Last year, I decided to take a gap year to study in Israel. As thrilled as I was to immerse myself in a new culture, meet like-minded people, and grow intellectually, I was afraid of being 7570 miles away from my home in Los Angeles: away from my cool white sheets and sky blue pillows, my sleek silver desk lamp and knit beige chair, from the people who raised me, from my younger sister who had long been just across the hall. In all honesty, I didn’t have too much faith in technology to bridge such an enormous distance gap. There was no way that crackling audio or pixelated video could rival the warmth of human presence.
When my mom and dad dropped me off at the airport in late August, I held them close, tears streaming down beneath my mask— in my mind, that would be the last time we were together for months. Because of COVID, travel was restricted worldwide, and Israel was no exception— as much as my parents wanted to visit, it was impossible. Those first few days were heart-wrenching. As I spoke to my mother over the phone, I couldn’t help but tear up. Her voice was disembodied; she felt so far away. The more I spoke to her over the phone, the worse my homesickness got. I didn’t see technology as a way to connect with her. I saw it as a reminder of our distance.
However, the more comfortable I became in my new surroundings, the more I was able to use technology to feel closer to my old ones—to the people and places I had left behind. The more I settled in, the more open I was to technology bridging the gap between my new stomping grounds and the home I had left. I realized that instead of focusing on my sadness over the physical distance present between my family and myself, I could lean into using technology as a way to be with them; I could see beyond the camera and screens to the people behind them.
Technology opened a lot of unexpected doors for me. My digital relationship with my family allowed me to grow as an independent adult while still maintaining closeness with the people I loved. I was in a foreign country, grocery shopping, cooking for myself, and living on my own while still being able to hear about my sister’s day at school or my parents’ strenuous surgery in the OR. I was able to focus on forming new friendships, learning, and exploring Jerusalem–as much as I could in a COVID year–while also remaining close to my mother, father, and sister. I could see my mother’s smile, hear my sisters laugh, and watch my dog roll over from my dormitory room in Israel.
I am not going to lie; I still experienced days where my mother sounded like a disembodied voice flowing from the speakers of my phone, but those days were few and far between. Overall, technology helped me shape a healthy long-distance relationship with my family.
One morning, as I sat at my worn round kitchen table, steaming coffee mug in hand, I FaceTimed with my mom, and she remarked how lucky she felt to be able to chat with me each morning and hear about my day. She told me that when she took a semester abroad in Israel at Hebrew University, she had to walk to the hotel on Mount Scopus 20 minutes from the university to make a call. The rates were quite expensive, so she only spoke to her parents once a week. She did pen some letters, but they often took two weeks or more to reach her family. I’m comparison, I had the privilege of speaking to my family whenever the desire struck. Not only that, through FaceTime, I could make out the laugh lines on my mother’s face and the sleekness of my Shetland sheepdogs’ newly-groomed fur. My mother never could have imagined that possibility when she was trekking to a nearby hotel to use the payphone just 30 years ago.
Until this year, I never really saw technology as a connecting force across distance in time. My associations with technology were primarily grounded in the educational realm. I used my laptop for school, saving history and English documents on Google Drive and submitting assignments through different platforms. Sure, I used my phone to communicate with people but not on a grand scale. I shot my mother a text to let her know when I would be arriving home or called my sister to let her know that I was picking her up from school. Technology was a helpful tool in my life, but it wasn’t something I relied on to ground my relationships.
I now have a newfound respect for technology’s ability to connect people, and I feel confident that I can remain close with my family entering my first year at Princeton. The fact that I could connect across continents and oceans through a screen successfully makes the distance from California to New Jersey seem much more manageable. I look forward to seeing new growth through my digital relationships this year.