Surviving Life Abroad With Social Media

Surviving Life Abroad With Social Media

By Ginny Philps

Where were you when you really started using and appreciating email, when it really became part of your life? When you realized you could go to an Internet café and simply log in? When those days of sniffing out a phone box and fumbling for old coins were suddenly gone? When you could click on an icon and unearth swathes of messages rather than having to retrieve, from the ether, some outdated voicemails?

It was 1998 for me, and I had been washed up in a dusty frontier town that clung to the Argentine Chaco desert. I was conducting my Social Anthropology fieldwork among the indigenous Wichi, drawing as deeply on my university Spanish as I was on the patience of my Matacoan language translator. With little more than a notebook, a pen and a steely determination, I struggled for some long weeks to connect with the locals and identify my own metaphorical tribe.

And yet, in the neighboring town, I discovered an unassuming and ram-shackled shop with a couple of computers. I went there as often as time permitted, between my long shifts gathering qualitative data in the dust. And every time I saw the little envelope icon in bold, my heart filled with a sensational concoction of comfort and thrill.

Every single time, undertaking that trip and reading those emails built the resilience in me I needed to tackle the next few days. My mother wrote to me of the seasons, the changing skies over the back gate at home, the trips to the village. She painted a delicate yet deep picture of home, and in communicating via email, enabled me to experience it for myself.

Since 1998, email has been eclipsed by a multitude of social media channels and opportunities for instant connectivity, live messaging, chats, sharing and collaborating – WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to name but a few. While social media may now seem the norm, it still intrigues me and impresses me every time I move around the world. With every global posting (five and counting), it has given me my feet, established my networks and ensured a warm welcome before I board the plane. And I am not the only one leveraging social media to thrive abroad.

The girl from Ipanema

Hero moved to Rio de Janeiro from the United Kingdom in early 2007. A solicitor for Expatriate Law, a team of British lawyers advising expats worldwide on divorce and family law matters, she has three young children. With a husband in property, and a sneaking suspicion that the Brazilian economy was about to take off, the family thought they would be there just “a year or two.” That was 10 years ago.

“As we packed up for Rio,” she said, “online information about living abroad was limited, so we relied on friends and acquaintances already in situ.” Yes, it was Rio, a startlingly beautiful city with great weather, but the bureaucracy became frustrating and, after the initial honeymoon period, Hero missed her job and friends. It took her around a year to feel settled, aided partly by volunteer work with a legal non-governmental organization.

Following the birth of her first daughter, Hero found it hard to meet people. “When I went to parks I met many nannies, but not many mothers. There were no pre-natal or baby classes, so I started an email group as a weekly meeting point for expat mothers. Someone would host at home or we would meet in a park. When the email list grew too big to manage, I turned it into a Facebook group and it grew exponentially from there; I never actually needed to promote it. Expats are a pretty sociable lot and, from a starting point of around 50 members, we have grown just by word of mouth.”

Quickly, the group became a forum for sharing recommendations, exchanging information about where to buy baby kit, identify a reliable handyman and even secure nanny recommendations. As Hero explains, “People also used it as a forum to ask advice about babies who were not sleeping or eating properly, so it became a real support group for those who were away from friends and family. At the time there was nothing else like it in Rio, so there was a real need for this sort of information-sharing.”

There are currently 2,175 members and almost 500 people on the ‘request to join’ list. Only those with friends already in the group can join, and Hero regularly vets content for repeat advertising or trolling. “There have been a few very heated discussions, such as whether people should sell their old clothes and toys on the group or give them away to needy people.” This group found me (arriving at 32 weeks pregnant) my obstetrician, my staples, my gym and, ultimately, my feet. By the time I left, you could guarantee that most other young expat mums pounding the sands of Copacabana and Ipanema to Tijuaca and the barrios further afield were members of the group.

Luxury in the Algarve

Across the globe in Portugal, the rise of social media continues to serve Quinta Bonita, a luxury boutique hotel nestled among hillside gardens in Lagos, Algarve.

“When we opened, Booking.com did not have an email option for bookings so we relied in general on fax… but we could not find a machine locally that distinguished between a phone call or a fax arriving,” explains Fraser and Chantelle, the owners.

“We were on a shared line, so every time the phone rang in the middle of the night we had 30 seconds to jump out of bed, rush up the garden path to the hotel and press ‘fax’ or we would not only lose the call but also risk Booking.com taking us offline.”

How times have changed. Now, with online booking facility platforms vastly improved, one can reserve hotels almost anywhere with ease. Many, such as Quinta Bonita, also offer glimpses of their daily life through Instagram and Facebook. “It may be yoga by the beach, some of our local wine tastings, or today’s homemade cake,” explains Chantelle. “It enables us to share what we are about, reach new clients and keep people connected; previous clients really seek this continuity and value staying in touch.”

Other functions, such as WhatsApp, not only keep Chantelle and Fraser connected to friends and family but also allow them to communicate more effectively with their local business partners. “We need to know that deadlines will be met, and where deliveries are; communicating via WhatsApp represents a valuable mechanism from a business and personal point of view. Our landscape gardener might send me photos of possible plants while he is still at the nursery, and I may ask him questions about our gardens, to which I get an instant response. It is very helpful.” Moving around can be challenging, but each new environment is replete with opportunities and resources if you take the time to notice them. Connect as much as possible before you arrive, and once you’re on the ground, step further out of your comfort zone every day. It may initially mean grabbing a coffee and hitting Google, but before long you’ll be trying it for real.


Ginny Philps is an expat kid, expat career woman and expat spouse. As an anthropologist, she is always seeking to better understand the voice of ‘the other’ by stepping firmly out of her own skin. Writer, editor and publisher, Ginny’s motto is ‘Uncover, Discover, Connect.’ One of the youngest contributors to the Rough Guide series, Ginny combines her passion for communication with her expertise in developing and analyzing the social impact of community projects. You can read more about Ginny’s approach to life and her business offerings in her blog www.uncoverdiscoverconnect.com.

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