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A 'Home away from Home': Expatriates and the Internet

The use of Email and the Internet has become an important feature in many people's lives, but this seems especially true in the case of expatriates. For them, the Internet can become a 'home away from home' - a way of connecting with friends and family at home, while they are living and working abroad. Some expatriates regard the Internet their 'lifeline', while others state pragmatically that 'my life in Indonesia would not be possible without it'. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at how expatriates use the Internet, and in why it is so essential for them.

'Email is vital'

Asked about their feelings about the Internet, the response from expatriates is often enthusiastic: 'Email is wonderful! It has totally changed my life in Indonesia'. Karen, an American in her forties, stresses that 'Email is my lifeline - it has made living in Jakarta possible. It keeps my sanity - and it is cheaper than a shrink'. Paula, a British woman, admits that 'Without Email, I would be totally homesick and lost'. Although it seems to have special importance for women, which I will discuss below, it important for men as well: David, a young Canadian, puts it succinctly: "Email makes me feel connected and happy. When staying abroad, it certainly helps a lot." Tom, a German working for an American company, puts it more drastically: "Without Email, my current life would not be possible, in practical terms, but also emotionally".

Many emphasise how stability in personal relationships eases the disruption created by long absences and spatial distances. As Monika, a German consultant, points out: "It became clear to me after I had been gone for a whole year - when I came back, I realised, my friends are there just as before - but the important thing was, we didn't pick up things where we left them a year ago, we picked them up from where we were at the moment". Lack of this personal continuity is felt sharply, and a sense of shared past can be paramount. Joyce describes this: "some days I feel, I am in a place where nobody cares about me. They may want to go out and party with you, but who is there to really worry about you? In these situations writing Emails makes me feel good, because we share lots of references to the past and people that know".

Although many expatriates have itinerant lives, and frequently change jobs, and places of residence, they do not necessarily welcome this transience. Instead, for many, social stability is paramount, which is reflected in their use of Email. Creating a 'balance' and a sense of 'home away from home' is seen as desirable. Although many expatriates choose 'international lifestyles', they try to limit the social disruptions it causes. The Internet becomes vital for achieving such a balance. Email provides a constant backdrop for ever-changing locations. As Joyce puts it, "wherever you are you can open your mail and find letters from all over", or in David's words: "my Email address will always be the same, no matter where I am - home is where my Email is".

News and Information

Apart from these kind of social purposes, the Internet also provides a sense of 'home' through information from and about people's home countries. News is not just relevant in terms of its information value, but also plays a social role. Through providing this information, the Internet allows expatriates to live in 'two worlds'- maintaining a parallel sense of 'home'. As Nicole, a German woman, puts it: "through the Internet, I can live in 'two worlds', although of course it is no substitute for 'real experiences'.

This also concerns work issues. As Julia points out, "without the Internet I would feel cut off from what is going on in my professional field. Since I am not totally excluded from the news, I feel more comfortable living far away from New York where I had easy access to information". David, an Italian journalist, stresses his involvement with what is happening in Italy: "I read two Italian newspapers every day on the Internet-but also two Southeast Asian newspapers, like the Jakarta Post and the Straits Times". Information from one's home country also enables exchanges with friends. Nicole explains: "Email enables communication when I am on home leave - because I am always up to date with what has been happening there. When I am in Germany, I can take part in discussions, without people having to explain everything to me. Also, discussing issues in Emails helps me to not only think about it the 'Indonesian way', but also offers German perspectives on things". David also stresses the social importance of 'being up to date': "when I went home for Easter, I knew about everything. When talking with my friends, I knew, this minister resigned because of some scandal, and that singer had died - all that". Keeping in touch with what is happening 'at home' even fuels conversations with expatriates in Jakarta. Pauline explains: "Last night, we were out with some British people, and they were like, ' what actually happened to the Jill Dando murder?' and nobody was sure. So I thought, well tomorrow I can pull up the Times and see what is there."

