Understanding the ways to overcome homesickness when living abroad
Feeling homesickness while living abroad is common. Incredibly common. What is not usual is a true understanding of why we feel that, and this is something that can change lives.
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 HR telling me that the bureaucratic procedures of my expatriation were finished, so I should be flying to my new country next Wednesday. I needed to leave almost immediately to prepare my luggage.
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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.
The first of all homesickness symptoms
The home you left doesn’t exist anymore
I will tell you a story to exemplify this: 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 have changed, and even the hobbies and popular trends have changed. The second reason is that, after years out, you also change.
What is the meaning behind the feelings of homesickness? A personal story.
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 noticing it are not the ones seeing you every day, but the aunt you visit once per year. As the Singaporean expat Bernie Low wrote on 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 heartstrings 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 expatriates (there are six kinds of expatriates) that artificially change their accents and pretend to appear cosmopolitan, but just look ridiculous.
By all means, however, the cultural shock you experience will change you.
The Meaning of Homesickness Abroad for an Expat
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. The people there are not the same, neither are 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?
Deal with homesickness when living abroad – The 1st Step
Don’t Look Back so Often.
The first step is to understand the homesickness meaning is that this urge is natural, but you should not be carried by it, since this can result in expatriate failure and excessive regret about moving away from home.
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.
Other ways to cope and tips to overcome homesickness
It’s no secret that moving to a new place is going to be difficult. Especially if you’re leaving behind family and friends. The good news is that it really is possible to feel at home in a new place.
It just takes some time and effort. Here are some things to do when homesick in your new city, country, or continent:
- Get organized If you’re looking for jobs and you’ve got a stack of resumes, spend 30 minutes organizing them into one that you can take with you to your next interview. If you have a list of the addresses of your friends and family, make sure it’s in alphabetical order so you can find people easily. Or, if there’s anything else that needs tidying up, now’s the time to do it!
- Go out for a walk It can be easy to feel caged in when living in an apartment or townhouse. If this is the case for you, go out for a walk or run. Walk around your neighborhood or just go on the local path – if there is one nearby. This will give you some fresh air and help clear your head! Everyone knows how good exercise feels afterward, so this should be an easy way to get rid of some stress and boost your mood.
- Stick to what is similar.
It can be tough getting used to a new place. But if you’re open to new experiences, be patient, and look for things in common with the locals, you’ll feel like you’ve lived there forever before you know it!
Conclusion: Key Takeaways to Deal With Homesickness While Living Abroad
Here are the key points to understand the symptoms of homesickness and help you to adapt to new surroundings:
- Understanding Homesickness: Homesickness is the feeling of unhappiness due to being away from home for an extended period of time. It’s a natural emotion that many expatriates and those who study abroad experience.
- The Changing Nature of Home: Over time, both the individual and their home country undergo transformations. The home you remember might not exist in the same way anymore. This can be due to changes in the environment, people, and even personal growth and experiences while living abroad.
- Coping with Homesickness:
- Don’t Look Back Too Often: Constantly reminiscing about the past can make you feel worse. It’s essential to remember why you chose to live or study abroad in the first place and focus on the present.
- Stay Organized: Keeping things in order, whether it’s job applications or contact lists, can help you feel more in control of your new surroundings.
- Engage in Physical Activity: Going for walks or runs can help cope with homesickness and loneliness, providing both physical and mental health benefits.
- Find Familiarity: Seeking out familiar activities or routines can make your new environment feel like home. This can reduce homesickness and help you feel more at home.
- Connect with Locals: Finding ways to bond with locals and exploring your new environment can help in feeling integrated and less isolated.
- Culture Shock: Moving to another country can result in culture shock, which can intensify feelings of homesickness. However, these feelings are natural and can be managed with time and effort.
- The Importance of Perspective: Remembering the reasons for moving or studying abroad and focusing on personal growth can help in dealing with homesickness. It’s essential to differentiate between missing the memories of home and the current reality of home.
- Final Thoughts: Homesickness is an acute form of anxiety that many face when living in a foreign country. However, with the right strategies and mindset, one can find ways to feel more at home and enjoy their time abroad.
If you are planning to live abroad, it is a good time to check the things to buy before moving out, but if you already live abroad, I recommend this simple but life-changing for expatriates working abroad.
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com, a best-selling author, and the creator of the channel The Expat. You can check his books here and his articles 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