Moving to a new country has never been easy, especially when you make that move on your own. It can be a little overwhelming, settling into an unfamiliar culture, the demands of a new job or an academic course, the stress of fending for yourself, and the acute sense of isolation from all things loved and familiar.
There was a time when singletons in a new country would join the nearest dance school to meet up with other single people. Some joined the local library, or perhaps a music club. Dancing, reading books, or playing an instrument were often just excuses to get to know more people and build a circle of friends.
And then there is now, when you don’t need to step out of your room to build this network of friends. All you need is an internet connection and a smartphone. Enter social media.
When 28-year-old Bridgette Colaco from Kolkata had landed at the St Louis airport in Missouri, she felt like she was looking on to the set of a Hollywood film. “I remember being the only person around with my skin colour. That was the first sense of ‘feeling alien’ that I recognised,” says Colaco, who had moved to the US after enrolling for a PhD programme, and who knew only one other person in the entire country.
That was 2001—a world without Facebook, WhatsApp, Orkut, and definitely without smartphones. “Email and Yahoo Messenger were what we had,” recalls Colaco. “We would be on email listservs to get information on what was happening on campus.” People met up via emails and phone calls. Of course, the student town had plenty of bars and nightclubs. “Plus, the university had a student recreation centre with various game centres that were free or had a nominal charge. There were dollar-movie nights, foreign film screenings, different tournaments and fundraisers,” she says.
“The toughest challenge,” she adds, “was to suddenly, simultaneously walk down three different paths—start a whole new personal life, an academic life, and work life—with just two suitcases.”
Challenges take on different forms for different people. For Saikat Majumdar, a writer and a professor of English at Stanford University, the shock was one of moving, at the age of 24, from the bustling metropolis of Kolkata with a population of around 12 million at that time to a small city in the American Midwest. It was disorienting, he remembers of the time he landed at Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1999, “initially, in a good and exciting way, but also quickly in a depressing way”. He found “the general culture quite insular but, over time, found that people would socialise more often, and more intensely, in small, dead university towns than in large metropolitan cities where there is a lot going on”.
Atreyee Sen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, recalls her earliest days in London, where she moved in 1998 for doctoral studies, and feels, in retrospect, that “it was very risky to fly in to London with no money in my pocket. I didn’t have a bank account so it took days before I got my first scholarship cheque.” The then 26-year-old says, “My first culture shock as such was the idea of ‘going Dutch’ and sharing bills even with senior academic staff. I remember cringing all the time, because I was unsure whether people would be offended while dividing bills at restaurants. My toughest challenge was adjusting to a new academic set-up with very different styles of pedagogy, which included addressing faculty by their first names.”
Changing countries not only presents unknowns in the social context, but also in professional situations. For Rita Rai, for instance, moving to Auckland from Baroda in 2004 was as much for her son’s education as it was for herself. “Moving out of the country was a viable option also because life is not easy as a single parent in India,” says Rai (56), now a payroll supervisor in the finance department of an Australian Stock Exchange listed Top-100 company. “I had absolutely no friend or family in this country and I had come by myself. I felt like I was thrown into a river and I did not know how to swim,” she remembers. “I had worked in the corporate banking sector in India and had a doctorate. But neither my work experience nor my qualification was recognised here. The rejection of my CV was demoralising, and I had to start absolutely from scratch,” says Rai, who describes her journey not as “12,000 km away from home, but also 12,000 km deep into her heart”.
Difficulties are not always benign either. Souresh Basu, founder of Virtusant LLC that operates between the USA and the Philippines, was 23 when he moved from Kolkata to study for a master’s degree in Australia in 1995. “I was teaching undergrads when I was doing my master’s in Melbourne. A bunch of students who did not get good scores in one of my tests wanted to take revenge,” he recalls. “I came home one day and found my apartment cleaned out. They had taken every single thing. I lodged formal complaints, but neither the vice-chancellor nor the police did anything. This shook me to my core.”
The changed realities of being alone in a foreign land also make people realise their own potential. “It pushes one out of the comfort zone to some extent, to do something new,” says Suryatapa Chakravarty, a 30-year-old who moved to Auckland in 2009. Agrees Rai. “You suddenly begin to value a lot of things that you earlier took for granted,” she says. The best way to stay afloat in these circumstances is to blend in, says Basu, and “completely immerse yourself in the culture”.
Times, however, have changed. Although the problems might still be as relevant as they were a decade-and-a-half ago, solutions seem to be closer at hand. Colaco attributes this change to what she calls the “dynamic duo” of social media and smartphones. The all-purpose universe of social media can be everything—from your gang of buddies or agony aunt, to friendly and professional advisors or the go-to-person for all things mundane, such as finding a local plumber. Also, almost invariably, it becomes a hotline to homeland.
