The Honest Truth About Homesickness as an Expat

It’s happened many times: I’m having a drink at a party and small-talking with new people when they ask about where I’m from and where I’ve been. Inevitably due is a question laced with a hint of concern. They pry politely and it’s cute how they almost whisper the question like it’s a secret.

Isn’t it awfully hard being so far from home?”

I think about a conversation I once had with my European ex. He told me we couldn’t have a future together because he knew one day that I’d return home without warning, as if a siren call would sound that I couldn’t resist. It was a bold prediction, one that made me laugh then, and one I think about from time to time to this day.

Will that uncontrollable need to return hit me out of the blue?

Over a decade later, it still hasn’t.

When I consider my expat journey, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come considering I used to be the kid who had bad separation anxiety. I hated being far from my parents, so much so that I even turned down the chance to go to summer camp because I couldn’t bare the thought of being away from home for ‘so’ long. Eventually, I grew out of that anxiety and ended up going to college three hours away from home which was a preview for the distance that would separate us.

Expat reality: A life divided

The funny thing about the nature of my homesickness is that I was able to compartmentalize it early on. I knew that by overthinking things and dwelling on the distance I would work myself into a frenzy. So, I divided up the two most important sections of my life. Of course, this happened more unconsciously than anything but it really worked; I rarely ever wake up with pangs of longing to go home, but my love and affection for everything Texas remains. This mental division is a survival mechanism of sorts that has allowed me to be present and thrive in the places I’m currently in. It started off as Texas and Paris. Then Texas and Indonesia. Then Texas and Malaysia. No matter how much I’ve traveled, Texas has always been at the core of me, central to the comparisons I make as I understand new countries. I think that tether will always be there.

Global barriers bringing homesickness to the forefront

Covid-19 lockdown was the first time I really ruminated on my homesickness. It was the first time it hit me hard and out of the blue. There were several nights were I woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread. Once that feeling settled, I got to reflecting on the topic of missing home and I hope it can help other expats who are in the same boat or offer perspective to someone who wants to leave home.

The recent events that have rocked the world brought a hard truth to light for me: being far from home in the worst of circumstances can feel frustrating and helpless. In normal times, the choice to jump on a plane and brave the long flight seemed obvious and easy. This year revoked that convenience and the idea of ‘I’m just a flight away’ didn’t hold true anymore. The worst fear of not being able to comfort or console my family in case things go wrong is terrifying and it makes me re-evaluate the distance I’ve become so used to. Luckily, my family and friends are in good health and we’re more in touch now than we’ve ever been.

Wandering and wondering

Obviously, the complex conundrum of being away from home existed before the Covid travel ban. In choosing a place to live and settle down in, I’ve always compared the quality of life to what I know in Texas. I’m absolutely in love with our new lives in Switzerland, but it’s joining the five other countries we’ve called home in a silent competition with the US. The more I travel and see how amazing different continents and countries are, the harder it is to imagine returning home at all. It’s hard enough to pick one country to ‘settle’ in, so why would I start at square one? The answer is simple: family and friends. Those two things are central to my happiness and they always have been. The only thing that has changed is that my family and friends have expanded to include amazing people wonderfully scattered all over the globe.

Balancing on a tight rope

In the almost 10 years since I’ve been gone, I’ve missed countless milestones of my lifelong best friends, my original champions — the people who loved me most but knew I was bound to leave. They cheered me on even still. They were the ones sending me off at the airport, the ones welcoming me home with New York style pizza from my beloved hometown pizza joint. They were the ones who were part of my formative experience in a formative place like Texas. Leaving the place and people behind that made me is the ultimate uprooting. I wrote about that detaching and bittersweet goodbye when I left US for the first time. It felt like I was leaving a vital part of myself behind and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. At my farthest, I’ve been 9,445 miles away and 13 hours ahead.

Looking back, I’m still confident I made the right choice.

