How to keep your family calm when you decide to move to abroad

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Phing. Ping. Ping. I scanned my inbox: Please Choose a Door Lock, Window Safety Too, and Immunizations. My mother was worried about my impending voyage to Paris. I told her that I am four times more likely to be victimized in the U.S. than in France. I explained that catching an on time flight out of LAX is 75.5%, almost the same as Paris CDG at 73.8%. Assuming a ±3% statistically acceptable margin of error, my checked baggage won’t even know I left the country.

My mom was still worried. It was a repeat of 2009. In September of that year two things happened. I moved to Juarez and CNN.com published Juarez, Mexico, Killings Reach New High. The article reported that there had been 5,100 drug-cartel-related killings in the city since the beginning of the year. I stayed for six months organizing an infirmary at a childrens’ home with my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, a 12-year-old Honda Civic, and a determination to avoid the tap water.

I’ll wager a bet that your mother was also worried when your new job, life ambition, or spouse took you to non-native soil. Mothers generally prefer their children to be close and, if at all possible, courteous, thrifty, brave, and clean. Amid my excited preparations, I could sense my family’s anxiety. So what is an outward-bound, take-me-to-the-departures-gate kind of girl to do? I don’t have to tell you, the expert expat, how to manage overseas living. You have already found the crustiest bakery, foamiest café, and leafiest park. But how do we help our families cope with our travels? How do we follow our life path and make it easier for our families to enjoy this life with us?

Consider the worse case scenario and find a solution.
Use past experiences to prove to your family that you know how to overcome travel problems. Problem: local host decides to divorce the day I arrive. Solution: road trip through France. Alternatively, I could have stayed to learn more about the French legal system. Problem: there are no ice cubes. Solution: drink wine. Problem: overflowing inbox. Solution: Google translate “unsubscribe.”

Expose yourself to the fear.
Have family members visit, if possible. Greet them at the airport eating chicken nuggets while wearing a knockoff Hermès scarf. Then suggest eating dinner at 5 p.m. (Pardon, I may have just described a Française’s worst nightmare.) If a visit is not possible, send them delicacies from a neighborhood shop or a good novel from the Left Bank “bouquinistes”.

Get real.
When I left my job as an emergency department nurse in the States, friends told me not to travel because I would get Ebola. A few weeks later, the first American case of Ebola was diagnosed in that E.D. Throughout eternity, every travel-doubter in my life will hear, “I narrowly escaped a global epidemic by leaving the U.S.” Bad things and good things happen everywhere, everyday, all around the world. Remind your family.

Visualize.
Allow your family to picture you in a safe and happy place. Godzilla-grip the Eiffel Tower by the tip, photobomb a model’s shoot, or cram various cultural stereotypes into one photo (i.e. wear a red scarf and black “béret” while munching a baguette and playing the accordion underneath the “Arc de Triomphe”). Mail hand-drawn pictures of your children enjoying their new favorite places.

Talk About It.
When your family is comfortable chatting about your new environment, mention the joys and challenges (i.e. food quality vs. quantity). If they seem reticent to think about the distance between you, allow for a typical conversation where everyday matters are discussed. Talk about something you can both experience like a new smart phone app, sit-com or sports score. Thank your family for their support.

How did my mom survive my stay in Juarez? After I sent pictures and described the best Mexican food I had ever devoured, my mom came for a visit. She prepared edible, peanut butter molding clay as a craft for the kids. She admired the infirmary I was creating. And she saw the faces of Juarez, instead of just reading the headlines.

Expats see the world from a rare perspective and gather unstoppable coping skills. We can exponentially multiply these gifts by sharing experiences and knowledge with those back home. My inbox now pings with How do I Get Mail to Paris and Loved Your New Pictures. So Mom, never fear. I am certainly courteous, fairly thrifty, definitely brave, scrubbed clean… and always close in spirit.

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About Angela G. Bennett 1 Article
Angela has been an emergency department nurse in Dallas, Texas for six years. She is currently awaiting her first overseas assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). To contribute to their amazing work fighting Ebola and providing emergency aid, please visit www.msf.org.