What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot do for Our Nostalgia

Katha has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I love what she writes today – it resonated with my TCK heart and brought up some good questions and thoughts. This is the first part of a two-part series that Katha is doing on “Nostalgia.”  Katha comes at these pieces from a personal as well as academic angle as her Master’s Thesis was on nostalgia. We would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the post. You can read more about Katha at the end of the post and connect with her at her own blog. 


computer - nostalgia

What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot Do for Our Nostalgia

We live in a world that has grown closer together, as one definition of globalization puts it.

People around me say they don’t have to go anywhere because the world is right at their doorstep. They can choose their dinner menu from at least ten different cultures, and music found by one click online sets the right tone. What’s the big deal with travelling? Others are travel maniacs. Get on a plane and within ten hours (or less, depending on where you live) you’re in a completely different world. People go on vacation to exotic places, spend two weeks in a hotel/beach landscape, and say they know a place.

Friends go on short-term trips to experience ‘the real Africa/India/whatever place you want to put in there’ and come back missing the food, the animals, or the crowded minibus taxis. And I find myself thinking, ‘You have no idea…

The following scene could probably take place in each TCK’s daily life…

…I log myself into Skype and wait for my friend to come online. It’s 7 am and I am little tired, but I also don’t really care about that. It is difficult enough finding a time that we both are available – she between coming home from university and going out with friends in Australia, me before spending all day in classes in Germany. Or other friends joining in from the States after they’re home from church. Skype dates are set up via Facebook or even doodle to find a time where time zones, schedules, or simply life, don’t bother us. We meet virtually from all over the world, and often the first thing we say is, “Thank God for technology!” We talk for hours and hours, share our lives and hearts, but also reminiscence about the time we spent together in yet another part of the world. We laugh, cry, encourage, and pray together – as if we were right next to each other. As if there was no ocean between us. But there is. And I realize it every time I switch off my laptop.

In a way, that Skype call didn’t really cure my homesickness for a certain place or a good friend; it actually increased my longing because I once again had to realize that technology can do a lot, but it cannot bridge the gap between time and space.

Looking at the omnipresence of technology in our globalized lives – how does it affect our feelings of longing and nostalgia?

TCKs are surrounded by movement: either we move ourselves or we watch our friends leave. We are used to saying goodbye on a regular basis, airports have become a second (or third, or tenth) home for us. Since we are constantly on the move, leaving behind too many wonderful places and people, globalization and technology have become a blessing for us – it makes communication and staying in touch with dear friends all around the globe so much easier.

One big advantage of technology like photographs and films is that it enriches facts with vivid images and emotions “far beyond that which could be evoked from a mere chronology of places, persons, and events” (Fred Davis). It helps to recreate the past to a certain extent by eliminating the gap between time and space. There is a new architecture of space because things that used to be far away suddenly appear to be close through email, Skype, videos, and photographs. No matter how far you might feel apart from a place, media bridges the distance and creates instant intimacy. You can easily stay in touch with friends you had to leave behind, even remote places in South African townships or Ugandan bush villages have Internet on their phones these days. Through globalized markets you can get products and tastes from all over the world without leaving your neighborhood. Distance does not matter – with globalization and technology you can create a home away from home or preserve traveling memories for the future.

But does it cure our nostalgia?

When inventions like photography and later videography came about some people said it would eradicate the feeling of nostalgia because we are now able to access our memories in vivid form whenever we want. Some hundred years later, we still grapple with that feeling of longing tugging at our hearts and pulling us back again and again. It seems that nostalgia will always be there, simply in different forms and genres. And it can also have a negative impact because it changes the way we remember, preserve, and deal with homesickness. In a slow world people experience things intensely, but with an increase in speed there is also an increase in forgetting. The more we try to keep up with the speed of progress, of life, of friendships – the more we hear this voice inside of us, we feel this longing to slow down, to go back to a time where things were so much easier and carefree.

Svetlana Boym put if beautifully when she said that nostalgia is ‘a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythm of our dreams.’

