Like many Brits, a lot of my immediate family lived close by when I was growing up, and the ones who were spread out over the country, we saw perhaps once a year. Anyone who moved overseas kept in touch with sporadic letters and even more sporadic (and prohibitively expensive) phone calls. The family jungle drums however, often kept us informed of everyone’s activities no matter where they were; even if you didn’t see a cousin every week or month, you knew what they were up to and with whom!
These days I have cousins and second cousins on Facebook and I probably know more about them than if I were living in the next street.Like me, a few of them are now living “abroad” and unfortunately, we may not ever meet up in the future. I also have second cousins I’ve never met, but we now have a cousins’ page and I feel like I’ve known them all my life. The fact that two of them are also in the States means that there’s a good chance we will meet up at some point on this side of the Pond.
I left school and university long before the Internet was a reality, and my move to the US made the possibility of meeting up with some friends from the past less and less likely. Indeed, with many, I didn’t even know where they were living let alone how to get in touch with them. But the Internet has changed all that. Now, with a quick search on FB or LinkedIn, I have found dozens of former classmates and colleagues.
(There’s something very weird about seeing someone again after 20 years. They look exactly the same – but not!) And, as many have found, Internet connections lead to some very strange events. The first that comes to mind is meeting bloggy friends in the flesh for the first time. Obviously we have good chance of knowing what the other will look like, but not whether we’ll get on as much as we do in the virtual world.
Like many bloggers, I now have good friends I’ve made purely through blogging; several have visited my house while taking a trip to Chicago. (My kids call these my stalker friends.) The second is the domino effects of getting to know bloggy friends – sometimes you get to know their friends and family too.
Sometimes you even get a house guest from Paris whose only connection to you is that you know his sister – through blogging. (This is when my kids start wigging out – “What? You mean you don’t know him and he’s staying in this house? You met his sister on the Internet?”) The third is when two or more friends from different parts of your life both end up commenting on your Facebook page as happened to me a few months ago. – “How do you two know each other?” I asked. “Oh, we both lived in Beijing twenty years ago” was the reply.
It also comes in useful when you have children who are making their way in the world. My college daughter is in Europe at the moment and I have a handful of friends within her reach that I know she could call on if in dire straits. In pre-Internet days you’d perhaps send the kids off with letters of introduction so that they could visit/stay with people in different parts of the world, but it was a lot more difficult to organize. Even weirder however, was the fact that she had coffee with a former college friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen since 1981 and only recently connected with on FB. My daughter was the same age as my friend and I when we last saw each other. Talk about a time warp!
For all the complaints about social media and the time we spend staring at a screen, for many expats it’s been a lifeline, not just in terms of obtaining information when we need it, but also for keeping up connections to friends and family when we need it.
Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.