When living abroad, you will undoubtedly experience anxiety, loneliness and an overall sense of displacement most of the time. Even when you finally feel settled in and comfortable, when you finally start to make friends, and when you finally no longer feel like a visitor, you will long to connect with people from your background. You will long to connect with "home" in some way.
That was my experience when living in St. Etienne, France for an entire academic year. I was beyond thrilled to be living in Europe as it was my dream since I was 10 but I wanted so badly to just... see another American or Jamaican, like myself.
Over the past 20 years, we have seen technology take-off from having massive computer monitors that worked on a dial-up modem in your house (that you could only use if nobody was on the house phone) to being able to access the internet on small portable devices almost everyone has in their pockets. If I were living in France now instead of 14 years ago, perhaps my loneliness wouldn't have been so strong. So here's a list of the 8 things I wish I'd had while living in France.
1. High Speed Internet
In my earlier paragraph, I mentioned a "house phone." To the millennial babies out there, a house phone is one that would plug into the socket where your Internet router goes... in your house. If, and only if, your family could afford the very large, very expensive computers back in the day, you could not get on the Internet if someone was on the house phone! And once you could get online, the computer would have to dial a number to gain a connection that would take a few minutes before it became strong enough for you to surf freely. It was annoying to say the least.
I remember afternoons spent in the Internet lounge at my university in France, all due to the lack of high speed Internet. It was an event, sending an email. I didn't have a computer in my dorm (remember, they had enormous monitors and were quite pricey back then. There was no way I was hauling one across the Atlantic), so my American friends and I would journey down the hill and across campus to where the computers lived. I believe we called it "computer heaven" because it was a room filled with computers that the students could access for studying and research purposes. We used it to email home.
But what a headache! Sometimes 15 minutes would pass before we could finally get logged on to the Internet. That's also assuming we did not have to wait for a computer! Therefore we didn't go to computer heaven often but when we did, we had lots of long stories to tell in one sitting. High speed Internet, whether in an internet café or on my phone, would have been such a blessing back then. I would've written my family and friends more if I could've gotten connected faster and plus, I would have felt connected to the world as well.
2. Smart Phones
Which leads me to the next item on my retro wish list: Smart phones. Having a cell phone is helpful if you're having an emergency, running late for an engagement or working remotely, but when living in a foreign country, its simple purpose of communicating with your loved ones at home holds the most importance. But having a smart phone takes all of the aforementioned values to another level. If I'd had a smart phone in France instead of my simple Nokia cell phone, I would have been able to send those lengthy emails from my phone instead of waiting in line at my campus's Internet lounge and crossing my fingers for a stable Internet connection. Traveling around France and neighboring countries would have been easier as well because I would have had access to the train schedules and maps.
How did we ever survive without streaming? If I had to go a week without watching TV, I think I would implode due to boredom. So as someone living in the PC -- Post Cable -- era, I rely heavily on streaming. I watch Hulu for my sitcoms and TV dramas that I cannot watch in real-time and use Netflix for movies, off mainstream shows and for catching interesting documentaries. Just the other day when I wasn't feeling well, I could watch my church service online (thank you streaming), watch the episode of Black-ish I missed that week and then a movie on Netflix that evening. How convenient! God bless you Apple TV and Amazon Fire Sticks.
4. Social Media
I am sure the benefits to having social media available while studying abroad are obvious. Though sometimes misused, social media can be a magnificent tool for keeping in touch with people you hold dear to your heart. Whatever your purpose, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram can make you feel closer to home. If they were around when I studied abroad, the desire to remain connected would have been pacified a bit through my use of social media. If I had Instagram in 2001, I could have instantly posted photos of my excursions to the French countryside or weekend trips to Lyon and Paris. People would be able to see the things that perhaps my 35mm camera's film couldn't capture, due to filtering and photo editing. I wouldn't have had to pay Eckerd's to have my 200+ photos physically developed upon my return to the USA and placed in an actual photo album, but instead digitally store them without fear of the inevitable aging and acidic discoloration that printed pictures often encounter over time.
Blogging is a great way to let your voice be heard, quickly and for an audience. I wouldn't have had to draft novel-length emails if I had a blog site for all of my friends and family to see. And due to the complexity of sending emails back then, it would have been easier to simply post to a site and have my friends read it at their leisure. Nowadays, one could get a domain name for free and set it up within minutes! A blog site would be very beneficial for all students studying abroad, because it could be treated as an electronic journal that can be easily accessed by everyone at any time. Those printed memories would live forever because hey, it's the Internet.
Not everyone was walking around with cell phones in their purses when I was living abroad. We did not have apps; we barely had funky ringtones, ring-backs and text messaging capabilities. When I was living in France in 2000-2001, people were texting but it wasn't like it is now: Each number on your phone's keypad had at least three letters on it, and you'd have to double-tap the #1 button to get a B instead of an A or a C. Texting was annoying and it took forever if you had a lot to say! There was no such thing as an emoji or text language like LOL, IDK or SMH. The number symbol did not reflect a trending topic. People weren't texting instead of calling, like they do now. My classmates and I knew that in order to speak with our families, we had to purchase phone cards for long-distance calls and when we ran out of minutes, we would have to purchase more. Time literally was money. But texting itself has evolved since then. It's not difficult anymore because the keypads have changed. People with iPhones can send iMessages over a Wi-Fi connection. It has grown to become quite convenient instead of a hassle. And texting in general could have helped circumvent those phone call expenses seeing as it is a lot cheaper to text than it is to call overseas. Which leads me to #7...
WhatsApp is great for those living abroad. I use it habitually to text my friends and family in Jamaica as well as in Europe, without paying a dime. This free app has the same capabilities as texting, meaning I can send pictures of my new car and they can send me videos of my cousin's first birthday party. WhatsApp also has some different functions like the capacity to make phone calls through the app itself, over a Wi-Fi connection.
All of the above inventions are well and good but with the creation of FaceTime, communicating with technology was brought to another level. The loneliness I mentioned at the beginning of this post was partly due to not being able to see the people I missed. The happiness I would have felt if I were able to make a phone call that allowed me to see their faces is indescribable. And how cool would it have been if I could FaceTime my sister from the Eiffel Tower or take my brother along with me as I strolled down the Champs-Elysees? Missing those closest to you are what you miss the most when you're living in a foreign country, so being able to see a smile or even a tear could make a big difference with how one copes with such separation.