I think that homesickness hits every ex-pat at least once during their stint in a foreign land. It can be debilitating and I’ve seen many people suffer from it while working or studying far away from home .
There are a variety of symptoms associated with homesickness, and not everyone exhibits all of them. They range from being mildly disenchanted to physical discomfort and even pretty extreme changes in mood. Homesickness can also cause a withdrawal from social situations. After about a year of living in Japan I started finding it hard to relate to others; I felt like I had very little in common with both my friends back home and the people around me in Japan. I also found myself raging against the different aspects of Japanese culture, some of which seemed to impede my every thought and action. Even now, five years in, I still feel down from time to time, especially when tripped by cultural stumbling blocks.
First Thing’s First
Where do you live? What’s the area like around you? Exploring the local area help can one feel safe and relaxed. Knowing the location of the nearest convenience store, phone booth or train station can be a source of great comfort. I’m the kind of person who double checks whether the front door is locked before I leave the house, or brings a spare battery if I think my phone might run out of power. So, knowing I can quickly buy toilet paper in an emergency (hopefully not in the MIDDLE of an emergency) or make a phone call if I accidentally get locked out or get safely home from the station, soothes my soul immensely.
Good bacon helps too …
A photo posted by Where? There! Teach. (@wherethereteach) on
The Internet has come a long way since the days of waiting ten minutes for an image to load. With services like Netflix and YouTube for videos and Steam for games, a half-decent computer with Internet access is a glorious smorgasbord of entertainment. And of course it can all be in one’s mother tongue. There’s also plenty to read available on-line; before moving abroad I wasn’t so keen on the idea of ebooks. I was a “real books forever, man!” kinda guy. Then I ran into the lack of English Language book sections in rural Japanese book-stores. Sure, I could order from Amazon, but one of the main reasons I liked shopping for real books was the tactile pleasure of fondling real paper. With this pleasure stripped from me I decided to invest in a semi-dedicated e-reader (I say semi because I also use it for social media and videos) and have never looked back. Another advantage of reading ebooks is that a user can usually read a couple of chapters of a book before deciding to buy. Also, I can quickly check the definition of any unknown word simply by mashing my grubby finger onto the word.
In addition, if faced with a lengthy commute and the local radio station isn’t quite your taste, try searching for an interesting podcast. These can be downloaded to most regular mp3 players via USB or can be accessed through a smartphone app like PlayerFM. There are many many shows out there, some of my favourites include This American Life, The Adventure Zone, Nerdist, and Hardcore History. They’re a great way to tingle your ear holes with native English while travelling or relaxing.
The biggest weapon that the Internet provides in the battle against homesickness is a connection to friends and family back home. The obvious examples are Facebook and Skype for direct interaction with far-away peeps. Twitter is also worth looking at because you can follow topic trends from your home country as well as subscribe to news sources based on your own interests. There are also content aggregators such as Feedly that can be used in a similar way. It was using things like this that allowed me to get out of my funk and start having things in common with people again; as I read more on-line I developed a stronger connection with others.
I also think it’s super important to try to keep in regular contact with family and any especially close friends. I’ll be the first to admit that I often neglect my family and don’t call or message them frequently enough. But when I do, and get a reply, it lifts my spirits immeasurably. Even hearing about regular, day-to-day things, like my dad’s Skittles score, or what treat my mum bought herself from Marks & Spencer, or what my sister’s been watching on Netflix, makes me feel like I’m still part of the world I physically left behind.
Apart from missing our loved ones, the feeling of homesickness also comes from the new, alien environments we ex-pats choose to thrust ourselves into. Driving on the opposite side of the road, eating rice every day, different regular opening hours, an absence of habitual items (like real English tea!) can really mess with one’s head. The key to getting over these things is to adapt. For some people this is easier said than done. I’ve met people who can step off a plane and instantly look like they’ve lived there their whole lives. On the other hand there are those who seem to believe they can simply stay in their own bubble, separate from the culture they chose to live in. These people inevitably encounter problems and most become dissatisfied with life outside their home country.
But there’s still hope. By building ties with the local community and getting up close to the beating heart of where one resides, an ex-pat can form a new comfort zone for themselves. I believe it’s worth trying some of these approaches:
- Keep an eye out for local events to participate in, even if just in a minor capacity. It’s amazing how much respect and warmth this can garner from the regular attendees.
- Don’t solely use big chain shops and supermarkets. Delve into the mysterious depths of the local districts; there are often some really great deals on offer and there may even be something special lurking on those darkened shelves that can’t be found in a regular chain store.
- Eat out. It’s usually cheaper to eat at home and is often kinder on the waistline but don’t let that hold you back from the occasional dinner date. Simply spending time in regular bars or restaurants goes a long way to normalizing the whole experience.
- Find other ex-pats. Ex-pat communities are located in many a distant corner, and nowadays it’s even easier to find them thanks to social media. Just don’t get sucked in to only hanging around with foreigners all the time! This can lead to increased dissociation with the host country.
- Get a hobby. Where I live now there be mountains. So, in the spring and autumn I go hiking and in the winter I go snowboarding (and in the summer I sit around sweating and eating copious amounts of ice-cream). Having something fun to do makes the place it’s being done in more fun by association.
Don’t Let Homesickness Win
Homesickness is very common but fortunately, with a little consideration, it’s totally possible to combat this destructive affliction. Keep hold of the past, but don’t let it take control; embrace and accept the new; but most of all, find a way to have fun.
Has homesickness ever held you back? How do you fight it?
Want more tales of living abroad? Have a look at these.