“Don’t you get homesick living so far away?”
“No, never,” I said.
I was at an event back in Canada, signing copies of Vagabond Dreams in a local bookshop, and talk had turned to life abroad.
“So you don’t miss any of us then. That’s nice!”
“It’s not that at all,” I said. “I’ve just never felt homesick, that’s all. I’m very curious, and I seem to thrive on strange new environments.”
“So you don’t care about Canada then? What’s the matter, too good for the rest of us?”
I knew this was a discussion I could never win, and so I excused myself and got another coffee.
I’m always surprised to get the Homesickness Question, because this is an affliction I’ve never suffered from.
Sure, I miss my old friends. But I’ve always been driven by curiosity more than anything. And, while some places suit me better than others, I’ve always felt like I could live pretty much anywhere.
I believe that your world is the world you carry within you. And my inner world is a rich one.
But a longing for home does seem to come up for most expats and emigrants at some point along the way. You might find yourself missing certain people. Or you might miss special foods from home, or the places you used to hang out.
If you dig really deeply into these feelings of longing, what you’re really missing is routine.
We miss the routines that give structure to our lives: visits with friends, work schedules, hobbies and other activities. When you move abroad, all those things stop, and you have to start over.
Some expats manage this by reaching out to expat communities upon arrival, or by joining associations or groups related to their hobbies or interests.
I’ve never done those things myself. But I think that’s because I’ve always carried my own routines with me. I live a pretty self-contained life of reading, writing and exercising, and upon reflection this might just be ideally suited to life on the road.
If you DO find yourself suffering from homesickness during your time abroad, here are a few things you can do to ease the pain…
It’s all in the routine
Put some structure into your life. Start a project, or study some aspect of your new culture, or set a work goal. Anything to give yourself a sense of purpose, so you don’t feel like you’re just drifting along in a strange place.
Remind yourself why you’re there
I moved to Malta to experience life in the Mediterranean, and to write an island book in the spirit of Lawrence Durrell. If I find myself drifting, then getting back on track is simply a matter of focusing on my writing schedule. Don’t lose sight of your reasons for moving in the first place. They’ll give you a sense of purpose and meaning to orient your new life.
If you’re social, look for networks of like-minded people. Here on the island, you might join Heritage Malta and participate in some of the members-only tours of historical sites. Or you might join a local group related to your profession or hobby. My wife is a photographer, and so she built her network by joining the local photographic society and signing up for workshops and excursions.
Take a language course
Signing up for a course in the local language is a great way to meet people and spark your curiosity. You won’t feel like as much of an alien if you can understand the words of the people around you. And you’ll be amazed at the smiles and encouragement you get when you try out your new phrases at local shops. It’ll make you feel more at home.
Expat groups—a mixed blessing
A lot of people join local expat groups to escape feelings of loneliness, but in my opinion they’re a mixed blessing. Hanging out with other foreigners doesn’t teach me much about the local culture I’ve moved so far to discover. And I find that expat gatherings frequently deteriorate into two topics: bragging about all the cool places they’ve lived before, and bitching about the locals and about life here.
While a good rant might help you blow off some steam, it won’t help you to feel at home in your new environment. It only makes you feel more alien. So yeah, I avoid expat groups. But I’m a recluse, and you might feel differently about them.
Keep a journal
Write about all the cool new things you’re seeing and learning. And write about your struggles too. No one needs to see it, so don’t hold back. Simply acknowledging those raw feelings on paper and letting them out will help. You don’t have to wallow in self pity to do this. When you look back at your journal months and years later, your struggles and triumphs will come into clearer perspective. And you’ll be amazed by the richness and depth of your journey, and by how much you’ve grown because of it.
Reach out and touch someone
No, not on public transit. That will only get you introduced to a foreign jail. Use the internet instead. If you find yourself missing family or friends, set up a skype call and hang out on video. But don’t whine or complain about your condition. Share all your new discoveries with them instead. It’ll remind you of just how privileged you are to be living in a new culture, and you’ll feel like a bit of an expert too.
When I lived in Tokyo back in the dark ages of 2001, I only had internet at work. I sent emails from there each day, but I also wrote long letters—yeah, on paper—and I went to the convenience store around the corner and made colour copies of my latest photos so I could share my new life and discoveries with my favourite people back home. They loved getting these letters, and writing them helped sharpen my eye too, because I was always on the lookout for new aspects of Japan to share with them.
There’s that curiosity thing again. It really is your best friend when living abroad.
But there will be times when none of these strategies work. And that can be tough.
There’s only one thing to do when this happens…
Ride it out
Sometimes all you can do is give it a little time. Know that you’ll probably hit a period of struggle as that initial “honeymoon period” of curiosity wears off. You might feel discouraged or overwhelmed, or like you’ll never fit in or be happy in your new surroundings. That’s pretty normal, and it does pass if you give it time. Use some of the tactics above to help you cope. And like the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome, don’t fight against your discomfort but learn to sit with it and accept it. This too will pass, and you’ll be back in Curious Optimistic Mood in no time.
It’s also important to know when to draw the line. Maybe that new country really isn’t for you. Give yourself 8 months or a year to evaluate your new place, and then evaluate it honestly. The expat checklist I shared in an earlier column will help.
And don’t give up even if your first choice isn’t your ideal fit. You can always shift to a new country or a new culture.
The world’s a big exciting place, and it’s full of possibilities. And isn’t that what drew you out there in the first place?