by John Walsh
When friend and family visit you while living overseas, it can be a tremendously uplifting time of re-connection, support and encouragement. It also gives you an opportunity to show off your adopted country to your loved ones.
But, frankly, these visits also have the potential to be exhausting. The pressure of entertaining guests for an extended period can result in exhaustion, frustration, and can potentially result in resentment. Expectations run high, and the longer your visitors are stuck on an airplane, the higher their expectations rise! You are, after all, the resident expert: a translator, driver, restaurant guide, knowledgeable about all food items and cultural practices in your host culture. (No pressure!)
On your part, you’re often craving a connection with your home culture, and as expats we can often fall into the trap of assuming all the people you left behind have essentially stayed the same since you last saw them.
Managing expectations (yours and theirs) and having a good plan can be the difference between a time of creating memories that you’ll cherish or an experience that will leave you frustrated and happy to see your guests leave, and no one wants that.
Here are 10 ideas that have really helped me to have fantastic experiences when I’ve had friends and family visiting while overseas.
1. UNDERSTAND AND MANAGE TIME EXPECTATIONS.
When family comes to visit you, they are most definitely on vacation. You may or may not be on vacation. Or you may be in some sort of weird middle ground. Fight to avoid the weird middle ground. Feeling like you should be working while your spending time with family will mean you can’t really enjoy them, and when you’re working, you’ll feel guilty for neglecting your guests. So strive to have clear vacation time and clear work time. It will let you be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing.
2. UNDERSTAND AND MANAGE CONVENIENCE / HEALTH / SAFETY EXPECTATIONS.
This applies mostly to people who are receiving friends and family from a first-world country into a developing country. Help people know what they should be worried about (Don’t drink the water!) and what they shouldn’t worry about at all (Those guys always carry machine guns, no worries!). Reducing worry and managing the expectations of inconvenience (no AC, touchy electricity, slow internet) helps your visitors to get into the mindset they need to enjoy their time with you.
3. UNDERSTAND AND MANAGE VACATION EXPECTATIONS.
The promotional video they’ve seen on Youtube is not the same as actually visiting the country. Understanding what they’re hoping to get out of a vacation will really help you plan your time with them. Are they looking for a taste of adventure? Exotic food? Or do they just want a pristine beach and a novel? Scuba diving? Trips to a bazaar? Mountain trekking? Knowing what type of vacation experience your visitor is looking for can really help.
4. CREATE AN ACTIVITIES LIST.
This can actually be a fun exercise. Think back on all the things that you’ve done in your host country that you’ve enjoyed. You’re trying to make a list of various types of activities, which might include different restaurants you’ve enjoyed, or beaches you’re gone to. It might include the exotic (visiting a spice market) or the mundane (walking to your favorite coffee shop) to the adventurous (whitewater rafting) but it is a list of the things that you’ve really enjoyed.
Don’t limit this list to your own experience; ask your expat and national friends what they’ve enjoyed most and what they do with their own guests. Also consider some things that you haven’t done yet, but would like to do. Guests are a great excuse to explore and try something new. The longer the list, the better. You most likely won’t do everything on it, that’s not the goal, but it does give you and your guests options to consider for activities while they’re with you. The added bonus is that it can help you remember how fantastic your adopted home really is.
5. USE A MAKER CALENDAR TO PLAN THEIR TIME WITH YOU.
The difference between a maker calendar and a traditional management calendar is this: A maker calendar is broken into large, general blocks of time (maybe 3 hours each) whereas a manager’s calendars is split into 30- or 60- minute blocks. There is a risk of over-scheduling yourself and your guests with a manager’s calendar. Trying to fill every hour for an extended period can be overwhelming. You are a host, a friend or a family member, not an event planner.
Using a three-block maker calendar (Morning, Afternoon, Evening) will keep you and your guests moving at a good pace. Plan two time blocks, and give them the third to rest (or take it for your own rest). Trying to do three activities in a day can be too much, but knowing that you’ve got a multi-hour block of time for productivity or for down time can make spending a morning or an afternoon with family much more enjoyable.
