As children we were taught to escape “this small town.” Unable to withstand another day hearing the same old gossip from the same old people at the same old venue, we are taught to crave for something more. Many of us are even guilty of betting on our lucky stars that we would one day be extracted from this boring place, we dearly call home. The lucky ones will actually have their dreams come true, while others are required to continue gambling their fortune and try their patience. For those who finally find themselves in their new, seemingly more ideal places, we may, in fact, experience some survivor’s guilt like Marius did so poignantly in Les Misérables and many war veterans nostalgically feel when visiting their colleague’s haunting graves.
Well, to be honest, I experienced survivor’s guilt quite early on, as early as the final days of high school. However, I attributed the gnawing feeling to inevitable consequences of committing to a four year program on the other side of the world. Soon, as my parents fly back and tears well up, I knew I had made a petrifying, yet wondrous mistake. Quickly, I scramble to find any remnants of Indonesia to no avail. Yes, I seek the pungent smell of wet trash in the gutter and a freshly run over cat’s carcass on the streets of Jakarta. I forced myself to swim against the current and bite my tongue. I pushed myself into busyness and college life, which seemed more ambiguous than anything I’d ever encountered before.
Homesickness is an acceptable, if not expected, part of studying abroad. But chronic homesickness is not. Who would condone the need to fly back home every four months? Who would let their child call home three times a day, even if it meant disrupting their parents’ and friends’ sleep patterns? Who would think it normal for someone reveling in their dream come true to want to return their success for their former, less significant and exciting lives?
For a great portion of my first year at Sarah Lawrence I was that girl, even though I avoided calling my parents more than once a week. By the first winter, I condemned America for promising liberty when I failed to free myself from this impairing condition. I wanted to pinch myself each time I wish I were back in my childhood bedroom counting the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling, as I was aware that many of my friends and peers do not have half of what I have at that moment in time. Sometimes I even wanted to rewind time, save my teachers, parents and myself all the trouble of applying and concentrate on studying within South East Asia. I regularly calculated the probability that the space that I am currently occupying would be far better enabled by more appreciative person.
These diabolical thoughts continued to ravage my subconscious until I realized the initial purpose of studying abroad. Taking pen and paper, I jot down a ten year plan. It was not as if I were in exile. Unlike Ninoy Aquino, the deceased Filipino president, I was free to reenter Indonesia as often as my heart desire. Similar to those who were asked to wait in line for their turn, I tried my patience and satisfied my yearning by focusing on the newly minted blueprint, which reads that I would be back home for more than a year, two years after graduating college. I called up my advisor to discuss a way to get the most out of Sarah Lawrence in the shortest amount of time, at the risk of being immensely busy during the next few years.
Surprisingly, the chronic homesickness that reveled in me gave way to a less destructive track. Instead of dropping out or transferring to a university in Jakarta, I gave myself a deadline and convinced myself to take as much out of the limited amount of time I had in New York. The plan worked and now I am calmly sitting at the school’s cafeteria, reminiscing on the years that went by. Contentment does not suit us, humans. However what we lack in satisfaction we make up in both personal and external advancement.
Fortunately, many of you will not experience chronic homesickness. Nevertheless, the condition has been known to impair our ability to function both physically and mentally. Here are some tips that might just save the day:
1. Bring some remnants of home. Whether it is a digital photo album, a tapestry, or food, smuggle those things into the border to soothe your heart after seeing your friends from back home post a photo of them hanging out at your favorite restaurant.
2. Schedule hang out sessions. Before leaving home, talk to your parents, family members, friends, and special someones about concrete ways to communicate whilst you are away. Exchange phone numbers and figure out a plan to stay financially afloat and connected. Skype, Whatsapp and Line are great apps to have on your phone, as they rely on WiFi and therefore will not severely corrode your bank account.
3. Anticipate all the “fun” things you would have to do in college. One of the hardest people to leave behind in Indonesia will be your mbak and your supir. Spend time with them by learning how to clean, do laundry, and drive. These skills might actually prove to be invaluable during move-in day, when you’re faced with your smelly and dusty dorm room.
4. Write up your own plan. Filling up your time is one of the best remedies to homesickness. These activities would range between large events, such as shows, concerts, conferences, and road trips, to smaller, more menial examples, including daily exercise, rehearsal, and laundry time. My suggestion is to cram as many fun activities during the first two months of school, while leaving a day empty every other week to do some much needed meditation, i.e. sleep.
5. Explore. Don’t be afraid to act like a fool. Being in a foreign country gives you the excuse to go out during the weekend. One of my friends took care of her homesickness by getting lost in NYC. Each week she’d determine an area of the Big Apple that she’d like to explore. When she gets there, she stops using google map and literally gets lost.
If you find that you exhibit symptoms that are so near and dear to my heart, i.e. chronic homesickness, don’t be afraid to reach out. Some of us are privileged to have better coping and adaptive mechanisms than others. Find the one thing that keeps you away from ruminating. A job, I find, is highly satisfying and distracting. Late night projects, such as rehearsals, are also a great way to make use of excessive hours. Writing is also a perfect example to channel these extreme emotions that might be tearing you apart. When in doubt, feel free to contact me. Believe me when I say that chronic homesickness continues to be an issue for me, having said that through it I have found invaluable opportunities to prove myself, as well as produce work that I am proud of, such as a blog, a children’s book, qualitative research, and multiple performances.
And if all fails, plan ahead, get a calendar, buy a ticket home, and make it a ritual to cross out each box every day. Sooner or later, you will find yourself in the warm, if not humid, confines of your home.