13 November 2014

Family Visits

One of the defining characteristics of expat life is that it is lived at a distance, sometimes a great distance, from family.  Costs and bureaucracy add to the physical distance but there is an emotional distance too, often overlooked.

Visits help to maintain strong family bonds.
Living abroad changes us – it opens the eyes to experiences beyond the home country, makes you think in a different way.  Some things which seem so important at home become far less so after a few years abroad whereas other rituals which were never very important suddenly become defining characteristics of home and the home culture.  What goes and what stays is different for every expat 

Nevertheless while we change our family stay the same.  Very often they will have no idea of normal day to day life – many expats say their family members think they live in a permanent ‘Club Med’.  Other aspects of the expat lifestyle (housekeepers, drivers etc) may give rise to jealousy even if they are a necessary part of your life abroad.  I never forget the reaction of our family and friends back in Europe when they found out that for one particular posting I was followed everywhere by at least one armed guard. (my parents had more).  To them it sounded impossibly glamorous, to me and my immediate family it meant that there was a threat that had to be taken very seriously.  I worried whenever I was in the UK far away from my parents – never sure whether I would hear (and worse, have to break to my sister) the horrible news that the guards proved necessary. 

Some experiences can't be described over the 'phone
they have to be lived in person.  
These days, of course, my husband, children and I are the ones that are travelling.  My father and sister take this in their stride – it is life as we have always known it.  My husband’s family are experiencing this for the first time, our life is more strange to them and visits more difficult to arrange and undertake. I found, as a child, that it was easier once I had visited my parents in a new location, to imagine their day to day lives and how I fitted in to that.  Because of my itinerant life I have never had a physical home – home has always been about people not place and so family visits mean a lot to me. Family members can visualise how our lives are every day, although of course it is not quite typical as you lay on special experiences – trips to museums, heritage sites or good restaurants.  It is also important for expat children to understand that family will come and visit them and not just wait for the children to go back to the home country.  I loved it when my grandparents visited us in Norway and the UK - I visited my grandparents often and shared in their lives but there was something very special about sharing mine with them.  Our children feel the same and relish being the ones in the know.  During one visit to Kazakhstan Master and Miss EE were spending an afternoon with my father while Mr EE and I were at work, they refused to let him leave the house unless he was wearing enough outdoor clothes.  It was autumn and he thought they were being excessive but they were proved right when, 15 minutes into their trip to the park he was feeling the effects of the steppe wind!  

We have had, in our first three months in Miri, as many visitors as we had during our whole three years in Kazakhstan.  Malaysia is easier and cheaper to get to and there are no visas, it is a holiday destination in its own right.  Kazakhstan was beautiful – and probably far more exotic in the sense that fewer people visit – but many people were put off by the extreme temperatures.  Who wants a holiday in -35 degrees C?

It is important for family to understand where and
how you live to give context when you ring home.
Of course we also have a trump card here in Malaysia – our new baby daughter.  Unsurprisingly everyone in the family wants to meet her and therefore are taking the time to come out and visit.  The nature of these visits is very dependent on the family member.  My sister came to help when the baby was born but took a few days beforehand to explore Sarawak before taking over childcare/school runs for our older two while I was in the hospital.  We have just heard the exciting news that she will come to spend Christmas with us, bringing her new significant other for the first time, they will probably use us as a base - going away for a few days before coming back for a day or two with us.  We expect to see her more than any other family member as she will happily detour to see us on her way to and from any other holiday.

My mother and sister in law came a few weeks after the baby was born.  It was their first trip to Malaysia or even this part of Asia so we made sure to show them as much as possible (trips to see Monkeys, the Miri tourist sites, Lambir Hills etc) and treated my mother in law to her first ever Chinese meal for her 80th birthday.  It was also a chance to spend time with all three of the children.  My mother in law is elderly so may not come out again but we do hope to see my sister in law and the rest of the family in the future. 

Children in particular love to show off their home to visiting family.
My father popped over a few weeks after my in laws left – he had been in Miri years before and sees the older children on skype every week so came primarily to see the baby.  Nevertheless we were able to make some weekend trips – walking on the beach and visiting the Niah Caves heritage site.  The older children had a wonderful time and he taught them to ride their bikes – an experience with him that they will remember for the rest of their lives.  We expect to see a lot of him as well as travel is not difficult for him.  He is retired but still has many voluntary commitments and some remote work so he spends his mornings here ensconced in my office doing his work before spending afternoons ‘en famille’ – the internet meaning he can work here every bit as easily as he can at home. 

