"So. What did you do over there?"
Though I know most people mean well, I dread this question. Don't get me wrong. I love talking about my overseas experiences--with a listener who's genuinely interested. After watching a few people glaze over, repats get good at sussing out when to be real and when say, "Oh, you know. Lotsa stuff."
Some examples from my own life of people who were clearly sorry they'd asked:
Relative: So. What did you do over there?
Me: Well, one of the best trips I took was to Banda Aceh, to see the destruction from the tsunami.
Relative: The what?
Me: The big tsunami from 2004. It destroyed half the city and killed 40,000 people. There's this huge electrical ship, big as a mall, that got washed seven kilometers inland and squashed a whole neighborhood.
Relative: Uh, yeah. Did I tell you Derek got a new car?
Uh-huh. Glad I had your undivided attention for all of 15 seconds.
Here's one from a baby shower:
Total Stranger (at a table of total strangers): So. Tell us the craziest thing about Thailand.
Me: Well, I lived in the red light district. I'd be walking to the grocery store and passing all these prostitutes. Maybe half of them were trans-gendered. You know, men who were living as women.
(Silence, sound of chirping crickets)
Total Stranger: Well, it must have been a fantastic experience. Anyone see American Idol last night?
Okay, okay, I admit that's a clear case of wrong message, wrong audience. But I honestly forget that everyone doesn't sit around talking about prostitution, ping-pong shows, sexpats and lady-boys like people here talk about, well, American Idol. In the world I'm coming from, it's all pleasant social chit-chat.
Another thing I dislike about the "So what did you do over there" query: it's not like I've been away on a two-week holiday. I've been gone for six years! Quick, tell me everything you've done in six years before I get bored and change the subject to American Idol.
So what can you do to help a repat friend who's struggling? Simple. Let them talk. Be present. Really listen.
That's why my friend Julie and her husband Shaun are chicken soup for my repat soul. Here's a picture of all of us at their wedding in Australia in 2006:
Julie and I worked together at the International House at Colorado State from 2003-2004. Then we both moved to China about a year apart. Julie met Shaun, who's from Australia, in Shenzhen. They moved to Korea for awhile, went to Australia to get married and now live in tiny St. Joseph, Minnesota.
The first thing they did was take me out for yummy Thai food (not easy to find in St. Joseph). Then, over beers, they said they'd followed the Bangkok riots in the news. What was really going on over there? Would I please explain?
Well, I could barely contain my excitement. We talked about Thaksin, the Red Shirts, and the bloodless coup. I opened my laptop and showed them all the videos and pictures I'd collected on my East is Red blog. For awhile, I worried I was boring them to death, but they kept asking for more! They wanted to know what I thought of the media coverage (Answer: CNN and BBC botched it, Al-Jazeera was right on the nose). They sat at full attention through my Khattiya assassination story and the saga of my eleventh-hour evacuation from the kill zone. And when I tried to change the subject, they changed it back.
If felt sooo good. In fact, when I woke up the next morning, I'd swear my cheeks were sore from smiling.
Granted, we have some common ground, having all lived abroad. And Shaun's getting his degree in international social justice (we also talked in depth about his work with communities in Chiapas, Mexico). But if there's a repat in your life, showing interest and really listening will mean so much to them. You don't have to let them go on all night. Give them 15 minutes to share and they'll be grateful for your generosity.
By the way, if you know Jewls and Shaun and haven't been to visit them, it's time! They said I was their first non-family visitor in three years. Guys, maybe you and Kevin need to get attached townhouses somewhere kewl-er? Australia? Colorado?
Also, after listening to the AM talk radio in your 'hood, I don't know how you survive. As I was driving away toward the South Dakota border, the lady was talking about how all good Christians need to stand together against "The Green Dragon." Yup, we all need to do our part to silence the environmentalist wackos. Quick, hand me a lighter. I wanna set my hair on fire.