Nov 142011

Longing to returnWhen as a transplant you find yourself far away from everything you know, you’re bound to get homesick from time to time. Because I don’t enjoy feeling homesick, I looked back at how I’ve not only combated but also embraced my homesickness and, I hope, turned it into something positive.

To deal with something, one must understand it. This first of two posts will examine homesickness as a phenomenon. What’s homesickness all about?

What a Feeling, Bein’ Homesick’s Believin’

The Oxford Dictionary defines being homesick as “experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it”; my Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus specifies the experience as “depressed by longing…” Wikipedia’s academic take: “the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the specific home environment or attachment objects.”

When you’re homesick, you think about home and you feel sad about not being there or depressed about being away from it. (If you’re a transplant or immigrant, I take “home” to mean the country, region, or city/town/village where you’re from, or the actual physical place you used to live, whether it’s your parents’ house, college dorm, or your own apartment.)

The Princeton WordNet goes a step further and defines the feeling in terms of action: “longing to return home”. You may not just have feelings about being gone, you may also wish to fix it and go back. What gets you is the inability to actually return.

You may not, in your new country, feel homesick all the time. But even in the most fleeting of homesick moments, it’s a pain you’re feeling.

Miss Karpaty, Miss Karpaty*

But why? We’re very adaptable animals, so why feel homesick? It may be less straightforward than you think. In an unfamiliar environment, such as a new country, the feeling of displacement can be tangible and home is a safe place you fall back on psychologically. Home is where people know you, where you have a foundation. If no one knows you and you’re starting from scratch, home is a safe, attractive alternative.

There is a cognitive aspect to missing home. You can pay attention to only one thing at a time. If you choose that one thing to be home, then you’re going to be homesick. If the feeling crowds out other thoughts or stimuli, such as the enjoyment of your new home, you’re going to be homesick chronically. Though it requires practice, you can control your thoughts, what you pay attention to. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Homesick In Time

The above definitions of homesickness deal with it as an emotion related to place. Wikipedia’s definition of homesickness also specifies that the term homesickness “is in origin a loan translation of nostalgia”.

The aforementioned Oxford Dictionary mentions that the word “nostalgia” as a synonym to homesickness originates in the late 18th century and is derived from Greek nostos, return home, and algos, pain. Meanwhile, Oxford defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”. The ‘best year of my life’, turn-of-the nineties feeling of euphoria from a newfound freedom, or college parties may all elicit feelings of yearning for those long-gone better times. Whether you simply miss those moments or you’re actively wishing to relive them, you can be homesick in the fourth dimension as well.

Chuck Klosterman recently looked at nostalgia and proposed an alternative explanation of why we get nostalgic. Klosterman finds the problem lies in “accidentally creating a false sense of nostalgia though inadvertent-yet-dogged repetition.” Nostalgia is for Klosterman a “mechanical experience”, not an emotional one. You feel nostalgic for a different time not because it’s meaningful but because you repeated an experience from that time over and over until it settled in your being as a positive reference point. It it happened so many times, it must be good.

Maybe it’s not that we’re overrating our memories; maybe it’s that we’re underrating the import of prolonged exposure. Maybe things don’t become meaningful unless we’re willing to repeat our interaction with whatever that “thing” truly is. Chuck Klosterman

From that standpoint, if you spent a lot of your days in a certain place, doing certain things, you had a lot of repetition during the experience. Whether it’s your entire childhood or your college era, every year had 365 days, every day 24 hours. Those rituals, customs, or events add up. But, Klosterman suggests, those past moments are meaningful not because of any value inherent in them but because of their repetition.

Next, I’ll present 7 actions I’ve found useful in coping with homesickness.

Post Scriptum

Until then, here’s an awesome musical expression of longing I just discovered: “Sunshine” (featuring Sean Lennon) by Handsome Modeling School from their 1999 release So, How’s Your Girl?.


* “Miss Karpaty, miss Karpaty” is a verse from Gogol Bordello’s song “Suddenly… (I Miss Carpaty)”, from the 2007 album Super Taranta!.

Image credit: Peter Korchnak aka American Robotnik; Beach at Long Beach, Washington, July 2011.

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