

3) Airports and train stations are your new living room. When you finally get the chance to see each other, the logistics of when and where to meet up sometimes mean it comes down to a cup of coffee at an airport restaurant.

4) There is never enough time to catch up. Whether it’s that airport coffee or a weekend call, being apart means you always say goodbye wanting more — even if you have been chatting for hours. It also means you’re never quite up to date. Time zones add an extra challenge, but even if you are lucky enough to be close, the details get lost as you gossip about insignificant but amusing stories from your day.

5) Speaking of weekend calls: half your conversations are spent doing an Adele impression. Hello? Hello? Yes, hello? Though internet calling has made staying in touch with the family nomad much easier, sometimes Skype seems to have a mind of its own. When my sister was living in the US, the connection would drop out after exactly 21 minutes. Every. Single. Time.

6) At least your holiday plans are all set. Free accommodation and a personal tour guide at your beck and call — these are the perks of having family and friends abroad. Visiting my sister has taken me to places that were never on my horizon before, and knowing someone who actually lives there allowed me to experience them in a different way.

7) You know all the baggage allowances by heart, even when you are not packing your suitcase for the next family visit. For birthdays and holidays, you will start coordinating with family members — not on what to buy, but to make sure your gifts are all within the total weight and liquid allowances. Forget about perfume as a back-up present.

8) Jet lag becomes all too real. Whether you are over visiting or they’re finally home for the holidays, someone will be either asleep or eating at the wrong time. Three meals a day quickly blur into brunch, afternoon tea, and “I don’t even know what time it is” cereal snacks.

9) Your own life will automatically appear less exciting. “What did you get up to this weekend?” becomes a loaded question: don’t you dare mention the b-word — beach — while we are sitting at home and watching telly on yet another rainy day!

10) You stop saying “I miss you”. Not because you don’t, but because it’s a given. Though you are happy your family nomad is getting their adventure fix, it doesn’t stop you wishing you could simply pop round for a cup of tea on a bad day.

Ultimately, however, all that anyone wants for someone they love is to be happy. Being an expat makes my sister’s inner nomad smile, and that puts a smile on my face too.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

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