Written by Genevieve Kung, Registered Psychologist (Australia)
Growing up, dreams of living abroad for school or for work were always accompanied by a wistful sense of excitement, adventure, and the awe of untouched potential. Truly, as an expatriate myself, these have been some of the best parts of my overseas experience.
However, to a lesser extent, living abroad also comes with tough challenges such as cultural adjustment, being away from the family, lifestyle changes (some for the better, some not so), and then some. Having lived across three different countries over the past two decades, navigating these spaces has become somewhat easier (though not perfect) and I am lucky that my family fully supports my wanderlust and we are pretty good with keeping in touch. However, these past few months with the COVID-19 global pandemic, have proved to be the most difficult and challenging in terms of being away from home and my loved ones.
To provide some context, I grew up in Singapore and spent most of my life there. I come from a close-knit family and several times a year, we would have family gatherings with all my extended relatives, on both sides of my family. It is a Singaporean thing; we love festivities, and being a small nation, it isn’t difficult for everyone to get together for big family meals. My immediate family moved to Australia about 15 years ago and are currently based there. So, my family is pretty much spread over two countries with Mum and my younger siblings in Australia, and Dad (my parents are divorced) and my extended relatives whom I am just as close to, in Singapore.
These past few months, watching the COVID-19 pandemic unfold across the globe, I have never missed my family so much. It hit the hardest when the worldwide spread intensified. Travel restrictions increased, borders closed, flights reduced, and, in some places, completely ceased.
I found myself keeping up with news of COVID-19 in two countries (three, if you count South Korea) and I, like many others, could only watch helplessly as the numbers of infections climbed. It wasn’t just about the disease either, but the consequences of the pandemic – panic buying, loss of jobs, xenophobia. Suddenly, it was no longer a simple matter of booking a flight and getting on a plane if I needed to be with my family to provide aid and care for them or vice versa.
I know that I am not alone in saying that being away from my loved ones and not knowing when I can physically be with them again has not been easy. We are all learning to navigate these uncertain and complicated times. These are some strategies that I’ve come across that have been helpful for me and I hope that they will be helpful for you too.
Keep in touch and making time count.
Living in the age of technology and being able to send a quick message to, or video chatting with my loved ones on Whatsapp (or any of the other gazillion messaging apps) has been a lifesaver.
Having been guilty in the past of putting this off in favour of other seemingly more important (i.e. more immediate) things, this has become a priority. Someone once said to me that the time we get with each other today, we will never get again. This was said in the context of physically isolating together and families suddenly having to spend a lot of time with one another. I am not personally in that situation, but what she said really resonated with me.
I can still make memories together (thanks to technology) with my loved ones at this time. Present moment awareness refers to the act of being fully engaged in what one is doing at the moment, and the research supports its effectiveness in lowering stress and improving moods. So, I am more focused on being present in these calls and enjoying being in the moment with my family. It has brought us so much closer. It also helps me to check-in on how they are doing, which then allows me to moderate how worried I should be (or not) for them.
Have a sense of community
Keeping connected to communities has been another godsend. It is probably unsurprising that numerous studies have long found that we tend to not do well when we are lonely and socially isolated. During this time, a lot of us are here somewhat by ourselves, and we become each other’s family away from home. I’m not just referring to our individual circles of friends, but to wider communities and organizations (e.g. SIWA, ANZA, AWC, Internations, etc).
Talking about common worries, frustrations, and supporting one another can help us to feel less alone as we check in on one another, and normalise and validate each other’s feelings. Caring and supporting our community also allows us to exercise some sense of control in relation to this global pandemic. I might not be able to help my family overseas to the extent that I would like, but there are people here that need help too and I can help them.
Communities don’t always have to be in the same physical location either. I have friends who are part of foreigner communities in other countries, and through apps like Facebook, we try to uplift one another in little ways that we can. One friend of mine posts a funny meme every day, another started a Facebook page to collect stories of kindness, yet other posts ideas/activities to keep kids from being bored at home.
Have self-compassion and breathe.
These are unprecedented times and it didn’t come with a manual. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what to do. It’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s okay to not have it together all the time. We are only human (i.e. imperfect) and it’s okay to have human moments. Research shows high levels of self-compassion to be related to better overall psychological mental well-being as well as lowered levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. So, allow yourself the space to be human, breath through it.
What does that mean? Breathing is underrated. I remember the first time someone told me to “Keep Calm and Breathe” – to which I believe I reacted by clenching my teeth and saying, “It’s not that simple” (clearly, this was before I became a therapist *wink*). It truly isn’t.
Breathing to feed our bodily functions and breathing to soothe ourselves is different. The former is automatic and we do it without thinking. The latter is a skill and like all skills, needs to be practiced for us to get good at it. For me, it has since become invaluable, and it is something that can be used anywhere.
Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, or upset, I spend some time taking slow, deep, mindful breaths, deliberately relaxing, and let the breaths center me as I slowly let those emotions go with each one. This, is breathing through it. There is also a slew of scientific evidence around the benefits of mindful breathing on calming the emotional centers of the brain, regulating blood pressure, improving the immune system, as well as our metabolism!
Research has shown a relationship between gratitude with improved outcomes in terms of increased pleasant feelings, life satisfaction, as well as reduced stress and depression among other things. Practicing gratitude helps me to not dwell only on the negative and sometimes ugly aspects of the current global situation. Our lifestyles have changed in so many ways in response to this virus and it is unclear if and when it will go away. Focusing on the sacrifices and the inconveniences is natural but does not help my moods in the long-run.
So, I look for things to be grateful for. I am grateful for the company of my kitty cat (my faithful sidekick in my wanderlust adventures), I am grateful to have something to smile about at least once each day (hard not to do with a friend that sends memes daily), I am grateful that the skies are clearer these days, I am grateful for technology without which I cannot stay connected with my loved ones, I am grateful that they are as safe as they can be, and I am grateful for the people who go out of their way to make things better for others in this time of crisis.
Know your resources
Since the onset of this pandemic around the globe, I’ve also come across different stories of how lives have been impacted. A lot of people went back to their home countries, but a lot of people also stayed due to circumstances beyond their control, such as having medical issues that limit the possibility of travel, having children that are either too young to travel or too vulnerable health-wise to do so… the list goes on. Reflecting on these stories, it is clear that it is also very important to know what and where your resources are to get help and assistance. These can be formal such as the respective embassies of different countries or informal such as Facebook groups of expats from particular countries but living in Seoul/South Korea. Once again, the research demonstrates that we do better mentally and emotionally when we have access to support.
Speaking of resources, we at AHS are a resource that you can tap on too. Remember that we might be apart from our family and loved ones, but we are not alone. If you are going through a difficult time in the midst of this global health crisis. Reach out to us, so that we may journey with you, and support you through it.
Seek additional support when needed
These are unprecedented times, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed by the situation and your emotions. If you need additional help for your mental health, AHS has licensed therapists who are ever ready to support you through these challenging times. Telehealth options are also available to support those who are practicing physical distancing, or self-isolation. Contact our inquiry team at 02 – 749 – 7915 / [email protected] to find out more.
For more information on COVID-19
The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare provides up-to-date information in English about the COVID-19 situation in Korea.
The World Health Organization provides information and resources about the global situation around COVID-19.