Stranded in Scotland for an extra day as a result of the volcanic ash being spewed into European airspace by Eyjafjallajoekull (whose pronounciation may never be mastered outside of Iceland), we were unable to pick our daughter up at the end of her first week-long school trip. Although she handled the situation well, she was clearly disappointed and my husband and I felt dreadful that we weren’t able to be there. However, our inconvenience was minor in comparison to others and as I listened to tales of families being split up for several days, weddings, birthdays and funerals missed, people unable to get back to support loved ones through medical and emotional crises, I started to think of all the things that most of us modern expats take from granted that were not available to our predecessors and some of which are still not available to some of our current day compatriots in more far-flung and exotic locations.
Telephone and the Internet – Most expats today have access to telephone and the internet. It may take a few weeks in a new host country to get everything connected but for most of us it’s available sooner or later. We phone our families and friends regularly and they call us, often at minimal expense. We use e-mail, and social networking sites; we have news and information about our home countries and the ability to order gifts and cards online among other things. They have made keeping in touch with friends and family easy. We can post photos on Facebook and we can tweet about our experiences on Twitter making our lives more real and less remote to the people we love.
Air Travel - Hopping on and off planes is a way of life for today’s expats but until relatively recent was not an option for expat travel. Antipodeans still accumulate long service leave – an extended leave from work which is accumulated over a period of years with an employer. The original purpose of long service leave was to give European immigrants to Australia and NZ the time to get to and from Europe by ship and have a meaningful amount of time with their families in Europe. No transatlantic long weekends to attend weddings in those days! Accessible air travel lessens the emotional burden of being away from children who are grown, in university or in boarding school and it means we might be there for important events or to provide support when its needed.
International Schools – The increasing availability of international schools in popular expat locations has meant that fewer expats have to make the difficult choice to send our children (particularly older children) to boarding school. Many more (though by no means all) of us can choose to have our children with us until they complete their high school education. Sending younger children to local schools is often now an active choice made by parents who want to promote their children’s linguistic abilities rather than the default because there are no other options. (All of this is said with the large caveat that, given the breathtaking fees of many international schools, expats whose school fees are not paid by their sponsoring organisations may not have those choices)
Proliferation of English – More and more people around the world are learning English as a second language. For English speaking expats, the challenge of getting things done when you haven’t come to grips with the language is diminished; non-English speaking expats who speak English as a second language may find that although they don’t speak the host language, English is a way to communicate. When I moved to Shanghai in 2004, learning Mandarin was a necessity to be able to get things done. By the time I left in 2007, so many local people spoke English that it was possible to function with barely a word of Mandarin.
Of course all of these developments that make our expat lives easier are double edged swords. Some of us fail to engage fully in our new lives because we are too absorbed in keeping up with our old lives by phone or online or because we’re heading home at the drop of a hat because we can get cheap flights. We and our children miss out on the richness of our culture in which we are living because we don’t become immersed or decide that we don’t need to learn the language. (We can “get by” with English.)
I’m sure that expat life 100 years ago was a richer and more challenging experience but I’m glad that, in today’s environment, I can live in another country with my children and maintain my ties to family and friends. So, next time I’m feeling sorry for myself because it’s hard to get something done in my host country, I’ll be thinking of the unpronounceable volcano and reminding myself that, compared with expats in years past, I have it easy!
Got something to add to the list? Post your thoughts in the comments or on my Facebook page.