Monday, December 6, 2010

Homesickness

More than once I've read stories about people in a witness protection program who miss their family and friends so much that they make contact -- and are subsequently murdered after the people they're testifying against find them. Think about that for a moment. People enter witness protection programs because their lives are threatened. They have to leave their lives behind and getting in touch with family and friends could be fatal, but they risk it anyway.

Best Friends Are Huggable
Never underestimate friendship
Photo by Stuart Seeger
Many people don't appreciate the crushing loneliness you might feel in a new country. When I moved to the UK, I would sometimes use Skype to contact friends back in Portland, Oregon, but it was never enough. Sooner or later you'll probably find yourself sitting in your new home late at night, alone, and wondering if you've made a mistake. Even if you don't often pop round to see your friends or family, suddenly having the opportunity to do so removed from you can change your perspective dramatically.

Having a Partner

Going to another country with a partner can be harder to pull off logistically, but it does help to ease the loneliness. However, it can bring its own set of problems. I knew an American woman in London who was thinking about divorcing her American husband because he wanted to stay and she missed her friends. As you read more expat stories, you'll find that this is not unusual.

Planning Ahead

If you're going to go somewhere new, make a plan for how you're going to build up your new social circle. If its citizens/residents have good internet connections, you can often find online forums where you can contact some of them in advance. I've found that just posting and saying "I'm here and I want to meet people" will usually result in an offer or two of people willing to meet up for coffee or show you around. Even if you ordinarily would not share a house, maybe it's time to think about it. If you have new colleagues, make an effort to be friendly to them. Get to know the local politics, history and culture and your new-found acquaintances will appreciate the fact that you've taken the trouble to learn about their culture (a couple of times I found I knew more than the locals. It's poor form to let them know this).

KD and Veggie dogs
How do I explain this delicious abomination
to my French wife who loves fine food?
Photo by Matt MacGillivray
There are also often local expat gatherings. Many expats disdain them and say "mix with the locals!" They're right, but you still don't want to pass up the chance to hang out with people from your home country. Not only do you automatically have some common culture and experiences to bond about, but I found there was no one in Nottingham to whom I could moan about missing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. They just wouldn't understand. Fellow expats know what I mean by this. When you're in a supermarket and looking at the pindakaas met stukjes noot and wondering if it's what you think it is, you might find yourself getting intense cravings for "comfort food" and other things you wish you could have but can no longer get very easily (my lovely wife once had Fritos drop-shipped to me, even though she doesn't understand them).

However, if you need further convincing that you should mix with the locals in addition to expats, as one person explained to me: "as an expat, your friends tend to be expats. This means all your friends leave in the end."