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Friday, 21 December 2012

10 things expats want their extended families to know

It is that time of the year again. Families everywhere will be meeting for Christmas dinners, opening presents and spending some quality time together. But for some of us, these get-togethers will be full of stress. Expectations will be high, pressure will be high. There may be conflicts and arguments. For expats, seeing extended family often means traveling, cultural clashes, and many other issues. I have put together a list of 10 points I think that expats would like their extended families to know and understand. I am very much looking forward to  spending some time with my parents, but not all families have the luck to have such a supportive family who are always there when I need them, and who understand my concerns. 

1)    We don’t always know where “home” is. Don’t assume that you do. While we are happy to visit family, we spent a long time in another country. We got used to new holidays, new traditions, and a new way to function in society. This means that we might need time to re-adapt. Also, our perception of what “home” means might have changed. This is not a bad thing, but please take into account that a simple “make yourself at home” can be viewed as an expectation we can’t always meet.

2)    We want reunions to be as pleasant as possible. We travel for hours in order to see you. Some of us have to cross the ocean and several time zones to be at this reunion. On top of that, we travel with children, and that is even more tiring. So no, a family reunion is not a good time for criticizing the way we raise our children. This is not a good time for conflicts or arguments. Remember that we are also here to rest. We go back to having a job/chores/ raising children and we can’t do it well if we’re not rested. It’s as simple as that. Also, remember that we have to go all the way back and if you don’t respect our children’s schedules, we will come back with overwhelmed, cranky children who will need ages to re-adapt. We don’t need to see everybody and his brother; we don’t need to do something exciting every day and sometimes, we want to be left alone.

3)     Don’t assume that you somehow know our children just because you see them once in a while. While you probably want to be as present as possible in your grandchildren’s lives, the distance is real. You can be the nice grandparent who gives toys and gifts and generally pampers our children, but you will not always be there for them. You may have formed opinions about our children, but they can’t match what we have learned and found out about them, also because the children may behave differently around you. 

4)    You might not understand our children. As you know, our children speak 2 or more languages. At least, at the beginning, when they mix the languages, you might not understand everything what they’re saying because you don’t speak all the languages present in our families- in my case Polish and Dutch. This is not a cause for concern. Be happy that the children have the chance to be multilingual. And, believe me, they will figure it out!

5)     Some differences are cultural differences. Before you think we’re rude, or unfriendly, think about the fact that we come from another country, or have been raised there. On the other hand, some of the things you say come across as silly or ignorant. So maybe it would be a good idea to get educated about our respective countries (the one we come from, and the one we live in, since it might not be the same country), before you say something?

6)     Don’t say any of these things unless you want to make us very, very angry. Instead, you can use these simple tips if you have any questions about our children’s multilingualism.

7)     We have to balance other languages and cultures besides yours. So, while you are an important part in our children’s multilingual education and their cultural heritage, don’t behave as if your culture was the most important in the world. Don’t speak badly of the children’s other cultures.

8)  Use technology wisely. We are so excited about all the possibilities that Skype and Facebook and other social media give us nowadays. We are glad that you do, too. But we have to find boundaries that work for us. That means that I won’t necessarily accept your Facebook request. It means that no, you can’t call me every day on Skype just to talk with the children. It means that when I say that it’s bad time to call, it is a bad time to call- and remember the time zones! As simple as that. For the grandparents on the other spectrum, please at least give it a try. You can get the chance to see your grandchildren even though they are miles away. You can read books to them, you can play games with them. It’s not difficult, just try. But not too much, please.

9)   Sometimes you’re not the best help for us, but you can help. Because you didn’t have the experience of raising children in another country, you will not always be the person we’ll turn to for advice. We need to find our own network of friends and specialists who have the knowledge and experience to really help us. We and our children may need special help- that you can’t offer. We will not always seek your opinion on certain matters. But, you can help. By being supportive and non-judgmental. By being there for us when we need you without being all up in our personal space. By just listening. So many things you actually can do!

10)  You’re doing a great job. You care about our children. You watch for them so that we can go out. You shower them with love and affection. You make sure that they are well rooted in your culture and speak your language. And while the children go through a lot of traveling to see you, they actually enjoy their time with you. Of course, there is always place for improvement, but for all what you have done for us and the children, we want to say a big, warm Thank You.

What would you like your extended family to know? Please share it in the comments!

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  1. Can you send this to my in-laws! Hihi

    1. Hahaha! I could, but do you really want this? :D I guess this would resonate with many expat families because of the high expectations some families have, or the lack of similar experiences. I am however, very much looking forward to seeing my family in Warsaw!

  2. Very timely as we are actually spending time with both sides of the family this year (separately, thank goodness) and my in-laws are getting on the train tonight to arrive here tomorrow. WAHOOOO stress :)

    1. Luckily, we are also celebrating separately with both families. We are now going to see my family, which for me is pretty relaxing, and then we'll have our parents-in-laws at our place. I wish you a relatively stress-less Christmas, hope all goes well!

  3. We're not expats, but started our family overseas and, even now that we're living in our country of origin again, many of these apply as well. I'm disappointed that visits with family seem frequently to involve hurt feelings and disappointment. I'm grateful, though, that everyone continues to try, and I love that you ended your list on that positive note. Despite the challenges, it's always sweet to see others delight in my children.

    1. Hello, Melissa, thank you for stopping by and sharing your story. I've never understood why family reunions are so difficult when they are just supposed to be fun and a great time together. I think it's because of the expectations: Everybody wants everything to be perfect, and is awfully stressed out about it. I do believe that everybody is trying but then, there are also individual needs and priorities. Expats have to deal with the cultural differences and travels as well. But yes, I think that everybody is trying to do their best and I also love when family admires and loves my children. I wish you a peaceful, merry Christmas and hope you don't get too stressed about it.


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