Friday, June 19, 2009
Is Homesickness a Good Thing?
As a child, spending the night at a friend’s house was considered a normal thing to do. Lots of kids did it, and parents encouraged this kind of independence from kindergarten itself. Often these overnight stays were discussed between the two families days or weeks ahead of time, usually between the mothers of the children. On the day of the sleep over, one child’s mom would drive her child to her friend’s home, spend some time in the kitchen drinking coffee at the kitchen table (which was in the kitchen) talking about whatever moms talked about for a few hours, then would say goodbye to her child and hope the child or friend’s mom doesn’t call that night saying her child is homesick, already.
I remember a few times, within minutes of my mom leaving, I wanted to go home. I was homesick, already. But, I was embarrassed to tell anyone, because at the age of five, I was supposed to be ‘mature enough’ to be away from my parents and my home because this sleep over was a fun thing that I wanted to do. Often, I would not tell anyone I was homesick because the few times I did, I would get teased that I was ‘being a baby’ and that ‘if you’re homesick why don’t you just stay home.’ Within time, I learned a few remedies to homesickness, such as calling my mom soon as she got home to say good night, or bringing a favorite doll or book with me to sleep with. But, the message was loud and clear, if you’re old enough to want to sleep over at another person’s house, being homesick is not a sign of being mature or ready enough to leave home. In fact, homesickness would be a burden on everyone else. My mom would have to come pick me up, receiving the call only after she got home forty- five minutes later because we did not have cell phones back then, nor answering machines. On top of this, by the time my mom dropped me off, left and reached home, it would be past dark or late in the night, maybe past eight or nine pm. I did not want to burden or inconvenience anyone, nor did I want to appear immature or weak, especially as I ‘got older’.
It’s intriguing to me how we grow up in a certain culture and never question it because everyone else acts the same way around us. My friends would spend the night at my house, and this was how they and their family approached homesickness too. This was a normal behavior in the culture I grew up in. But, now I am older, and exposed to other cultures. I can actually look from the outside into this situation. And, when I do, and while I write this, I begin to question certain things about the culture. That is why some words are carefully italicized. Some question among many I have now is why in the culture I grew up in was it considered ‘weak’ for a five to ten year old to be homesick? Why was homesickness a burden to everyone? Why and how could a child of that age be expected to be independent from their parents and not miss them if separated? Isn’t that normal? For instance, when I lived in India, in the part of India I was in (Chennai), I came to know that sleeping over at someone’s house was never done, unless it was a relative’s home. Even if it was a relative’s home, it either was not done, rarely done, or the entire family would stay together, the child would not be left alone and separated from the parents. Of course, India is a different culture. I was surprised to hear this from more than a few of my friends and classmates, girls and boys alike. These girls and boys, were not girls and boys by ‘American standards’ though, these ‘girls and boys’ were in their early twenties. They had never spent the night at a friend’s home and they were totally dependent on their parents. In fact, even past the age of twenty, homesickness for them was considered normal, and even in some families, admired as this showed the love for your family.
What a difference in cultures and outlooks on life!
So, it’s only recently I have experienced this kind of ‘security’ in homesickness. As described above, growing up, homesickness was a feeling of insecurity. If I was at a friend’s home and feeling homesick, I was feeling insecure in managing myself (and at the tender ages of 5-10, very interesting) and also feeling insecure in that if someone else came to know I was homesick they would think I was weak, too attached to my parents, too attached to my home life and too attached to anything homely.
And, of course, the word homely has totally different connotations in America and in many parts of India.
When did I most recently experience homesickness? Ironically, though I had plenty of culture shock when I lived in India (99-2001), and wanted to come home, I do not consider that feeling to be ‘homesickness’. I was feeling equally secure and insecure anywhere I was at that point in my life. I was trying to find myself, and no physical place offered me the security I was searching for at that time. But, recently on our trip to India, while staying with our family in Kerala, I felt homesick.
This feeling took me by surprise because I had not felt it since I was a small child. Because of that, I knew it was homesickness. The first reaction to my feeling homesick was to push it away, as I did when I was a child. I did not want to be weak, insecure and burden others with this. I kept it to myself. But after meditating on it (I had plenty of free time in India!), I realized I should be happy to be homesick! Why? I was homesick because the home my husband and I have built for us in U.S. provides me a security, peace of mind and pure joy that I have not experienced in quite some time. I have settled in life. I am not only happy about my home life, but ironically, find joy and excitement in my homely life. It was not just the physical home that I missed, or the fact that I could communicate in English and everyone would understand me in my neighborhood in America, or even that I could eat a variety of ethnic foods in America, though that surely is part of the puzzle, it really was the daily routines we have created for ourselves. I realized that homely activities such as cooking food, caring for the house, and even doing my favorite chore of all- laundry, brings me security and joy.
My techniques for alleviating my homesickness lied in remembering what brings me joy at home and expressing this to my husband. When I felt homesick, I did not say to my husband, “I am homesick.” Rather, I made comments like, “I can’t wait to be at home with you watching tv.” Or “I can’t wait to be at home making your favorite adai and rajmah for you.” Or “I can’t wait to spend the summer biking with you.” I would further remember how such everyday, otherwise mundane moments (to others) bring me so much joy in my everyday life and remember those feelings. Often times when I am home with my husband, in our home, I look over at him and become so overwhelmed with joy, I begin to cry. When I was in India, talking to my friend about this joy I felt, while standing in a temple, I began to cry. She became worried. Then I explained to her I was crying from pure joy, not any sadness. I never knew I could cry from anything but sadness before I began crying from joy. It feels different, it feels peaceful and good. Sometimes when I get so happy and begin to cry, I don’t even realize I am crying until my husband points out the moisture on my cheeks.
Of course, I was happy to realize I finally have a home that makes me feel homesick again. But, I hope in my life to evolve to the epitome of homesickness, if there is such a thing. This kind of homesickness is independent of a house, a culture, a lifestyle. This kind of homesickness is realizing the true home of my self is within me. The best part about this kind of homesickness, that is free from physical, worldly symbols and possessions is that no one can take that from you. This kind of homesickness comes from knowing, understanding and loving one’s authentic self. Have you experienced this? I would love to hear your story!
Interestingly, my thoughts on this article may be shared by others! I picked up a book at the local library called Etiquette:Your Ticket to Good Times by Helen Hoke (pictured, right), which has a chapter on being a houseguest (pp. 30-38). I'm not sure the exact age group this is targetting, but I think it must be 8-13. In the first few paragraphs of this chapter, the author urges the child to make sure to pack all the things they need for the overnight outing, else the child should forget anything. It's surprising the child would have to do all this on their own with no adult supervision or "cross-check"! In the chapter, it also talks about how the child should follow all house rules, by asking the adult in the house what rules to follow (good, but shouldn't the adult initiate as the caregiver?), and encourages the child to do a lot of things on their own without adult encouragement or supervision. It's amazing how the culture and the etiquette itself encourages so much independance and personal responsibility at such a young age. It can be a good thing, but it would be overwhelming if the child has not been guided by their parents to some extent in what to do. I would hope this book, if given to a child, is used in conjunction with adult/parent role modeling and extra one-on-one hands-on lessons!
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More reflections on the Kerala 2009 trip soon to come!
Photo credits: Top photo Jennifer Kumar, Bottom Photo, Krishna Kumar.
Co- author of this post," Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach, is a life expat coach helping expats living, studying or working abroad cope and identify strategies to deal with culture shock and homesickness. If you'd like to create a 'culture shock relief plan,' which can combat homesickness overseas give her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook, or see her website, Authentic Journeys.
Updated January 2011.
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