Far From Home

19 Dec

Homesickness (noun): experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.

me tam coc

Ask any expat in Vietnam whether they have ever experienced homesickness during their time here and, for the majority, the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’. The degree as to which individuals have been affected by this affliction, of course, varies greatly but it is something that most expats can relate to on some level.

Moving to Vietnam, I suffered from fairly severe homesickness. After travelling round South East Asia without so much as a backwards glance to the UK, it was upon settling in Hanoi that the longing for home soil hit me. Hard. Setting up a whole new life anywhere is a hugely daunting prospect and when in the context of such an alien environment, it can quickly escalate to a stressful situation. The intimidating language barrier, questionable local customs, down-right terrifying traffic and unfamiliar menus can quickly leave the hardiest of expats feeling overwhelmed and disgruntled. For most, over time these feelings mutate, fluctuate and progress through a series of highs and lows.

By definition, the very nature of homesickness is caused by spending time away from wherever you consider to be ‘home’. Therefore, while it cannot always be completely attributed to the environment of your host country, the two are closely linked. In Vietnam, a country evoking strong reactions from many, it stands to reason that homesickness can be related to the culture shock that many experience here. It is harder than, for example, relocating to Australia or a similarly Westernized country.

There are said to be four stages of homesickness.

Vietnam Traffic

Vietnam Traffic

The Honeymoon Period

As a new arrival in Vietnam, the initial feelings are those of euphoria. I felt as though I was part of a cheesy 80s movie montage, spinning around, eyes agog, mouth agape, soaking up the sights and sounds of the markets, hawkers, rickhaws and continual flurry of street life unfolding in front of me. Everything is exciting and during this phase, you generally feel a sense of wonder and intrigue for your new surroundings. ‘You have to walk on the road because pavements are used for motorbikes?! What a novelty! Oh Vietnam, you are funny.’

Irritation and Hostility

After a few setbacks these initial feelings of wonder soon turn to frustration and you become aggravated by the very same things which intrigued you at first. ‘Is it too much to ask to be able to walk down the street on a bloody pavement?!’ Near death experiences are no longer a novelty but frequent and frightening. This is often the worst stage of culture shock and often during this phase, expats will question their choice of moving to this new and alien environment. Whether a fleeting thought or a serious consideration, it has probably crossed most of our minds at some point or other when having a particularly difficult day in Vietnam.

Gradual Adjustment

This stage of the homesickness phenomena usually lasts the longest (hence the gradual part). Over time, you are able to control any underlying feelings of frustration felt towards the locals, other expats and the particularly irritating banking system. You start to accept your host county and feel guilty when feelings of resentment creep in. (‘None of us will ever be OK with the spitting but, well, the air quality is pretty bad so it’s kind of understandable, right?’) Fortunately for us, many factors assist the progression of this transitional phase. The wide-spread availability of free wifi means that keeping in touch with home couldn’t be easier. The internet also plays a huge role in the formation of expat circles and meet-up groups with foreigners and locals alike, allowing you to create groups of friends quickly.

Adaption and Biculturalism

While it is very rare that an expat will ever completely assimilate to living in Vietnam, this stage of homesickness sees you adjust to the culture and view it as ‘home’. Having managed to pick up some ‘Tieng Viet’ you can now bargain at your local market without offending anyone and, in fact, you have a vendor who you know will give you a fair price. It is now that you can appreciate the quality of your new lifestyle and feel warmth towards the country and the people hosting you. That said, certain things most likely continue to frustrate and perplex on a daily basis. The difference is, you now feel entitled to these opinions in the same way you would your home country.

A fifth stage that sometimes rears its head unexpectedly is that of reverse culture shock upon returning to your home country. You feel yourself yearning for the parts of your daily routine abroad that once got on your nerves. You almost get run over every time you cross the road using the South East Asian traffic stopping hand wave. (To be clear, this DOES NOT work in Glasgow. I have tried.) People stare upon taking your shoes off to go in to the local supermarket. The accepted custom of shouting ‘Oi!’ to attract the attention of a staff member in a restaurant is frowned upon. The feelings of longing that you once felt for your homeland are reversed. And it’s confusing.

I’m leaving at the end of the year. When I tell my expat friends they unfailingly ask me when I’m coming back. Every time. When I tell them the truth, which is that I have no plans to return, they all smile knowingly as if to say, ‘you’ll be back’. Maybe they are right. I can’t help but wonder what it is about this country, and its ability to evoke such strong reactions in people, that holds them here and entices them back, just when they thought they had enough?

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4 Responses to “Far From Home”

  1. MaitoMike December 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Great breakdown of homesickness. I experienced those stages when I was in Shanghai and Beijing (for three weeks only, mind you). However, my “Honeymoon Period” with all the euphoria and excitement only lasted two days. Every single day after that moment felt like a year.

  2. marianina December 19, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    I suffer from eternal homesickness. But I never helped leaving away from my country. I’ve been thinking about it lately and I realized it’s not just because I love travelling, but also because I always come back loving my land even more.

    Great post!It’s nice to see people actually thinking about their experiences rather than writing only about travel guides and top tens (not that we don’t need those too!)

  3. mharuji January 8, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    Hit the nail on the head! My cures for homesickness: Make a quick call home, eat an awfully familiar meal over 1000 calories, or simply write in a diary. The way I see it, being homesick makes you vulnerable giving you the opportunity to connect with loved ones on a completely new level. Great to read your updates!

  4. Ciara Darren December 11, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    The reverse culture shock is definitely the kicker. And it’s not just you and your feelings, but everyone around you who expects you to be the same person who left…but you’re definitely not. It you don’t crack and go home in the first stage of shock and you make it to the forth, you’ll likely travel again. It’s an awesome, frustrating, amazing world. But you know that!

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