Thursday, 23 August 2012

While the gettin' is hot

EDIT: Please make sure you read the comments at the end of this post (if you get that far!). This really wasn't meant to be a piece with a negative focus, and I honestly am not picking anyone out in particular. I'm just writing about another aspect of expattery, and how I feel about missing people.

This is an odd post to write and I'm not sure whether it's the right thing to do, to write it out in public. That sounds dramatic - I promise it's nothing horrendous! I guess I should start by saying that this post is about observation, not accusation, and something that I've been reflecting on for some time now. It's part of human nature, and probably only taken me this long to come to writing about it because I'm just as guilty of it as anyone. It's also not something I see as an 'issue', as I accept that a) all people are different; b) I get things wrong all the time, so this post (and any of my thoughts) are hardly conclusive; and c) I'm just musing out loud, so it's nothing personal.

Since I've been in the States, I think I've made a pretty good effort to be accessible and regularly available for multiple methods of communication. Through mobile media, social networking, the wonders of Skype, email, and even good ol' snail mail, I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping in touch and keeping people updated back home. Admittedly I'm less good with the birthday cards and presents than I used to be, for both financial and distance reasons (although with companies like Amazon and Moonpig, this is hardly an excuse), but other than that I hope I've made the effort for family and friends alike.

Even back home, I was always a person that made a huge effort to keep in touch. I seem to have an inherent fear of losing people from my life, which is odd, as I've never really 'lost' anyone in a significant way. It might be because I moved from what I considered my home town at age 6 and that really distressed me, leaving me feeling uprooted and detached, but that's conjecture at best - so many things have happened since then! It isn't obvious why I am so keen on maintaining links, but whether it's nature or nurture, it's how I am. I send cards, and I text, and I email at length. I remember birthdays, anniversaries (and by remember, I mean 'have them in my Filofax with something of a religious annual update to make sure I don't forget'), spend ages and take pleasure in finding ideal gifts for those I love, and really enjoy getting little surprises for those I care for 'just because'.

Aboriginal symbols for colonies or campsites,
symbolising the idea that home is where you are.
I'm not saying this to blow my own trumpet at all, but to illustrate that I know not everyone is like me, and I've learned not to be worried by that. I used to feel less cared for when people didn't make a similar level of effort, but not any more. The only people I know who function on a similar I-like-to-spoil-you-and-giggle-ridiculously-because-I-can-do-this-and-life-is-awesome-and-so-are-you-and-I will-add-in-some glitter-for-good-measure level are Ben, and my sister-in-law. In fact, in the case of the latter, it was the first ever mail I received from her that made me realise I was dealing with someone who really was 'my sister' (in marriage terms, of course!). She sent me a package with a letter detailing what to open when and why. It had two cards in it, one for me, and one for me and Ben. There were stickers and sparkly bits in the parcel, and along with some native Aussie chocolate (I am still wanting more of those coconut things, by the way Wren, if you're reading!), as well as a beautiful necklace with a specific link to my then situation (leaving home), which I now never take off. I was touched in a way I can't really express, and I felt so very special to receive such a wonderful bundle. I guess that's why I do it: I want people to feel cared for and appreciated, known, acknowledged. I'm excessive; I love and communicate love whenever I can (possibly why I fit in a bit better here in NC, with their southern friendliness!); and I'm a little too effusive and warm for the average Brit. And that's fine.

I guess what I am a little saddened by is that I've hardly heard from some people at all, despite my efforts at keeping in touch, and these are people who I was very close with before I left. I'm not saying I'm shocked by this development, and I know that it was my choice to leave (and a great choice it was, too!), as well as the aforementioned difference between my version of 'keeping in touch' and that of most others. But it still stings a little, and there's not really anything I can do about it, other than keep trying. Also, oddly enough, it's actually happened on both sides of the pond. I've found my friendships here developing in ways that I wasn't expecting; those I thought I might be closest with have sometimes turned out to be treasured but nevertheless distant friends.

On the flip side, and the positive aspect that I'd rather focus on, I've been pleasantly surprised by finding people who seem more like me, and who have crept up on me gently (in a non-stalker like fashion), making me feel special and loved in a way I inherently understand and appreciate so much. I've also been happily surprised by the efforts some of the people I'd generally been a bit more reserved around back home, and now I speak with them certainly more frequently than I would have while in England, and possibly more openly, too.

From reading around the subject a little it seems that any expat has, by leaving their motherland, damned themselves to a lifetime of constant comparison. One thing I haven't read much about it how that links to the people known in both (or each of the) countries that the expat returns to. I'm not the kind of person who wants to country-hop and live all over the world - I'm not that sort of 'free spirit', but I'd say I'm definitely a divided soul. I know for a fact that I am not a child of the world, but an English girl who loves being part American.

