Most people living far away from their home country or region will eventually receive visitors from “home”. As enjoyable as it is to be together again with family or friends, if the visit is over an extended period of time, it can be stressful.
Ann's parents are visiting from Toronto for six weeks. The first two weeks were fine but as the days go by, both Ann and her husband are feeling overwhelmed and stressful.“ Besides taking care of my son, suddenly I feel like I have two other kids on my hands,” Ann said.
Being visited by parents, other family members or friends is a joyful experience. However, the preparations prior to the visit can be quite exhausting. The long hours organizing the house, shopping for extra food, making arrangements for guests' entertainment and trying to get ahead of your work schedule are no easy tasks.
When the guest finally arrives the host needs to make him or herself constantly available, for advice on how to behave in the foreign culture, to how to get around, where to shop without getting ripped off, and making sure the guests are having a good time. All these are real work.
Sight-seeing, too, may lose its sparkle when it's the eighth time in three months you have taken visitors around to all the major local tourist attractions. You may not care to ever take another glance at the “spectacular” view from an overpriced, mediocre revolving restaurant atop a skyscraper. Yet the honored guests would be disappointed to have to go on their own. It can become an annoyance rather than pleasure.
If the guests are parents then obviously more responsibilities are assumed. In a foreign land, visiting parents will depend on their children - not only as hosts, but as ambassadors or cultural go-betweens. There, far away from the old family home, the children are the masters of the household and the parents the dependents, being guided and taught how to behave in the foreign country. In a way the child takes up the role of parent.
Role reversal creates confusion for both child and parents. Frequent reminders by the children about where to go or how to act, or constant questions and requests from the parents, can cause both sides annoyance, which is easily misinterpreted as disrespect or lack of appreciation. If this goes on without clarification it can lead to hurt feelings between parents and child.
Such tensions should not reach serious proportions during a short visit. But when retired parents choose to visit for an extended stay it can upset the whole family balance. The couple and the nuclear family may begin to get irritated and long for more space and privacy.
People in Ann's situation will experience various kinds of stress. Trying to fulfill all her roles as mother, wife, daughter, hostess and care-provider at the same time may cause her to become exasperated. Yet having such negative feelings is also guilt-provoking and could be taken as a sign of rejecting her parents. Therefore these feelings are often denied, which itself can turn into a further source of stress.
It is important for the host or hostess to remind themselves of their own limitations in terms of energy, space, time and tolerance for lack of privacy. In order to maximize the pleasure and minimize the stress and inconvenience, it would be helpful to discuss the plan with the guests long before they arrive. For example: how long they will be welcome to stay and how much time the host can spend with them.
It is essential to set a realistic schedule for spending time with visitors. One mistake many hosts or hostesses commit is over-extending themselves, as well as overwhelming their guests by trying to do too much in too little time. Learn to give the responsibility back to the guests of determining what they want to do during their visit. Let them do their own exploring. This probably will give them a more fun experience.
As far as reversed roles is concerned, the child has to recognize and remind him or herself that this is only temporary. Instead of resenting it he or she should allot time for privacy and personal pursuits.
When necessary, say “no” to guests. Often visitors assume that since they are on holiday the host or hostess is also on holiday. Thus it is up to the host or hostess to be honest with their visitors. If both sides respect each other's priorities, they will better share the pleasurable moments together, which may not happen often.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.