For Radhika Raghav (27), who found herself studying films in a university known for its science departments, it was not easy to come across people with a similar bent of mind. “I felt the disciplinary divide was too much to deal with during my initial days, and so I joined a few Facebook communities of various postgrad groups and went to some of their events,” she says of her first days in Dunedin in 2014. They provided her an entry into the social circuit, and allowed her to make her own circle of friends.
When 35-year-old Adil (name changed to retain anonymity), relocated to Denmark in 2014 (he is currently based in Copenhagen), he had absolutely no social contacts. “I knew no one in that country. The weekends were the biggest challenge, when I did not know what to do,” he says. “As a cyclist, I would go on long rides but had nobody to hang out or have coffee and conversation with. How do you deal with your spare time?”
He also learnt that, in the local culture, people took time to know one another. Figuring out his own solution, he put up messages on Facebook, asking his existing contacts to introduce him to anybody they knew in the city. “I found a few friends. But here people have a regimented life and you cannot drop in on anybody on a whim. Appointments are planned two to four weeks in advance, even for coffee,” he says. Learning from this experience, he prepared himself before travelling to Jordan on work. He contacted people with similar interests on Twitter well before his trip: “I started following them, and over a period of eight weeks, got a sense of who they are. Then, I finally met them in person when I was there.”
Parikshith Sambasivan (28), who has lived and travelled outside India several times before coming to Wellington, New Zealand, as a student in 2012-13, says, “Social media was a major factor in learning about events, gigs, meeting places, either via web or apps specifically designed for certain groups.”
As essential as meeting people and making new friends in a strange country is finding help for various household issues when old and familiar support networks are non-existent. “Besides getting in touch with old friends and making new ones, I have sold and bought used stuff, found job offers, obtained reviews on items I want to buy, or the neighbourhood I wanted to move into,” says Chakravarty.
Colaco has learned that there is a forum or site or a YouTube video for everything today. “I’ve learnt to change batteries in a difficult smoke alarm, and do other household chores that I was unfamiliar with—all through online groups,” she says. These groups, she adds, are also her sounding boards for issues like finding the best dry cleaners, or watching out for realtors to avoid in a new city.
Sambasivan recalls the testing times in 2013 when Wellington was hit by a series of tremors that not only damaged some historic buildings in the city centre, but also shook the confidence of its residents. (Sitting on the highest seismic zone of New Zealand, the city is prone to earthquakes.) “I was all alone, and did not have close friends or family around for miles. But I managed to join spiritual support groups online to ease the stress,” he says.
Earlier, expatriates would often feel the need to live in neighbourhoods with people of the same ethnicity and communities. Not only would this ensure a circle of familiarity where lifestyles and habits were concerned, but also help people participate in common festivals and celebrations. Social media, says Sen, has changed that: “People can take part in a Durga Puja in Kolkata through online sites and even offer anjali (offerings to the goddess).” It also helps her to keep in touch with her family in India and ensure that she doesn’t “miss out on happy and sad events, or just everyday humour”, while avoiding the daily drama of a household. “Like the maid not turning up,” she says.
“Every country has its own ecosystem of smart media apps,” says Basu, who uses WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and similar apps to stay in touch with family back home, as well as friends and colleagues across the world. “Almost everybody uses a smartphone these days and certain apps have gained in popularity in certain cultures.”
Of course, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who wake up in the morning and check their smartphones, and those who don’t. Rai compares social media with any other social relationships: “In any relationship, you get what you put into it. Similarly, in online media, you need to spend time and only then it becomes a part of your life.” She adds that initially she had not made much of an effort, but eventually she found her old friends via Facebook and got back in touch with them. “This has made it so much easier to just pick up the phone and talk to them,” she says.
But, she cautions, if you are not the kind to regularly post updates, there are chances that you might end up watching other people’s lives online and feel increasingly isolated. “I thought it was my way of thinking, but then I learnt that a lot of people think that way. What you see is not always reality. I realised that I wasn’t going through any crisis. This acceptance helped me work my way around it and the self-counselling did wonders,” she says.
The downside of social media is something Sen, too, is familiar with: “It has made me more vulnerable to criticism, as many people who do not approve of my allegedly non-normative life choices as an Indian woman can easily find me online.” Also, at a personal level, are issues of body image that can affect South Asian women living in Western countries, as highlighted by Sen who refers to online groups that are “designed for promoting Western forms of beauty, which can make you feel inadequate by playing into your physical insecurities”.
In a world that is, in some ways, increasingly growing smaller, social media has helped reduce many distances. It has made looking and asking for help easier, while also providing alternative circles of support, information and communication channels.
Chakravarty, perhaps, best captures the spirit of this medium: “We must not forget that it is largely a collaborative effort. So everyone has to pitch in positively to have an effective support system.”
(This story appears in the 29 April, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)