The reason I live this lifestyle is driven by the love of exploring the globe, the perspective each new place gives me, and the adrenaline of starting over. Of course, my husband is from Belgium and that in itself means either one of us or both of us will deal with homesickness. We both love this lifestyle just as much as we love our home bases and that’s what makes it a difficult topic to dig into. The best way I can describe it is walking a tight rope; to keep your balance and not fall off, you have to stay focused on a point ahead of you.

Parallel to the life I lead now is the home life I left behind. I love both lives equally. It’s hard to be confronted with the fact that I can never be in more place than one, but I know the enjoyment of my time abroad depends on accepting that fact and staying as present as possible.

For everything I’ve missed out on, I’ve gained innumerable happiness. That’s what it comes down to. The happiness and strength of my spirit right now outweighs the longing to go back, but it doesn’t mean the longing isn’t there.

Expat life was the right move for me. Is it for you?

For me, deciding to move away was an imperative feeling with a momentum that I couldn’t stop; it was as if I had no other choice. That strong sense of intuition to seek out other places reminds me that this, for me, was the right choice all along.

For the people wanting to move away but worried about missing home, I want to say this: the hardest part about being an expat is that missing your family and friends never goes away completely. You just learn to get on with it and deal with it better. You find ways to go back more than once a year if you can and you stay in touch like your relationships depend on it. Your parallel lives will carry on and you’re left to accept that the life you lead, as fulfilling as it may be, it won’t be on the same plane as the people you’re closest to. Most of the friendships you cherish will stay intact but it takes putting in the work to stay close when you’re so far.

The good news?

You’ll make lasting and profound new friendships. You will create a new sense of home for yourself. You just have to give it some time and patience.

My journey abroad is as unpredictable and wonderful as ever. I’ve learned loads about expat life and myself and I wouldn’t trade it in for now. I’m prepared that a lightbulb moment could happen, but I’m also open to the idea that I may never go back. That idea is best left untouched for now. What I know for sure: I see the concept of home differently now. There are the homes you’re born into and ones you create. I didn’t choose Texas but I love it even more now that I see it from a distance. I also love the home I’ve created in various corners of the world, places I never would have imagined calling home. What I do know is that the more I travel, the smaller the world becomes, so maybe in that way the distance home gets shorter every time.

What has your experience with homesickness been? How do you manage it? Let me know below!

5 responses to “The Honest Truth About Homesickness as an Expat”

  1. In a way there’s no place like home. But in another way if you can feel at home as you travel, you become a child of the world. Your loneliness fades, as you and others recognize your worth, beauty, and goodness regardless of where you are – you become a part of your surroundings, not just a tourist traveling through. I guess that’s why they say home is where the heart is..

  2. I feel like some of your words have been plucked straight out of my own head! I’m in a similar boat in a long way from ‘home’ (NZ), and i’m also in a relationship with someone from another country, while living in a third one (9 years now). The homesickness has never truly gone for me but I have to admit i’ve found this year really hard, the realisation that I am so far from home when things are at their toughest. Your post “The Bittersweet Bon Voyage” really summed up so many of my own feelings too. Thanks for mentioning the positives of being an expat. Here’s to staying strong!

    • Hi Helen, it always makes me so happy to hear that people from other corners of the globe connect with what I’ve shared. For sure it’s not always easy to leave home behind as an expat. After almost 10 years I’m still trying to navigate that journey, and this year with Covid (not being able to go home) has made it especially difficult and annoying. But yes – let’s stay strong! 😉

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve lived overseas since 2007, in 3 different countries, and there were plenty of things I missed about home, but I never felt *homesick* until COVID, until, like you said, I literally couldn’t go back home. It’s been almost two years since I’ve seen my little nephews and I realize now just how important my twice-yearly trips back home were for making me feel good about my life overseas (you just need to be with people who get what SNL means, sometimes). I’ve been struggling with the idea that I want to move back home, but I can’t tell if it’s homesickness or clarity….

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