Wednesday, 10 September 2008

D = Distance

On Sunday, Father’s Day, we had a cheerful discussion over lunch with the in-laws who have decided it is time to plan their funerals. D is the only one of four sons who still lives in New Zealand. It seems his parents are planning their funerals based on the fact that they don’t expect their other sons to come home “all that way” just for the funeral, despite the fact that they all live just one direct flight from NZ! (Don’t get me started!) But try to explain to people in their 70s and 80s that there is really no place on this earth that could be considered too far away these days.

It got me to thinking.

When I got the letter telling me I would be living in Thailand for a year, for the first time in my life I would be leaving behind everything and everyone I knew, going to a country that was a mystery to me. I would be alone. It was frightening.

I was however excited at the opportunity – going into the unknown was a wonderful opportunity. I had dreamed of travelling overseas since I was a little girl, standing on the stony beach at the edge of our property, looking across the Pacific Ocean, and imagining the lands beyond. Waiting until I was 17 had felt like forever, but finally I would be able to see the world. The unknown was exciting. The fears and dangers to come were as unknown as the joys. This was in retrospect a good thing.

The separation was not going to be simply physical, but there would also be a very real emotional distance too, without the support of family and friends.

Now when I travel, I take my cellphone with me, I text my 75-year-old mother from Santiago de Compostela or Vienna or Manila, and we talk about the weather! I email regularly and keep in touch with friends and family through cheap phone cards.

But in 1980, none of these were available. Growing up in New Zealand’s countryside, it hadn’t been that long since we had stopped using a party line shared with our neighbours (our ring was short long short). The telephone was for necessary transfer of information, not for chit-chatting. Toll calls were expensive. International calls were … inconceivable. There was no prospect that I would be ringing home regularly. (In the end I rang home just twice). Unlike exchange students these days, I would not be emailing or texting or skyping my family and friends the night I arrived. I went armed with a pile of aerogrammes. Remember those? They would be considered antiques today.

This is of course part of the point of a student exchange. It is necessary for a student to adjust and fully commit to their new environment. If they’re connected daily with home and their old life, they might find it harder to make that adjustment. Still, support and encouragement from across the miles would have been welcome. Having to wait 6 weeks for my first letter from home (my parents had been given an incorrect address for my host family) was hard.

At least though I knew it was only for a year. I thought of my ancestors, saying goodbye to their families in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France, setting out on an arduous sea journey to a strange land on the other side of the world, knowing that they would probably never see their families and home again. Now, that was distance.


  1. All those Vietnamese refugees I taught. No matter how bad it was there, St. Louis can never be Saigon.

  2. Ah, Mali, we are generational cohorts. (And, believe it or not, I still don't have a cell phone.) It's astonishing to me that I can have near-instant conversations with a woman in New Zealand when, in 1980, it would have taken weeks for us to communicate. In 1984–85, Tim was in England, I was in the states, and we'd talk for 5 minutes every couple of weeks. A letter probably took 10 days or so...

    How different is it now, growing up, no waiting?


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