Homesickness in Reverse

A post on WordPress Freshly Pressed had a simple title: “On Homesickness”. It was posted on a successful blog called “Miss Expatria: The Internet’s Leading Enabler of Travel Addiction”. The blog is witty and informative written from the perspective of an American who is now living abroad.

As someone who spent my life in boarding school, miles from home (followed by college in a different country that was even more miles from home ) this would seem like the perfect post for me to love. And indeed her opening lines were powerful, speaking to the intense pain of homesickness and likening it to weeds in Rome that when grabbed without gloves cause intense pain. She says this:

” During those two minutes you’re running to wash your hands and then you’re washing your hands and you can’t think of anything else except the blinding pain. And then the pain subsides and it’s hard to remember how badly it hurt.

This is what homesickness feels like, except the blinding pain is inside you so there’s no washing it out; you’ve got to ride it out until it subsides. And when you’re fully ensconced in a life that’s thousands of miles from the aforementioned home, you pray it does subside because the alternative – a tailspin into abject unhappiness followed by the crash of an enormous life change – is unthinkable. In the meantime, your existence is pulled apart as you go through your life here while your heart and soul are there.” from Miss Expatria, June 28th, 2011

And  I loved that part. But what I found extraordinary is that I could not relate with the home she missed. Simply put, she missed America. It makes complete sense. She was raised in America and took up expatriate life as an adult. The comments on the post were evidence that she spoke to the heart of those who were homesick for the United States.  She speaks of her “Achilles heel of homesickness” as New York, her particular place of longing.

The worlds that I navigate and people I know get homesick. But their Achilles heel of homesickness is in reverse. It is for India or Pakistan; the Dominican Republic or Guatemala, Brazil or Portugal. It’s New York City or Boston or Chicago where they feel the homesickness.

When I’m homesick I long for the smells, sights and sounds of either Pakistan or Egypt. I wake up thinking that I heard the Call to Prayer and suddenly realize that this is impossible. The closest mosque is in Roxbury, several miles from my home, and because of a noise ordinance there is no way even neighbors of the mosque will hear the sound. I shut my eyes on the T and feel the rhythm of the Khyber Pass Train, winding it’s way from the Sindh region to Rawalpindi station with stops along the way for passengers and chai. I smell jasmine and immediately I am on the banks of the Nile River, a vendor attempting to sell me garlands as I laughingly refuse, only to be cajoled into the purchase minutes later. I eat a curry and am transported to the Marhaba restaurant where curry and chapattis are served and you don’t have to pay for more sauce or more chapattis. I cry as I realize how rusty my language skills are and long to be back where I am using them daily. I hear about a flood or a revolution and instead of thinking “Wow, I’m glad I’m not there!” I rush to my computer and click on Orbitz or Travelocity, or even better,Vayama, trying to find cheap tickets that will take me closer to the disaster.

But while the places,events, sights, and sounds are different, I recognize that the core feeling is the same. It’s the inability to control, the surprise with which it comes, and the intense pain that Miss Expatria talks about. Her words that “It’s always a big freaking surprise. There’s no predicting it, which means there’s no avoiding it.” are absolutely true. And that is why I, and so many I know, are caught in the center of a crowded  supermarket or a train station with tears running down our cheeks unable to explain to the (sometimes) concerned observers what is going on or articulate the depth of pain that we feel.

Although her blog is amazing, I will never fully relate to Miss Expatria. It’s Amina, the woman who left a comment for me last night who represents more of my heart. She says: “I left Pakistan about three years ago for University and there are days when I’m so homesick I can hardly breathe. Today was one of those days…As I read through your postChai, Chai, Garam Chai’, I felt I could almost breathe the crisp air of the Northern Areas and smell the smell of a good cup of tea.”

It is also why I write this blog. To put into words some of the places, the people, and the events that I miss during those moments of homesickness so I can continue to function effectively right where I am.

12 thoughts on “Homesickness in Reverse

  1. I agree that choice is a big factor to consider. At a recent mk reunion we talked also of the parents’ need to listen to the children in a way that their pain and experience can be heard ~ parents who do this can support and strengthen and equip their children to survive and grow through the trauma of moving/upheaval/loss.

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  2. Is there any hope for a mother who wishes her child everything good to discover that she is enduring such pain … it breaks my heart. And worse, the mother too suffers by the nest. As parents we want our children to have strong roots and even stronger wings … that’s the theory … but it doesn’t make it easier to bear
    My consolation is that I learned some wonderful new tricks to alleviate the pain … thank you Tim Berners-Lee,

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  3. Oh, I completely relate to this post! I presently live in California in a place, I recently realized, is very similar to my childhood home in East Africa. I have been “back” in the U.S. now for 18 years, but two nights ago, I dreamt of my home and woke up sobbing. The gardeners working in the neighbor’s yard the other day were speaking in a language other than English, and for a moment, I heard Kiswahili and a pang of loneliness shot through my body. It’s taken a long time and lots of different kinds of therapy for me to now appreciate those moments. Yes, I still cry with longing, but there’s also an intense joy in the remembering that inspires me to live passionately no matter where I am. In the passion is home…and I’m grateful for the rememberings for they remind me of the richness of my soul.

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    1. I love this comment! It’s so interesting that no matter how long we live away, there is still that longing that comes unexpectedly. More later but thanks so much for reading!

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    2. I re-read this comment with better internet access and I really appreciate what you say about the “intense joy in remembering that inspires me to live passionately no matter where I am. In the passion is home.” What a great description of moving forward.

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      1. Thank you! I’m grateful for the confirming words…it can be challenging to move forward for fear of forgetting or ignoring or abandoning the past, so thank you for recognizing that an accomplishment has been achieved :)

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  4. I so appreciate both your view, Marilyn, and Expatria’s. One big difference between you and your fellow TCKs and Expatria as an adult who chose to leave home, I found in one of Paul Tournier’s books. Sorry I can’t quote it verbatim. The great difference lies in the “choosing”. You really didn’t have a choice, although your Dad and i always tried to be very sensitive to your needs. We didn’t ask your opinion about whether you wanted to live in Pakistan, or even did you want to go to boarding school. We felt it was our responsibility to make those big decisions. We as adults pulled up our roots to move around the world. You have had to find your own rootedness. I am so thankful for God’s grace in your life and your brothers’ lives that has enabled you to make that adjustment as adults. Another big difference is that the adult can always go back home to that passport country, and feel to some extent at home. Although the longer one lives overseas, the harder it is to feel at home. The child who grows up overseas often can’t go back – the parents have retired “at home” or moved on to yet another country. I could go on, but this is already too long a comment.
    Thanks for the beautiful post for our anniversary. We are not deserving of all the nice things people are saying! But thank you anyway!

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    1. Mom – thanks for this comment. It’s true that you would relate more with Expatria’s and mine. You lived in Pakistan so long that I am sure there have been moments of missing the whirring of the fan on that 25+ foot ceiling and the smell of sawdust?? No?! And I am right now re-reading your book, just got through the part where you are on the roof in Ratodero at Christmas time. Tears. Such a great part.
      I recently described my boarding school memories as laced with grace and I firmly believe that. The choosing is an interesting piece. Cliff has helped me realize that no child has a choice in where or how they will be raised. Whether military or factory worker in a small town, the child is part of the bigger picture and doesn’t have the choice. I think it’s then the job of the adult to make peace with that and realize it is all for a purpose. I remember being so glad you and dad stayed in Pakistan during my college years and beyond. As long as you were there, I could legitimately call it home. When you left – it was still home but it didn’t feel as legitimate.

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