Let’s talk about the revolution: Skype, WhatsApp, Google hangouts, Messenger, Viber and a multitude of other online communication technologies. For those of us living abroad, they have fundamentally changed our whole experience. Gone are the days of leaving home with the expectation of not seeing or hearing from those you are leaving for days, weeks or even months. Today the expectation is rather the opposite – that you share every step of your journey (no matter how mundane) with friends and family. This dawned on me recently as I left family at the airport check-in with big goodbyes only to resume our conversation over Skype once I had crossed into the boarding area, and then again picked up our chat over WhatsApp when I had landed an ocean away.
This next statement is going to age me, but: it wasn’t always like this. I started living abroad about 10 years ago, just around the time that Skype was emerging. I’ll never forget my first time signing into my new Skype account after leaving my parents at the airport 3 days earlier and thinking ‘how the hell do I work this thing!?’. I managed in the end to figure it out but, even though the Skype option existed, there were connection issues and we settled for the old fashioned phone call once every two weeks. Since these early days, Skype has become a daily part of my life; with it, my experience of living abroad has completely changed. My normal now is to connect instantaneously with those living thousands of miles away, whenever I want (keeping in mind the time difference, of course).
A family friend tells the story of traveling through North Africa decades ago and only being able to send letters to friends and family on a monthly basis, if that. My standard question is how did you manage?!? – to which she responds: I did and it wasn’t bad, just different.
While I much prefer being able to traverse the globe while remaining in close contact with those I care about, my family friend’s response does make me stop and wonder whether anything is lost in the experience of living abroad in a world where we are instantaneously connected to the world we just left. Is any of the adventure, self-reliance, or experience diluted?
I had a window into what it is like to lose the connectedness I take for granted while I was living in Ethiopia. With frequent power cuts and a poor internet connection that could only be accessed in the big hotels, for the first time in years I was confronted with the reality of not being able to reach out to friends and family whenever I wanted. It was unnerving at first; however, it is amazing how quickly a situation can become the new ‘normal’. Within the first two weeks I had shifted my expectations. I wouldn’t say that I preferred this, but it did bring to light how the revolution in connectedness shapes our experiences living abroad. In Ethiopia I had to be more creative and self-reliant, as I was not able to turn readily to friends and family abroad. I also had to be more in the present and build up a group of close friends in the country on whom I could rely, rather than turning to my friends abroad on Skype, Messenger, WhatsApp etc.
Living in London, England now, I am as connected as can be. However, it is intriguing to give thought to how my experience of London is shaped by the revolution in communication technologies. What would a Canadian expat’s experience in London have been like pre-Skype? Some food for thought.