“Out of sight, out of…?”

A little over a month ago, when I wrapped up my life in San Francisco and moved to eastern Turkey, I knew that as long as I had an internet connection, I would never be too far. So what if I wasn’t there in person? With Facebook, Gchat, Skype, I would not forget or be forgotten, and if I was a bit remote for a while, so much the better for an eventual excited reunion.

I like living in Kars. Our house has a large kitchen, a sunny porch, chickens pecking in the yard. A castle overlooks the town center. Summer weather is mild, fresh produce is plentiful, and the hikes outside of town are painfully picturesque. I take many photos of the beautiful surroundings and of my travels further abroad. I enjoy my work. And yet… I cannot help the occasional sinking feeling that comes with realizing that I am quite far from my community. After two months studying Turkish, I can barely hold a simple conversation, limiting my socializing to the 3-4 English speakers in Kars, all connected to my company – a wonderful, but small, group. My narrow bridge to my US friends is through my computer.

A rainy afternoon in Kars

A rainy afternoon in Kars

Community is not just about physical closeness; it is about shared experiences. Despite responses to my Facebook posts, there is a frequently a sense of disconnect with the world I’ve left behind for these few months. Perhaps because my life here is so different that few people feel equipped to make small talk about it. Perhaps because they feel that they already know what is going on, seeing the photos.

Sometimes the illusion of connection, aided by Facebook, is so strong that it feels irrelevant that only a handful of people have a complete picture of my life here. “Didn’t that sunset photo of the castle get 20 ‘likes’? See, people care about me!” But Facebook is a false and selective medium of communication. I do not post pictures of minor daily annoyances, of the ankle-deep mud nor of our unsteady house appliances. I do not complain of the discomfort of not being able to take evening walks in a Turkish city without being stared at. I do not talk about the isolation of not speaking the language, the difficulty it causes in completing even simple daily tasks. I enjoy the challenge, but living here is not a cartoon of an adventure – it’s life, with all its difficulty and complexity.

This is not the first time I have felt emotional distance, caused by the physical. Living abroad in Spain at 16 for a year, I communicated with the now-quaint AIM Messenger with friends back home, who stayed up late just to chat with me once or twice a week. I spoke on the phone only to my parents, and rarely. There was no Skype, no Facebook, and I did not own a digital camera. I sent postcards and real printed photographs and emails. When I felt lonely, I read books, I talked to my host family, I daydreamed. Now, when I feel lonely, I log into Gchat and hope that someone is up late or up early. But conversations are dissatisfying when I cannot talk openly, when the answer to “how are things going over there?” is expected to be “amazing!” It is only rare close friends who ask that question honestly and expect a more nuanced answer.

It is hard to explain why I am here, and what daily life is like, and what cultural differences emerge. Problems and questions that plagued me at home do not disappear simply by moving to a new place, but in conversation they become secondary to the superficial exoticism of living in a new county. Explaining that takes work, and so does listening. I am not innocent – I, too, have lapsed in communicating with friends who move away, because of the amount of individualized effort it takes to be in touch with their new life. So I hold no grudges. But, stronger than ever, I feel I am overdue to write a batch of personalized emails. From this side of the world, I see that Facebook is no longer enough.

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Human connection

Recently, my Facebook friends have been passing around an article by a man who gave up the Internet for a year. It’s a very honest, somewhat vulnerable article about man who wanted to resolve big questions about his identity, but found the answers unsatisfactory. He discovers that the novelty of anything wears off, and that once past the initial elation of having made a major change, his withdrawn personality again dominates his interaction with the world. It seems obvious, with 20-20 hindsight, that it was not the Internet making him feel socially isolated – his choices were. After 6 months of being a better self, he retreats once again, finding equally mindless analog activities to dull his boredom.

I never believed that technology has some awesome power to turn us into mindless Facebook zombies. A “like” or a text message can feel like a rush, and each day without contact like a personal rejection. Facebook amplifies our audience for petty grievances as well as petty victories. But in the end, we are still people interacting with other people. Whether it’s comment trolls, or your friend who cannot put the phone down during lunch, their behavior is unlikely to improve in the absence of technology – at least not radically, and not permanently. The digital world is populated by people, good and bad, and being a good human affects both of those spheres.

Recently, I was taking a BART train home and witnessed an episode that left me hopeful about humanity. A young woman sitting across the aisle from me was slowly coming unraveled. At first just tremors in her hands, nervously adjusting and readjusting her hair; some ragged sighs, then quiet tears through heavy mascara. I was consumed with my own sad thoughts in that hour, and felt too emotionally poor to reach out. Instead I watched her working hard to keep her distress contained, as it slowly broke her down. Just as she was on the verge of sobbing, a woman from the middle of the train got up and sat next to her, asked the sobbing woman’s name, and if she could help. I did not hear the conversation details, and didn’t need to –the phrase that reached me, repeated several times, was “thank you so much, this is just what I needed”. The Good Samaritan did little beyond paying attention, listening, then nearly missing her stop to continue being supportive.

It’s as if that reaching out broke the floodgates of other passengers’ concern. They had been pretending, as I had, that it was, at best, not their business, and at worst, not their problem. But as soon as that first helper got off the train, several passengers offered cell phones, advice, even a hug. Maybe they felt guilt for not helping earlier, and seeing someone else’s kindness was like holding up a mirror. Maybe it just made it somehow ok to “meddle”.

I want to remember that evening – that it’s ok to help, and to connect, online and off.