Anyone stuck in the UK, looking out the window at another gray day will laugh at the very thought of this article. ‘Imagine being homesick for this,’ they’ll think. And yet, unless you’ve lived away from the UK I don’t think you can appreciate it properly.
Yes, there are very real reasons that many of us have for wanting to leave – but once you’re living abroad, it may just be that you suddenly realise that home ties are very strong.
If you want to know about dealing with homesickness when living abroad, this practical article should help you approach the issue head on. It is written with personal insight as well as research, and at Degtev we hope it helps anyone who has already expatriated and who is asking ‘what am I doing here?’
Homesickness can manifest itself in many different ways, and it can affect each and every single one of us who makes the bold step of moving far away from our home country and our familiarity and comfort zones. Knowing the signs of it and what to look out for are almost as important as knowing how to deal with it – especially if you’ve travelled abroad with your family and you want to make sure your spouse and children are settling in to their new home country and routine and are not missing home.
There’s a beautiful word in the Welsh language that means, although not literally, ‘homesick’ – it is ‘hiraeth’ and it’s often translated as ‘a longing.’ And that is what homesickness is, a longing for the familiarity of home. And a longing that cannot be satiated is one that can grow and become more and more difficult to deal with, which is why it is important to recognise homesickness and address it head on.
When we move abroad the majority of us are buoyed up by the thrill of the challenge and the wonders of the new world we’re about to encounter and embrace. The stresses and trials and tribulations that go hand in hand with such an ambitious relocation are generally taken on the chin because we are rendered temporarily invincible by our optimism and excitement. Knock backs and hurdles are dealt with one after the other, and they are offset by the delights of the new life we’re beginning. This is the reality for most people when they move abroad – this reality lasts anywhere from a few days, through to a few weeks, up to a few months.
But eventually a new reality dawns!
This is the reality of everyday life, the reality that actually, you are the same person with the same issues and challenges in life, but you’re just living in a new location and without the support of family and friends and familiarity. It is when this reality bites that homesickness can first manifest itself.
We’ve even dubbed what happens during this period of time as getting ‘expat flu’ in the past, because it’s about now that expats usually succumb to some physical ailment or other that’s probably a result of the body collapsing after the stresses, strains, excitements and highs of the recent period. But looking at the bigger picture, expat flu is also an emotional symptom and it can last for a lot longer than any bug or cold that you get.
Many expatriates say that it took them up to 2 years to settle in and truly embrace their new life abroad…and we can certainly concur with this. Yes you can find a home, get a car, put all your belongings in place and even start work within just a few weeks of arriving. But it takes at least 2 years to learn language fluency, to gain deep familiarity with the ways, the customs, the rules and the culture of your new home; it also takes this long to forge deep and lasting emotional bonds with one or two new good friends. And it is establishing these ties and meeting these goals that bring a lasting permanent relief from homesickness – and unfortunately, these things cannot be rushed.
But this does not mean you have to suffer homesickness for 2 years! You just have to learn to achieve a balance between your old life and your new life, you have to decide what is fundamentally important to your underlying happiness, you have to communicate with family and friends and you have to work hard every single day to beat the blues.
The very first thing that most people miss is other people – as in, the significant people in their life who they have left behind. If you’ve retired abroad, these people may be your children and grandchildren, if you’re going it alone and forging a new life abroad it might be your parents you miss. Alternatively it could be best friends….and that niggling feeling you have, that nagging voice, the one telling you that these people are irreplaceable – it’s true! They are irreplaceable. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to cope with your missing them in your life. The first thing you have to do is stop being so fatalistic and negative and thinking that you will miss these people forever, that you will never have them in your life again! Open regular communication – get Skype – have webchats, phone calls, send email, send cards and snail mail greetings, invite them to stay. And – book a trip back home as soon as you can. Get the tickets in place and the date on your calendar because then you will have something very positive to look forward to, and that will get you right through until that point in time. Even if you’re living in Australia and home is Edinburgh and the physical distance is huge, you can work, you can save and you can look every single day online for a good deal on a cheap flight home. I.e., there are ways of achieving a home visit even if the distance is long and the expense high – set yourself the challenge of a visit and you will be amazed at how resourceful you become in achieving the goal you set yourself.
The more contact you can maintain with the people who are important in your life, the better you (and they) will feel.
The next thing you will probably miss is familiarity. This is a hard one to pin down because it means something different for each and every one of us. It can mean you miss being comfortable with how your job works, or how to achieve the weekly chores and shopping, it can mean you miss knowing how everything works. You can be presented with this longing on a daily basis in different forms. One morning you may wake up to no hot water and again be faced with just how little you know about how your new country works – who do you call? How do you explain the problem? When can it be fixed? How much will it cost? In reality you’d have the same dilemmas in the UK, but you could trust the good old Yellow Pages or perhaps even a neighbour to give you the number of a plumber who would indeed come out quite quickly – and charge you a fortune for the privilege! Or missing familiarity could be presented to you as you face a smaller challenge each day such as finding something the whole family will eat for dinner!
This is something that requires a two-pronged approach to dealing with. Firstly you can begin to recreate familiarity around you. If you have your own personal belongings with you, that’s great, it means you can settle down of an evening in an environment that, if not 100% familiar, at least has traces of ‘home.’ If you don’t have these things in place, get photos and mementos of home sent out to you and put them up. Think about getting a satellite TV package through which you can watch all the old rubbish you used to enjoy – alternatively, check out BBC iPlayer and ITV Player online – you can gain access to all the channels’ offerings and these can give you a reminder of home and a window back on your old life. Find the odd British product in the shop, or ask for a food parcel from home. These little things may seem trite to a non-expat reading this article, but they can make all the difference to an expat missing home.
The second thing you can do requires time as well as effort. You have to be tough and strong and every single day you have to break new ground in your new country to make it familiar. It’s a non-stop learning curve – and then all of a sudden, one day you’ll wake up and realise that you’ve gained familiarity and understanding because you are recognised when you go to the shops, you’ve learned colloquialisms in your new language, you can navigate the underground or bus network, and you know who to ask or where to look when you need a new phone number or contact. Day by day you will be building your very own new familiarity.
And finally, stop looking at everything so negatively!
It is not a case of black and white, i.e., it is not a case of you’re abroad forever and will miss home forever, (unless you’re a fugitive, and then we cannot really help you!), neither is it a case of your never fining happiness abroad. You have choices – if it all gets too much you can go home, but then why did you move abroad in the first place? Try remembering that which motivated you to make the move, and at the same time try embracing the very real fact that it takes time to adapt to a such a massive transition. Additionally, take regular trips back home and satisfy your longing for rain, for fish and chips, a pint in the pub and a traffic jam. We understand and appreciate that travelling home can be expensive and also difficult to organise when you have work commitments for example – but it is not an impossible dream to fulfil if you set your mind to it. Also, invite friends and family to stay – their holiday based enthusiasm for your new location will probably reignite your passionate and positive feelings for your new home location too. And finally, one day you’ll wake up in the UK on a visit to family and be about to board your flight overseas again, and you will realise that this time, the outward flight from Britain is taking you home. Your heart and head will have finally united and both will firmly believe that Britain is where you used to live, but your home is abroad and abroad is your home!
It takes time to get over homesickness fully and to completely embrace your new life, warts and all. But in the meantime, there is plenty you can do to alleviate your less than positive feelings and get the very most out of your time abroad. Go easy on yourself, but don’t shy away from the challenge – ultimately it is one of the most rewarding things you can do on an ongoing and lasting basis!