My brother Graham is about to leave on a year-long student exchange program, sponsored by Rotary International, to Belgium. He faces the usual mix of excitement and apprehension. After all, this is his first long-term stay away from home. He doesn’t speak French yet, and has never personally met the families with whom he’ll live. It’s a big change in life.
I’m excited for him because I know what a tremendous adventure and life-changing experience lies ahead. But part of me also feels sorry for him. Ironically, the thing that makes me sorry is the very thing that many people think makes their exchanges more bearable — the Internet.
I did the same exchange program as Graham back in 2003 to Sardinia. The Internet was still fairly new and novel. I had an email account that I checked once or twice a week, and I recall having a handful of conversations over MSN with friends, but otherwise most of my communication with home was limited to a weekly Sunday afternoon phone call with my family and regular hand-written letters. I had no laptop, no iPhone, no Skype account. I felt cut off, disconnected, and very, very distant.
This wasn’t the case with all of the exchange students. Some were higher-tech than I was back then. One student I knew had her own computer and spoke multiple times a day with her family. But that resulted in (what I perceived to be) an inability to let go of the home country, get over the inevitable homesickness, and develop a healthy strong relationship with one’s host country.
My disconnectedness turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If I had been caught up in the teenage drama of home, or easily distracted by status updates and pointless photo albums and the seemingly more exciting going on at home — using the Internet as an escape mechanism for avoiding facing my loneliness — I wouldn’t have forged the irreplaceable friendships that I did out of pure necessity over the course of that year.
Graham has a unique challenge ahead. Instead of having to deal with that dismal sense of loneliness and disconnection from everything familiar that’s going on at home, he’ll have to resist the urge to remain connected. He needs to unplug voluntarily, turn off his beloved iPod, log out of Facebook, stop caring about what’s happening here, and focus on his surroundings.
I don’t want to sound like a technology basher, because I love the Internet and rely on it for my job every single day; but it’s merely a tool, and must always remain a tool. The Internet has created the illusion that it’s possible to live in multiple worlds at once, but I don’t think it is. Or, when someone thinks they’re managing to do it, no world / social circle / cultural setting is actually being lived to its fullest potential.
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