Fourier Analysis is a mathematical tool which can do a number of things: separate out signals from noise; help identify patterns or trends in data; filter out all unwanted data and focus on a single signal; use approximations to make generalizations; make approximations of real world signals (think electronic music); combine harmonics to get a stronger signal. That's what I'll be trying to do here!! Won't you join me with your comments?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Home is Where the Heart Is

There come times in the life of every ex-pat when you get so "homesick" that it could almost be diagnosed as depression. I use the plural here, because it happens more than once, and each time is different and calls for a different "cure".

For new arrivals who are just settling in, the first bout hits about 6 weeks into their new adventure. That's about when the "new" wears off and the supplies from home start to run out and suddenly there are the cravings for familiar favorite foods or TV programs or toiletries or even toilet paper! Kids are whiny and cranky but usually easily distracted by a special treat or outing and they will usually recover within 24 hours. Adults generally need a good "moan" (to use the British term) where they can bend a friend's ear about how ridiculous they find the rules/food/TV programs/prices/traffic/weather/etc. in their new home. With this remedy allowing them to vent their frustrations, they too can recover in a day or so. If, however, their friend happens to be back "home", the the remedy will only prolong the suffering as they will not really get the release they need and often will end up feeling even worse after such a conversation. So the tip here is: If you are feeling homesick during the first 3 months of your ex-pat status, DO NOT CALL HOME!! Instead find another ex-pat who has been here a bit longer and pour out your heart. I promise, you will feel better for it.

Subsequent bouts of homesickness will occur over the next 18 months, but generally none will be as severe and during these times it will often help to touch base with the folks back home to find out that you are not missing as much as you thought you were. Some families even return for a visit during this time and find out that they have already adapted to their new ex-pat lives so well that they have things they really like about living in their new country. In fact, this can be a fairly idyllic phase, allowing the ex-pat to appreciate the things about the new life while still cherishing a lot about "home". If departure for home occurs at this time, it will be with a small amount of relief, few regrets, and a lot of good memories. Most of the frustrations will get lost in the mist of time and chaos of new adventures and there will generally be no lasting bad impressions.

However, after about 2 years in a foreign land, an ex-pat starts to find that things they have been a bit irritated about or disliked slowly become true annoyances and points of contention. It usually starts out slow, with a build-up of frustration over a number of small things, but at some point it becomes a real rage accompanied by tears, curses, angry tirades and outbursts often at some undeserving target and it is not really as recognizable as "homesickness" until one gets down to the real root cause of the anger and discovers the pain. In the depths of one of the meltdowns, the sufferer will inevitably utter the phrase "I want to go home..." at which point it becomes clear: Phase 2 Homesickness is in full manifestation.

For those ex-pats who can see the end of their exile coming within a year or so, such an interlude can usually be suffered through with the promise of relief circled in red on a calendar. Kids can be helped by getting to actually count down the days until they know they will be back on familiar territory. Adults can be ameliorated by mass quantities of alcohol and/or chocolate, and phone calls to friends and family where they make plans for when they have returned to the fold.

But there are those ex-pats who face a longer term of re-location, possibly with no definable end in sight. For these poor suffering souls, the "homesickness" can take on new depths and can last for up to a month. While the standard remedies mentioned above do provide some relief, they are not sufficient. A higher level of intervention is required, namely: "Find home where you are." By this I mean that those cravings that have been suppressed, those longings and the feelings that you are missing out on "life", those deep urges for your "native culture" need to be met in some fashion. I have a few suggestions for this:

