Homesickness is a funny thing. We all have an inherent understanding of what it is. No one has ever needed to have homesickness explained to them. Even when we’re younger and someone has to tell us that it’s normal to be homesick, a definition is never really given. And the thing is, at the ripe old age of 22, I am homesick for the first time in my life and it’s really throwing me off.
And my lack of experience is not for lack of chances to experience it. I did all the things you’re supposed to do as a kid to get used to homesickness and learn how to deal with it. Girl Scout camp, 4H camp, Bible camp, Young Life camp. I’m sure maybe the first time I was scared of the dark, but that’s as close as I got to real emotional trauma.
I spent two weeks in Nepal with my Dad when I was 14. Not so much with the missing things. But then, I was in Nepal and I had my Dad with me, which is a pretty strong connection to home. Went to a three-week long camp in Pennsylvania the same year. Called home once, only because I received an e-mail from my parents threatening consequences if I didn’t. The thought of home just never crossed my mind at the time. Returned the next year and managed to call home more often, only out of conscious effort.
Went to college a twelve hour drive from home, not having a friend within an eight hour radius. Felt… something. Loneliness was the term I used to describe it then, and still think it’s most appropriate. Was happy where I was, didn’t really want to go back, just needed something… familiar. Spent summers either working as a camp counselor or traveling on a bus, essentially pushing a temporary reset button on my life for two to three month segments at a time. Missed people, but nothing really worth mentioning or even writing in my diary.
But now, what I’ve got is enough that I’m even mentioning it in public. And believe me, this is not like me. But I know some of the people who read this have done a bit of traveling/reset button pushing themselves and I’m looking for thoughts.
What’s funny is that it’s so hit and miss. When I first got here, I assumed it would be just like every other time I’ve picked up and moved somewhere. The leaving part sucked, but once I got wherever I was going, I was just there. Why would I dwell on something that just wasn’t a part of my current life? It just didn’t make sense to me. And so I came here, and I started trying to live here. I spoke more and more German; I ate bread with Mandelmuss; I put my family’s organic Mandelmuss down on my list things I was probably going to miss; I vowed to get Anna to teach me how to make jam before I leave; I started planning trips; I started finding ways to meet people and so on and so on. There was a bit more exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed than normal, but let’s remember that I had just moved to a country where I spoke the native language at, on my best days, an intermediate level. And I was actually occasionally crying, which was also weird for me, but I put it down to the exhaustion.
And then the past few weeks, it just hit me. Suddenly, I was sitting around just thinking about my friends in other places and feeling that actual physical ache, where the want is so strong that you go psychosomatic for a few minutes. I wasn’t crying. Just longing to not be here. To not be here in this place that was absolutely amazing and beautiful and to not be here with these kids that I love and to just book a plane ticket and come home (home being, at this point, a strange amalgamation of about four or five distinct locations). This is the sort of thing I’d been dreaming of doing for years and now that I had it, I had this weird thing, that made me not want it and I’ve never had to deal with that before. I knew all the cures and tricks (spending two summers coaching children through homesickness will ingrain these things) and was trying to stay busy, focusing on writing, e-mailing – but not calling, because for some strange reason, that often increases homesickness – and planning future trips, but it just wasn’t shaking. The only thing I enjoyed thinking of was leaving.
I woke up last Wednesday morning in an absolutely foul mood for no good reason at all, except that I had fallen asleep wanting to be Not Here and I woke up in much the same state and remained so throughout the day. Add this to the fact that the next day was the first day of my German course and I was nervous because A) when I registered, the school hadn’t been able to guarantee that I would actually have a spot and B) the woman helping me had actually mentioned that my placement score was on the low end for my given course and that maybe I should register for the course below it. For a couple of reasons, I stuck with the higher level course (assuming there was room for me), but I was still far from comfortable with the idea.
Then the next morning I woke up early and rushed through my morning routine to get to the bus stop at what my watch said was two minutes too late to catch my bus and what my cell phone said was two minutes early. I got on the bus and stared out the window, giving myself heartburn worrying that I wouldn’t recognize my stop (I knew the neighborhood I was going to, but had never taken this bus before).
And then I got off at the right stop and arrived in plenty of time (Suprised? I was too.) There were three other girls there and after a few minutes, we were shown into the classroom. I sat down at the table and started classroom-style small talk with the people sitting next to me. And the teacher walked in and rearranged the tables because we needed more room, as always seems to happen. And there were visual aids on the walls, reminding me what the word for “toes” was. And we went through a test as a class and had to give each other stupid simple interviews using questions from a worksheet, which included the hilariously morbid and awkward question, “How do you want to die?” and so, of course, everyone in the class used it in an attempt to jive up what would otherwise be a boring list of one word answers.
And the class ended. And for the first time in weeks, I was actually glad to be here. Was actually glad to be struggling to understand a person speaking German in a very thick South Korean accent. To be meeting these people from so many different places. It was an injection of familiar, of something I’ve actually done before, a formula so regular and predictable that it didn’t matter what the variables were.
And so for the past few days, I’ve been all right. I’m still not sure whether or not I’m going to stay for a second year and I still have to remind myself every now and then that this is something that I do want, but it hasn’t been a plague. It’s just been moments. And then I drink some tea and color with Kilian or play “Rabbits Running Away from a Jaguar” with Hannah or re-teach Lena my favorite method of making string bracelets and then I’m fine for awhile. I still can’t stop thinking about next year and coming home, but it’s in a way that doesn’t depress me as much.
But then, this conflicts heavily with the fact that I just saw “Sicko” and have now sworn I’m never to be at the mercy of the American health care system, so I’m not sure how I’m gonna work that one out.
But here are my questions for people who’ve done this (meaning, actually been homesick) before:
How long would you say your “homesick period” lasted? How do you draw the line between being homesick and needing to go home? Those of you who have stayed or returned to someplace you would call “Not Home,” why? And what led you to feeling like that was the right decision?