One of my favourite shows on TV at the moment is Catfish. It’s a documentary series made for MTV about people who met online, but have never met in real life. The show brings them together, which usually involves an interstate road trip, and as you might expect, not everyone is who or what they claim to be online.
On a superficial level I love it because of the handsome and engaging host, Nev Schulman. While other women swoon over rock stars and actors, documentary makers seem to be my thing. You can keep Brad Pitt: I’ll take Louis Theroux any day. But it’s not just Nev’s perfect American teeth and luxuriant chest hair – which seems to make an appearance more often than is strictly necessary for a documentary – that keep me tuning in. Nor is it his endless optimism and complete lack of cynicism (“Sure! So you told Vanessa that you were a male model with a Lamborghini and a Calvin Klein contract and you’re actually an 18-year-old girl who lives with her mom in a trailer in Wisconsin. But hey, maybe you can still be friends!”).
No, I watch because I cannot believe that people can build relationships as deep as they claim to have without ever having seen each other. Some talk daily by telephone, all are heavy users of Facebook chat and texting, but despite their love of technology and apparently generous data allowance, none of them have ever had a video chat on Skype. They are prepared to propose marriage, and plan the children they will have together, all on the basis of a voice and some Facebook pictures.
Of course the lovely Nev never tells the lovelorn subjects that they are crazy for being in this situation (which in some cases has lasted up to 10 years), probably because he’s been there himself. Catfish the TV Show was born from Catfish the Movie, in which [SPOILER ALERT!] Nev discovered his own online lover was not who she claimed to be. I’m not so understanding. I shake my head in disbelief, yell incredulously at the TV and add more ammunition to the case for America being a very strange place.
But as I watched the last episode to air here in Australia it occurred to me that the life of a migrant is a bit like Catfish in reverse. We start knowing people really well, then abandon them to live on the other side of the world. We leave with all good intentions about keeping in touch, but both parties realise fairly soon that it’s just a bit too hard. The time difference makes Skype calls hard to schedule, flights are expensive, and no-one writes letters any more – at least not ones that require a trip to the post office to buy a special international stamp. Soon we’re relying on Facebook status updates and email to stay involved in each other’s lives. We remain connected on one level – we know where the other has been, and how their child/dog/garden/parents are getting on, and we empathise as best we can when things aren’t going so well. There’s no deceit involved. But without those shared experiences – the nights out, the Sunday brunches and the simple hanging out at each other’s homes – there is much we miss.
Many ex-pats deal with this by flying home every year, or in some cases even more frequently. That was never part of our plan; in some way we felt it would impact on our ability to truly settle in our new home, and more selfishly, on our love of holidaying in different places. We’ve only been back once, two years ago, and I was relieved to find that I was able to settle back into many friendships comfortably, like I had never been away. Will that be the same the next time, or the time after that? I don’t know.
If Catfish shows us anything, it’s that being able to see people’s faces can drastically reduce the risk of misunderstandings. I’ll never be lucky enough to have Nev take me on a trip back to Blighty, but maybe I’ll switch Skype on more often.