Blame it on the stress of exams, blame it on the holidays, blame it on the package of letters and pictures I got in the mail from my best friend’s 2nd grade class- pick your poison ’cause the homesickness storm (as WoltersWorld so eloquently calls it) has hit.
I think homesickness is one of the most important topics to cover in a blog about living a broad because, as WoltersWorld’s #1 tip in this vlog states, it’s a real feeling and it inevitably will happen. Even though it’s nearly impossible to prepare yourself for it, it’s good to get familiar with the concept so you’re not completely blindsided when it happens. It may not be the most enjoyable part of the experience, but homesickness is a growth pain that comes with the territory of traveling, one that signals personal growth and development.
In her TED talks, Susan Matt discussed homesickness and its (sometimes medical) history in all of its realness. She refers to the term “nostalgia,” a term Johannes Hoferus used to describe acute homesickness, something he considered to be a physical condition. Nowadays we may scoff at the idea that homesickness may cause lesions, fevers and fatalities as Hoferus’ records suggest, but the point I’m trying to drive home (and that Matt was, too) is that homesickness is a pervasive and steep melancholy that has been a part of the traveling culture (and even our language) for centuries.
Between my travels away from home and my work with homesick kids at camp, I’ve become all-too familiar with homesickness. At camp, staff and I had our handy go-to homesickness cures that we kept in our back pockets for the kids who were inevitably struck with the symptoms: 1) letter-writing to parents, 2) ice-breaking activities to get the kid socializing, 3) stories about our own camp homesickness, 4) getting kids talking about things they’ve liked about camp, 5) getting kids to talk about plans they’re looking forward to, etc. But how do you deal when you’re an adult and there’s no cabin counselor to talk you through it?
Here are some of the tips and tricks I use to cope when the family n’ friends flu strikes:
1) Talk about it
Chances are, if you are an international student abroad (or planning to study abroad), you have (or will have) international friends. I can guarantee that, in some form or another, each of them has experienced the same longing for home as you. No one is immune to the melancholy that being far from home for an extended period of time can instill in us. And there’s a great deal to be said about the ability to build community through relating your struggles to another’s. While sharing homesickness isn’t going to transform social consciousness, it is going to bring relief to you and your international friends. It helps to know you’re not alone, and it helps others to show them that neither are they.
2) Write about it
If you’re not the bottle-of-wine-and-a-heart-to-heart type, journaling can be just as effective. There are several reasons why this is a great way to deal with homesickness; first of all, it gets your feelings out of your head, out of your heart, and onto a page. Second of all, it documents the process. Believe it or not, the wisdom you’re going to gain from experiencing this nasty emotion is going to contribute to your life in a lot of unexpected ways, and as fun as it is to reminisce about the exciting, funny, stupid, momentous occasions that happen during your time abroad, it is SO helpful to paint yourself the full picture, pain and all, for that nostalgic version of you reading through your memories 10 years down the line.
3) Write home
This is something I would typically tell kids at camp to do, but it works for homesickness at any age. Besides the romantic aspect of sending a letter in a digital age, the nice parts of writing instead of calling, Skyping, and Facebooking are that 1) the person you write gets a memento to hang onto from your travels, and 2) giving that memento makes you feel connected in a sense, almost like you’re sharing the experience with them in a small way.
4) Make plans to travel
If you’re not in the mood to really be “in it” and distraction is what you’re looking for, do some research and find something you can do within your budget to make the most of your experience. This almost gives function to your pain, like reminding that kid at camp what she’s done that she enjoyed and reminding her what plans she has to look forward to. Make plans that YOU look forward to. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be hopping on a train to Paris or a weekend bender in Barcelona- it can be 6 hours wandering in the British Museum alone, or taking a £3 bus to Windsor for the day (<– this is all written from the London context, but if you do your research there are assuredly free or cheap experiences to be had in most any culture.)
5) Surround yourself
Sometimes you don’t have to make plans to remind yourself of why the homesickness is worth it, because a simple change of scenery will bring the comfort you need. If you’re in that mode of homesickness that’s so often prompted by being alone, call a friend for a cup o’ tea or knock on your neighbors door and just chat for a while. Doesn’t have to be about missing home, it could be about the paper you hated writing or the stupid mug you broke whilst trying to balance it on your head last week. This one is kind of akin to the ice-breaker in that, sometimes, you just don’t want to be alone, and that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s human.
6) Do something by yourself
On the flipside, sometimes studying abroad can mean being overstimulated by all the people you’re surrounded by constantly. Getting off campus, heading into the city, or out of the city, or just to a different part of the city, having that cup o’ tea by yourself in a quaint little café can have an equally therapeutic effect. Sometimes homesickness happens because you’ve lost touch with the part of yourself that you’re familiar with and you just need some space to get back in touch with your own culture. Totally fine, totally normal, and no this does not make you a bad traveler! Part of the changes that come with being in a new culture is deciding what parts of your own culture are important to you, which parts you want to hold on to. Sometimes, to figure that out, y’all just need some space.
And when all else fails…
7) Skype your mom/dad/sibling/dog/cat/cousin/friend/significant other/etc.
I reserve this for last because all too often in this digital age do we travelers fall into the internet trap. It’s important to ensure that you’re not spending too much of your time frantically staying connected to your peeps back home because you’re sacrificing time you could be using to grow, learn, expand. That said, it’s totally understandable if you need to sit on the computer for an hour and sob to your best friend while you individually read through each of the letters and pictures her 2nd graders wrote to you about London and the really thoughtful birthday card she send you.
The most important message to take from this is that homesickness is TOTALLY NORMAL. Whether or not crying about an 8 year old asking about your favorite color is, well that’s debatable. But homesickness, totally normal. While these are some typical ways to deal with homesickness (forgot to mention making lanyards — a camp classic, though I don’t know of any good craft stores in London just yet) it’s also important to know that we all deal with it in different ways, in our own ways. Most campuses have counseling services you can access if it becomes to hard to manage alone, so make sure you’re aware of what resources are available to you.
Most of all – Don’t let homesickness be the reason you DON’T leave your comfort zone!
As I said before, it is a growing pain, but the growth is worth the pain. Through it you’re learning how to be on your own, what’s important to you and what isn’t, what you’re capable of and what you aren’t, what you want from life and what you don’t. All of these things (and more) that you will take from experience will shape your career/academic path and your personal development in significant ways that no other experience can.
At the end of camp the homesickness talk always came full circle when (99% of the time) the kid ran up to the counselor with gratitude and exclaiming how glad she was to have stuck it out. There’s no doubt that, at the end an experience like this, your inner kid will be just as stoked!