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The struggles of an expat Grandma

Those of us raising expat children often worry about how to maintain relationships with our parents – our children’s grandparents – “back home”. Expat Living reader ROSANN SANTORA KAO, a grandparent herself, shares some advice.

Expat grandma with grandchild for web article on expat grandparents

“What to give a grandparent as a gift? Give her your time.”

In a Hong Kong preschool a teacher poses the question, “How far away is your grandma?” A first child answers, “My grandma lives in Chicago. It’s a very long plane ride. I go to sleep and still we’re not there!”

A second preschooler then responds, “I don’t know where my grandma lives, but first you go to Bangkok and then mum says we ‘have to transit’… that means get on another plane.”

The teacher’s eyes turn to a third preschooler: “What about your grandmother; where does she live?” With wonder in her voice, the young one says, “I don’t know. I asked my mum about grandma and she said, ‘Don’t worry, grandma will be here ‘when summer comes’. But, I don’t know how far away summer is!”

Conversations like this happens every day in urban Asia. The talk of young children coaxes us to question how we might be thinking about grandparents who live far away. Grandmothers of expat grandchildren are part of the family. We have a special role as “expat grandmothers.” How shall we be known to our grandchildren, and how will they get to know us? In these days of distant work assignments accompanied by evolving technologies, things are different than even 10 years ago. We may not be able to overcome the air miles and time zones, but we can we help bridge connections for three generations.

Talk First

Use the telephone and any form of electronic face-time available. Children and adults thrive on convenient schedules, so set a fixed time on a weekend or weekday when both sets of families can take 15 minutes to enjoy a chat and family update.

While some families talk with grandparents every day, others feel that it’s important for each household to settle into their own routines. Our children know that we don’t live next door to each other; so we don’t pretend that we do. Yet, there are moments when nothing satisfies the heart of an ambitious new parent as much as a chat with their own parent back home. In turn, it’s not uncommon for the grandmother to initiate the call saying, “Yes, all is fine with your father and me. I just wanted to hear your voice.”

A word of caution: Do take care with posting family photographs on the internet. Grandma might not be the only person looking at your child. Keep the identifying photographs and messages limited to family members and closest friends.

Send Mail

Grandmothers are delighted to receive an airmail packet with foreign stamps and familiar handwriting. Why not send that first handprint from the one who has just learned finger painting? It might be messy, but grandma will be pleased. Mum or dad might write a few lines on how this project got started – a personal note from you has great meaning to your mother.

In turn, a grandmother might send pictures of the changes in the seasons in her part of the world, clippings from the town press or a roadmap for the upcoming annual car trip. Grandchildren need to know what interests older folks. If grandma doesn’t sit in a rocking chair all day, what does she do?

Gifts Help

Grandmothers often have an eye out for just the right gift for a grandchild. These days, when children have so much at home, choosing is more of a challenge. Grandmothers listen to hear the emerging interests of the child. How about charcoal pencils for the talented seven-year old who, until now has tried only crayons and coloured pencils for drawing?

And what to give grandma? Give her your time. Your text message or 10 minutes on the phone could be the highlight of her week. As for holiday gifts, take note of the wishes of your mother and mother-in-law. Is she still interested in exotic textiles? Does she like showing off new jewellery? Or would she most welcome an air ticket so that she can come to see you and the grandchildren. Modern grandmothers do travel!

Looking Forward

Next time a teacher asks about far away grandparents, your grandchild might be the one who says, “Grandma lives far away but we always talk to her on Saturday mornings. Mum has a good photo of grandma’s garden; she grows red peppers. But, it’s snowing now in Chicago, so there’s no garden. I drew this picture of my grandma cooking in her kitchen. Maybe she’s cooking the peppers. Chicago isn’t so far away.”

For more advice and stories on being an expat, head on over to our Living in Hong Kong page and sign up to our Newsletter for monthly going-ons.