Developing and Maintaining Support Networks Abroad

With Stu in Bham

Since moving outside of the US, quite possibly the question I hear most frequently is, “How do you handle being so far away from your family (and friends) for that long?” The shorter answer I usually give is, “Well, it’s pretty normal for me anymore. I went to college 3,000 miles away from my family and only went home a few times a year. This doesn’t feel too different from that except for the much greater time difference.” Although I had a supportive family and community of friends at home already, the longer answer is rooted in the relationships I’ve cultivated in the places I’ve lived and visited. Over time, my own personal support network developed into a global tessellation that was no longer always right in front of me.

Each place I’ve lived since 2004 has served as an incubator of social relationships and conditions. At both universities I attended, clubs, activities, and on-campus organizations were an easy way to meet people and establish friendships outside of the cluster of freshman hallmates. Trips and travel through Semester at Sea enabled me to make lifetime friends. Throughout college, my summer job had me bonding with my fellow camp counselors over late night Euchre card games and hilarious things the kids said and did. After moving to Japan as a newly selected Japan Exchange and Teaching Program participant, I took advantage of the program’s inherent support network of JET participants. While I nurtured strong friendships with those in my immediate vicinity, my involvement in the JET Program increased over my five years there, allowing me to meet and collaborate with both Japanese and non-Japanese people all over Japan. In the UK, I enjoyed engaging with fellow international students and then through my part-time job, primarily British undergraduate students. Now here in a rural Italian town of 2,000, I find myself still navigating the seas of interpersonal relationships.

In between getting hit by these omnipresent waves of change and amidst regular travel, I found meaning, value, and gratitude in staying connected to those who joined me along my journey. The Spanish student my family hosted for a month in high school. The Irish couple I met on my bus in New Zealand. Fellow TEDx volunteers. Former classmates. JET Program colleagues. The Canadian going to teach English in France  – but not before exploring Iceland with me! Several times over the past few years, I’ve shot off Japan recommendations to countless friends visiting the country. While I usually wasn’t able to meet up, it was fantastic to hear from them again and they were relieved to receive a vetted list of things to do. Last NYE, you would have found me in Kiev with an American I originally met in Israel and an Italian-Brazilian I met in Jordan the previous year. Citing the above isn’t by any means a humble brag. The majority of these connections started small, just low-key and friendly, and grew into something more, something genuinely unexpected.

But wait, you say. Isn’t keeping in touch with all of these people impossible? A lot of the time, it just happens. Thanks to social media, it could be that I spot someone going to a place I’ve been and message him or her with suggestions. Or maybe someone contacts me with questions about shipping by sea from Japan. It might entail writing a recommendation for a former colleague’s new job application. Of course, there are always those scheduled “Skype dates” when you get to meet your friends new babies or listen and sympathize with your old coworkers issues at work. In the past month, I have had conversations with a English friend living in Saudi Arabia, a Scottish friend living in Malaysia, and an American friend backpacking her way around Europe. These started as casual catch-ups and then blossomed into more personal descriptions of the joys and challenges we’d encountered lately. Each one consisted of the telling of colorful anecdotes, reminiscing of past times spent together, motivating each other, and discussing mutual friends’ recent adventures. Any frustrations I had prior to the conversation went out the window! Again, totally unexpected.

Still, I consider it crucial to regularly speak with family at home in addition to the usual friends. Encourage family members to download free international texting apps like WhatsApp or LINE as these will do wonders. It never ceases to amaze me when I have conversations with friends I haven’t spoken to in months, or even years, and it feels like nothing has changed. We may be experiencing vastly different lifestyles but the core of why we are friends remains the same. The sorority sister I spent three weeks around Australia with is still an inspiring role model for me. An American friend I met in Japan still calls me the same old weird nickname. I still laugh until it hurts with high school friends. It is heartwarming to hear the funny things an elementary school friend’s three-year-old son says on a daily basis. Talking with old friends not only recharges my often worn out battery but it also reinforces that I am on the right path with a lot of cheerleaders – even if I cannot physically see them. Moreover, those you love know you are thinking of them, too!

Moving to a new place, let alone a new country, is difficult. Get involved and expand your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be something every week, or even every month, but find out about local area happenings. In Japan, I discovered I had a knack for planning events and capitalized on it. In the UK, I was constantly on the lookout for events and charity fundraisers to volunteer at. These inadvertently opened a lot of doors and resulted in meeting numerous people I would not have ordinarily met. Ask questions of those you study, live, and/or work with. Simply strive to learn more about your environment and community and you will unearth a plethora of potential opportunities. If you’re like me and can’t find a website of community events, watch out for event posters and flyers instead. Say yes to everything you possibly can. After accepting a new neighbor’s dinner invitation in Madrid, you just might find out that she has a friend interested in doing English-Spanish language exchange with you.

What can you do to grow your support network? GIVE. And then give some more. If you see someone you know in need or someone even they know looking for assistance, give them a hand, and this is the most important part, – without any expectations, because you want to, not because you feel you have to. Today’s digital age facilitates these chances. My second high school taught me to be a person for others and this intersects with my personal mission statement of leaving the world a better place than when I entered it. Helping people energizes me! It seems like a waste not to reach out to someone if I think there’s a way I can. Naturally, there is a balance to maintain – giving of yourself 24/7 isn’t healthy so knowing when to take a step back for yourself is essential.

Up until now, I’ve discussed how others can support you. How can you be a part of others’ support networks? Communicate. Be respectful. Actively listen. Avoid being judgmental. Understand that support networks do not come in “one size fits all”. Your freshly arrived coworker may need an immediate circle of friends to rely on while your soccer league buddy in Rome may need some time to develop friendships there.

Your support network is sprouting up but you still have to continue watering it. Check in with friends just to say hi. Exchange success stories. Be proactive. Start your day by sending a two-minute ‘thank you’ note to someone who has helped you in the past.  Encourage others to shoot for the moon and explore what you can do to help them reach it. Lastly, be sincere and speak from the heart. Positive energy like this is contagious.

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One thought on “Developing and Maintaining Support Networks Abroad

  1. Good advice and well written, babe. Just as the world re-defines us daily, we need to re-define our thinking periodically to allow us to maximize our own abilities and resources.

    Like

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