I’ve been thinking about how to write this article for a while. I felt a surge of inspiration from the first day that emergency was declared in my city; I witnessed first-hand how quickly the community came together to adapt to this new unusual chapter of life. However, at the time I could not properly focus on how to link the overall expat experience to what we are still going through right now.
Today, after some reflecting on what is happening around me as well as in different societies and social communities, I realized that the answer is right in front of me…
These are some thoughts that came to my mind:
1. Many expats are not new to home isolation
It is a common experience for the first part of every move to a new country. The first few weeks have striking similarities to what we are all going through now – especially for expats’ spouses: confined at home, maybe with small children to entertain, trying to get a new house organized, trying to set up spaces so that everyone in the family can find their own spot. There are also many expats who have experienced this kind of total lockdown (sometimes in even more dramatic and pronounced ways) in some difficult countries: local wars, riots, dangerous strikes, political instability, and even other serious epidemics like Ebola.
2. Expats are used to experiencing social distancing
It takes time to build meaningful human relationships with locals in a new and unfamiliar country, especially if the local culture is very different from one’s own one. From the Middle East to Northern Europe, from Africa to Australia – I learned on the go that the “safe” and polite physical space you need to keep between two people in a social contest is a variable concept (and it is not an easy task for an Italian who grew up used to spontaneous hugs and kisses!).
3. Expats are used to geographical distance
We are familiar with the feeling of having our family and dear friends miles away from us, sometimes oceans away from us. Many expat families are divided at this moment: children are stuck in other countries for their studies, old parents are confined in their home country. I want to pay particular tribute here to all the Italians who have aging parents at home, who are terribly worried for them, and who cannot even provide a simple comfort like making food or shopping for them.
4. Expats are used to stocking foods for long period of time
Well, not all expats, but I know for sure there are many that have experimented with this before. I noticed how easy was for me to go shopping last week: the shopping list formed itself in my mind while I was lost amongst the shelves of the supermarket. Instinctively, I sought out the same items I did when I was preparing for lockdown in Africa, or before the war in Kuwait, though there are some differences in the quality and variety of food I can buy here.
5. Expats are used to building and nurture human relationships online
Not necessarily out of choice, but out of necessity: without this skillset, you’d hardly be able to survive expat life! Many of an expat’s interpersonal relationships are mainly nurtured over distance.
6. Expats are aware of the importance of community and the interconnections between us
They know what it means to be alone – or maybe even sick – in a country where you don’t know anybody. They have learned how to build essential and vital connections with the people around them in their new local community.
So many expats have the knowledge and memory of the feelings we are all experiencing right now: the sense of isolation, anxiety, and concern for families and friends far from them; the concern for what is happening outside our front door; uncertainty about the future and the feeling of being suspended from your normal life.
None of what I listed above are pleasant or easy situations. Many people aren’t able to bare it longterm. But many expats have gained the resilience to deal with these trials.
And so, what can expats do in this difficult moment?
Exactly what we are doing.
I’ve noticed many social communities are inventing and organizing social gatherings on the internet. Check to see who is behind the first proposal to take a coffee break together online, to have a yoga class online, to get children on virtual playdates through their iPads, to organize any kind of social gathering online… often times the catalyst is an expat.
We are all online those days. The Internet is at the maximum glory of its existence so far!
Expat are experts in building and maintaining relationships over distance. We can help those who are not used to this, we can share our knowledge, both technical and emotional. Let’s help others who are discovering the web as a resource for building connection and invite them to join us.
In the kind of lifestyle this pandemic is forcing us into, it is important to engage with our neighbors and pay attention to what the people around us may need – especially if they are sick, weak, or simply feeling terribly alone in their homes. Pay attention to what is happening around you: maybe your neighbor is living through difficult moment, maybe they are old and can’t be reached by their children. Offer them help like you would do if your parents were living close to you.
Help single parents deal with children at home: they are not used to it, but we can surely recall some tricks and games we used in similar situations.
Offer compassion and understand to people who may struggle with staying at home, with possible family tensions and other challenges that easily arise.
And while we’re at home we can better flex across different time zones that work may have previously been inconvenient during working times. It is a good time to refresh a friendship left on the other side of the world: maybe they would be happy to hear from us!
Smile and be positive: be a light for others.
This situation will pass and we will be stronger than before.
Despite the fact that this pandemic has created a very dramatic situation, my heart is warmed when I see people experiencing physical distance and yet getting together and being closer than ever in many other ways.
People are moved by news from countries far away: it is fear, but it is also our humanity that is coming back. We are rediscovering how interconnected we are, and how what happens somewhere else in the world will ultimately impact us where we are.
The physical borders are closing, but the virtual ones are opening up like never before.