Commentary: ‘Blood is Thicker’ — What I wish I knew about maintaining sibling relationships as an international student

Heidi Collie is a London-based freelance journalist with a focus on culture and climate. Heidi graduated from UBC anthropology in May 2023.

Hey Siri, play ‘Naive’ by The Kooks

To anyone with siblings overseas, this one’s for you.

I’ve always felt that the international student/parent dynamic gets a lot of airtime in university discourse, with reluctant updates on grades, finances, housing and relationships. But today I want to focus on everyone’s favourite middleman: the sibling you left behind.

After almost two decades of hand-me-downs, comparisons and fights over the front seat of the car, the idea of putting thousands of miles between you and your sibling might have felt like a breath of fresh air. But at some point amid the anarchy of adolescence your relationship transitioned from “I’ll look after them” to “I'll look out for them,” and dare say they became someone hard to live without.

Between short holidays, expensive flights and a global pandemic, I barely saw my siblings throughout my degree. Then, following my UBC graduation in May 2023, I found myself in a rocky transition back to life in my home country and these were the three people who helped me without question — with a bed, with a friendship group, with a LinkedIn connection. 

I began navigating the chasm between the girls who had waved me goodbye and the women who now embraced me and realized how much time had actually passed. They aren’t 20, 22 and 24 anymore, they’re 25, 27 and 29 with husbands, houses and kids. 

I had a hunch it would be tough, but I wish someone had warned me just how tough it was going to be. I wish I knew that I would miss every family event, every Christmas, birthday, funeral, engagement, bachelorette party and the first six months of my nephew’s life. To those of you going through it — I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t get easier, you just stop getting invited. The hard truth is, four thousand miles away, I watched the three of them do their 20s without me. 

After six months of playing catch up on the lives of my built-in best friends, I have some humble advice for international students at UBC.

Find a communication style that works for you both

Initially, all four of us started with handwritten letters. I wouldn’t recommend it. Canada Post is neither cheap nor reliable and there is also no feeling like the betrayal of Google Maps accidentally sending you to Metrotown to mail a letter.

It took time, but I eventually figured out that each of my sisters appreciated a different form of communication. For one, it was long FaceTimes. This was challenging with the time difference but I got into the routine of calling her whenever I was up at night (in an Uber, stumbling back from The Pit or getting ready for my barista opening shift).  Similarly, when she was awake all night in labour, she called me. For another sister, it was voice notes — the random tangents, intrusive thoughts and boy did she get the business end of those finals-season rants. For the third sister, it was information. I gradually learned that she felt closest to me when she knew what was going on in my life; who's in it, my updates, my plans. 

As well as finding what works for them, be clear about what works for you. After a drunken cry down the phone to my late-night-FaceTime sister, I was suddenly receiving quarterly care packages full of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. An absolute win.

Incorporate this into your routine

I know, student schedules are hectic, but hear me out. If you can’t manage a recurring video call, I suggest some good old-fashioned habit-stacking. 

Try ‘I’ll send you a voice note every time I walk to Sociology,’ ‘I’ll WhatsApp you my weekly updates when I’m on the 99’ or ‘I’ll FaceTime you each time I take an Uber after dark.’

You’d be surprised what a difference this makes.

Stop focusing on the In-person aspect

Every time one of my sisters planned a trip to visit me and it got cancelled, it broke my heart. Fantastic if you can manage it, but you’re both probably students or in entry-level jobs so you most likely don’t have two weeks or $1,200 to spare. 

You’re desperate to show them your new life abroad, I know, but it is so important that you learn to cultivate your relationship virtually, and maybe just be happy with this for now.

Stay flexible

This one, with a massive dose of emotional maturity. You’re the one making the huge life adjustment I know, but understand that this is going to be complicated for your sibling too. They can love and be proud of you, angry and jealous of you all at the same time. The way they feel might not be as straightforward as you think. 

Stay calm when they get it wrong, forget the FaceTime, confuse the time difference or send your gift to the wrong address. Focus on how you can be there without actually being there, keep up to date on their news and remember to ask them about it.

Truthfully, back home they’re feeling your absence more than you’re feeling theirs.

Own it

Finally, the most fundamental: own your decision to leave. 

In practice, this means that it is your responsibility to be proactive, figure out the communication style and fit it into both of your routines — even if your sibling is older, richer, wiser, less busy etc. etc. At the end of the day, you left them. 

Not only are they probably being asked about you by random neighbours and distant relatives, but when family issues arise — and they do — you’re the one away hiking, cycling, skiing, travelling and learning from world-class professors. Your siblings may be picking up the pieces in ways you haven’t seen.

For me, this is reminiscent of Jo March in ‘Little Women' (2019) speaking of her youngest sister abroad, “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.”

Your sibling is missing you, but without reaping the rewards of a new life overseas.

Final thoughts

Growing up, these were the relationships which required no maintenance. Siblings were always just there — behind you in the car, across from you at the table, in the next bed (or next to you in your bed if you had a sister as annoying as I was). Unfortunately, with a few thousand miles and the chaos of your early twenties, it doesn’t stay that simple.

These are the relationships you’ll have for the rest of your life and it’s important to nurture the connection you spent 18 years building. However, coming from someone who accidentally neglected the importance of this, trust me that nothing is irreparable. 

It took time to equate the women I see with the girls I knew, but now when they visit me in London, it’s like I never left. 

My biggest lesson learnt, and the one I give to you today, is that sibling relationships do take work, but that this work will be unconditionally, earth-shatteringly worth it.