homesickness & study abroad

Sunday, 17 February 2013

When preparing to study abroad, homesickness is something that universities and colleges and what have you tend to mention, but their warnings never really extend to the level that they perhaps should.  When I was readying myself to go to Japan for my third year of university, I expected to be homesick or to experience culture shock, but my department and even internet resources did little to prepare me for the reality of the emotional rollercoaster I’d be going through for the entirety of my time there.

It’s something that, despite being a part of almost every long term experience abroad, has a really bad reputation.  Almost everyone feels it at some point or another, but even so, being homesick on a holiday or a year abroad is still, in some circles, almost seen as a failure on your part.  Even though on paper you have every reason to be sad (your friends, family, pets, most of your things, your old life are all in another place that you are currently unable to return to, you are isolated from your loved ones and support system, etc.) for some reason the fact that you are in a new city or a new country or culture is somehow supposed to negate these problems and result in the time of your life.

 Anyone who has ever been homesick and tried to communicate their emotional issues to loved ones has probably heard the same spiel; comments along the lines of “But you’re in [place]!”, “I’d kill to be where you are right now!”, “Oh, but you’re still so lucky!” and other attempts at positivity and reassurance that, while well-intentioned, never help.  To someone who is seriously homesick, these comments are in no way encouraging, rather they feel like you’re being told: “You’re supposed to be having fun, I would be having fun if I were in your situation, there is no reason for you to be unhappy.”  Being told by a friend that they would love to be in my shoes does not help me; it makes me feel as though an opportunity better suited to someone else was wasted on me.

The general theme with conversations on homesickness always seems to revolve around the fun you should be having, the fun you owe yourself and the people around you.  The reality, one that I wish I had been told when I was barely able to get out of bed and face the world in Japan, is that you don’t owe anyone anything.  Being given the chance to study or work or move abroad is a fantastic opportunity, yes, but that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to enjoy every second of it.  You are still a human being with human emotions and needs and desires that don’t disappear just because you’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a silver platter.  Do you enjoy every single day of ‘normal’ life at home?  Do you have days where you hate the world and want to retreat at home?  Do you have moments where you wish you were somewhere else entirely at home?  Of course!  Why should being in another country make those feelings invalid?  I mean, on top of all of the normal emotions we experience, living abroad comes with a whole host of others, like culture shock and language barriers, that only add to the stress of your situation.  You are absolutely allowed to feel crappy, whether it’s for an afternoon or a day or a week or the entire time you spend abroad.  

Homesickness can take different forms in different people; some are lucky enough to barely experience it at all, while others can have their time abroad seriously dampened by it.  For me, it was almost non-stop.  For every good week I had, there was a week or a few days where I felt awful, and the longer I was there (thanks to changes in weather, routines, dorm mates and more) the worse the bad days became.  In my final month, I was barely eating both out of distaste for the only available foods available to me and due to depression, I was over-exercising, barely sleeping and had planned out every day of classes that I could afford to miss in accordance with the attendance rules so that I never left home more than I needed to.  I started having anxiety attacks, which I hadn’t experienced for years, and was intensely unhappy.  Had it not been for the wonderful friends I had made (who I also still love and remain in touch with) and the promise of returning home to my boyfriend and my family in the summer, I would have been even more of a mess.  More than once, I’d considered moving my return flight forward and screwing the rest of my classes and exams and essentially my entire degree.

I speak so frankly about this now because no one else ever does.  When I was desperately searching for stories of people who had felt the same as I did, who left their host countries feeling as though their time abroad had forced their life into an all-time low, that they felt like they had made a huge mistake, I didn’t find any.  All I could see were articles about how ‘my time abroad was the best time of my life’ and ‘my time abroad made me a better  person’ or parodies mocking the very concept that study abroad could ever be bad for someone. 

Don’t get me wrong, looking back I do not regret my time abroad.  Through all of the ups and downs and even in my frequent moments of utter hopelessness, I still benefited from the experience and would not trade it.  It made me stronger, and strengthened my relationship with my boyfriend, too.  If I went back in time, would I make the same choice to go knowing how I would feel during and immediately after?  Maybe, maybe not.  When I arrived home I returned with a deep resentment for the country and the difficulties it had put me through, but that subsided over time, and now I look at photos and reminisce and dream of revisiting all of my favourite spots there again. 

I had some fantastic days, met some wonderful people and saw some beautiful places, but it wasn’t all good.  The likelihood of it being 100% good experiences is incredibly slim, and it's even entirely possible to spend the majority of your time living in another place completely and utterly miserable, and you are absolutely entitled to.  Ignore the people who imply you ‘should’ be having the time of your life, who make you feel like a failure for having an off day, or an off week, or just spending the whole time feeling like you don’t belong.  Homesickness does not mean that an opportunity was wasted on you, or that you couldn’t possibly be able to enjoy yourself at all – it’s perfectly natural and just means that you’re going through the motions and attempting to adjust to a new life in a new place with new people and new everything else.  You are allowed to feel sad, angry, alienated.  Your feelings are valid.  And, even if you do feel awful most of the time, that doesn't mean that you still can't enjoy yourself or make your time there worthwhile.

How can you try to ease those negative feelings?  That depends on the person.  Skype calls to loved ones can help, as can throwing yourself into making new friends and being sociable in your new home.  Forcing yourself to get out and do and see things helps to take your mind off of your unhappiness and allows you to see your new surroundings in a more positive light.  Sometimes even just finding someone else who feels the same way as you and having a bit of a mutual rant can help to blow off steam and reassure you that you aren’t alone. 

You might also be wondering how to support someone who’s feeling homesick, given that I essentially shat all over the usual go-to responses earlier in this post.  The answer is the same for any other situation in which someone is upset for reasons beyond their control – let them know that you’re there if they need to talk, tell them that you’re sorry that they feel the way they do, tell them that they have every right to feel the way they do.  Talk to them about different things, things that could take their mind off of everything, chat about how you’ll be waiting for them when they come home and you can have fun with them then and the homesickness will all be a distant memory.  Don’t say things that make it seem as though their experiences and emotions are ‘wrong’ or that make them feel guilty for feeling how they do.

The bottom line is that not every experience abroad is full of sunshine and rainbows.  It can be the best time of someone’s life, but it isn’t always, and you shouldn’t feel like you have failed yourself or your loved ones for not enjoying it as much as you’re led to believe you should.  It can be upsetting, lonely, alienating and difficult and come the end of it you could even leave wishing you’d never gone in the first place.  And that’s okay.  Our experiences and our coping mechanisms are all different.  Just because some people visit the same country as you and don’t want to leave it and spent each day filled to the brim with joy doesn’t mean that you have to feel the same.  People are different.  Your emotions are always valid and you are completely entitled to feel homesick.  You don’t owe it to anyone to enjoy every second, and anyone who tells you otherwise can suck it.

Post a Comment

Latest Instagrams

© PLANT BASIC. Design by FCD.