I want to touch on a topic which has been very near and dear to my heart lately. Missing home when you have committed to moving abroad, and have been abroad long enough to feel anxious and stuck on your home place, your family and the friends you grew up with. That heart-sick feeling which settles into your gut and makes you feel that bloom of self-doubt.
Homesickness & Life Abroad
Anyone who lives abroad, has at some point, felt a bit sad. And, its different for everyone. The adventurous ones feel a twinge and charge forward, and some of us hit slumps. I want to connect with you about some of the slumps I have had during my life abroad, and a few things which have helped me get by:
- Identifying the root of your feelings of homesickness.
- Acknowledging them – because closet-homesickness is lonely.
- And, learning how to move forward day by day.
Homesickness, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “longing for home and family while absent from them” (1). The feeling varies for everyone, but the emotions can be intense. In Brazil, they have a similar word “Saudade” which embodies the emotion of intense longing. And, I get it.
For me the struggle often comes down to culture and amenities. After 4 years abroad I’m used to being apart from my family, but I still get hung up on the little things. And, sometimes its the little things which hurt the most over time. These are the feelings which can fester and turn ugly if we let them. Here are some examples:
- Finding foods or ingredients: I’m a food-lover, and nothing makes me sad like being unable to find “French’s French Fried Onion topping for putting on the green bean casserole. Or, feeling the urge to make quesadillas for dinner, but feeling discouraged because the standard option is tasteless tortillas which are made out of horrible ingredients and loaded with conservatives.
- Giving orders at restaurants in your second language, only to have the wrong plate arrive. I’m not a super picky eater, but there have been times when I know I said “chicken and soup”, only to receive “chorizo and beans.” Did the other person totally misunderstand me? Or, did they get stressed out or turned off by my accent, and refuse to listen?
- Financial hardship. In those times when life abroad isn’t all cake and ice cream, it can get discouraging. Especially if you have ever experienced the hardship of being unemployed or completely broke, life abroad isn’t as fun anymore because you aren’t doing anything interesting besides simply surviving. This one can be tough.
These are a few examples of my triggers. Yours could be similar or completely different. But usually these situations come with intense depression which can get better or worse over time depending on how you deal with it. On how I deal with it.
The important thing to remember, is that all of these situations can be changed. And, thats where we are headed next.
Creating positive energy again
There is no magical miracle cure. Homesickness is an emotion. It might sneak up on you at the heels of other adversities, or it may slowly drag you down. Often the best cure is in your personal habits and through creating new perspectives. We have to power our way through these lifestyle slumps by creating positive energy again.
Here are a few things which really help me when I start feeling the onslaught of homesickness
- Order a Care Package: Finding the right ingredients, or something you really miss having, is a situation which may or may not be changeable. Fortunately, it is getting easier with drop-shippers who can send to Colombia or your location. In fact, shipper services like Giro Express and Caribbean Shippers have helped lower the cost to only a couple dollars per pound in most parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. For me, the best cure is to cook some pancakes. What is your “band-aid?”
- Second Language Blues: Not everyone learns at the same rate, and sometimes we make mistakes ourselves in pronunciation. This can be helped through language classes and practice, but if you tend to get a bit anxious like I do, then you might want to ask for help (when able) and practice what you are going to say ahead of time. Really focus on enunciation. Sometimes I say things quite well, but my “gringa” accent or faulty enunciation has thrown listeners off.
- Call a Friend: Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself. Sometimes what can actually help is counterintuitive, but you have to do it. Especially if you are facing financial hardships, your support network can give you ideas and insights which bring opportunity.
Overcoming the depression
I gave you a few examples and a few solutions, but they may not be enough. Especially if you are struggling from financial difficulty, some solutions are completely out of your grasp. And this is when we have to create positive habits which probably have nothing to do with the cause of your depression.
Positive Habit #1: Always Remember the Why
Remember the old gospel song about counting your blessings? Advice which is as true now as it has always been. Life abroad can get crazy, and political or social situations can change rapidly. When these moments hit, you have to remember why you chose to live abroad in the first place.
Positive Habit #2: Stay Active
Don’t be the expat who moves abroad and then gathers dust. Get out and take a walk. Explore new parts of the city. Make an effort to visit a friend, or attend a social event. Sometimes our homesickness is actually loneliness. Join an exercise class, study dance or learn a craft. Whether you are physically or mentally active, the important thing is that you are filling your downtime with activities which will help you remember why you moved abroad, and what you love about it!
Positive Habit #3: Challenge Your Comfort Zone
What are your limits? Maybe you are underachieving a bit instead of living up to your full potential. Especially if you are facing financial stress, this might be the time to challenge your comfort zone. Start knocking on doors. Open yourself up to new ideas and opportunities, even if you have doubts. Never resign yourself to doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
Homesickness isn’t really about home. Often, its more about whether you are able, or willing to adjust to a new situation. In a recent CNN article homesickness was identified as “a distinct adjustment disorder with identifiable symptoms” (2). Keep in mind that while we previously discussed positive habits and potential “band-aid”s, in the end its up to you. You and I need to make up our minds to embrace the things we love, and manage the things which make us feel anxious and homesick. Please feel free to weigh in on the topic and tell us about your homesickness and how you managed it!