When I moved to Switzerland in 2006, I spent my first month abroad trying to “find” the Internet. On my expat hierarchy of needs, being able to connect with family and friends back home and virtually escape from my newfound foreignness felt more important than anything else.
But in 2006, public Internet access in my new hometown of Baden was as hard to find as a grocery store without an entire aisle devoted to chocolate. So there I was, fully foreign and fully uncomfortable, forced to live 100% in my new Swiss world.
As frustrating as it was at the time, looking back I am grateful for my lack of both a phone and Internet access during that first month abroad. For expats who already float somewhere between home country and host country, the online world adds a third place to live. This can have effects as far-reaching as our adopted countries.
On one hand, online technologies like video chat and social media can make the transition abroad easier. Danielle Barrios-O’Neill, an American expat in Belfast who studies interactive media engagement, says technology makes her feel less alone. With it, going abroad is not such a big deal. “I think for my parents’ generation, moving to another country is perceived as a much more drastic change than it is perceived to be for a lot of those in my generation,” she says. “You aren’t out there alone in the same way that you might have been before social media and Skype.”
However, these virtual connections can be a disabling crutch. “Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments,” says Sherry Turkle in her Ted2012 Talk,”Connected, But Alone?” Ms. Turkle is the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
And keeping on top of your old online life can prevent you from forging a new, in-real-life life, complete with true cultural immersion. “People get so preoccupied with staying connected to people back home that they don’t fully live in the moment and experience their time abroad to the fullest,” said one interviewee in a paper titled, “Constantly Connected: The Impact of Social Media and the Advancement in Technology on the Study Abroad Experience,” by Sarah Woolley. Ms. Woolley wrote the 2013 paper for the Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications while an Elon student.
Dr. Megan Jones, a Stanford University psychologist who divides her time between the U.S. and Austria, says technology makes it easy to hide in your old life and spend evenings with friends back home instead of forcing yourself to go out and be uncomfortable in your new country. Dr. Jones misses sitting in a café and talking with a stranger. Even when someone is out alone, they’re looking down at their devices rather than engaging with their environment. “This is true whether I’m in Vienna or San Francisco,” she says.
But for some expats, technology is a lifeline – whether to fight homesickness or to feel closer to beloved friends and family. Video chatting through Skype and FaceTime, for example, can leave people more satisfied than Facebook or Twitter, Dr. Jones maintains. She stopped using Facebook and Instagram because seeing things passively made her feel that she was constantly missing out. To really connect, she sets up Skype dates.
It was during one of these Skype calls that she realized technology had the potential to extend and enhance the overseas experience.
“I discussed this with two American friends over the weekend—one lives in London and one lives in Istanbul. We all agreed we stay abroad longer because of technology. But I also think I get more from my experience the longer I stay abroad,” Dr. Jones says.
Thanks to technology, our concept of time has evolved and this may also account for extended stays abroad. According to Dr. Suzana Flores, author of “Facehooked,” the more tech-savvy people become, the more time and place are borderless. “We see the world through our smartphone lens,” she says.
When expats spend time on their smartphones, they are nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Does it even matter where we live anymore?
In Dr. Flores’ experience and research, she has found that smartphone users act as if what is on their device is more important than what is happening in front of them. “The smartphone addiction is so profound we hear our phones going off even when they aren’t,” she says.
Speaking of smartphones, mine is buzzing. Two friends in Zurich are calling. They’ve met up after work and I join them from Chicago, where I’ve recently repatriated. Via Skype video, they take me around Zurich. I can’t take my eyes off the screen. For a few wonderful minutes, I’m overseas again, transported to a place that’s now more familiar to me than my own country. For several marvelous moments, it’s as if I never left.