We long to keep the past alive so we are able to relive it in slow motion. Memories preserved via technology can serve as easy escape from a dull present or the struggle of re-entry into a culture we don’t fit in. Simply watch pictures, call a friend, and you’re back in a different place and time. However, we seem to forget that no virtual reality can ever replace real experiences or recall the actual emotions felt; all it can do is to create a fake image of home or past times. Technology sells the idea of connectedness, which leads to the impossibility of being alone. Constant calling, texting and communicating with home can become a harbor to preserve homesickness; instead of dealing with it, we try to stay in touch with two worlds at once. Then we buy into the illusion that friends on screen are very close. We share lives, relationships, and emotions via video camera. Nevertheless, as soon as we switch off the laptop the connection is lost and only a feeling of loneliness and longing remains. In the end, it makes us even more aware of the fact that there is only one life to live. The past is past and cannot return – the illusion of it, though, increases the longing for home and nostalgia for what can never come back.  

I must admit, I often feel trapped between the curses and blessings of the globalized world I live in. I for sure enjoy staying in touch with friends around the globe. I am grateful for the privilege I’ve been given to be able to travel so much and to see so many beautiful places on earth. And I love looking at pictures or watching movie sequences from a time long gone, remembering things as if they had happened yesterday and feeling what I felt back then.

Yet, I also know the feeling of emptiness after a Skype call, realizing you are still miles and miles apart and knowing that life eventually has to move on. And I wonder how much I can or should enjoy the blessings without suffering from the curses at the same time?

I am not sure we will ever find a fully satisfactory answer to this question. But I am asking you, fellow wanderers and “nostalgics”: How do you use technology to bridge the gap between the different worlds you’ve lived in? How do you deal with the “downside” of it?

Katha - finding your nicheAbout the author: Katha von Dessien is a TCK, who spent some of her teenage years in Uganda and South Africa. She is now based in Germany finishing her teaching degree. More stories and thoughts she shares on her personal blog: http://thisiskatha.blogspot.de/

Home(sick) For the Holidays

You cannot predict it. It’s invisible. The symptoms are not obvious like a cold, a fever, a stomach-ache. It comes on swiftly and unexpectedly, overwhelms immediately. It’s the inability to control, the surprise with which it comes, and the intense pain that comes with it.

“It” is homesickness. Physical symptoms do come later – inability to concentrate, dry mouth, feeling of being close to tears all the time, not sleeping well. But initially it is invisible.

I think that’s why the Angels from the Rooftops post resonated with so many readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. Many of you know what it’s like to be homesick during the holidays. My mom’s story of loneliness and vulnerability in a strange place put into words what so many of us have felt.

For me it always happened on Christmas Eve. Suddenly our normal expat life and activities in Cairo were not enough. We needed family. Like aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, cousins — the people who aren’t allowed to not like you. The ones that stick to us with family glue whether we like it or not.

As our young family left the candle-light Christmas Eve service a catch in the throat would get us. Suddenly we didn’t seem like enough for each other. It felt like we were too small, too fragile, unable to make it on our own.

Christmas day was alive with activity and an annual open house at my friend20121216-084606.jpg Betsy’s house – open to so many of us who were without family. There we would talk and eat, help put together their mandatory Christmas puzzle, and sip the only spiked eggnog in the country of Egypt. Christmas day never felt lonely or alone — it was Christmas Eve.

Even as I write this I know there are those of you whose throats are catching and tears welling up, tears that you try to push back into your tear ducts.

While everyone else is home for the holidays, you are homesick.

You can just taste your sister’s mulled wine; hear your mom’s voice; picture the scene in a living room. It’s you who are making a home in other parts of the world, creating wonder in a foreign land. This post is for you.

My friend Martha has lived overseas for many years and understands the joys and challenges that come with the expatriate life. She writes this and I offer it to you:

It was Christmas 1981 and we were missionaries with CCC; I was pregnant with Jeremy and horribly ill with constant morning sickness and facing the holiday knowing that it would be three years before we would see our families again. We didn’t have a car yet (we were using a staff member’s motorcycle), had lived without electricity in our maisonette for weeks. there was a bittersweetness as Mark and I made aluminum foil decorations and tried to find humble gifts to buy each other in Nairobi. Then how happy we were when a staff family invited us over to spend Christmas Day with them with a turkey dinner and a day of great food, playing games and talking. I felt like I had been transported back to America and to family. I felt God’s mercy that day and the hope of joy and his love.

May you – you who are homesick, fighting back tears, not sure what this season will hold, feel God’s mercy, the hope of joy, and His all-sufficient, never-ending, constantly surprising love.

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.