There is something so indescribably lovely about spending time, just ordinary time together, having people right there instead of at the end of a phone line and subject to the problems that time zones generate.  As I type this I can hear my father’s voice speaking to my husband in another room and it is a very comforting, happy feeling.  This must be how my parents felt when my sister and I were able to be at home.  Home truly is where the heart is and I love it dearly when all the pieces of my heart can be in the same place at the same time.  

Seychelles Mama

Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

18 comments:

  1. Hello from the My Expat Family blog hop. We have lived in France for ten years now and love it when our family from UK come and visit, but it's even better to pop back and get spoiled by them in the UK!

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    1. There is something so special about catching up again isn't there. Family are so important.

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  2. Love this post :)
    You're right that it's wonderful for people to be able to see your real expat life and get an understanding that it most certainly isn't 'club med' all the time!!! Having a baby abroad definitely is trump card and will bring everyone out the wood work :)
    I also totally agree that home is people not necessarily a place, it's a really nice way of viewing it!! Thanks so much for joining in again with #myexpatfamily lovely to have you :) xx

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    1. Thanks again for inviting me - it is brilliant to catch up and see everyone's perspectives on life in all these different corners of the world.

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  3. I agree fully that it's important that family members come out to see you as much as you go back to them. I think it's important for our children that their grandparents, cousins etc see where they live and not just imagine the "exotic-ness". I too was brought up all over the world without a home town. Very happy to have found your blog through #myexpatfamily (And I would have gone to see you like a shot in Kazakstan if I'd been a friend/family member when you lived there...the Stans fascinate me!!!)

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    1. IF you get a chance do go - Kazakhstan was a wonderful place to live - exciting, new, traditional, friendly and adventurous all rolled into one. One of my favourite postings ever! If you find yourself in Sarawak do shout and I will stand you a coffee :)

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  4. My parents were so involved in my kids life. I love that they are willing to travel to see us as often as they can. They have a lot of travel on their plate. They live in Canada, my brother is in London and we are in Costa Rica. But they do it. They also try to contribute to a family meet up somewhere in the world each year so that we can all be together. Keeps us a healthy and happy extended family.

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    1. That is brilliant - it makes so much of a difference. That is a lot of travelling in one family! Distance does not matter though when people make such an effort.

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  5. My mother has visited us several times since we moved, which is wonderful, and she always stays for a few weeks, so she really does know what our life is like here. My husbands parents just visited us for the first time and it was lovely for them to finally see and experience the life we live here. It was really important to my husband that they did. I absolutely love the last line in your post x #myexpatfamily

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    1. How lovely to have your mum out. I know I would not have been able to keep mine away from us! So brilliant that your in laws decided to come out - it must have made your husband happy that he could share his life with them.

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  6. This is such a great post. I love it when people come to visit us. It's great to share our lives with them, but what I love most about it is the way they can then relate to us afterwards. I know it means a lot to my mother to be able to visualise the market I shop at or the bar I get the best coffee from when she next talks to me on the phone. My parents-in-law loved being taken to see my son's nursery. I think it helps them to feel involved in our day-to-day lives, even if they aren't in reality.

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    1. Thanks Eline. It is so true - I bet your Mom loves to be able to 'see' where you are and what you are doing when she thinks of you!

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  7. We've been in Australia for eight weeks now and I'm really looking forward to planning family visits next year. The world is such a small place now that flights are easily available - it doesn't really matter that we're on the other side of the world. Your new home sounds like a lovely place to visit and with the new addition I'm sure you won't be short of visitors. xx

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    1. It is so true - these days Visas are more of a barrier than flights. I bet you will have loads of visitors to your Aussie home!

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  8. I havent seen my family for so many years now and I am so homesick and I wish that I can see them and they can see my son. This is an amazing read and I am nodding on so many parts. #MyExpatFamily

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    1. Thanks Pixie! I hope you get to see your family soon. It is horrible to be apart for too long.

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  9. Family's #1. Whenever I have a long enough break, which is usually once a year, I go home to be with my family. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post for #ExpatTuesday - http://www.trekkingwithbecky.com/expat-tuesday-healthytokyo-com/ :D

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    1. Thanks, it is so true isn't it, family makes us who we are and it is so important to connect whenever possible.

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