Expatriate nostalgia

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-29 17:53:01

Being unable to go home for holidays and important family and social events is commonplace for expats. Photo: IC

Christmas is on the horizon.  It's a season teeming with family reunions, joy, and happiness. But for expats and nomads who won't be able to go back to their home country, it's also a time of yearning and bittersweet nostalgia.

How do you maintain lasting and meaningful connections with relatives and friends you cannot visit in person? Metropolitan invited some expats to share how they feel about being away from home during this special season.

Expats panel:

Dan Friedman: a 48-year-old American, who works in the financial industry in Beijing. Friedman has lived in different cities in China for more than 10 years.

Bruno Paumard: a 51-year-old Frenchman, who lives in Hohhot in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Paumard is a winemaker and works for Château Hansen. He has lived in China for a decade.

Berit Paxson-Tarnai: a 22-year-old American, who works as an education consultant in Beijing and has lived in China for one and a half years. She is also a student.

Becca: a 25-year-old American, who is currently a supervisor of online teachers at a Beijing-based English training company. Becca has lived in Beijing for three years.

Apart from phone calls, social networking apps are another useful option for expats trying to maintain connections back home. Photo: IC

Family & friends

For people living far away, family, relatives, and friends trigger the strongest sentimental yearning for home. Sometimes the emotion is so strong that it develops into a feeling of guilt, especially when an occasion calls you to go home but you cannot go. 

Paxson-Tarnai: Such an occasion happened a few years ago when my father got sick with cancer. I decided I couldn't go home right away, though I did get home eventually to support them for a while. It's a huge source of stress for me, not being there for my family. There is no quick or cheap way to get home if necessary. My parents are fairly old, and I'm an only child, which makes it even more stressful. My parents and I have argued about my plans to be in China before, but, in general, they support me and want me to follow my dreams and pursue my goals here, even if it means being far away from home. I am so grateful to them.

Friedman: I faced this problem [a family member diagnosed with a serious illness] before. It was tough. It was hard to know what to do, whether or not to take extra time off work to make a special trip home. The distance made things harder and made the decision-making process more difficult. Of course, I felt bad. It is the price I pay for living so far from home.

Special occasions 

Special events evoke special sentiments. Being an expat means you have to miss out on important holidays, life events of family members and friends.

Becca: I will call them [family and friends] using Skype credit and sing happy birthday, or wish them a merry Christmas. My family always plans a Skype chat during Christmas so that I can see everyone and talk with them one by one. I prepare gifts in advance and mail them home, or purchase gift cards online to places I know that they enjoy.

Paumard: I have three children. To stay in touch with them, I used to go back to France every year at Christmas. But now my children are 22, 20 and 16, and they visit me in China once a year.

Paxson-Tarnai: I always try to send at least a Facebook message or a text message wishing family and friends happy birthday, Merry Christmas, etc. I also try to call, if possible, for birthdays. Birthday or holiday gifts either have to wait until I return home to visit, or I'll just send a postcard with my good thoughts instead. It's unfortunate that there isn't an easy way to send gifts to people back home.

Friedman: I try to schedule my holidays so that I can go to these types of family events, and to friends' weddings. I did miss a family vacation get-together a couple of years ago due to work obligations here in China. Once I realized I wouldn't be able to attend, I just accepted it and focused on my work here. I was still able to go to the next family get-together later that year, and I got to see the pictures of the one that I missed.

Nature & time to enjoy it

Becca: Life in Beijing can be very work-oriented. Work, work, work all day and then sleep. I miss the slower pace of life. I miss the sound of the wind in the trees and the cries of birds flying freely in the beautiful blue sky. I miss the way the early morning light streams radiant sunbeams through the pine trees and the smell of the clean air. I miss going for runs in the woods, seeing the stars at night, watching sunrises and sunsets.

Paxson-Tarnai: The biggest thing I miss is clean air. I long for the blue skies of home - blue even in winter. I'm also from a small town with beautiful hills and mountains, and I miss nature a lot now that I'm living in a big city.

Home food 

Although global food and cuisines are available in cosmopolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, most expats still hanker for food from home, the dishes they grew up eating. It is not uncommon for expats to gain a few kilos during their visit home.

Friedman: Certain comfort foods. Such as my favorite pizza from my favorite pizza parlor, banana cream pie from a local diner, coffee from my favorite local coffee shop, the fish sandwich and fried scallops from a famous local fish market, and the world famous sandwich from Primanti Brothers (with the French fries inside the sandwich).

Paumard: The unique French bread, made of cheeses produced with the help of yeasts and bacteria, that are unavailable in China. Nowhere else in the world will you find the quality of bread you get in France. My grandmother used to say, eat the Roquefort blue cheese and you will never be ill.

Movie choices

Friedman: I love to watch movies in the movie theater, so I do miss the so many movies that don't get shown in theaters here. Though, of course, through the magic of the Internet, it is usually possible to watch them online, eventually.

Tips to keep in touch

#1 Technology is your best friend

Use e-mail and social networking sites. WeChat is another useful app.

Paumard: Even if my children are in France, I ask them to download the WeChat app, and I must tell you that it is a lot better than other instant messengers.

Paxson-Tarnai: WeChat, GroupMe, and Facebook are helping a lot. Google Voice.

#2 Give updates on your life abroad

Paumard: I put all my life, including photos and comments of each day, on my WeChat Moments. My children know everything about me. It is good.

Paxson-Tarnai: I normally don't really update my family and friends back home about my relationship status, except occasionally I will chat with college friends on Facebook or GroupMe about the new people I'm dating.

#3 The telephone, an old-fashioned tool, is still a good way to keep in touch with loved ones.

Paumard: I phone regularly, especially to my mother who is 86 years old.

Paxson-Tarnai: I call my mom almost every day on the subway or the bus when I can find a moment.

Friedman: When I had an old college buddy visiting me here in Beijing, we called a couple of our old classmates in the US and in Europe. It was great to surprise them with phone calls, which they totally were not expecting!

#4 Schedule time to talk

Paxson-Tarnai: The time difference means that I need to do the math when I call friends or family to make sure I'm not waking them up in the middle of the night. Also, the fact that the US observes daylight saving time part of the year (and China doesn't) makes the time difference that much more confusing in the winter.

#5 Catch up in person when you get the chance

Paxson-Tarnai: When I get the chance to go home, I make sure to go out for a few nice meals with my mom, go on walks and hikes together. My family is very outdoorsy, and we will usually try to find time to celebrate holidays we missed while I was away and open gifts from those holidays - even if it passed a few months before. I try to see my old friends from grade school if possible, too. When I'm home, I also focus on my most important goal: eating ALL the American food I know I'll miss when I return to China! I'm a vegetarian, so my family and I make fantastic vegetarian food that makes me so happy.

Paumard: For relatives and friends, I meet them at once in person mostly in May when I travel back home. We organize a huge party with all the cousins as well. We rent a chateau or a place that has rooms for 70 persons and we spend three days together.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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