Missing out when you live abroad, or, why is everyone dead?

I was at a family party recently. My family likes to party and, if ever invited to one of these shindigs, you can expect to be stuffed with more food than is absolutely necessary (plus a fair amount of booze) and have jokes made about you – to your face – until everyone goes home.  Now that I live abroad, I miss a lot of these, so I was especially happy to be a part of the most recent piss-up, which this year also featured a dog (my cousin’s). Bonus (or should that be Boneus? Sorry).

It wasn’t until I’d been there for an hour or so that I realised how drastically things had changed in the past year. Everyone looked older, except my dad who is a freak of nature and ages in reverse. Conversation had changed from studies and travel (amongst the younger crew) to mortgages and other grown up shit like petrol prices and avocado. I grew up with a younger sister and two girl cousins, all of whom now own property and live with their partners. My maternal grandmother is now well into her 80s, although she doesn’t look it and her command of emojis would suggest otherwise. My cousin L is engaged. My parents are retired. A worrying amount of their friends have died.

While I was happy for everyone making big life changes (apart from for the dead people, obviously), I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of place. Was this how it was
going to be, now I had decided to leave the country? Was I always going to be on the outside? When I upped sticks and emigrated, nothing could have prepared me for how alien I felt, trying to navigate a new country on my own. Now, I felt alien at home.

It’s a strange feeling, one I suspect I am not alone in. An unfortunate by-product of travelling and living abroad is that you end up separated from loved ones and miss big changes in people’s lives. I’ll still never forget how sad my parents looked when they dropped me at the airport the first time, the extreme FOMO I felt when I missed my cousin’s 30th, the guilt when a great-aunt died and I couldn’t be there for the funeral.
You miss all sorts, even mundane dramas like local gossip and ‘what colour’ your cousin’s new partner is (shout out Grandma for that gem, and PROFUSE apologies on her behalf).

For me, the real kicker came this summer when, a few days into a flying home visit, I found out my mum had been diagnosed with cancer. The guilt that comes with not being able to be physically there for a loved one, just when they need you, is crippling. While my mum has a huge support network at home (on account of her being an absolute legend) and maintained that I shouldn’t change any of my plans, I left for Budapest a couple of days later silently cursing myself for gallivanting off around the world when my mum was about to go through the biggest fight of her life. Was I a bad person?

For any other expats asking themselves this question, the answer is no. Ultimately, you have to weigh up your own personal pros and cons, but the bottom line is, travel and living abroad is such a positive thing, one which should not be missed. In the past, even as recently as twenty or thirty years ago, it wasn’t as easy to just disappear abroad and start again. Thanks to Brexit, it may well become more difficult for us Brits in the near future and, for many people in many parts of the world, it’s still almost impossible.

I would encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to live overseas to embrace it, whatever your personal reasons for doing so. By this, I do not mean a misguided
gap yah trip to volunteer in a more obscure African country with children who’d rather not be plastered all over your social media, thank you very much. Check your
privilege and keep it off your gratuitous Tinder photos if you’re really serious about making a difference. I mean fully embedding yourself into a new culture, learning the local language, becoming a local and having, in many cases, a better life. Understand that these opportunities are fleeting and, often, one-offs and your loved ones, if they want what’s best for you, will understand that. Take them, find a way to be there for family and friends without physically ‘being there’, and cut yourself a break.

My personal tips for anyone feeling like they’re missing out due to living away from family and loved ones (even if you’re in the same country!) include:

1) UTILISE TECHNOLOGY! It goes without saying that Skype and FaceTime are great for helping fill the miles between you and your loved ones. Just make sure you have a good connection. Regular Skype dates help me feel closer to people at home, even if it’s just ten minutes of my dad showing me an obscure plant he grew in his garden (I kid you not, one time it was a cannabis plant. He claimed ignorance but I’m sceptical)
2) PLAN YOUR TRIPS IN ADVANCE. Let your family or friends know when you’re coming home and stick to those plans so you have sometime to look forward to together. Keep the photo presentations to a minimum, nobody actually cares, they’re just happy you’ve come home
3) GET – AND GIVE – REGULAR UPDATES. My mum used to live in the States and to avoid FOMO once she returned to the UK, she sends her USA friends and family annual/bi-annual letters updating everyone on the gossip. They’re pretty fun to read and help her and her friends to keep up to date
4) DON’T SHIRK YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES. You’re in another country, not on the moon. Be there for people when they need you, in any way you can. If your parents need that weekly call so they know you haven’t been murdered, commit to it. If your friends demand a bi-monthly FaceTime, do it. Keep up contact with the people that matter and if they need you, be there for them
5) IF THEY DON’T MAKE THE EFFORT, CUT THEM OFF. You’re always going to lose touch with some people when you move away. Keep making the effort and if they don’t reciprocate, don’t sweat it. Your time is too precious to spend on people who don’t bother to spend time on you
6) DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP. You’re working on creating a better life and anyone who criticises you for it can, frankly, fuck off. While I am not an advocate of complete
selfishness, life is short, you only get one and you have to live it on your own terms. If people can’t handle it, it’s their problem, not yours. That said, treat your family with respect and sensitivity and work out what’s feasible for you all, in terms of home visits, regular contact and keeping your relationship a positive one

And my mum’s response when I questioned aloud whether I should move home to help out during her treatment? ‘What are you, the doctor?’ Yep, she’s gonna be fine.

Have you dealt with home-related FOMO? If so, how much has it impacted your time living abroad? I’d love to hear your stories!