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When I was in Vietnam this summer, I had an extremely difficult decision. My relationship was falling apart, I was self-sufficient freelancing but feeling a bit directionless, and suddenly I was offered a job in China. (Spoiler: I take the job and move to Beijing) But during this difficult time, my friend Barbara asked me to write a blog post about what it is like living far from my mom. The original blog from Vietnam is below.
This is a reblog from her award-winning blog, “Friend for the Ride,” which explores a variety of topics including women’s issues, menopause, cancer, and relationships. She’s a writer and an artist and I highly encourage everyone to check it out.
You’ll be fine,” my mom says over the phone. Or maybe it was on Skype, or Facechat, or in person during one of my visits to the United States. I can’t remember because she’s said it to me so many times over the last few years.
I don’t live in the same country as my mom, nor do we talk every day, so sometimes I feel guilty dominating our conversations with self-doubt or rambles about boys. She never seems to mind being used as an emotional crutch. In fact, I believe our relationship has grown stronger in the last years, maybe not despite the distance, but because of it.
Having lived abroad (or at least in another time zone) for six years now, I’ve navigated the majority of my twenties with a lot of physical distance from my mother. My current location is Vietnam.
Last year I lived in South America, and before that, India. As a “digital nomad,” someone who makes a living by working online, I can literally be anywhere as long as I have access to a computer and the internet. It’s a brave new working world, one my mom still doesn’t understand, but at least she stopped calling me unemployed. I haven’t lived at home for ten years now, and for the majority of that time, I was not within driving distance (or even the same continent).
So what does that mean for my relationship with my mom?
Well, there are definitely times the distance bothers me. Sometimes this is due to nostalgia. I teared up in public last month when a friend left me a voice recording and I could hear the overwhelming chirp of cicadas in the background. It made me think of my unexpected visited North Carolina a year ago in the thick humidity of July, the last time I saw my grandmother. Sometimes I crave banana pudding and BBQ sandwiches and going to the gym with my mom.
Other times I miss my mom taking care of me. Once, I got brutal food poisoning in India and spent a week moaning on my hard mattress, in so much pain I couldn’t even watch TV, and running to the bathroom to expel liquids so vile I’m ashamed (and shocked) my body was able to produce them. I was miserable. There was nothing I wanted more than to have my mom dote on me.
Often I miss her emotional support. As I have transitioned from my early 20s to my late 20s, the decisions I need to make have become bigger and weightier. Part of that is just having more options and needing to think more seriously about the future. In college, my “big” decisions were if I would live in the dorms or in an apartment and where to go for spring break. Now I need to decide if I should give up my freelance writing career for a lucrative position in China. “Big decisions” involve moving in with boys and career paths.
Mothers have invaluable life experience, are devoted to your best interest, and know you better than anyone. They can slip into roles of life coaches or therapists but are better because they don’t charge by the hour.
It’s times like these I miss my mom most of all, if nothing else, just to have her tell me, “you’ll be fine.”
And yet, the independence of living abroad has made me a much stronger adult. While I usually call to talk out difficult decisions with my mom, the consequences of my choices are ones I must bear alone. While a good Skype cry once or twice when I first moved to India were great cathartic releases, ultimately I was the one who took on those challenges without much handholding. When things got hard, I couldn’t retreat home for a weekend. I had to get resourceful.
Likewise, family time has become something sacred. There isn’t much of it, so it means really taking advantage of it while I have it. My parents have an excuse to travel to odd places. They’ve visited me in Chicago, Budapest, Prague, India, and Buenos Aires. These trips mean being able to share something a little outside the usual with my family and show them different sides of myself. In Argentina, I served as the translator. In India, I became a traffic controller to get them across the crazy streets. In every country, I have to find the best bakery for my mom.
As much as I miss the “routine” of going to the gym or lunch with my mom, or chatting in the living room, I still think the distance has helped, rather than hindered, our relationship. We value the time we have, and we make our conversations and communication count. She’s given me the emotional (and physical) distance to experiment with adulthood and find the best path for myself. It’s nice though, that technology has given me the possibility to always pick up the phone, and have someone at the other end tell me I’ll be fine.
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I have to say that I may be the happiest I have ever been. Perhaps it’s the fact that I am currently living in the city of eternal spring and the weather hovers around a solid 75F everyday. Perhaps it’s because I spend the majority of everyday working on things I find fulfilling and important (writing, exercise, and language). Or maybe it’s just the view from my apartment.
El Poblado is definitely an ex-pat bubble. This has been both good and bad— good because I can easily grab a salad, I can go to an English-speaking gym, and there are loads of opportunities for Spanish classes. Bad because, well, it’s a lot harder to slip into Colombian culture when you are living in a miniature United States.
Tomorrow I am flying to Santa Marta for two weeks but before I go, I just want to share parts of why I am feeling so happy in Medellin recently:
- Health: I discovered this gym geared at expats here. Usually I don’t like that sort of thing, wanting to “blend into the local culture” like a true hipster. But this gym really made a difference in both my body and my mentality. I’m actually planning an entire post next week just about my experience working out while traveling.
Plus, it’s easy to buy fresh fruits and vegetables (and AVOCADOS) for super cheap, so I’ve been eating ridiculously well. I’ll post some before and after photos soon, but it’s been a pretty exciting transformation.
- Language Acquisition: My lack of Hindi in India actually started to depress me. After awhile, every time I spoke English I started beating myself up. I really wish I had taken a real class, but there just wasn’t a market to teach foreigners Hindi in Chandigarh, India (population of foreigners: 0).So when I moved to South America I vowed that I would speak Spanish like a pro by the time I left. Since this is the fourth language I have studied formally (and fifth informally), the process is going quickly.
I am also planning to write an entire blog post just on learning a language, but I’m pretty excited about where my Spanish is now (it’s a solid “meh” status) as compared to where it was when I first landed in Argentina (I could say ‘pollo’ and ‘hola’).
Finding a good language teacher can be difficult. It took me three weeks in Medellin before I found a teacher that was a good “fit.” Now I almost don’t want to leave Colombia just because I like my Spanish teacher so much.
- Friends: Actually, my social life in Medellin hasn’t been very lively. I’ve gone out a couple times with my AirBnB hosts (I’ve stayed in two AirBnBs now). A few years ago I would find this “sad” but honestly I think not having a ton of social pressure is what is making me so happy. I’ve had tons of time to work on myself, my writing, and my hobbies.
In Argentina, I had a thriving social life but I wasn’t taking care of myself. I’m excited to go back, but I’m happy to have sort of taken a bit of a “break” and gotten myself in order so I can better withstand the social pressure to eat badly and drink a lot.
Plus, it’s giving me the time to catch up with some of my old friends in the US, India, and Argentina.
- Food: No words needed
5. Work: I have an amazing routine which involves me waking up at 7am, getting ready, arriving at my café at 8:30am, ordering the exact same thing every morning and working.
Like I said, this neighborhood is an expat bubble. While I don’t love all the English, it is nice that café culture is thriving here. Everyone jams inside with a laptop and is living up the “digital nomad” lifestyle. I get a ridiculous amount of work done in the café from 8:30-12:00/1 everyday.
6. Festivals: Colombians are great at partying. The next two weeks are Feria de las Flores, the festival of the flowers. This involves parades, flower vendors, free concerts, and traditional food/crafts being sold in parks. I’m sad I will miss so many of the events, but I’ve been working every weekend for a month and a half to justify going on vacation.
I arrived in Palestine during the 2014 conflict; only a few days after the James Foley video circulated, and the moment the ceasefire was broken.