I was talking to someone in the States the other day about life in Ecuador, and he asked the question an expat hears fairly often – “Don’t you get homesick?” This is not a trivial question, and one that anyone thinking of moving to another country should consider.
“Homesickness” has been recognized since ancient times, with references in the Old Testament of the Bible, and Homer’s Odyssey. Even Hippocrates recognized it as a valid complaint, suspecting it had to do with an excess of black bile in the blood. It is true that my wife and I both miss our children and our grandchildren, and we try to keep up with them via social media, Skype, and so on. We also return to the States to visit them at least once a year (we’re taking a trip soon, in fact), and we encourage them to come visit us. But that’s not the same as being homesick.
Most medical professionals recognize the complaint as distress or impairment caused by anticipated or actual separation from home, or the things that you associate with home. It usually manifests itself as depression and anxiety, or an unhealthy fixation on the things of home. It is worth noting that it is associated more with longing for the things about home rather than the people. For the expat, this may include things like your favorite fast food restaurants, or manicured lawns, or just something you were used to doing and now cannot. Some of the things that can exacerbate homesickness are being separated by a large distance, cultural differences, language differences, different foods, different climate – in short, just about everything an expat must learn to deal with.
There are of course also things that help make you less prone to homesickness. The older you are and the more time you have spent traveling, for instance, the better equipped you may be. If you have a spirit of adventure, a certain flexibility in your outlook on life, and enjoy new experiences and new cultures, you will also be better off. Notice that these are all qualities that successful expats share. Although my wife and I are not homesick, there are some things we definitely miss. I for one miss Internet shopping – or more specifically, home delivery of goods purchased via the Internet! I miss Maryland blue crabs, decent pastrami sandwiches, and the ability to call the local utility companies with questions instead of having to show up in person.
However, missing those things does not cause me depression or anxiety. Why not? I think there are several factors that can help expats dealing with this issue. For myself, I have replaced the things I used to have with new things – pangora instead of blue crabs, almuerzos instead of fast food, and so on. We also shipped a container of household goods with us when we moved, so we do have some things around us that represent what we left behind.
Some expats of course may not need a whole container – maybe a favorite piece of art, your special pillow, a quilt your mom made – any of these things can help you feel more comfortable in your new home. More importantly for my wife and me, is that we have learned from living in a foreign land that we really did not need all of the things that used to seem important to us. If we had it to do over again, or if we decide to move on to a new country and a new adventure, we will probably take much less with us.
I believe that what you ultimately learn from life overseas is that the world is a very big place, and what part of it you live in doesn’t matter as much as how happy you are with where you are right now! We have grown to feel that no matter where we go, if we are happy with ourselves and we are welcoming each day as a new experience in our lives, home is wherever we happen to be.
You will never be homesick, if you learn to carry home in your heart.