Dealing With Homesickness? Let me tell you a story. I remember clearly how my last weekend before moving abroad was. It was Carnival, and in Brazil it is celebrated everywhere, although in different manners. I was with a big group of friends in a small city where, during this time of the year, young students from different regions come to celebrate this annual party. We rented a house so during the day we drank beer, made barbecue and swam in the pool (which was tiny for all of us, but it was Carnival, so nobody cares). We gave pre-parties and went to the big celebrations during the night.
It was awesome, and it was supposed to be from Saturday to Tuesday. However, on Monday morning I received a call from the HR telling me that the bureaucratic procedures of my expatriation finished, so I should be flying to my new country next Wednesday. I needed to leave almost immediately to prepare my luggage.
Maybe because this was one of the last moments before I move out, I really missed Carnival during my first two years abroad. When I saw my friends enjoying it, while I was in places where this celebration is virtually nonexistent, it made me feel blue. After some time my pals also moved out, some of them married and had kids, and now, eight years later, I barely remind carnival exists. It is not important to me anymore.
Homesickness when living abroad? The home you left doesn’t exist anymore
I tell you this story to exemplify one thing: Few years after you move, the recognizable scenario you left behind will not be there anymore, or at least not as you had in your memory. This happens for two reasons: the first is that your home changed, the people and the places you used to go change, and even the hobbies and popular trends changed. The second reason is that, after years out, you also change.
The most interesting thing is that you may not even be aware of the transformations you went through, just like when you lose (or gain) weight slowly and the people that notice are not the ones seeing you every day, but the aunt you visit once per year. As the Singaporean expat Bernie Low wrote at the GaijinPot Blog[i]:
Each time I went back to Singapore I would be excited to return to where I had grown up, nostalgia tugging at my heart strings each time I heard the roar of an airplane engine – I was going home! But what happens when home is no longer home? When instead of warmth and nostalgia all you feel is displacement and loss? […] I feel like a foreigner in my own country. There is an echoing bitter aftertaste that I cannot quite identify at the end of each day. I am living there, but each time it grows ever more distant, like the best friend you used to have that you’re drifting apart from and it frightens me.
Some minor differences in your accent will make people laugh. Other differences, like the changes in your personality or habits, will be noticed by your friends or relatives, and their approaches may vary. Some will see those changes as matureness developing after facing difficulties across the world. Others, however, may understand it as pretentious or even fake, made just to impress. Digression: in some cases, they are right. I saw a fair quota of expats that artificially change their accent and pretend to appear cosmopolitan, but just look ridiculous.
By all means, however, the cultural shock you experience will change you.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, homesickness is the feeling of being unhappy because of being away from home for a long period:
The two transformations, the one back in our land and the other inside ourselves, result in one thing: the home you left behind is not there anymore. It still exists and probably is very familiar to you, but it is not the same. People there are not the same, neither you. Some expats don’t realize this and frequently consider going back just because they deeply miss their home. My answer is always the same:
Which home do you miss: the one you keep in your memories or the one that is real now?
If it is the second case, it is understandable. I also miss the place where my family lives and where I spent my childhood. On the other hand, if what you miss are your memories, you must be aware they are just that: memories. To reproduce, or even worse, re-enact memories is not a goal that typically leads to a meaningful life.
But how to deal with this? How to deal with this urge, created in difficult moments, that you should throw everything in the air and go back to the place where you feel safe?
The First step in dealing with homesickness
Don’t Look Back so Often.
The first step is to understand this urge is natural. The same proverb about the greener grass of the neighbor applies here. When difficulties appear in your new country and you think about how would be better if you never left in the first place, remember that you also have no idea how things would be if you were still living there. Time flows and our age is far from stable. Besides, remember your targets, your goals and the reason you moved out in the first place. Chapter 4, rule three, remember?
If there is one trick tremendously helpful and which I recommend is to set yourself a minimum time. It should be at least three to six months, where you don’t allow yourself to think about moving back. During this time, remove any conjecture about how life would be if you were still there or what you would be doing at your previous job. Instead, spend your mental energy learning to love just where you are, and how this new environment supports your goals. This thought will keep you going.
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com and a best-selling author. You can check his books here. This article was inspired by the content of his book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity: 11 secrets to make your expat life better than you imagine