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Traveling May Mean More to Your First Generation and Immigrant Friends

traveling post-pandemic

One of the more privileged complaints that many of us have had during these quarantimes has been about traveling. “I can’t wait to go on vacation when this is all over,” we’ve found ourselves whining over Zoom calls while dreaming of drinking pina coladas at sunset on the beach.

For many of us, the idea of a yearly vacation is what keeps us going when life’s pressures get us down. And, the inability to take any sort of real vacation for the past year and change has been hard on our mental health — we’re working without any sort of break in sight. However, for your first generation and immigrant friends, the ability to travel may mean something else entirely.

Back in early March 2020, I was eagerly awaiting my upcoming March 15 trip with my mother to the U.K. to see my mom’s only sister, my cousins, and their children. It had been seven years since I had seen my aunt and two of my cousins and five years since I’d seen my youngest cousin, who is one of my absolute favorite people. I was so excited to get to meet my newest nieces and nephew in real life for the first time.

If you’ve been paying even the mildest attention to current events, it probably won’t surprise you that that trip never ended up happening. Travel from the U.S. to the U.K. was banned on March 14, 2020 and our trip was postponed — at this point indefinitely. With the emergence, and now prevalence, of the U.K. variant of coronavirus, not to mention the disparities in vaccination rates worldwide, I have no idea when it will be safe for us to reschedule that visit. In short, I have no idea when I’m going to see my family again.

It can be hard to explain to any job the true necessity of taking two weeks off to visit family. This is especially true when the people you work for haven’t had to deal with living a continent away from their own family members.

Though my mother is of Indian descent, that side of my family is actually scattered all over the world. We have family members in the U.K., Norway, Ireland — and that’s just the ones in Europe. My mother herself was born in Durban, South Africa, and that’s where my grandmother and many of my extended family members still live. Having family members throughout the world has always been a mixed bag; it’s interesting to have such a multicultural family and wonderful to have an excuse to visit countries around the globe, but the distance means visits are costly and somewhat rare. During coronavirus, having family throughout the world means not only worrying yourself sick about how your own country/community is handling the virus, but also having an equal stake in how other countries are handling it as well.

During normal times, when I do plan a trip to visit my family, because of the infrequency combined with the travel time (a trip to South Africa can mean 20 hours or more of travel just to get to where my grandmother lives) I want to stay for an extended period of time, typically around two weeks. However, it can be hard to explain to any job the true necessity of taking two weeks off to visit family. This is especially true when the people you work for haven’t had to deal with living a continent away from their own family members. To them, a trip to South Africa may sound fun and exotic, like a luxury, even if in reality the majority of what I’ll be doing is looking after my elderly grandma. When the trip comes to an end, saying goodbye to my grandma each and every time is devastating. I have no idea when I’ll be able to see her again or even if that goodbye at the airport will be the last time. It breaks my heart. Each and every time. Yet, when I return to work the next day after my heart wrenching airport farewell, it’s with the expectation that I’m fully rested after taking a fun, carefree vacation.

The pandemic has been hard on the elderly especially, and my grandmother has been no exception. As she’s struggled this past year, it’s been one of the worst pains I’ve ever felt in my life to be so helpless, so far away. To not even be able to look in on her. We tried in vain for many years to convince my grandmother to move to the U.S. to live with us, but she always stubbornly refused. And now, my poor mother is left to organize help for my grandma as best she can from a different country and conflicting timezone. Even though my mother and I have been vaccinated, the majority of South Africans have not been, including my grandmother. The emergence of the South African variant of coronavirus also poses a real threat, so we are unable to travel to South Africa to see her in person until there’s a booster vaccine for the variant. We’re left to rely on the kindness of our extended family for caretaking and updates on her condition. As soon as we’re vaccinated against the variant, my mother and I will be scheduling our trip to visit her.

I’ll be going to South Africa to see my grandmother. I’ll be traveling 20 hours across the world to give her a hug and sit by her side, her hand in my hand.

My story is not unique. There could be many first generation and immigrant people in your life who you may not realize are facing this same struggle. Many, many people have been separated from their families for more than a year, often with no end in sight. A dear friend from Spain has been unable to visit her home country — to see her own parents — for more than a year, missing holidays, birthdays, and even regular days with them that she won’t get back. When it’s safe to travel internationally again, she’ll be using her limited vacation days to check on her parents, not taking some much needed beachside recharge.

It can be hard hearing the people around me complain about wanting to travel “when the pandemic ends.” Discussions of luxurious, all-inclusive resorts bordered by pink sand with swim up bars tend to overtake the conversation. Do I miss taking those kinds of frivolous vacations — the kind that heal you mentally and physically, the kind one works all year to afford? Of course. And I can’t wait to go on one as soon as I’m able to again.

But, when people ask me where I want to travel once it is finally safe to, my answer is simple. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity. I’ll be going to South Africa to see my grandmother. I’ll be traveling 20 hours across the world to give her a hug and sit by her side, her hand in my hand. I’m already mentally preparing to see her for what could be our very last visit. I’m not saying you can’t miss traveling for fun and/or relaxation.

I’m asking you to think about those around you for whom the ability to travel means something much, much more. You may be excited to have your hobby back, to be able to travel for entertainment and excitement. But myself, and many others, just want to see our families again.

Read our other stories in our Travelpalooza series.

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