Without a doubt, I have some wonderful friends on both continents. I am a lucky, lucky girl. But how a person relates to their experiences is inevitably entrenched in who experiences those things with them, as I wrote about back in March. So telling the Brits about American adventures or vice versa is likely to be a pointless task, even though humanity is of course all connected. The lack of cultural context, but possibly more importantly, communal, real-time simultaneous experience, means that all discussion lacks some depth in this instance. I'm also rather fascinated by the point of switch-over, when the new country becomes more relevant in your day-to-day existence, but it's not your original home. Is this a healthy thing, and how does it impact on your motherland friends when suddenly your birth country is less significant than the country in which you're currently living?

My natural impulse to apologise for the seeming egocentricity of a post like this is as strong as ever, but it won't serve much here, save for pointing out that I'm clearly not the centre of anyone's universe, in the same way that I am, inevitably, the centre of my own. As David Foster Wallace says in his stunning commencement speech 'This is Water'"Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea." It may not have crossed others' minds to check in with me more regularly, or they may not have known what to say or ask, or maybe I'm not asking them enough about how they are and how we are - illustrating the inevitable confusion that arises from having to impute others' actions without knowing the possible internal and external influences over their behaviour that has nothing to do with us personally. There is also the possibility that they just don't really find my experiences here relevant so aren't asking because they aren't fussed about hearing about them, or are confused or hurt by my decision to leave. While ostensibly they support me, they may not take an interest because they don't really believe in why I am here. I have to consider that too, but I also need to remember that's only one possible conclusion.

As I said right at the beginning, this is a post meant for discussion and thought, not an accusatory missive directed at people I've not spoken to much of late. There are so many reasons that that could have happened, and all I can do is hope to remedy it with you. If we've not spoken a lot over the last ten months, know that I miss you, and I love you, and if you send me your address, I'm pretty sure you'll get a glitter-filled, excessively cheery missive headed your way in the very near future.


  1. Actually, I have had a very similar experience. Apart from my mother and brother, it's been a bit of a frustration keeping contact.

    When emails and Skype convos have happened with friends in Blighty, it's been pretty much entirely through my initiative and efforts to make it happen.

    Unlike you, however, I have to confess that I was never much good at communicating with friends who lived abroad when I was in Britain. Plus, men are probably worse than women at such things.

    I understand your frustration though. One gets a sense of "out of sight, out of mind."

    Before I left Blighty, my stepfather recited a story about when he was young and in the army. He came back to England after being away in Germany for 18 months. He was really looking forward to seeing everyone that he'd missed. His brother, who was reading the newspaper on his arrival back, looked up and grunted a, "Oh, you're back then," then went back to his newspaper! He said after that disappointment, he lowered his expectations! :-)

    I think for the people back home, life trundles on as normal. Whereas for us expats, out lives are completely different and we've been jolted out of any sense of complacency that we might have felt in our previous lives.

  2. I just replied to a friend, Mike, who commented that some friends stay the same no matter what - I think I missed a point there. Some people you're so close to that whether you see each other every week or every year, your friendship remains intact. This is what I wrote:

    " I use Facebook like I use my phone - always in touch with people, whether it be through long messages, wall posts, sharing photos, or just saying 'hi' in the briefest of ways by posting a mutually interesting link or similar. I think it's great and, bar the annoying glitches (mainly annoying because I rely on it so much!), I love it.

    I have always made the effort and, as I said in the post, I've learned not to worry too much if I'm usually the person going OTT on the keeping in touch side of things. I think perhaps I missed a good point that you made there: some friends that have been less in touch may be/are that way because of the longevity of our friendship. Although it's not a reason not to tell people you miss/love/are thinking of them, the fact that you've been friends forever means that when you do see each other, it's as though nothing has changed. "

    Also, I should probably have better acknowledged the fact that some of the people I was expecting/hoping to keep in touch a lot, have. That makes me really happy. :)

    A lot of it is my initiative, but a lot of it comes from friends too. I have received random care packages, a ton of UK birthday cards, random emails and texts checking in, and Skype calls too. A couple of my friends actually got Skype so that they could keep in touch more easily, and a lot of them also got What'sApp so we can text for free as well. I'm really lucky that a) these things exist and b) my friends were ready and willing to give them a try!

    I think you make a really good point about 'out of sight, out of mind'. I hope my point about not wanting to sound egotistical came across okay. I don't expect people to be walking around silently crying about my departure and waiting on the next time I call. ;) The fact I left is to do with my life, not theirs, and of course I don't expect to be the focus of their existence. The frustration comes, as you said, from initiating things and then it still not happening. That makes me feel a little uncared for, or as though my absence makes no difference at all. I'd like to think people I'm close to miss me like I miss them. For the most part, I am reassured that they do, though, so perhaps this post was a bit too weighted on the negative side.

    The expat issue is true, too. So much changes that I guess you feel like you need to hold on to every bit of normalcy you can. Perhaps that encourages the keeping in touch to some extent. There's also the risk that you become irrelevant though, being so far away, and busy with such different things. It's complicated!


Thanks for taking the time to write! I try to reply to everyone, and I love to read your comments.