Expatriate women

Although the Internet is arguably important for both male and female expatriates, it turns out that it assumes a special importance for expatriate women, particularly if they have come to Indonesia as 'accompanying spouses'. In a nutshell, it seems that men often experience the expatriate posting as less disruptive than their wives. Their job often provides them with a stable professional and social network. Expatriate women, on the contrary, are suddenly cut off from their ties at home, especially if they had to give up a job, and are unable to work in Indonesia. Being cut off from their social networks, they often find living in Indonesia very isolating. In this situation, Email can literally function as a lifeline, as it allows women to keep in touch with friends and family at home. May women express that Email not only alleviates their situation, but they reckon that Email literally makes their lives in Jakarta possible in the first place. This also marks a change from earlier times; some women remember that just a few years ago, the lack of communication facilities made life in Indonesia much more difficult. Linda, who had been posted to Jakarta once before more than ten years ago, explains: 'There was a great sense of isolation in 1989. If someone at home was ill, it could have taken them a week to contact me. All that has changed now'.

Importantly, many women only started using the Internet as a result of having to move abroad, whereas before there seemed to be no need for it. It is especially true for the older generation, who take their first steps of e-learning in Jakarta. These steps are often prompted by family and friends at home, who urge them to 'get online' in order to stay in touch. Hilde, a German women, recounts how hard she found it: 'My husband always wanted me to start using email - and then my friends said, Hilde, there is no more letter writing - you have to write Emails! My husband said, I'll switch on the laptop for you, and you just type in your letter. And now I have learnt to send emails to family and friends'. While women often start using the Internet later than men, they seem more capable of learning as they get older, than men are. Anecdotal evidence suggests that among elderly relatives, who use Email to communicate with their expatriate children in Indonesia, more women than men are willing to take this up, even at an old age.

Family ties 'online'

For expatriate women, the Internet is especially important for its social functions. In general, expatriate women also seem to do most of 'family work', i.e., keeping the expatriate family together during a posting. This often includes staying in touch with relatives in their home countries. Expatriate women thus use the Internet for maintaining family ties 'online'. Caring for elderly relatives becomes especially crucial for the generation of 'family expatriates', those between 45 and 60 years old. As their parents are usually more than 65 years old, they often have to come to terms with frailty, illness and bereavement following the death of a partner. In addition, many 'family expatriates' have grown-up children, who did not accompany their parents on overseas postings. This is crucial for 'expatriate mothers', who try to keep in close contact with their children who live abroad while they are on a posting in Jakarta. Karen, whose children are at college in the US, tells how being away from them worried her more than leaving her job: "without Email, I would totally miss my job, which I expected. But Email made a difference, and I realised, this isn't too bad. But I thought I was going to miss my kids so much that it wasn't gonna work."

Regina, for example, was rather concerned about her elderly mother, who recently had to undergo heart surgery. Regina thus appreciated being informed immediately: "You certainly are more in touch with everything ... when my mother got ill and had to have surgery I was in constant touch with my brother. You keep informed, and also you know that you can be reached anytime - and that is very important in such a situation." This communication is important in terms of elderly parents as well as for grown-up children. Karen explains how important it is for her to keep in touch with her adult children in Texas: "my kids and I instant message daily. It's the next best thing to talking on the phone. It makes us feel a lot closer than half way across the world! Mostly we message about 6 am in the morning my time in Jakarta, which is afternoon for them ... so all four of us are connected by instant message, and we send pictures back and forth too. I also do that with my own family, but they are all in Ohio. I actually don't miss my parents so much, but most of all my kids". Many expatriates have introduced friends or family to the Internet specifically so they would be able to communicate with each other during the expatriates' stay abroad. They admit that they kept in touch less frequently or not at all with friends or family who did not use Email. This suggests, though, that the Internet also introduces a new divide: while it strengthens ties between people who are 'online', it reduces contacts between expatriates using Email and their family and friends who do not.

Taking into account the diverse ways in which expatriate women and men use, and value, the Internet, it is undeniably vital - and it is crucially changing the way expatriates live their lives abroad.

Our thanks to Meike Fechter for her contribution of this article based on her PhD research with expatriates in Jakarta in the late 1990s.

Download the full text of Meike's academic paper entitled "Home(s) away from Home: Expatriates and the Internet" [ Word document].

Read Meike's book entitled "Transnational Lives: Expatriates in Indonesia".