I’m going to say this for my expat friends, those who have taken a job assignment overseas, so that they don’t have to say it for themselves. I am going to offer you, those left behind, some ways to show your long-term care for your friend or family member who lives abroad.
By no means an exhaustive list, the following seven items represent what has proven helpful in my life and in the lives of some other expats that I have spoken with on this subject.
- SPEAK POSITIVELY.
For many, this presents a formidable task. After all, the expat you know and love is the one who chose to move in the first place. Most of my friends and I agree that it is easier to be the person who leaves rather than the person left behind. Increased physical distance between you and the one that you care about can really hurt, especially when you have a strong connection.
But unless this aforementioned expat happens to be a senseless jerk, he or she also acutely feels the loss that accompanies residing far from loved ones. In spite of this, he or she had valid and compelling reasons for living overseas for a time.
I’m a believer in honesty. If it hurts, say so. Lovingly. And then, for the sake of the one you care about, grieve, heal, and forgive so that you can become a source of encouragement.
Get to the place where you can authentically celebrate when your expat is happy and authentically empathize when your expat is sad.
Actually, this is in your best interest. If you harbor bitterness or pain about your expat’s decision, those emotions will find a way to leak (or lash) out. An expat who encounters guilt trips from those at home will likely want to distance themselves from the negativity and hurt, resulting in further loss of relationship.
Your expat will encounter days or weeks when they feel that life is against them, or for that matter, their new country, or their new job, or their new school. There will likely be days when it seems that entire world is against them. Except for you. They will know that you are on their side.
Be that source of encouragement.
- ASK QUESTIONS.
Showing curiosity about the new environment and life of your expat can speak volumes.
A friend of mine once commented that grocery store clerks in his home country sometimes ask more questions about his life than those close to him do. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe many of us assume that people we love won’t change much over the course of six months to two years. Or maybe because of a lack of shared experiences, we don’t know what to ask.
Regardless, asking good questions is a must for growing strong relationships. Specific questions seems to be the most helpful, rather than, “How’s [insert country name]?
Here are several examples:
What is your social group like? Do you spend more time with foreigners or locals, and why?
What do you miss from your home country?
What are your favorite places in your host country?
How do you travel around your city or area?
How do you shop in your host country?
What surprises you about your host country?
What is your work like? How has your work style or environment changed?
What are the greatest joys for you in your host country?
What are the greatest challenges for you?
- FIGURE OUT THE TIME DIFFERENCE.
The time difference can be a huge barrier to communication, but it takes very little effort to memorize how many hours apart you are from your expat.
If you feel that you don’t have the mental or time capacity to think about things such as time zones, you could buy a small clock for yourself and set it according to the time zone in which your expat lives. I’ve even seen digital clocks with room for photos. You can place pictures of your overseas loved ones next to the clock that bears their current time.
Due to their global lifestyle and their care for people in their home country, your expat will be very conscious about the time difference. Your matched resolve in this area will demonstrate attentiveness and will promote communication.
- TAKE THE INITIATIVE.
Hopefully, your expat will take time to contact you frequently. Most expats expect to return to their home countries at some point, so they will desire to continue current relationships with folks back home, even while they live abroad.
The reality of life overseas is not always glamorous. Just like moving domestically, your expat will need to navigate a new job position, develop a social network from scratch, and organize all of the physical necessities to live in a new environment. Add to that a new culture (including unfamiliar worldviews, values, thought processes, and ways of living), new modes of transportation, new language, new foods, new climate. Even after months or years of living in that host country, taking the initiative to go outside for groceries or taking the initiative to meet up with a new friend can be exhausting. One major activity per day can max some people out. Often, an expat’s life is largely comprised of putting themselves out there.
That’s why you taking initiative in the relationship, you being the first one to call or text sometimes, is such a big deal. Most people enjoy two-way friendships anyway, but your initiative toward your expat can be one of the strongest signals that you continue to value and think about them. It also gives your expat a bit of a break from usually being the one to have to muster up the strength to act first.
You can be the one who keeps your expat updated on life back home. Few people in an expat’s home country will think about what the expat may or may not know regarding their family and friends. Expats will inevitably miss out on changes or big events, but you can find ways to help your expat feel included and to know in advance what is happening.
The skill of taking initiative is a prerequisite for the following three ways to love your expat.
- WRITE A LETTER or SEND A PACKAGE.
It’s a whole lot easier to send a text message, but everyone, especially children, love to open up a real hand-written letter once in a while. Flat letters can usually be sent directly to your expat’s address in their host country. Some companies will also forward flat letters to their overseas employees, which means that you only need to bear the cost of a letter sent domestically. You could include items such as stickers and photographs.
Packages can be more expensive and difficult to ensure delivery, but trust me when I say that opening a care package feels like Christmas. Things that are ordinary to you, but are difficult to find or expensive to buy in the host country, make great and easy treats to send overseas.
- CALL THEM.
Twenty years ago, it would have been insane to think of seeing your loved one’s face while they were standing on the other side of planet Earth. But now, technologies like FaceTime and Skype make it easier to talk to your friend virtually face-to-face than it is to write a letter to them. If you don’t want your expat to look at you while you talk, you can do a straight phone call with the same programs.
We have already tackled the issue of time differences, which could be a problem if you are thinking of calling someone in the middle of their night. But since you will buy a clock to keep track of it, that’s not a concern anymore.
Now the biggest hurdle to calling is mental. Let’s face it. We may not feel like we have time to call people who live near us, but we call them anyway because we have some sort of motivation or reason to make time for it. If you have the motivation to call your expat, then do it without wondering whether they have time to talk with you. It’s just like in your home country. If they are available, they will take the call. If not, they can call you back when they are free. You don’t need an appointment.
One of the best sounds is that of the familiar voice of someone you like, and you can provide that for your expat. With audio, your expat can hear the inflection, tone, and support behind your words.
- VISIT THEIR HOST COUNTRY.
Visiting your expat overseas is far and away the most tangible show of your commitment, for several reasons.
- No matter how much your expat explains to you about their life, you will not fully understand or care until you’ve witnessed it firsthand.
- History, your culture, your friends, and television, among other things, have likely formed your ideas of your expat’s host country. Some of your concepts will be spot on and some will be way off. Visiting will give you clarity about your expat’s new environment and what the real advantages and real concerns are in that country.
- You will share a common experience with your expat. Most friendships are based on shared experiences. After visiting, you will have fun adventure stories to reminisce about together. You will meet the friends who have become vital in your expat’s life. You will get a sense of how your expat has stayed the same and how they are changing. You will be able to connect sounds, colors, and smells with a place that your expat mentions… because you’ve been there.
- Your expat understands the cost of a visit, in terms of time, energy, and money. After all, your expat pays that cost every time they go back to visit you. The sacrifice you make to spend time with your friends or family overseas will not go unnoticed.
Many of you reading this have raised, trained, and invested in expats like myself. Thank you for giving us the confidence and freedom to take a risk. You are treasured and loved. I hope that you find joy in connecting with your expat in the days to come.