What we Learn About Communication and Connection when we Relocate

By Gabriela O’Malley

Understanding. Empathy. Connection.  

Family and friends are a precious treasure. They give us sense of belonging. In their words and actions, they mirror what comes out from ourselves, acting as our compass for reassurance and acceptance. They stand by us in good times and bad times. They help us understand ourselves and the world better. Together, we embrace life’s ups and downs.

THIS LIAISON BETWEEN US, TRAVELS WITH US AND TRANSFORMS WITH TIME AND DISTANCE. NOT ALL OF OUR RELATIONSHIPS SURVIVE, BUT THOSE WHO DO, SET DEEP SOLID ROOTS IN WAYS WE WOULD HAVE NEVER IMAGINED.

Our family and friends are also great teachers; and can sometimes feel abandoned or hurt when we move away. Grieving our departure from their daily lives is an obstacle that stops them from joining us in our new endeavor. Imagine how hard it is for those whom never experienced a relocation, to understand, or have a clear idea of what this move means to you, and how it’s impacting your life.

“Hi, honey, how’s life in Okinawa?! Are you making new friends? I was surprised to hear Will is traveling again; sounds like he’s gone a lot. What did you and the kids do this weekend? How do you feel?” How candid can we be, so we don’t worry others - and how often? “It’s been brutal. I feel so isolated from the world. Overwhelmed with all the new things I’m rushing to adapt to. Learning Japanese has been harder than I thought it would be. Sometimes I wonder I might be depressed and feel so stupid for not being able to cope with the whole thing.”

How about the challenges your teenagers go through, merging as new students during their last year in middle school? As if adolescence wasn’t enough transitional stage.

I have a friend living in Zurich, who’d spend hours in bundling up routines with her 3 year old son and 11 months baby just to bike to the supermarket. God forbid she ever forgets something. Managing her toddler and stroller together, she weighs her fruits and veggies, to then packing the groceries herself at the same time her son is taking all the sweets from the shelves - to find help or nannies isn’t that easy in many parts of the world.

Or like this lady I met a few years ago. She had just arrived from London, after two previous relocations to Geneva and New York. Like many of us have, she landed with two kids under ten, no home, no car, no schools, no network. The same week she moved to her new home, gets a call from customs, letting her know her shipment had been randomly selected for a second inspection, and she should expect to receive it in about three more weeks.  Excuse me sir, did you say three more weeks?

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Someone once told me – “That’s her job.  Do the research about the new place she’s going to, the culture, cost of living, everything! There are plenty of resources out there. She’ll be fine.” Agree, and most probably. However...

We had just bought a beautiful house and a few pieces of furniture. Baby was home and I was learning to be a mother and figuring out the whole feeding schedule operation, when my husband announced a job opportunity initially in Tokyo. Tokyo?! Now?  Days after, it turned out to be Singapore. A new world we would call home for the next four years, and the birthplace of our second daughter.  

My husband’s company sent us for a ten-day visit to explore the Island. That trip was the first of many over 19hr flights I’d take crossing the Pacific Ocean. Those trips alone are brutal when flying with children under five - carry-on, stroller, toddler... pregnant.  We came back to pack and put our beautiful new home on the market. Three weeks later we were gone.

We kick-off navigating thru these hazards with no local girlfriends to vent with, husbands gone traveling or when home, either mind-absent exhausted or bonding with the kids. I remember how talking to friends and family was so much trouble with the major hour difference. How do you explain all that you’re going thru without absorbing the oxygen in the conversation? I had all of these emotions bottled inside, that were neither resentment or anger, but the need of acknowledgement and validation to all that was happening in my life.  How candid can we be, so we don’t worry others - and how often?

These complexities in relocation will be best understood by those who have experienced them. This is your new life and your new reality. You could be loving a lot of things in this new life you’ve started crafting for you and your family, it’s the emotional complexities you’re experiencing that create the abyss between you and your loved ones.

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Of course, we have social media. You might enjoy keeping people in the loop of your new life thru different channels, but let’s not forget that not only does social media connect us, it also serves as a carefully curated display of crafted lifestyles and partial/one-sided stories, that mostly portray the best, most exciting version of our life.

Social connections like these might help us feel involved with our network and the world, but lack depth and fall short to show the real-life zigzags that happens in our daily lives.

In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz talks about “The Truth about Your Facebook Friends,” he says - “This book is about big data, in general. But this chapter has mostly emphasized Google searches, which I have argued reveal a hidden world very different from the one we think we see. So, are other Big Data sources digital truth serum, as well? The fact is, many Big Data sources (such as Facebook) are often the opposite of digital truth serum. On social media, as in surveys, you have no incentive to tell the truth. On social media, much more so than in surveys, you have a large incentive to make yourself look good. Your online presence is not anonymous, after all. You are courting an audience and telling your friends, family members, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers who you are.”

No man is an island. Staying connected is important for most people and we all benefit from having healthy relationships. A Harvard study revealed having good connections can improve health and increase longevity. “One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity. People who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” - Harvard Health Publishing

My two grains of advice?

Be Realistic, about your demands and hopes for empathy or support from your family and friends. It’s not absence of love, more so an unrealistic expectation. It really takes one to understand one. Acknowledging this will help you feel less ‘abandoned’ or misunderstood and take off pressure from your relationships back home.

The type of reassurance, empathy, and understanding that you need, will come from those who understand your situation, because he or she have walked a similar path.

Taking a realistic approach helps us recognize that nourishing relationships demands investing time in them; and for you, the demands will be met with a mobile lifestyle, having to manage different time zones and trips back home of perhaps once a year.

Create meaningful connections, make a conscious effort to nourish relationships from your past as you welcome and nourish the new ones in your present. Quality over quantity. Depth over superficial. Reap the benefits of having real connections.

As you continue in your mobile journey, some relationships will fade away, but those who survive time and distance, will set solid deep roots in ways you would have never imagined.

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Helen Keller

Gabriela O'Malley