I remember the first time I was on my own in a foreign city. It was in December, 2011. I was 27. The city was Amsterdam. Most people have done big things with their lives by that age like, had a baby or swam the channel or something, but not me. I’d never been on holiday on my own, and never been out of the sight of my buddies or partner during those holiday times. I thought it would be scary, the realisation that I was on this spinning planet, in isolation of everywhere and everyone I knew. Okay, I wasn’t in the country on my own, just left to wander solo for an afternoon, but it felt significant. It was. I had the best time, I spoke to people I wouldn’t have otherwise, I followed my feet and just went where they led me. It was fun, and oddly liberating.
Flash forward to about 4 years later and I found myself on my own in the most alien country I could conceive of, namely, Vietnam. And this time, I was actually on my own. I’d been living in Saigon for nearly 9 months by this point, and my partner had to return to the UK for personal reasons. For a short time, I was actually, genuinely, on my own. In anticipation of this, I thought I’d be really anxious, but I wasn’t at all. Quite the opposite in fact. I felt almost empowered by my brief solo status. But I know that it took months of living and working in that city, navigating myself to new places constantly and learning to behave in a manner different to how I’ve ever had to before or since, to prepare me for that short stint on my own. Only after all of that experience was I strong enough to deal with being there alone.
I think part of what gave me confidence during that time was the knowledge that wherever I am on the planet, I am connected to the people I love. This connection is enabled through the likes of Facebook and Skype and various instant messaging platforms which allow me direct contact with my friends and family no matter where I am in the world. Because of that, I didn’t feel so isolated.
While that’s all good, and reassuring, in the daily grind I sometimes feel that even all of that contact just doesn’t cut it, because it’s not the same as being there. It’s just not. In order to do all of this, I had to say goodbye to people I love and know that I can’t just pop round for a cup of tea when I want to see them and in some cases, I left the circumstances under which I could see them possibly ever again, or at least, see them like I once did (my job, my home). The distance, and the finality of those choices, are hard to live with at points. What I’m getting to here, is the gremlin on my shoulder, the constant companion that sits with me during every magic moment or stunning sunset. This little bastard’s name, of course, is ‘Homesickness’.
It’s difficult to break down homesickness in terms of what exactly causes it, and who, what or where I miss at any one point. Therefore, it’s hard to know how to deal with it. Sometimes I know it’s a specific person, or it’s a group of people, it’s a situation, or a place that I miss. I know we all go through this when we change jobs or move house, but it’s rare that we do this with every aspect of our lives and virtually every relationship in it.
This particular set of circumstances does seem to specifically belong to the ex-pat lifestyle. I think maybe if you were travelling for only a short time, and you knew when the end date was, it would be hard at points but it would be different. When there is no end date, just a plan to ‘see what happens’ it’s hard not to feel lonely or even a bit lost at points.
I’ve got used to endless strange beds and houses, I’ve learned that I can make any place essentially ‘home’. So if I’m not missing my home, what is ‘homesickness’ exactly? What is it that I’m feeling? Am I just missing my friends? Sometimes it’s that, it’s acutely that. You know how hard it is to miss one person you really like or love? Try missing thirty. Seriously. It’s so big and so painful at points, that no amount of beautiful vistas or new adventures can make up for it.
But it’s not just the people, it’s more complex than that. So, is it the job I used to have or the town I used to live in that I miss? It’s weird, when I walked around my home town before I left, all I could think of was how bored I was with it, how I could not spend the rest of my life just walking the same circuit around the same places forever, without having experienced anything more. Because before you know it, the doors close shut and that’s your life, bam! Signed, sealed, delivered and over with. But when things have been difficult over this last year, I’ve imagined being back in that town, and literally kissing the stone walls and hugging the banged up old bus stops. These are not normal thoughts, I’m aware of that! Everything that was mundane previously takes on this brilliant significance because it’s familiar, it’s known, it’s a part of you that you never realised was so deeply embedded. It’s not just familiar places that you miss, but behaviours, phrases, things, attitudes, accents, certain foods and strange habits that you didn’t think of as essentially British or Northern before, but turns out that they are.
So what does this mean? Does this mean that home was better? The problem is that I know enough to know that if I were to end things right now because of my homesickness, and go back to the same place, it’s not going to take long before I feel lost again. Because I don’t fit anymore. My friends have moved on to new things in their lives, and rightly so, and the memory of the relationships I’m missing would not become reality again just by my returning and shouting ‘ta daaaa! I’m here!’ Not that I couldn’t rebuild connections and relationships and create a new life. But that’s the thing, I would have to start again. Wherever I end up, I’m back at the beginning. So there is the question of, why not somewhere else then? If there are good prospects and the potential for a better quality of life elsewhere, then shouldn’t I check that out? I suppose actually getting to know people and building a new social network would help. Something we didn’t really manage in Vietnam for various reasons and something we could achieve here in New Zealand, especially now that I have work coming up.
This question is: will this cure the homesickness, or is that forever going to be a part of me now, unless I return to what I knew for 30 years?
I think part of the issue is, I only ever look at relationships and situations in regard to what I’m missing out on, how I feel about not being a part of things, how much I miss someone. I never think about the reverse side of the coin, I never think about people missing me, or what I might bring to a relationship or situation, and what value that might have. Maybe that’s part of the human condition though. If we all thought constantly about that side of things, we would be walking egos, I guess.
My solution, if there is even one to be found, is this: keep moving forward. Just see what happens. Acknowledge that this is hard and not perfect, and I will feel low and lost and little bits of my heart will ache until I see certain people again. And try to do what I can to mitigate it. Keep in touch with the people I miss, let them know how much I value and care about them. Take time to speak to them and see their stupid faces on Skype, and plan to visit home again. Or at least, the place that part of me still considers to be home. I will work toward that as a goal. I feel sure that going and seeing people will help, for a while at least, and seeing the UK again will help me to decide how I feel about going forward or going back. It will help me to know what I want to do. Every passing day will help me to work this out though, whatever choice I make.
I guess the only bit of advice I can give you regarding homesickness is this, don’t let fear of loss hold you back. Don’t be afraid that things will change, because they will change anyway even if you don’t. Being somewhere else doesn’t mean that people won’t love you anymore, and if there is somebody you can’t live without not there with you, you’ll realise that. If there is somebody that can’t live without you, they will realise that. But in terms of your friends, this is unlikely, most likely they will just be happy that you’re living your life and happy to share your experiences with you where they can. I don’t want to let go of those relationships or replace them with new ones, so maybe for that reason, part of me will forever feel this way, but everything comes at a price, we know this, and maybe this is the ultimate cost of living abroad.
Of course, I’ve focused on the more negative aspects of being an ex-pat in this article, but it’s not all heart ache and longing. If it were, I wouldn’t be doing it, and nor would anybody else. There is a flip side to this coin, but I’ll save that story for another day, and for now just leave you with the current view from my window, which never fails to give me a little perspective.