  1. Find other ex-pats from your home country, preferably some familiar with where you were living, and spend some time with them.
  2. Eat comfort foods you grew up with. This may mean paying the high prices for ingredients that you find in ex-pat shops (I mean $3.50 for Kraft macaroni and cheese?!!) but consider it as medicine rather than food.
  3. Have your family and friends back home send you care packages including the local newspaper, Sunday comics, books, magazines, favorite cereals and candy, special treats that you have been missing.
  4. Put together photo albums of your ex-pat life including pictures of things that are so different and unusual that the folks back home would not believe it without seeing it. As an alternative, you can blog about it some of your experiences or write in a journal or newsletter home. Taking yourself out of the experience to look at it as an observer will help to relieve some of the tension that has built up from living it.
  5. Watch TV programs from your home country. Search them out on the internet, or rent video compilations. Even if all you can find is local news programs online, get yourself a good dose of your home culture and daily life. If you can't find TV, then read newspapers from home or magazines or watch an old movie you saw originally when you were home. Indulge yourself, get immersed in it, recall the feelings of being "home". And if all else fails,
  6. Go somewhere else for a while. Take a long weekend or a week vacation in a different country. Experience anew the uncertainty and frustrations of a foreign country and you will come back to appreciate how well you have adapted to your adopted home.
A word of caution here: Despite how tempted you may feel to run back "home" to try and relieve your symptoms, this solution usually will only backfire and cause your misery on returning to your ex-pat life to be compounded. So while a trip to a different country can help, a trip to the home country will usually only make things worse and cause the homesick period to last a lot longer.

After more than three years as an ex-pat, the bouts of homesickness come at random and sometimes unexpected intervals, but primarily they are mild and can be headed off with one or more of the suggestions above. But...

Every once in a while, something will happen to trigger a very serious episode where thoughts of just chucking everything and running back to your "old familiar life" become almost overwhelming. And even after living overseas for over 23 years now, I find myself succumbing to this sickness and thinking totally irrational thoughts. And the really ridiculous part is I have lived as an adult overseas now for longer than I have lived as an adult in what I still somehow consider "home". But there is no explaining that to one's heart.

The trigger for this, ironically, was our quick trip back home to visit family during the May break. We only had 13 days, and that was already taking DD1 out of school for 3 days. But after traveling time and jet lag there were only about 10 days and despite cramming in an activity or visit almost every day, it wasn't enough. I barely got to gab with my best girlfriend, I didn't get to visit more than 15 mins total with my sister-in-law, I was limited to a lunch visit with my best guyfriend and his family and a quick overnight trip to see my favorite cousin. I feel like I hardly had any time with my Mom. And of course because I was traveling with my family, I did not get to overindulge (like 3 or 4 times) in eating my favorite foods, or have a chance to just gab and gossip without being constantly interrupted, or do any real shopping (the trips to Walmart to stock up on necessities and groceries with family in tow DO NOT COUNT!!). And it rained almost every day so I did not even get to experience the usually warm Texas weather. In short, despite being "home" I did not get to feel "at home". It was, like all vacations for mothers accompanied by their families, a short period of intense stress and chaos and with very little downtime.

And instead of feeling like I was recharged by my visit, I came back uneasy and irritated and mad at all the daily life irritations that I usually just ignore. I hate the traffic. I can't find anything that I want to cook or eat. I absolutely despise the weather and can't seem to get warm enough, despite it already being June. There is nothing I want to see on TV. I can't even stand the songs on the radio. And I am so tired of speaking a danged foreign language I cannot tell you. I find myself becoming stubborn and critical of everything and almost paralyzed at starting anything. I don't sleep well at night, and I am tired and cranky during the day, and I am generally just a miserable person to be around these days.

So I find myself following all my best advice, indulging in moan-fests, eating comfort foods, catching up on American sitcoms on the internet (including programs I don't really follow regularly but have heard about), pouring over US magazines that I rarely even glance at on the newsstands, and still I find myself angry and depressed and frustrated and generally just hating my life.

Therefore I have finally "broken the emergency glass" and booked a trip back home, alone, for 3 weeks, did I mention by myself? Now if I can only hold out until 10.July without driving everyone around me crazy, maybe I will recover enough to come back and I won't have made everyone so mad here that they will actually be glad to have me come back.


Robin said...

Three weeks? By yourself?? Oh wow. Oh wow oh wow oh wow. That's the stuff fantasies are made of. Seriously, I have a long-running fantasy of skipping off to NY for a week, alone, and NOT EVEN TELLING MY (US) FAMILY, just to have the chance to do what I want, when I want, with my friends, without all the family obligations that seem to come out of the woodwork whenever you make a trip home...

I'm not from Texas and I don't live in Holland, but I do know something about being a 20-year expat. I've lived my entire adult life out of the US, and when I'm honest with myself I recognize that things there would probably feel much more foreign than the do here if I ever did actually go back.

You know where I am if you need a shoulder my friend.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I hope it's a true tonic for you, FA.

Goofball said...

I wish you a very rewarding trip! It's there soon.