6. FOSTER INDEPENDENCE.
When there is a language and cultural difference, your guests may begin to assume (and you with them) that you should be their ever-present translator, personal map and transportation service (as noted above). It is far better to foster some independence and give them the freedom to explore!
In most countries getting a local cell phone plan provides cheap internet data plan which can give them a new sense of independence. The ability to use maps and Google Translate as well as local taxi apps can give them some independence and let them explore at their own pace (or not explore, depending on their desires). Let them visit places you’ve already been, and listen patiently as they excitedly explain how it was the most beautiful experience ever. In some cases, independence might be hiring a car and a driver for a day to take them to see various restaurants while you get some quality one-on-one time with your kids. A functional smart phone does a lot for people’s confidence when exploring new areas.
7. ALTERNATE TIME TOGETHER WITH TIME APART.
No one is constantly on. We all need breaks. Know your limits. If you need some time with a book, don’t be afraid to say so, and take that time. It’ll refresh you and give you more energy to be able to truly enjoy your interactions with your visiting friends and family. Keep your cycle of working out or getting down time to get re-centered and refreshed. By sticking to your personal rhythm, you can enjoy your time with your family.
8. FAMILY MEALS ARE A GREAT TIME TO CONNECT.
When I first moved overseas, I was amazed how much food connects us to our home culture, and how food is really a key of connection to our new culture. Eating together with your guests is one of the best ways to enjoy your time together. Whether it’s trying new restaurants together or sampling ethnic cuisine from a street vendor, eating together is great time of connection. Steal a page from European culture and tack on a post-dinner coffee (maybe decaf for some of us) or walk. There’s something that bonds us together as we eat side by side.
9. FOR EXTENDED STAYS: CREATE A VACATION-WITHIN-A-VACATION.
One of the great things about South East Asia is the proximity to a wide variety of experiences. If your guests are planning on spending an extended amount of time visiting, think about what a vacation-within-a-vacation might look like. It might look like your guests taking a 3-day excursion to Panang without you to sample the amazing food, or maybe taking 5 days in Bali to get scuba certified. You might go, you might not.
Give people the freedom and flexibility to pursue these experiences, especially if they are in a different life phase. Indonesia and Malaysia have pristine islands that are perfect for relaxing. Singapore has great shopping and restaurants, as does Kuala Lumpur. Also, each of these places is a short, relatively cheap flight away once you are in the region.
10. FOR VISITORS WITH YOUNGER KIDS: CREATE A ROUTINE.
When family and friends with young kids visit from overseas, one of the biggest complaints is getting over jet lag. The second is seeing kids essentially melt-down because they are completely out of their routine, away from any semblance of normalcy and completely overwhelmed. Often parents attempt to prevent the meltdowns by providing extra incentives (candy and extra screen time) that often end up making the problem worse.
As an alternative, consider creating a routine for younger kids so they know what to expect, when they’ll have activities and when they’ll have down time for reading or naps. Having access to a library with a broad selection of Kindle books or magazines can be incredibly helpful (especially when you wake up at 3AM and feel like you can’t possibly get back to sleep). For my visiting family, it was having daily pool time (they visited from icy cold winter to hot and sunny Southeast Asia). You’d imagine that the kids would grow bored of the pool after two weeks, but they never did. Knowing what they were going to do every morning gave them a sense of rhythm, and they probably enjoyed that pool with their cousins more than the beaches, surfing and surrounding mountains combined. As they get older, their ideas of a great vacation will change, but for now, this is their idea of a great trip.
There are certainly other ideas and experiences that have helped seasoned expatriates host friends and families in a healthy, heart-filling way. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below for the good of all!
John Walsh is an American expat teacher in Southeast Asia, where he enjoys the perpetually balmy weather with his delightful wife and three young children. Before teaching, he spent a dozen years working at the intersections of finance, technology, law and organizational change. He blogs about the some of the more practical aspects of expat life in his spare time at: www.abalancedlifeabroad.com.