My little sister recently used the word “jacked” to describe a guy she’d met. I stopped her right there. “What exactly do you mean by ‘jacked?’ Jacked up? Because if you mean jacked up, I’m telling Mom and Dad you’re hanging out with a dude who has a substance abuse problem!” My beloved sister rolled her eyes in the way only young people can in the face of ultimate lack of hip-ness and said, “No, I mean he’s got muscles.”
It’s common for expats to forego celebrating milestones with friends and family while living abroad, but a subtler loss is this: missing out on a culture’s current trends in thinking and style of communication. This aspect leads to a sense of growing relational isolation. For a lack of shared relevance in conversation topics, the time between email replies and Skype dates lengthens—and it could be months before the next meaningful exchange.
However, I propose that awkward time zone gaps, differing styles of communication and growing cultural disparity do not have to determine the resilience of our relationships. The following ideas are culled from genuine expat stories—an innovative mix of technology and old-school methods to inspire you to renew the ties that may have frayed over the distance.
Time Zone Management
For starters, figuring out good times to be in touch can be a hassle, especially when coordinating across two or more time zones. And let’s not get started on the complications with daylight saving time. Friends have recommended the app World Time Buddy, which not only visually coordinates time zones, but also syncs with Gmail and Google Calendar, and has an easy-to-use clipboard feature. The next time you need to arrange a meeting with your family in Atlanta and your cousin in Paris, click and copy the generated text and paste it into your email.
The Good Ol’ Phone Call
Is there an unspoken rule that it’s un-cool to use a real telephone? Don’t be scared—give your thumbs a break from Kaokao-ing and pick up the phone for a chat. “I call my mom on the ‘real’ phone religiously every week, usually on Sundays,” says Kelly, of South Africa. “My mom isn’t very comfortable using Skype or Facebook for that matter. She’s a bit of a technophobe, so the phone’s most convenient for her.”
What to talk about? “Call to complain. Call to be joyous. Call to overshare,” advises Sonja, who hails from California. “Just calling to share my little frustrations or joys has kept me close to family and friends. I think it’s about sharing the little things frequently that keeps connections back home vibrant and meaningful.”
Almost-Free-Tip: 아이피 (IP) call service provider 1688 allows you to call abroad from your Korean cell phone at no extra cost. Simply prepare to pay the same price as a local phone call. See their FAQ section for the list of countries covered under this service.
Sharing Life: via Images
“I’ve gotten my parents to start using Instagram,” Seoul-based writer Meagan shares. “We especially like seeing my dad’s photos from his business trips around the world. It’s a quick way to share a cute, funny, or poignant moment.”
Inspired, but want something more tangible? Transform your Instagram photos through Postagram or Printstagram. Download the Postagram app, and in one click, the image is automatically printed and mailed as a postcard to your recipient of choice. Or try out this couple project: You and your significant other take a photo every day using the same Instagram account, Once it’s populated, it can be printed via Printstagram, essentially creating a parallel chronicle of your relationship.
While we’re on the subject of mobile apps, check out Pair. Its one-touch video chat and joint to-do list-making features serve practical uses. Fun (or cheesy?) options that make this free app worth a try are the ability to create sketches together, play tic-tac-toe, or “thumb kiss”—where you and your significant other place your thumbs in the same spot, making both phones vibrate at the same time. Don’t forget to check out the locally-developed app Between as well.
Sharing Life, Par Avion
Shipping gifts? After a little experimentation, I’ve discovered that sending items less than 1kg in a padded envelope (regardless of size) is cheaper than using a box. If you’re not in a rush, send it ilban (일반), or regular mail and ask for actual oo-pyo (우표), or stamps, instead of the laser-printed label, giving it that added faraway touch.
To friends and family abroad: even if the expat in your life won’t be able to attend your wedding or celebratory event, send them an invitation or program, anyway! Receiving these invites and announcements in the mail reassures them that they aren’t forgotten.
Shared Hobbies + Activities
It’s been said that women relate face to face, while men relate side by side. Read: guys don’t want to just talk; they bond best through an activity. Even so, male or female, a shared experience is definitely more entertaining and satisfying.
MMO Games (Massively Multiplayer Online Games)
Tested and approved by brothers Paul and Patrick, the benefit of these games is that they run 24-7 online, allowing millions to simultaneously interact in a “world.” Free from time zone constrictions and obvious physical limitations involved with other hobbies, World of Warcraft is the brothers’ long-distance bonding activity of choice. Paul admits, “Some of the best conversations I have with my brother happen in the middle of running dungeon raids.”
Specially Curated Books, Movies + Music Lists
Jane, an expat-for-life in China, has a sister who is dedicated to keeping in touch by emailing curated lists of popular books, movies and music from the USA to check out. “Deborah knows my taste in books and reads everything first before ‘approving’ it, saving me the cost of purchasing a bunch of expensive titles I won’t like,” Jane shares. “After I read a book, we’ll Skype to chat about it. She also burns me CDs of the top pop songs I should know of, even if they’re not my style. That way, when I go back for a visit, I won’t be clueless as to what everyone’s talking about!
Videos + Video Chats
The main practical advantage of Google+’s free Hangout is that it requires very little bandwidth and minimal CPU usage, making it more effective than its competitors.
Moriah, who’s based in Seoul, and her brother Andrew, who currently lives in Japan, recently tested it out at their cousin’s stateside wedding. “Andrew and I both got on and had our younger brother in the US sign on. He positioned the laptop in the church so we could watch the ceremony. The only catch,” Moriah notes, “is to make sure to shut off appropriate computer microphones.” Google Hangout’s voice recognition feature shifts the camera view to the user with audible noise, so if you’re not careful you may miss some important moments!
As for my sister and I? Her college lifestyle is, shall we say, erratic, so we used to stress over coordinating video chatting “dates” online. To solve the problem, we created a private Facebook group where she posts short videos, updating me on her life. Since I’m not particularly comfortable with talking to myself in front of a camera, I respond by “commenting” on the videos. In a perfect world, I prefer to exchange lengthy, soul-baring emails, but this compromise is what works best for sustaining our relationship. That said, I love her videos! The time she takes to create them reassures me that I’m still an important part of her life.
Do you have any tried and true tips or nifty technology that help you stay in touch with your loved one? Share them with us in the comments below!