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Keeping In Touch With Family Over the Miles

By Patricia Linderman (archived from “Personal and Confidential” an advice column that ran on this site for two years.)

Dear Personal and Confidential:

How do you keep extended family ties alive while abroad? I’ve recently developed a wonderful relationship with two of my nephews (4 and 11). I’m worried that if I join the Foreign Service, I will become distanced from these guys. My wife is also very close to her family (we see them weekly). How do you keep these ties alive while abroad?

– A member of the Livelines online community

Dear Livelines Member:

This is a very important question, and potentially one of the most painful aspects of Foreign Service life for those with close ties to their extended families.

Living far away, you may find yourself missing important events, from weddings to births to funerals, and regular weekend visits will obviously be out of the question. Furthermore, you may wonder how much support you will be able to provide when your relatives face a serious illness or other crisis, and whether the children in your extended family will even remember who you are as they grow up.

Fortunately, if you are willing to make the effort (as you seem to be), there are quite a few steps you can take to keep your extended-family relationships strong while serving abroad. The following measures have helped families I know:

Use e-mail.

If your family members back home don’t already have Internet access, encourage them to give it a try – some Foreign Service folk have even bought inexpensive computers for their parents and set them up with an online service. Regular e-mails are an inexpensive, immediate and personal way to keep in touch. Consider starting an e-mail group for family conversations, so that each message goes to everyone in the group.

To reduce annoying and offensive spam, you may want to set up your own e-mail domain. For instance, Yahoo lets you purchase the more “private” option of name@lastname.com instead of name@yahoo.com. Or create a family website (for instance with www.myfamily.com ) and use the e-mail addresses associated with that for your family correspondence.

Online chatting is another option — with Yahoo or MSN, you can easily set up a real-time typed conversation with friends and family who are online anywhere in the world.

Find a calling plan that works for you.

Of course, sometimes you want to hear loved ones’ voices and have a real conversation. Fortunately, the days of $4-a-minute phone calls are over in most places. However, you may still need to do some research to figure out the most cost-effective calling method, since it varies greatly by country. Some Embassies make special provisions for family calls. In some countries, you can use “callback” plans – you call using a special number, and you are charged a long-distance U.S. rate instead of an international rate. In other places, pre-paid calling cards offer excellent rates. If both sides have good Internet connections, you may consider using a Web calling system, which can cost practically nothing. You can even add a Web camera if you want.

Some families set particular times to call, especially if the time zones are tricky. Others find that their relatives get nervous if a regular time is set but they have to miss a call. E-mailing in advance to confirm the call is one possible solution.

Keep your extended family involved in your travels.

Living in another country brings experiences that are difficult to envision — or even imagine — for someone who hasn’t been there. Share them with your family (and friends) through regular letters, e-mails or a web page with digital photos. It’s easy to set up your own family website, for example at www.myfamily.com , www.geocities.com or www.tripod.com. You can even get password protection for your site to ensure privacy.

Even the simple details of life abroad (the food, local cultural quirks, your daily routines and frustrations) can be interesting, and they help your family members form a mental picture of your life overseas. As an added bonus, you’ll probably appreciate having these communications yourself later, as a diary of your experiences.

Encourage visits abroad.

Hosting visitors abroad can be challenging but it can also create unforgettable memories and even bring you closer than ever before. Instead of the usual family-visit routine — sitting around, talking and eating – you can get out together and explore the highlights of a fascinating new country.

Of course, young kids like your nephews don’t tend to be impressed by the usual museums, restaurants and architectural highlights. Look for kid-friendly attractions in your host country – in addition to the zoo and local amusement park, consider outdoor markets, swimming, sports (to watch or play), boating, farms, easy hiking, ruins that can be explored, and, of course, the local versions of fast food or pizza restaurants.

Maintain shared interests.

Find out what interests your nephews – a particular sport? animals? rock collecting? – and do some research so you’ll have something to talk about in phone calls and letters. Consider sending them a magazine subscription and taking the same one yourself. Mail them interesting samples (sports memorabilia, animal figurines) from your host country. Read a book they enjoyed and talk about it. Make up a quiz or puzzle for them to answer by e-mail, phone or letter.

Of course, children’s interests change quickly, so keep in touch with the parents to make sure you’re still on track. By the way, this suggestion works for people of all ages – keep the interests and hobbies of your adult family members in mind, especially when preparing for a visit.

Make the most of your time in the States.

Five or six weeks of home leave may seem like a lot, but it usually turns out to be a mad rush to go to the dentist, take care of paperwork, stock up on supplies, and see dozens of people who will be insulted if you don’t make time for them.

To maximize your chances of enjoying unrushed, quality time with your extended family during home leave or return visits, try some of the following:

  • See doctors and dentists at post, if possible, so you don’t have to schedule appointments during every visit home.
  • Pre-order things you want to buy (by mail or online, or ask a helpful relative to pick them up) so you don’t have to spend most of your home leave time shopping.
  • Ask people to come and see you whenever possible, instead of spending your time traveling around to see them.
  • Consider setting yourself up in an interesting location, if possible (a beach house, a cabin in the mountains, a motel near Disney World) so that people will have an extra incentive to travel and see you.
  • Create some family traditions with your nephews (and other family members) that you can repeat each time you visit.. This can be as simple as playing Monopoly and popping popcorn, or playing baseball in Grandma’s back yard. Of course, if you can tie your traditions in with your shared interest, so much the better.

And thus my optimistic conclusion: with regular contact and mutual visits, interesting updates on your travels, shared interests and traditions – and a bit of effort and goodwill on both sides – you can maintain a sense of security and continuity in your family relationships, no matter where in the world you go.

– Personal and Confidential

Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.

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