Expatriates and Pioneers: We aren’t so different

Wagon Train around Devil's Tower 2013

I remember when my family first moved overseas, I was six years old and we had been posted in Malaysia. We were posted to the small town of Miri on the Borneo Island in the Shell Oil camp. I remember my mom struggling with the transition and struggling with trying to stay connected with family back home.


A few months ago my grandparents came for a visit, and my grandmother had brought a special surprise. She brought six large binders filled with e-mails that she had exchanged with my mother while we lived overseas.


I was so little when we first left the U.S that I didn’t remember much of the hardship that my mom experienced as a first time expatriate. We all sat down around the dining room table and my mom began to read them aloud.


It was amazing how similar our e-mails sounded to the letters that the pioneers would send back to their families back east. The first few were tentative and cautious, and filled with apprehension for a reply, not knowing if this new thing called the internet would transmit a message reliably half way around the world. Some e-mails were dropped and missed and other repeated, and it took a few months until communication was solidified.


In these letters my mother and grandmother talked about how life was like living in Miri, as it was a fairly remote area my mother had to adapt from the convenience of grocery stores and packaged food to baking bread and spending hours a day going to the different markets to find all the varying ingredients for every meal.


Other things that they would talk about were very practical such as how mail would work and if sending packages was a good option for Christmas and so on. My grandmother would ask questions from the rest of the family about what life was like on the island.


As I listened to the e-mails back and forth memories began coming back, memories of wet and dry markets and days filled with bread baking and cleaning rice. Living in Malaysia was a lot like moving out west like the pioneers.


We were very uncertain of reliable communication, we had to adjust to a very different way of life, visiting family was difficult and infrequent if we even visited at all. We even had to stock up on clothes and special foods to bring back with us in our very heavy luggage, only we didn’t have a team of horses to pull the load; just a couple of kids!


Although we often fashion ourselves to be far removed from that time, and we think we have advanced far beyond those times. But if we think about moving away from family and entering a new world, are we really all that different? We may not have written our family name on Independence Rock, but we did eat clam chowder in the San Francisco airport every time we left– so that counts right?



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