Jennifer Deayton finds out how Hong Kong’s kids are keeping up with the grandparents.
When Fiona Spanos’s family moved to Hong Kong in 1986, they could afford to call her maternal grandmother in Newcastle once a month. Spanos, aged four at the time of the move, recalls her mother writing Grandma a letter every week for the ten years they lived here. Sometimes Spanos and her brother would contribute a card or drawing. On very special occasions, her civil engineer father would borrow a video camera from work, and they would film a family video to mail to the folks back home.
Flash forward twenty years and Spanos is now a Hong Kong returnee and new mum to one-year-old James. She says she’s in touch with her mum in England just about every day: sending photos and short videos of James, relaying anecdotes from work or just chatting about her life as a teacher, wife and mother.
The ease and affordability of technology has undoubtedly bridged the communications gap that once existed for expatriate families. FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype mean that anyone with WiFi can still connect with ‘home’ at very little cost. As a new generation of tech-savvy grandmothers and grandfathers pop up on screens to watch birthday candles being blown out and first steps taken, there’s no reason why extended family have to miss out on significant moments.
But can these high-speed, clear-channel links truly foster deeper connections?
Mary Markos and her husband have lived overseas for almost two decades: first Japan and now Hong Kong. Markos admits that many of their nine-year-old daughter’s strongest memories of her maternal grandparents are actually digital.
Many of our daughter’s strongest memories of her maternal grandparents are digital.
“The last time we saw my father was on Skype. It was just after we’d been home for Christmas. Doah was only three, but she remembers ‘Poppa’s big nose’ on the screen. I remember that moment too. It was actually very special.”
With two large families spread between the US and Eastern Europe, the couple relies heavily on technology to stay in touch. Markos talks almost every day with her sister, and they have a regularly scheduled video call each week with her mother-in-law. Doah can even Skype with ‘Yutsi’, her 98-year-old great aunt in Romania, who goes to computer class at the local city hall. What remains a challenge, according to Markos, is physically seeing everyone on trips home.
“The expectation is: you’re the expat. You’ll travel and make the effort, and we do. Whenever we go we always have a great time, but at the same time, I feel like we have to see everyone in one day and then to me, Thanksgiving becomes a blur each year of oh I saw Aunt Diane for 20 minutes, I saw Aunt Darleen for 15 minutes.”
Due to time and distance pressures, not to mention work commitments, expat families are often caught prioritizing relationships – one side of the family versus another – and then feel guilty for doing so. The natural and normal desire of relatives to see new babies and children can be both welcoming and problematic. What if, after a six-hour car ride to dear old Aunt Julie’s house, your child looks at her as a complete and utter stranger?
One international school counsellor recommends introducing children to extended family through personal stories. “It’s about including your wider family in your family stories,” she says. “Starting at a very young age with your children – talking about aunts and uncles as ‘my sister’ or ‘my brother’ makes them real people. And the more humorous, more playful, the more positive the stories you tell, the more likely the child is going to want to engage with relatives.”
The more humorous, more playful, the more positive the stories you tell, the more likely the child is going to want to engage with relatives.
Until the dream of Star Trek transporters becomes a reality, expat parents will continue to battle the logistical and physical trials of long hauls, jet lag, time zones (and screen fatigue after yet one more video call). But the effort is not just for Nanna’s benefit. Both the young and the old gain from these relationships.
“Our children have grown up seeing most of their cousins every summer and frequently connect with them on social media like Facebook and especially Snapchat,” says Nick Appel, father of teenagers Christopher and Olivia. “They look forward to spending time with their cousins and have a tough time parting from them when together.”
After many trips to both their American and European families, Markos says she too is pleased that Doah, an only child, knows her cousins. “She feels an immediate comfort around them, and that’s true on both sides of our family. She sees how at ease we feel with our own aunts, uncles, cousins, and she senses that attachment. This is a safe zone. It’s a good feeling to have, especially as an expat where you’re always an outsider.”
Extended family – the visual reminder of shared DNA – is a crucial component in shaping identity, whether a child lives around the block from the Grandad he resembles or eight thousand miles away. According to Appel, long summer visits with East Coast relatives and opportunities to explore the US’s rural beauty have nurtured in Christopher and Olivia a strong sense of their American selves. “Whenever they were asked where they were from, as children, they’d reply ‘America’ even though they were both born in Hong Kong.”
As the counsellor explained, tangible encounters – being fully engaged – with people and places create lasting memories, which is crucial to building identity. “Attachment definitely comes from physically being in your home country and having positive experiences there. No doubt.”
Being a Cantonese-speaker and student at a local primary school, Doah straddles two worlds. While she’s well aware of American culture and keeps up with her extended family online, when she goes back to the States, she says, “It definitely feels different, the society, the people, the way they talk. It’s nice to be there, I can open my mouth.”
After hearing from expats about how they connect to extended families, the valuable role of technology has been a universal theme. But parents also stress the benefits of embracing the world that’s right outside your door.
“It’s important to make friends who are like family nearby,” says Appel. “Sharing birthdays and anniversaries and important holidays with local friends who become like aunts, uncles and cousins. These kinds of relationships help foster better relationships with our family living back in the USA.”
After experiencing expat life as both a child and a parent, Spanos realizes how difficult it is for the people left behind. “But I think the best thing people can do here – I mean the only thing that you can do – and the second-best is FaceTime and Skype,” she says. “If you can’t actually see someone in the flesh, then at least you can see them on a screen.”
Both the Markos and Appel families also recommend ongoing social media contact for expat children in addition to quality (not quantity) physical time with relatives at least once a year. The Appels’ tech tip is an app called Marco Polo, which facilitates instant video chats.
Markos’s husband, whose Eastern European family have been the quickest to adopt tech innovations, likes to envision a future where everyone has an iPad in the corner of their living rooms streaming their lives to far-flung relatives.
Yutsi would feel right at home.